Sermon – 19 December 2004

Nearly forgot to post this:

At the darkest point in the year, the days are short, the nights are long. At the darkest point of the year, we celebrate the dream of a righteous man. At this point in the year we remember Joseph?s dream, a dream which an angel invaded and said: ?Joseph, do not be afraid?.

And that night-time invasion of Joseph?s consciousness contains within it so much of the Gospel.

The news is, you do not need to fear, for your God is with you.

When we read Luke?s gospel version of these events next week, much of the focus will be on Mary. This week?s gospel pericope puts Joseph at the centre. We will celebrate Mary?s ?yes? to God in other services, but today, we pause and take stock. And we recognise that Joseph had to say ?yes? to something incredible too.

Let us not pretend that this story is found only in the past. Our newspapers have been full of it this week. The story of a woman having a child that does not seem to the village gossips, to belong to the right father, is scarcely unusual. It happens every day.
What does not happen every day is what happened to Joseph.

Let me be clear about this ? Joseph had a choice to make. He had to choose between doing the respectable thing and doing the courageous thing. (And that may be more common a choice than simply choosing between doing right or doing wrong).

The world in which Joseph and Mary lived was even more patriarchal than our own. Make no mistake ? within that world, Mary did not count for much. No doubt she would have been regarded as a silly, feckless girl who had nothing to commend her. And there would have been those who would have regarded Joseph as a fool to ?take her on?.

How much more sensible for him to let her go, nurse his disappointment for a while and then find someone else. How much more sensible for her to go off into the hills and have her child away from prying eyes and chattering tongues. How much more sensible for everyone to pretend that nothing had happened.

Yet Joseph choose a better way.

In telling this story, Matthew is telling us vital things which we would do well to listen to as our Advent journey comes to an end for another year. Matthew is telling us both truths which last for all time and Matthew was telling this story in a way to get it noticed.

Matthew knew that the story of a virgin giving birth was an expected part of the nativity story of anyone very important within some parts of the middle east. Matthew also knew that angels announcing the birth were not simply desirable, but for the birth of a Messiah, they were de-rigeour. Matthew was telling this story a long time after the events. His gospel was not just written after the Bethlehem events, but the Jerusalem events. His story is told to help people know who this Jesus was, whom people claimed had risen from the grave. Matthew knew that if people were to get the good news of Jesus resurrection, they needed to hear that his birth had been foretold too.

And so he gives us all these things ? neatly parcelling them up in a dream, which few of us can argue with. And few of his readers could check out. So far as we know, Joseph was not on the scene later on to be asked about these events.

So, Matthew does his best ? he lays it on thickly. The young women does conceive this strange, mysterious child, the angel comes with a message and all the details seem to fit in with old testament prophecy. All this so that the good news about Jesus would be noticed and acted upon.

But Matthew is telling us so very much more.

He is telling us that the shame which Mary and he faced which was generated by a patriarchal society ? this shame could be countered by kindness and by love.

He is telling us that people can change, and in the course of their lives can change radically their ideas about who Jesus really is.

He is telling us the eternal truth, that God is with us. And remember, that kind of truth is for life, not just for Christmas.

Matthew is telling us that dreams matter ? and that God speaks to people through them. In doing so, he is affirming that God comes and is with us evening in the very deepest part of ourselves. God is with us in this confusing and perplexing outer world. He is with us when the news is bad and the world seems cruel. But Matthew is also telling us that God is with us deep within. The good news is of an inner Emmanuel encounter. The God who comes to us and brings peace and love and kindness to our subconscious life as well as to all that is happening on the surface of life.

The gospel is pregnant with good news. And that news begins this day with the words, ?Do not be afraid?.

Those words are the sign that our time of Advent waiting is almost over.

Do not be afraid, for your God is coming. Indeed, his coming is certain; his day draws near. Our God, in Christ, is with us.


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