Sunday 18 December 2022 Advent 4
The ‘In-Residence’ God
Context: Morning Worship Service – medium sized congregation, mixed ages, some of whom are committed Christians and others who are new contacts and enquirers
Aim: to encourage the congregation, in these times of international and national chaos, to take courage from Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus the Messiah and its meaning for us; and to stand firm as we reflect on his nature, his mission, and his Kingdom of righteous justice and mercy – the God who is ‘with us’ still
[My preparation for writing this sermon was taking place concurrently with preparing to preach on Pentecost Sunday from John 14:8-18 and 25-27. I was struck by the resonances between these two passages; and this in turn led me to reflect again on Isaiah 7:10-16 and Philippians 2:6-11 which I recommend consulting in preparation to preach from this pericope.]
The text helps our understanding of Matthew, Mary, Joseph, and ultimately of Jesus:
Matthew, a true disciple of Jesus, through his selective, carefully grouped genealogy (1:1-17) from Abraham through to Joseph, his legal father, affirms that Jesus has the right heritage to be Messiah and then, through his record of how the birth came about, confirms that this child is indeed Messiah (1:18a).
Mary the mother of Jesus is fully and morally suitable to be both the wife of Joseph and the mother of Jesus. She is above reproach for, though pregnant, the conception is the result of the work of the Holy Spirit (1:18b).
Although little about Joseph is recorded, what we do know shows him to have a heart fixed on God. A righteous man, faithful to the law – righteous in the sight of God (1:19a). Exemplary, as an Old Testament Jew of his time. Note that his righteousness transcended the letter of the law, tempered by compassion and merciful justice (1:19b). Compare his ancestor David’s prayer (Psalm 25:6-7), and the prophet Micah (Micah 6:6-8). Not prepared to subject Mary to public disgrace and punishment, he considers a discreet, private divorce, which could risk personal censure and judgment from society and the ‘teachers of the law’.
Joseph was no unreflective consumer of the law. He was faithful to it but thought it through with careful consideration (1:20a), assessing what was right and just, according to the law, but also what the mercy of God required. Joseph was also sensitive to the message of God, and heard and believed the word of the Lord, through any messenger or communication mode God chose, for example, an angel in a dream (1:20b and 22a).
Joseph was not just a listener-believer: he was obedient. Having heard, as soon as he awoke from his dream he followed the Lord’s instruction implicitly, taking Mary home as his wife and giving the child the name Jesus (1:24-25). We find further examples of Joseph’s unquestioning obedience in chapter 2 (2:13; 2:19 and 2:22) where he responds to God with unwavering obedience. Joseph was a sensitive, righteous man, hearing and obeying; and models what sensitivity to God with consistent obedience should look like.
Matthew tells us much about the person, life and ministry of Jesus in this short passage. For Matthew, Jesus is without doubt the Messiah (1:18), for his conception is through the work of the Holy Spirit, and he offers further confirmation in the details that follow.
The birth took place in fulfilment of the Lord’s word through the prophet (1:22-23, compare Isaiah 7:14). Note that Matthew reveals New Testament enlightened understanding of Isaiah 7:14 ’The virgin will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel.’ (Immanu, with us; El, God.) God previously had been the ‘above us’ God, the One who was beyond us. In Jesus, God is with us and for us. In his person God is revealed.
Joseph is to name this child Jesus, (a fairly common name, another aspect of condescension,) derived from the Hebrew name Joshua – which is a cry to the Lord for deliverance, ‘O Lord save us.’ He is given this name because it proclaims that this is his mission, ‘he will save his people from their sins.’
‘Immanuel’ reveals to us the nature of Jesus, the Messiah, Son of God who is with us. ‘Jesus’ tells us what his mission among us is all about. He is the Saviour who responds to our cry for deliverance from sin.
The Kingdom on earth, that Jesus came to inaugurate, described in later chapters, resonates with the message of the righteous, merciful justice which we saw in the example of Joseph his legal earthly father.
Ultimately Jesus will demonstrate his credentials for this deliverance through his death and resurrection (Matthew 27 and 28). The ‘with us’ God is also the ‘for us’ God. It is for his coming and his return that we must prepare ourselves, in this Advent season and continually.
Saturday 24 December 2022
Christmas Eve, Mass of Christmas Night
Isaiah 9:1-7; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14
By Rob Esdaile
Roman Catholic Parish Priest of Woking, Surrey
Context: Midnight Mass in a large suburban parish in a wealthy area but with pockets of poverty and an ethnically diverse congregation, with (of course) a considerable number of Christmas visitors to welcome
Aim: to encourage people to taste the joy and wonder of the Christmas feast, whatever their personal circumstances and experience of Church
Even if we don’t know the name, most of us have come across ‘Word Clouds’, those graphics which draw together feedback from group discussions and use different sized fonts depending on how frequently a particular phrase comes up or how important it is deemed to be (whether by a human editor or, more probably, by an algorithm). I wonder, if we as a congregation were to produce a ‘Word Cloud’ right now, what words would be included, and which would be the biggest? I suspect that ‘presents’, ‘Christmas tree’, ‘tinsel’ and ‘turkey’ (sorry, vegans!) would all be there in fairly large print, along with ‘baby Jesus’, ‘Mary and Joseph’, ‘Bethlehem’, ‘manger’ and ‘star’.
Our Christmas celebrations are, like those ‘Word Clouds’, a riotous jumble of ideas, sacred and profane. That’s not a problem. It’s the way it should be. We believe in the Incarnation, the Word becoming flesh, God coming to dwell with us as Emmanuel (which means ‘God-with-us’), in all the confusion of crackers and noisy company and wrapping-paper; but also, of course, in the absence of any of those things – in poverty and loneliness and sorrow.
Christmas can be difficult for many of us because we are blitzed with adverts and messages which seem to demand that we be happy and imply that everyone else is having fun all the time. And having far more of each other’s company than we’re used to can put pressure on even the most loving of relationships at this time of year. So, first of all, let’s give ourselves permission to be who we are as we are, rather than being ‘officially happy’. Secondly, at least for a moment, let us step back from the excitement and the buzz, to create our own cave-space, our own manger where we can gently place the Christ-child. What does that place look like and feel like for me tonight? Or to turn the question around, where does the Lord Jesus want to be born in my story this December 25?
You see, Luke’s account of the birth can be read in two ways. There’s the version we’re familiar with from all those Christmas cards, showing the new-born in a peculiarly dilapidated stable with a broken roof and not a working door or window in sight. The artists underline the sheer poverty of this birth into a broken world – and, at their best, express an important truth. The Messiah comes needy into a needy world. But ask Palestinian Christians why Jesus was born in a stable and they will probably say that this was the quietest and most private place available, away from the hustle and bustle of the inn, with the heat of the animals to bring warmth. In other words, offering the Holy Family the stable was the greatest act of hospitality, not a callous lack of care.
Back, then, to you and me, here and now. What would it mean for me to welcome this child into my heart, my home, my story tonight? Where is the place that I, or you, can receive him amidst the confusion of Christmas, 2022, with all the pressures, economic and otherwise, that we face; amidst all that this year has brought by way of blessing or its opposite?
More importantly, what is the gift that he wishes to become in my life? Paul puts it like this: ‘God’s grace has been revealed, and it has made salvation possible for the whole human race.’ That is an awesome claim. And tonight, that salvation comes in search of me and of you, inviting us to let ourselves be transformed by his love. Tonight, he invites us to become (as Paul puts it) a people purified, people ‘who have no ambition except to do good.’ We need to realise once again our capacity for doing good, our ability to be change-makers – and the liberation that putting ‘worldly ambitions’ to one side can be, both for ourselves and for our over-consumed planet.
Let’s return to that ‘Word Cloud’ that I mentioned at the beginning. Here are two words which I hope would be there in big, bright, bold letters: ‘Today’ and ‘Joy’. ‘I bring you news of great joy,’ said the angel to the shepherds. ‘Today in the town of David has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.’ Today, in my story, in your story, in this broken world. Today we might discover that joy is not the same as happiness, not the same as enjoyment and pleasure, not the same as the buzz of the party. It is a quiet peace, a gentle confidence, amidst the tinsel and the turkey and the confusion of life. The Lord is here with us, born again in our hearts this night. Whatever your Christmas plans and your Christmas feelings, however this year has been for you, may that joy be yours today.
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