Reading(s): Matthew 1:18-25. This sermon was given by Sally Kerson at St Mark and All Saints.
Today is the last Sunday of Advent the four-week period of waiting and preparation and Mary is remembered today although my sermon is about another person from the nativity story. Next Sunday will be Christmas Day, which means that by now everyone is up to their eyes with some sort of preparation for the great event, unless you have been very fortunate and left it all to others! Many families have certain traditions that are particularly important to them at Christmas and are rigidly kept to from year to year, such as when the Christmas tree goes up, when presents are opened and of course what kind of food is prepared - although the tradition in our house is not to have turkey! Usually but not always these traditions are never broken and can be passed on from generation to generation. However, one tradition that doesn’t seem to have stood the test of time is families attending church at Christmas especially midnight mass, for many of us can remember these services being standing room only, even if some of the congregation had found the need for a certain kind of liquid refreshment before they attended! Sadly, this has not been the case for many years, even before the pandemic struck. Although there have been other ways people are able to connect with the church at this time of the year and it has been good to welcome so many people into the churches in this benefice over the last few weeks, indeed a time to rejoice. There will be more opportunities as the week goes by to engage in church activities, a massive difference from the last two years when covid restrictions were in place.
In the Bible we hear of many people who were preparing for the coming of the Messiah, last Sunday Jesus was saying how John the Baptist was the one who had prepared the way for him, he quoted the words from the book of Malachi ‘see I am sending a messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ John the Baptist was a very important prophet who had almost a foot in the Old Testament but was very much of the New Testament as he paved the way for Jesus. In today’s Gospel reading God is preparing Joseph for a momentous occasion in his life by sending an angel to tell him not to be afraid and to take Mary as his wife. Now Joseph, unlike Mary, is one of those people who gets rather side tracked by other more prominent characters especially in relation to nativity plays, even the donkey and a whole load of other animals that have invaded the story over the years get more attention than he does. Joseph may knock on the inn keeper’s door but that’s about it. The Joseph we hear about in the Bible was a man of tremendous courage even though he takes what would seem a secondary role. He is not given a single line to speak and then he disappears completely from history after Jesus is twelve years old. We hear in today’s Gospel reading that Mary was officially betrothed to Joseph and they had maintained a chaste relationship when she was found pregnant. This, of course created a very personal dilemma for Joseph since he knew he was not the father of the baby, and he obviously felt very hurt. In relationships within families, friendships, work, or church, we’re sometimes hurt, disappointed and confused, as Joseph surely was when Mary announced her pregnancy. Like Joseph and Mary, our dreams and plans of the future can change suddenly and dramatically. Life doesn’t go the way we thought it would. Yet in Joseph’s life, there was a larger purpose at work that superseded his idea of what his marriage and family would be like. God was prepared to bring something good out of a situation that seemed terribly disappointing.
In our lives, God can also bring good out of painful situations, and while this doesn’t lessen our heartache or heartbreak, it may help us to go forward perhaps with greater compassion or understanding. And when we are under pressure, who we really are comes out and this was certainly true for Joseph. We are told he was a righteous man, a good man and this is what came out in response to the situation. When it seemed that he was in the midst of what he perceived as a betrayal, his choices were driven by his great love and commitment to Mary’s well-being and also by his own inner conviction about how he wanted to behave in the situation, and of course he had a little help from an angel who spoke to him in a dream.
As some of you may know the knitted Mary and Joseph have been travelling around to people’s houses and various other places over the last few weeks before they arrive for the crib service on Christmas Eve and during that time, they have had rather a lot of fun! When they spent the day with me I took them to the BUPA care home in North Baddesley and asked one or two residents who they were, not all of them recognised them, one gentleman said Joseph was a Bishop, which I thought was a lovely description of Joseph as Bishops are indeed referred to as shepherds in a spiritual sense and perhaps that is what he was seeing.
Joseph was the man to whom God entrusted the task of protecting Mary from the time she conceived Jesus to his birth. He was a brave man who led Mary safely along the dangerous roads to Bethlehem, to Egypt and eventually back home to northern Israel. Joseph, was also an ordinary humble man who was presented with circumstances beyond his control. Much like Joseph’s life we are also presented at times with circumstances out of our control. Joseph could have walked away and we can be tempted to walk away when things get tough, it can be very tempting. Or we can be like Joseph, we can listen for the angel’s whisper in our ears: “Do not fear. God is here”. It may not always be the life we had planned; it certainly wasn’t for Joseph and Mary many times during their life yet God was with them. There was also the routine for them and like the routine, the ordinary in our lives, God can be born there too, if we will believe and permit it and each one of us can encounter God every day in the events of our life. As God worked in Joseph and Mary’s life, we don’t want to miss the opportunity for God to work in our lives, for God to call us to step out in faith, to do God’s will and work in the world. Each encounter with God through events, nature and people has the possibility to be extraordinary. We often have high expectations but amid all our less than perfect Christmases and lives, God can and does something new.
Somehow Joseph had to trust this strange new: that this child was from the Holy Spirit; that he already had a name, Jesus; and that he would save his people from their sins. At this point in the story, Joseph is totally unaware of the journey ahead. The journey that will take the one he will call Jesus from Bethlehem, to the temple as a boy, to Jerusalem to the cross, and to the empty tomb.
To show us the awesome love of God. God opens a door for each of us, or gives us a vision, and we are asked to believe in the extraordinary, to trust and to follow. So this Christmas may we all discover God in the everyday ebb and flow of our lives, in the ones we love as well as the ones who drive us up the wall! In our moments of consternation as well as in our high moments of joy. Take the time this Christmas to take it all in. because if we spend all our time in frenzied preparation, we may just not be paying attention and miss the time of our visitation and never learn as Joseph did, what supporting roles we are called to play in this great big story of which our story is valued as an important part by the God who, whatever else he may be, is most assuredly with us.
Emmanuel God with us.