17 December 2022
A sermon outline with USPG for
Advent IV, 18 December 2022
The Fourth Sunday of Advent
18 December 2022
Reading: Matthew 1: 18-25 (NRSVA):
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Christmas is upon us, the last of the purple candles on the Advent Wreath, the one representing the Virgin Mary, is lit this week. Indeed, the Virgin Mary is likely to be the main figure in many sermons today focusing on the Gospel reading.
The readings this Sunday are about choices, about obedience to God’s plans, and about the fulfilment of God’s plans for all nations. They bring us into the last week of Advent.
So often we talk about the Virgin Mary and her obedience, about Mary’s ‘Yes’ to the birth of Christ But it means Joseph is often pushed to the side of the stage.
Joseph says ‘Yes’ too, but he says it silently; he has no scripted lines; he has no dramatic part or role; he is mute; but he is obedient.
And, like the earlier Joseph, his Biblical namesake who is named in the psalm (Psalm 80: 1-7, 17-19), he too is dreamer of dreams and a doer of deeds.
Saint Matthew’s nativity story lacks the romantic imagery of Saint Luke’s account, whose heady mixture of heavenly angels with earthy shepherds is missing here. Instead, the hope of all the earth takes shape under the sign of arrangements being made for a betrothal that is apparently violated. The gifts of God’s grace and the promise of God’s reign are hidden, are to be searched for and to be found in the midst of what appears be a tawdry story.
The Virgin Mary may have been a mere teenager at the time, just 14 or 15. And, like so many other teenage brides, she turns up for her wedding – pregnant! Joseph knows he could not possibly be the father. He decides to do the right thing and take off, quietly dropping out of the arrangement.
If Joseph goes ahead, then this child is going to be known in his family, among his neighbours, perhaps by everyone who needs to know, as illegitimate for the rest of his life. His critics indelicately remind him of this in Saint John’s Gospel: ‘You are indeed doing what your father does.’ They said to him, ‘We are not illegitimate children; we have one father, God himself’ (John 8: 41). The original Greek is more direct, crude and blunt: they taunt him that they were not conceived through illicit intercourse.
These fears and sneers, those social judgments and wagging fingers, must have been confronting Joseph like a nightmare. Yet the angel of Joseph’s dream makes a startling suggestion. He tells him to marry Mary, and then he is to name the child. To take on naming the child means becoming his father. And this is suggested not as a nice thing to do, a courteous thing to do, a gallant or gentlemanly sort of thing to do. Joseph is told why: ‘You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (verse 21).
It is not a promise of immediate reward. Joseph is not promised that if he does this he is going to earn points towards the forgiveness of his own sins; that God will see him as a nice guy; or even that if he lives long enough, this child may grow up, be apprenticed to him, take over the family business, and act as a future pension plan.
If Joseph is not the father of the Child Jesus, he must have wondered what the angel meant by ‘his people’ and ‘their sins.’
But the forgiveness here is spoken of in apocalyptic terms. It is the declaration of a new future. To be forgiven is to receive a future. Forgiveness breaks the simple link between cause and effect, action and reaction, failure and disaster, rebellion and recrimination.
Advent is a time of, repentance, forgiveness and expectation. It is a time of preparation, anticipation and hope. It is a time for dreaming dreams, and putting behind us all our nightmares.
Joseph dreams something wonderful. God would enter the world; God would be born to his new, young wife, Mary. But to believe this, Joseph had to trust not only his dream, but to trust Mary, to trust the future child, to trust God.
Do you love the people you trust and trust the people you love?
To trust the Virgin Mary, Joseph must have truly loved her. But trust in this predicament must have gone beyond trust. Joseph must have truly glimpsed what it is to trust God, to have hope in God, to love God, to have faith in God.
Joseph dreams a dream not of his own salvation, but of the salvation of the world.
Sometimes, like Joseph, we are supposed to trust God and then get out of the way. Do you trust that God is working through the people you love? Do you trust that God is working through people you find it difficult not to love but merely to like … working through God’s people for their salvation?
Too often we forget about poor Joseph. Every year, we tend to focus on the story of the Virgin Mary. But this year, Year A, the Lectionary asks us to focus on Saint Joseph. The annunciation occurs not just to Mary, but to Joseph too. And they both say ‘Yes.’
And Joseph says a second ‘Yes’ too later in this Gospel, when he agrees to the angel’s prompting to flee with Mary and the Christ Child to Egypt.
Joseph listens, God sends a messenger again, Joseph dreams again, and he remains true to God, he answers God’s call.
Joseph has no speaking part; he just has a walk-on part in this drama. But his actions, his obedience to God’s call, speak louder than words.
Yes, God appears over and over again, to men, women, to ‘all sorts and conditions of people.’
Joseph’s ‘Yes’ is not only a ‘Yes’ to the Christ Child but a ‘Yes’ to all children who seem unwanted and who are easily pushed to one side. Joseph’s ‘Yes’ is not only a ‘Yes’ to the Christ Child but a ‘Yes’ to the promises the Coming Christ brings to all who are marginalised and in danger today, for because of his ‘Yes’ God is among us.
We have an opportunity to echo that yes this Advent.
As a sign, as a symbol, of how we can join in that ‘Yes,’ USPG and the Church of North India says ‘Yes’ to the people who are being helped through this year’s Advent and Christmas appeal.
The people who cross borders, who face a dangerous ‘No’ along the way, who face violence and the dangers of human trafficking, are hearing an alternative response, an unexpected ‘Yes’ in the words and actions of those who are working in this project through the Diocese of Durgapur and USPG.
This is one way we can say ‘Yes’ to the coming Christ and the coming Christmas this Advent. In saying ‘Yes’ to this work, we became signs of our faith, or hope, in the promises of the coming kingdom and the promises of Christ’s coming in Advent.