Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2016
With the advent of modern genetics and in vitro fertilisation, the birth of a child whose father has had no direct physical contact with the mother isn’t so difficult to believe. But the early Church didn’t know anything about genetics. It tried, through its creeds, councils and controversies, to safeguard unity and peace, and to snuff out heresy. It fought vigorously to keep the divinity and humanity of Christ together, but these were discussions about faith and doctrine, not about biology and genetics. The early Church tried to capture the mystery of the salvation brought about by God becoming human, through poetic language and through faith, hope and love. So the issues of chromosomes and DNA that made the Virgin birth seem physically impossible were not addressed. We cannot confine God to the physical laws of nature, and so we have the mystery of revelation and salvation. Mary heard the word of God through the angel Gabriel, and Christ was conceived. We know not how.
I said a few weeks ago that prophecy has got itself a bit of a bad name, probably because we have confused it with prediction, the foretelling of what will happen in the future. The great prophets of the Bible, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos or Hosea, spoke to their contemporaries about their own time. If they talked of the future, it was usually the near future, of what would happen if God’s people didn’t amend their ways. Ironically, it is because those prophets spoke so powerfully and ethically to their own time, that their message retains its power for us and speaks to our time too.
Matthew sees the birth of Jesus as the fulfilment of a remarkable prophecy in the Book of Isaiah. It was given eight centuries before the time of Jesus. The tribes that settled in the Promised Land of Canaan are split into two kingdoms, Israel, the more powerful, in the north, and Judah in the south. To the north of Israel is the even more powerful nation of Syria (in the news again in our own time for all the wrong reasons), and Israel and Syria have forged an alliance that threatens the kingdom of Judah. The lily-livered King Ahaz of Judah is quaking at the thought of his little fiefdom being invaded and obliterated by its stronger neighbours. Enter Isaiah. He promises Ahaz that God will give him a sign. A certain young woman (not necessarily a virgin in the original Hebrew) will soon give birth to a child. Before that child is more than a few years old, the kingdoms of Israel and Syria will be laid waste.
In a way that prophecy is very site specific, but in a way it’s not. Isaiah’s message, and Matthew’s, is the same as that of Mary in the Magnificat. God brings down the mighty from their thrones and lifts up the lowly. That is the sort of God He is, and that is the sort of thing He does. He scatters the rich and arrogant and reduces proud empires to dust. He sides with the poor. He exalts the nobodies of this world. That was the Gospel of the Lord to the contemporaries of Isaiah, to the terrified King Ahaz and to his people, terrorised by the armies gathering on their borders. That was the Gospel of the Lord to Mary, as she struggled with the news that she was going to give birth to a child that wasn’t Joseph’s, but God’s Son. And that was the Gospel of the Lord to Matthew’s first readers, who feared for their fate as the might of the Rome Empire bore down on them. That is the Gospel of the Lord to all of us today, who are only too aware of the powers that rule our world, the weapons of terror, the rampant commercialism that exploits the weak and powerless, the international money markets that make huge profits out of other people’s misery. For Matthew, the child that is to be born is primarily a sign that God’s purpose if fulfilled, as His strength is made perfect in what the world calls weakness.
Matthew makes much of the meaning of the child’s name, Emmanuel – God is with us. When I was waiting for what seemed an interminable amount of time to have liver surgery first time around, I began to lose hope. I knew that time was running out for me. Liver surgery for secondary cancer is a hugely risky business anyway, and the more extensive the tumours, the more risky it becomes. When I finally met my consultant surgeon I was pretty desperate. And like King Ahaz, it wasn’t my bravest moment. Then he introduced himself to me. His name was Emmanuel Huguet. Emmanuel. God with us. It seemed like a sign. God with us was the name given to Jesus before His birth. We are not to suppose that He forfeits that name when, at the end, He cries My God, why have you forsaken me? God remains with us in all of the circumstances of life and death, and the good and the not-so-good bits in between.
When Matthew writes his Gospel he doesn’t follow the Hebrew translation of Isaiah’s prophecy, but uses a Greek word for Mary, which does mean virgin. That makes Joseph’s role in the nativity a bit marginal, or maybe not. Joseph is described as a righteous man. In the bewildering circumstances of his wife’s pregnancy, he does the right thing, but he also does the compassionate thing. He stands by her, keeps her safe and brings the child up as his own. A more judgemental and censorious man would have stuck to the letter of the law and imposed its fearful penalties on Mary. Law and grace do not always go hand in hand, and Joseph opts for the latter. Joseph makes two more fleeting appearances in the Gospels and then passes from the story. There is no mention of him with Mary at the cross, so we have to assume that he has died by then. There are legends and pious speculation about his life ending in the arms of Jesus and Mary, but we know not. What we do know is that Emmanuel was born, God was and is with us, and the family He chose to be born into was a working family.
In the centre of Piccadilly Circus is a statue that most people think is a statue of Eros. Tourists and Londoners come and go the whole time – Piccadilly Circus is forever busy, a bit like Advent. I heard on the radio today that the statue is actually of the Angel of Christian Charity and it was erected in memory of the Earl of Shaftesbury who did so much to improve conditions of working people in Victorian times. Piccadilly Circus is, in its way, a parable of our time in this season – a hive of business and activity with a mistake about the meaning of love at the heart of it. Not Eros, but an angel. Not worries about whether it’s the right colour tie for Uncle Tom or whether your cooking is up to scratch, but the amazing love-gift of Emmanuel, God with us.
According to Matthew, Joseph was a ‘craftsman’. Doubtless, shortly after Christmas he had to go back to work, as some of you will have to, or to other places we would rather not go. But God will still be with us. Now and in eternity. Amen.