David Walker Sermon - Advent 4 2016
May I speak in the name of the living God, who is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen
What kind of year has 2016 been for you?
It began with physical storms that threatened our homes and is ending with storms in our society, our country and our hearts that have threatened to tear us apart as people and community.
For many of us it’s been a bad year, for those who voted to remain, for those who feel concern and trepidation at the election of Donald Trump, and certainly for those who yearn for peace in the middle east and relief for the women and children of Aleppo and Mosul, and shelter for the refugees fleeing from a world in conflict.
It was a bad year if you will miss the presence in our world of Terry Wogan, Victoria Wood, David Bowie, Leonard Cohen, Muhammad Ali, Jo Cox, Ronnie Corbett, Gene Wilder, Prince, Fidel Castro and others, even Jim Deligatti, the inventor of the Big Mac. Or Bishop David Jenkins. Or friends or relatives who have been close to you and loved by you. There has been political upheaval all over the world, war and terrorism, storms and typhoons, earthquakes and hurricanes and many, many significant people have died and left us, both in our public and, for some of us, in our personal lives.
On the other hand, if you voted to leave, if you can see an end to some of the world’s conflicts, a better future around the corner, if you have faith in Channel 4 to deliver us a better Bake Off or more likely if you have a new child or grandchild in your life or if you simply have someone to love and be loved by, perhaps it’s been pretty good.
Sometimes whether news is good or bad depends upon your point of view, how you see things, the lens through which you view the world. And although we now live in a complex world of complex communication where we are bombarded with news from all angles we are still capable most of the time of viewing the world through our own lens.
Our gospel appears to place us in much simpler times. In the Bible it is often angels who deliver the news. That’s their job after all. And God uses them to speak to us when there’s something really special and urgent he wants us to hear.
We are about to celebrate Christmas again.And how is it announced to us? Here, in Matthew, it’s quite low key. ‘Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way’. And we hear about Joseph, whose life is probably in tatters. The young girl to whom he is betrothed is pregnant.
If that’s not bad enough he’s not the father. He has no option but to ‘dismiss her’, renounce her and probably never see or have contact with her ever again. That’s his Christmas ruined.
But then the good news. Joseph is visited in a dream by an angel and told that the child has been conceived from the Holy Spirit to fulfil the words of the prophet Isaiah - that the child will be called Jesus, that he will save us from our sins, that he will be ‘God with us’. The next we hear Jesus has been born, visited by the wise men, exiled in Egypt and been the cause of the wicked and jealous King Herod’s purge of all the children of Bethlehem under the age of two. As good news, this is quite borderline. It’s about a family breaking taboos, being cut off from the society in which they live, the misuse of power, and the committing of unimaginable violence
And yet, we are on the verge of the great celebration of Christmas. Why? Well, in part, because we also have the same story as given to us by St Luke. And in part because we know how it all ends, and we know what it means for us.
We need Luke. Just as we need to look beyond ourselves and look outwards when we read the news. We need perspective, we need balance, we need to know what we can know, and we need to think about attitude and treat what comes our way with open and understanding hearts. We also need persistence, we need to be able to take, not only the wide view, but the long view. Just imagine if we had only ever read chapters one and two of Great Expectations.
Joseph is a good man, righteous. Even before his dream he is planning to dismiss Mary quietly, with no fuss, no scandal, the minimum of hurt. But he is fearful and what he does is clearly out of duty. Which is fair enough. God demands from us an element of fearfulness and a degree of duty.
But what is missing in Matthew is what we find in Luke. Luke is much more about joy, a joy which can only mean good news. And it is Luke who really brings us the magic. He brings us not just one birth but two, not just one annunciation but two. We have two women being blessed with miraculous births. And they are blessed, they are filled with the Holy Spirit, they are filled with joy. And the response is heard through the Magnificat, the song of Mary, in which she rejoices in her good news. And most of all we have the details of the birth, the wonderful details of how it came about, how the Christ child came into the world in a humble manger, praised by angels and shepherds, everyone rejoicing and overcome by an event that would shake and shape the world.
Luke gives us balance and perspective and above all, he gives us Christmas as we know it and love it. He gives us the opportunity to share in the joy now, of not having to wait until the end.
We do know how it ends, it ends in the glorious failure of the world turned into glorious success as the values of this world are inverted and turned upside down by the cross. But Luke gives us a first glimpse of the glory that lies ahead.
We need both Matthew and Luke, just as we also need the urgency of Mark and mysticism and spirituality of John. The good news of Jesus is not simple. It is multi layered and mysterious. But it’s also laid out for all to see, all to hear, all to experience and all to enjoy.
As we prepare for Christmas we need to think of the incredible event, the amazing thing that God has done for us, as this little child, Emmanuel, God with us, comes in human flesh to live with us. We need to respect and fear God for that. But we also need to rejoice, be joyful.
When we read this gospel this morning we, unlike Joseph, know how it will end, really end. He has less of a clue than Pip in Great Expectations when he takes a leap of faith and brings vittels to the escaped convict Magwitch. Pip didn’t know how it would end. And Joseph didn’t know how it would really end, not just the bits in the middle but God’s end, God’s destiny for us and for all of humanity, which is redemption for all in joy and love and peace.
The message for Christmas is ‘God is with us’. And this is the perspective which we can bring to the news. And we must always try to view the news, the world around us from this perspective. This puts it all into context. Brexit, whether we think it’s good or bad, is not the end, is not the be all and end all of our lives. Whether it happens or doesn’t happen, how it happens, how it affects us, God will still be here for us. Donald Trump will come and go. He’s not the end of the story. Even as we mourn those who are no longer with us, life in all its joy and wonder goes on for us. New life, new birth, is always around the corner.
And this is why the angel’s message to Joseph is good news, because cutting through the fear, the worry and the dread there is a message of joy and hope for the future in the promise of new birth and in the promise of God’s presence, of Emmanuel, God with Us.
At a quiet day for Advent which I attended a couple of weeks ago Bishop Mark spoke about Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium in which he writes about the need for joy in our lives, joy even in the face of difficulty and despair. Pope Francis writes
There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress (and he quotes Lamentations)
“My soul is bereft of peace; I have forgotten what happiness is… But this I call to mind, and therefore I have hope: the steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning. Great is your faithfulness… It is good that one should wait quietly for the salvation of the Lord” (Lam 3:17, 21-23, 26).
He goes on...
I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”.
Thanks solely to this encounter – or renewed encounter – with God’s love, which blossoms into an enriching friendship, we are liberated from our narrowness and self-absorption. We become fully human when we become more than human, when we let God bring us beyond ourselves in order to attain the fullest truth of our being.
What Pope Francis is trying to do is provide us with a God shaped lens through which to view the world, a lens that will enshroud the world with a vision of joy and hope and love, not in a naive way but as a way of accentuating the positive and allowing us to see it more clearly. Christ is, after all, the light of the world, the source of all joy and hope and love.
Joy and hope and love.
It’s been a difficult year and it’s so easy only to see the difficulties, to soldier on as Joseph did in dutiful obedience to God, to spend Christmas with Matthew and ignore the joy of Luke.
I’ll finish with quotes from two people who are not with us any longer but both of whom have left their mark on this world and given us inspiration in different ways, one obvious and one not so obvious. They serve as a reminder to try to view the world through God’s lens and to remember that Christmas is confirmation that God is with us.
First, from Bishop David, and it’s the quote for which he was probably best known, which sums up what many of us believe and should take forward into the future
God is, as he is in Jesus, and therefore we have hope.
And the other, less obvious, a message for us as we confront an uncertain and often threatening world, as we face the kind of situations that Joseph found himself in
‘In your fear, seek only peace. In your fear, seek only love’. Amen.