Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 20 December 2015 | All Saints Margaret Street

Sermon for Choral Evensong & Benediction Sunday 20 December 2015

Sermon preached by The Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses

ADVENT 4, 2015   EVENSONG

Readings:  Isaiah10.33-11.10; Matthew 1.18-25

Among the characters in the stories of Christ’s birth, Joseph is very much the quiet man – the one who has nothing to say. He only has to act.

Devotion to Joseph developed much more slowly than that to Mary – especially in the West – and was never as strong. This was true of both popular devotion and the official liturgy.  If you look in the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, you will not find him – unusually for a biblical saint.  His feast was only made a universal one by Rome after the Reformation. In the diocese of London there is only one church dedicated to him.  The Franciscans, with the stress on the humanity of Jesus they had inherited from their founder, were keen to promote the devotion even before the Reformation, and St. Teresa of Avila gave him a boost when she dedicated her first reformed Carmel to him.  

If Joseph is a bit of a poor relation, the same can be said of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth which in the liturgical celebration of Christmas is overshadowed by Luke and Midnight Mass and John on Christmas Day.  Matthew is relegated to an appearance one year in three at the Eucharist on the last Sunday of Advent – with an extra outing in the Church of England at Evensong.

We might think that Matthew does himself no favours.  When we open the New Testament at the first page, we find ourselves plunged into a genealogy tracing the ancestry of Jesus as “son of David and son of Abraham.”  Reading or hearing it read, as we did in church a few days ago, is not very exciting. Luke, the master-story-teller gets his gospel off to a much more engaging start with the alternating announcements of the coming births of John the Baptist and Jesus. He keeps his genealogy until he has got our attention.

“The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

Matthew uses for “birth” the Greek word “genesis.”  The “genesis” of Jesus Christ took place in this way. He employs the same word of the genealogy.  It serves as a title to genealogy, birth story and the whole Gospel. What he wants us to recognize here is that the birth of Jesus and all that follows in his life, death and resurrection is a new creation: the same point that John makes when he starts his gospel by echoing the book of Genesis with “In the beginning….”

The genealogy gives a long list of male ancestors – although it also includes four women – all foreign and in some cases of dubious reputation:

  • Tamar, the Canaanite woman who is the daughter-in-law of Judah, the eldest son of the patriarch Jacob.  You can read her amusing if rather unedifying story in Genesis.
  • Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho who aided the Israelite spies. 
  • Ruth,  the Moabite daughter-in-law of Jewish Naomi, whose loyalty to her mother-in-law led her to  come to the land of Israel with her:  “Where you go, I shall go, where you dwell I will dwell, and there shall I be buried.” 
  • The wife of Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba, seduced and made pregnant by King David, who then arranged her husband’s murder; covering up one crime with another.

So the family tree of Jesus is an unconventional one – including Gentiles as well as Jews, an adulterer and murderer, those in irregular relationships as well as the good and upright. All human life is there, to show that God includes everyone in his plan for a new creation.

And when the genealogy finally reaches Joseph, we do not read:  “and Joseph was the father of Jesus.” Instead, we get: “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.”

The account we have heard this evening, “The birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way” follows on from this abrupt and significant change. Mary’s miraculous conception is announced as a fact without explanation: “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  We are told that she is already engaged or betrothed to Joseph when this happens.

At this stage, Joseph does not know the cause of her pregnancy. He assumes that she has been unfaithful.  Betrothal was as binding as marriage and could only be dissolved by divorce. Infidelity was considered grounds for this. In a culture dominated by ideas of honour and shame, this was the only solution. The law, reinforced by social custom, had not room for forgiving and forgetting.

If Joseph had merely been a “righteous man” according to the convention of his time, or if he had succumbed to the righteous indignation of a man shamed by this betrayal of his honour, then this would have been his course of action.

But Joseph’s righteousness goes deeper than adherence to the letter of the law or demanding his pound of flesh.  “Not wishing to put her to public shame, he decided to divorce her quietly.”

It’s difficult to know how Mary’s pregnancy could be kept secret in a small community, but a public scandal could have unpredictable consequences. Joseph would know that it might lead to Mary being cast out by her own parents. Without the support of her family, she would be condemned to a life of prostitution as the only means of survival. While the law’s penalty of stoning for adultery does not seem to have been much enforced at the time, there was no guarantee that mob rule would not lead to it. Think of the “honour killings” today which spring from ideas of sexual purity and property in some immigrant communities.

But before he can put this plan into effect, he has a dream in which an angel, a messenger from God, explains to him that this pregnancy is of divine origin: “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.”

The angel addresses him as “son of David,” reminding us of the genealogy problem.  Jesus can be a son of David only through Joseph, yet Joseph is not his biological father.  This problem is solved by the angel: “you shall name him Jesus.”  By naming the child, Joseph acknowledges him as his son: in effect, he adopts Jesus, and this incorporates him legally into David’s genealogy.

“Jesus” is the first of two names given to Mary’s child and Joseph’s adopted son.  There is a play on words in Matthew’s Greek which we miss in the English translation.  “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew and Aramaic “Yeshua” or “Joshua,” which means, “Yahweh – the Lord saves,” “God saves” or even, “God save.”   The child is to be the saviour of his people, in deed as well as in name.

“He will save his people from their sins.” The God-saving work of Jesus is first of all to rescue a whole people.  Jesus does save individuals, but his purpose is to save them with and into a society, to make them citizens of a people which Jesus will call his church or nation. The collective noun is important: we cannot be saved on our own.

Jesus is to save his people from their sins.   This expression is so familiar to us that we might miss seeing how contrary it was to popular expectations of the messiah.  To a people living in bondage now to the Romans, a Messiah who did not at least deliver them from their political overlords,  from their enemies’ sins,  could hardly be taken seriously. But Jesus’ work in the Gospel is first to liberate his people from their own evils.  Matthew’s Jesus will not fix his people’s attention on an external enemy as many radical political or religious movements do. He will not forge a burning hatred for enemies by which to ignite a revolution. In the Sermon on the Mount, he will say” ‘You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”   (Matthew 5.41-42)

For most of the gospel, Jesus concentrates his fire on the church’s sins.  Hell in Matthew is not a place to threaten the external enemies of God’s people; hell is always the threat for those who think they are the people of God.  So, this Gospel teaches us a profound self-criticism; it rarely permits God’s people to descend to the cheaper, easier and seemingly more effective demonizing of external enemies. 

“All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’” 

Here we have the first of Matthew’s frequent Old Testament quotations, in which he confirms the truth or significance of something he is reporting by referring to Scripture.  Here he finds support for Mary’s miraculous conception in Isaiah (7.14).

In the Hebrew version of that text, almah refers to a young woman, either married or unmarried. There is no suggestion of a miraculous birth. When Isaiah was translated into Greek in Alexandria, the translators chose the word parthenos, which means “virgin,” and kept the definite article, “the virgin.”  Why did they translate it this way?  A clue is found in the use by the prophets of “virgin” to refer to Israel (Isa. 37.22; Jeremiah 14.17; 18.14; 31.4, 21; Lam. 1.15; 2.13; Amos 5.2).  It may be that this verse was important to Matthew because it was already seen as referring to the messiah by Greek-speaking Jews.  The translators saw here a prophecy that virgin Israel would give birth to the Messiah.  This messianic hope was reinforced by the text’s statement that the virgin’s son would be called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.” By applying this text to Mary, Matthew defends the tradition that Jesus was the child of the Holy Spirit, and presents Mary as the embodiment of virgin Israel. We do not need to believe that Isaiah knew exactly what would happen hundreds of years hence. Israel and the Church would find in the words of the prophets new depths of meaning unimagined by those who first uttered and recorded them. They would come to see these words as pointing to the way in which God operates.

The idea of the Virgin Birth, or more accurately the virginal conception, of Jesus is one people often struggle with. Some simply reject any idea of the “miraculous,” even though human life itself and the creation of which we are part are miraculous in the sense of originating beyond ourselves and our control.  This kind of reaction is also linked with a rationalism which sees the essence of Christianity as a set of ideas rather than of relationships between God and real people like Mary and Joseph and ourselves.  But we are not disembodied minds or souls, we are people of flesh and blood, so our salvation comes through flesh and blood.

Others react against it because it has been associated with a negative attitude towards sexuality. Mary’s virginity and Joseph’s chastity have been used to elevate celibacy over marriage. For many, celibacy has come to be the only form of chastity, when in fact married couples are called to chastity by their vows of fidelity just as much as celibates are by theirs.

It helps, I think, to get back behind this issue, to what Matthew (and Luke) are really saying here.  This is about who is doing what in this child.  This is not just the birth of a child who will grow into a special human being – kinder, wiser, braver perhaps than any other.  This is about the coming of God into human life.  This is the work of the Holy Spirit because it cannot be something humankind achieves of itself. The embarrassing pregnancy of Mary, which begins the Gospel, may have served Matthew’s purpose by showing, as the folly of the cross does at the end, that God’s ways are not our ways; God’s righteousness is not our righteousness. 

“Emmanuel,” the name given at the beginning of the Gospel is echoed at its end.  After the resurrection, Jesus’ disciples worship him, and Jesus declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He commissions them to preach the gospel to all the world and to baptise “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And he promises: I will be with you always, even to the end of the ages.”   

For Matthew, “Emmanuel” means “Jesus is God-with-us.”  That is the truth we are reminded of day by day in the Eucharist and in a few minutes at Benediction as we kneel in the sacramental presence of the Christ who is with us always to bless us.

 

 

 ADVENT 4, 2015   EVENSONG

Readings:  Isaiah10.33-11.10; Matthew 1.18-25

Among the characters in the stories of Christ’s birth, Joseph is very much the quiet man – the one who has nothing to say. He only has to act.

Devotion to Joseph developed much more slowly than that to Mary – especially in the West – and was never as strong. This was true of both popular devotion and the official liturgy.  If you look in the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer, you will not find him – unusually for a biblical saint.  His feast was only made a universal one by Rome after the Reformation. In the diocese of London there is only one church dedicated to him.  The Franciscans, with the stress on the humanity of Jesus they had inherited from their founder, were keen to promote the devotion even before the Reformation, and St. Teresa of Avila gave him a boost when she dedicated her first reformed Carmel to him.  

If Joseph is a bit of a poor relation, the same can be said of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth which in the liturgical celebration of Christmas is overshadowed by Luke and Midnight Mass and John on Christmas Day.  Matthew is relegated to an appearance one year in three at the Eucharist on the last Sunday of Advent – with an extra outing in the Church of England at Evensong.

We might think that Matthew does himself no favours.  When we open the New Testament at the first page, we find ourselves plunged into a genealogy tracing the ancestry of Jesus as “son of David and son of Abraham.”  Reading or hearing it read, as we did in church a few days ago, is not very exciting. Luke, the master-story-teller gets his gospel off to a much more engaging start with the alternating announcements of the coming births of John the Baptist and Jesus. He keeps his genealogy until he has got our attention.

“The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”

 

Matthew uses for “birth” the Greek word “genesis.”  The “genesis” of Jesus Christ took place in this way. He employs the same word of the genealogy.  It serves as a title to genealogy, birth story and the whole Gospel. What he wants us to recognize here is that the birth of Jesus and all that follows in his life, death and resurrection is a new creation: the same point that John makes when he starts his gospel by echoing the book of Genesis with “In the beginning….”

The genealogy gives a long list of male ancestors – although it also includes four women – all foreign and in some cases of dubious reputation:

  • Tamar, the Canaanite woman who is the daughter-in-law of Judah, the eldest son of the patriarch Jacob.  You can read her amusing if rather unedifying story in Genesis.

     

  • Rahab, the prostitute in Jericho who aided the Israelite spies.

 

  • Ruth,  the Moabite daughter-in-law of Jewish Naomi, whose loyalty to her mother-in-law led her to  come to the land of Israel with her:  “Where you go, I shall go, where you dwell I will dwell, and there shall I be buried.”
  • The wife of Uriah the Hittite, Bathsheba, seduced and made pregnant by King David, who then arranged her husband’s murder; covering up one crime with another.

 

So the family tree of Jesus is an unconventional one – including Gentiles as well as Jews, an adulterer and murderer, those in irregular relationships as well as the good and upright. All human life is there, to show that God includes everyone in his plan for a new creation.

 

And when the genealogy finally reaches Joseph, we do not read:  “and Joseph was the father of Jesus.” Instead, we get: “Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.”

The account we have heard this evening, “The birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way” follows on from this abrupt and significant change. Mary’s miraculous conception is announced as a fact without explanation: “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.”  We are told that she is already engaged or betrothed to Joseph when this happens.

At this stage, Joseph does not know the cause of her pregnancy. He assumes that she has been unfaithful.  Betrothal was as binding as marriage and could only be dissolved by divorce. Infidelity was considered grounds for this. In a culture dominated by ideas of honour and shame, this was the only solution. The law, reinforced by social custom, had not room for forgiving and forgetting.

If Joseph had merely been a “righteous man” according to the convention of his time, or if he had succumbed to the righteous indignation of a man shamed by this betrayal of his honour, then this would have been his course of action.

But Joseph’s righteousness goes deeper than adherence to the letter of the law or demanding his pound of flesh.  “Not wishing to put her to public shame, he decided to divorce her quietly.”

It’s difficult to know how Mary’s pregnancy could be kept secret in a small community, but a public scandal could have unpredictable consequences. Joseph would know that it might lead to Mary being cast out by her own parents. Without the support of her family, she would be condemned to a life of prostitution as the only means of survival. While the law’s penalty of stoning for adultery does not seem to have been much enforced at the time, there was no guarantee that mob rule would not lead to it. Think of the “honour killings” today which spring from ideas of sexual purity and property in some immigrant communities.

But before he can put this plan into effect, he has a dream in which an angel, a messenger from God, explains to him that this pregnancy is of divine origin: “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.”

The angel addresses him as “son of David,” reminding us of the genealogy problem.  Jesus can be a son of David only through Joseph, yet Joseph is not his biological father.  This problem is solved by the angel: “you shall name him Jesus.”  By naming the child, Joseph acknowledges him as his son: in effect, he adopts Jesus, and this incorporates him legally into David’s genealogy.

“Jesus” is the first of two names given to Mary’s child and Joseph’s adopted son.  There is a play on words in Matthew’s Greek which we miss in the English translation.  “Jesus” is the Greek version of the Hebrew and Aramaic “Yeshua” or “Joshua,” which means, “Yahweh – the Lord saves,” “God saves” or even, “God save.”   The child is to be the saviour of his people, in deed as well as in name.

 

“He will save his people from their sins.” The God-saving work of Jesus is first of all to rescue a whole people.  Jesus does save individuals, but his purpose is to save them with and into a society, to make them citizens of a people which Jesus will call his church or nation. The collective noun is important: we cannot be saved on our own.

 Jesus is to save his people from their sins.   This expression is so familiar to us that we might miss seeing how contrary it was to popular expectations of the messiah.  To a people living in bondage now to the Romans, a Messiah who did not at least deliver them from their political overlords,  from their enemies’ sins,  could hardly be taken seriously. But Jesus’ work in the Gospel is first to liberate his people from their own evils.  Matthew’s Jesus will not fix his people’s attention on an external enemy as many radical political or religious movements do. He will not forge a burning hatred for enemies by which to ignite a revolution. In the Sermon on the Mount, he will say” ‘You have heard it said, “You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”   (Matthew 5.41-42)

For most of the gospel, Jesus concentrates his fire on the church’s sins.  Hell in Matthew is not a place to threaten the external enemies of God’s people; hell is always the threat for those who think they are the people of God.  So, this Gospel teaches us a profound self-criticism; it rarely permits God’s people to descend to the cheaper, easier and seemingly more effective demonizing of external enemies. 

“All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’” 

Here we have the first of Matthew’s frequent Old Testament quotations, in which he confirms the truth or significance of something he is reporting by referring to Scripture.  Here he finds support for Mary’s miraculous conception in Isaiah (7.14).

In the Hebrew version of that text, almah refers to a young woman, either married or unmarried. There is no suggestion of a miraculous birth. When Isaiah was translated into Greek in Alexandria, the translators chose the word parthenos, which means “virgin,” and kept the definite article, “the virgin.”  Why did they translate it this way?  A clue is found in the use by the prophets of “virgin” to refer to Israel (Isa. 37.22; Jeremiah 14.17; 18.14; 31.4, 21; Lam. 1.15; 2.13; Amos 5.2).  It may be that this verse was important to Matthew because it was already seen as referring to the messiah by Greek-speaking Jews.  The translators saw here a prophecy that virgin Israel would give birth to the Messiah.  This messianic hope was reinforced by the text’s statement that the virgin’s son would be called “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.” By applying this text to Mary, Matthew defends the tradition that Jesus was the child of the Holy Spirit, and presents Mary as the embodiment of virgin Israel. We do not need to believe that Isaiah knew exactly what would happen hundreds of years hence. Israel and the Church would find in the words of the prophets new depths of meaning unimagined by those who first uttered and recorded them. They would come to see these words as pointing to the way in which God operates.

The idea of the Virgin Birth, or more accurately the virginal conception, of Jesus is one people often struggle with. Some simply reject any idea of the “miraculous,” even though human life itself and the creation of which we are part are miraculous in the sense of originating beyond ourselves and our control.  This kind of reaction is also linked with a rationalism which sees the essence of Christianity as a set of ideas rather than of relationships between God and real people like Mary and Joseph and ourselves.  But we are not disembodied minds or souls, we are people of flesh and blood, so our salvation comes through flesh and blood.

Others react against it because it has been associated with a negative attitude towards sexuality. Mary’s virginity and Joseph’s chastity have been used to elevate celibacy over marriage. For many, celibacy has come to be the only form of chastity, when in fact married couples are called to chastity by their vows of fidelity just as much as celibates are by theirs.

It helps, I think, to get back behind this issue, to what Matthew (and Luke) are really saying here.  This is about who is doing what in this child.  This is not just the birth of a child who will grow into a special human being – kinder, wiser, braver perhaps than any other.  This is about the coming of God into human life.  This is the work of the Holy Spirit because it cannot be something humankind achieves of itself. The embarrassing pregnancy of Mary, which begins the Gospel, may have served Matthew’s purpose by showing, as the folly of the cross does at the end, that God’s ways are not our ways; God’s righteousness is not our righteousness. 

 “Emmanuel,” the name given at the beginning of the Gospel is echoed at its end.  After the resurrection, Jesus’ disciples worship him, and Jesus declares, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.” He commissions them to preach the gospel to all the world and to baptise “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.”  And he promises: I will be with you always, even to the end of the ages.”   

For Matthew, “Emmanuel” means “Jesus is God-with-us.”  That is the truth we are reminded of day by day in the Eucharist and in a few minutes at Benediction as we kneel in the sacramental presence of the Christ who is with us always to bless us.