Sermon for FOURTH SUNDAY OF ADVENT Sunday 22 December 2013
Preached by the Vicar, Prebendary Alan Moses
Last Wednesday, my duties included spending the afternoon in a packed school hall watching school nativity plays. Arriving a few minutes before the start, I was ushered to one of the staff seats at the front and found myself sitting next to two of the actors: a boy who was clearly the donkey, and a girl I assumed was Mary. “No,” she said, “I’m the midwife.” The script of this play had clearly been influenced by a recent TV series following the work of Anglican nursing nuns and their young trainee midwives in the East End in the years after the War.
Like other clergy, I have also been leading Carol Services and singing a lot of carols – here in church and out in the parish – and hearing the familiar passages like this morning’s gospel.
For many, these picturesque stories and songs are childish and naïve things. Yes, they tug at our hearts-strings because they remind us of our own childhood. But for the sceptical unbeliever, and the culture in which we love, they are simply fairy stories. Christians really need to give up such immature things and grow up. Even for some believers, they seem rather unsophisticated. If we want serious theology we must look not to the story-tellers, Matthew and Luke, but to the men of ideas: to St. Paul or St. John.
But the Bible is full of story-telling. Narrative is one of the principal ways in which it communicates: not just information, but meaning and truth and relationship. If we think about it, this should not surprise us because we are people with stories. Each of us has a biography – even if for most of us it will never be written down and published by anyone. We are not disembodied minds, dwelling only in the realm of ideas.
A priest who owns up to a fondness for Christmas Carols and Nativity Plays, runs the risk of being thought a bit of a simpleton or even a fundamentalist: the Vicar is a nice man, but he’s not very bright you know. And perhaps they would say the same about Matthew and Luke.
But if we pause to look seriously to Matthew and Luke, to listen to them as more than the background music of Christmas, we discover that there is far more to them than simple children’s tales.
For a start, they are set in the midst of political and social reality: of emperors who carry out censuses to extract more taxes from their subject peoples, of client kings who massacre possible threats to their grip on power, of people having to flee their homes in search of refuge, of the cruel fate of pregnant unmarried girls. These are not the stuff of sentimental tales but of the harsh realities of life.
Nor is it true to say that real theology is not to be found in them. Remember the very beginning of our passage this morning: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.”
The Greek word Matthew uses for “birth” is genesis -so readers of scripture are taken back immediately to the beginning of creation. This is Matthew’s equivalent of the beginning of St. John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”
In Matthew’s account, we see Joseph having to come to terms with the news that Mary is pregnant with a child who is not his. He can’t ignore this: he is “a righteous man” who wants to do the decent thing.
Until recently, interpreters of this passage have tended to divide along denominational lines: the piously catholic, and usually celibate, have tended to put Joseph’s reaction down to awe at Mary’s contact with God, while the protestant, and usually married, have seen it as a more human reaction to news which would be hurtful and shaming. The text, as most Roman Catholic biblical scholars now admit, supports the latter rather than the former. It is only after the angel’s message that Joseph decides to proceed with the marriage.
That message itself is filled with theological significance. The child Mary is carrying has been conceived by the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit who moved over the waters in creation, whom God breathed into human beings to give them life. This then is a new creation, a new humanity.
‘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.”’
Scholars point out to us that the original Hebrew of this quotation from Isaiah speaks not of a “virgin” but of a “young woman.” It was only in the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures that the word parthenos – virgin – was used. But this was the version of what we call the Old Testament which was used by Matthew and the rest of the early church – because they spoke and wrote in Greek and not Hebrew.
Is Matthew just searching desperately for texts which seem to predict the birth and life of Jesus? Has he just made up the story of the virginal conception, to imitate stories of the births of heroic figures in pagan cultures as sceptics have often thought? Are these texts direct predictions of Jesus, as devout Christians have sometimes thought? Or is something more sophisticated going on here?
Matthew is not so much seeing the birth of Jesus, his life and ministry, predicted in detail, so much as the fulfilment of the whole direction and movement of the scriptures with their account of the relationship between God and his people; God’s reaching out to his people, his embrace of them. Isaiah had spoken to a king of the impending birth, a quite natural one, of a baby – probably a prince – as a sign of hope to a people facing the threat of foreign invasion and annihilation. This birth is a sign that there will be a future for them.
For Matthew, this foreshadows the birth of a greater child who would “save his people from their sins.” This “Son of David” would be the prince of peace for whom people had longed. This child, to be called “Jesus” – a name which means, “God saves.” He is to be called “Emmanuel- which means God is with us.” All this fits with the pattern of God’s relationship with his people, his way of operating. That is how it is fulfils scripture.
Virginal conceptions, an idea which sophisticated moderns find hard to cope with, were not part of the Jewish theological tradition. Yes, there had been divine interventions to bring about births of significant figures – up to and including John the Baptist – but none of these had been excluded the role of the human father. The conception of Jesus is unique in biblical terms. Nor is it like the conception of pagan heroes conceived in sexual relationships between pagan gods and the human mothers. Jews would find such an idea abhorrent.
Matthew and Luke speak of the virginal conception of Jesus to show that this really is about “God–with-us.” It really is about God doing something which we cannot do for ourselves: that is save us from our sins.
That is something we human beings find difficult to accept: despite the fact that there is more than enough evidence, – both in our blood-stained history, and our personal experience of failure to do the good we intend to do, – of our inability to save ourselves. We persist with the fantasy that we can make ourselves better, even perfect. But the idea of human perfectibility is far more of a fantasy and make-believe than anything written by Matthew and Luke. Worse than that, it is a dangerous illusion.
That is why we need the God who has come to be with us and save us from our sins.
This child conceived by the Holy Spirit, both Son of God and son of Mary, this Emmanuel is the sign of hope that God is with us. God has written us into his story and we find ours in his. Nativity plays are often re-written to reflect something of our life and times, and that is fine as long as the original meaning is not lost in the process. But more importantly, our stories need to be re-written in terms of the story of Jesus Christ.
If we turn to the end of Matthew’s story, we find the last words of Jesus to his disciples, then and now: “I am with you always, even to the end of the ages.”
The incarnation means that God has taken us to himself for ever. He will not leave us. He will not let us go.