Sermon - 22nd December 2013
A Perfect Christmas?
Scripture - Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
Rev Andy Braunston
[An audio version of this sermon is available. Please go to Spirituality > Audio and Video.]
All over the country people are now finishing their preparations for Christmas. Some people are off work now until the New Year, plans for Christmas and Boxing Day are now made, many have bought their presents, sent their cards and planned their holiday activities – whether that's spending time with family, friends or just having a gentle time with another or by one's self.
The TV companies have been busy advertising special programmes for Christmas and, no doubt, the Downton Abbey Christmas special will keep the nation entertained. Ian and I watched the programme that Channel 4 have been showing about the Liberty store in London. It was fascinating as neither of us have, despite both having lived in London, ever been to the shop. It makes Harrods look a touch common and they were heavily pushing the idea of the perfect Christmas to their customers. Of course Christmas would only be perfect with things purchased from Liberty!
There is this myth of the perfect Christmas at this time of year. TV encourages us to believe that a light dusting of snow will make Christmas perfect. Christmas cards emphasize peace and stillness. In our imaginations we think of large family Christmases with everyone getting on and a stress free time had by all.
Eastenders is probably quite good at exploding these myths – and probably making up other myths too! But in our culture there is an expectation that we'll have the perfect Christmas and we can get very stressed if we don't achieve it. Hopefully, we've managed to move on from these expectations and to enjoy Christmas without guilt, exhaustion or finding ourselves doing things we don't want to do.
I'm always interested in how Christmas has become laden with these interesting expectations given all that went on in the first Christmas. The Christmas story in St Matthew's Gospel shows clearly that all was not going to plan! Religious Jewish girls, then and now, were not meant to fall pregnant before they got married. Joseph would have known that he wasn't the father and so had every right to feel angry, betrayed and desolated. Yet he seems to have been a virtuous and kind man. Mary hadn't turned out as he had expected but he decided to divorce her quietly and not put her to any more shame than would have happened when people realised she was pregnant and single again. Maybe he hoped he'd find another bride and start again.
Yet God intervened and changed Joseph's perspective. Through his dream the angel spoke to him and convinced him to take Mary as his wife, to accept the child as his own, to name him. Yet there must have been some knowledge about Jesus' interesting, less-than-perfect family background for it to be included in Matthew's Gospel so many years later.
Our Gospel passage comes just after a long genealogy which is normally omitted from public reading in church as genealogies don't make very interesting listening. But the genealogy is problematic as it traces Jesus' ancestors from King David down to, well, Joseph. Yet the passage makes clear that Joseph wasn't really involved in the conception of Jesus – he had a central role in Jesus' life but that role wasn't about his conception according to this passage. The writer of Matthew realises this and doesn't say that Joseph fathered Jesus but that Joseph was the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born. This makes clear – before we even get to today's reading – that Joseph wasn't Jesus' biological father.
Today's passage takes us a little further as the angel tells Joseph to name the child Jesus. This is more than choosing a name; by choosing a name for Jesus, Joseph adopts him, he takes responsibility for him, he accepts him as his own.
Joseph does the right thing – but, I suspect, at some cost to himself. I wonder how it felt to bring up a child that he knew wasn't his own. I wonder how often he doubted his dream. I wonder how often he mused about whether Mary had been unfaithful to him or not. I wonder when, back in Nazareth, he looked around and tried to see if Jesus looked like any of his own friends.
God intervened and changed Joseph's direction but Joseph must have had his doubts and worries. This, after all, is deeply Biblical and deeply human. All through Advent we've been listening to prophecies from the book of the Prophet Isaiah which gave hope to Israel and which speak of God intervening in Israel's life to effect a great change of direction. Today's passage is no different.
Much of Isaiah's ministry was about putting a bit of backbone into Ahaz – the king of Judah who was worried by the politics of his world. The Egyptians and Assyrians were the superpowers of his age and encircled Judah and it's northern Jewish neighbour, Israel as well as various other smaller countries. Ahaz always wanted to put his trust in foreign alliances – playing off the different powers against each other – but Isaiah wanted him to put his trust only in the Lord. So, in today's reading Isaiah offers Ahaz a sign but Ahaz refuses it saying that to demand a sign from God is to put the Lord to the test. Isaiah offers him one anyway! The sign is of a young woman conceiving and bearing a child. This child would be God with us and in his time the powers that held Ahaz in terror would be wastelands. It was a powerful prophecy but the history shows that Ahaz wasn't much impressed by it.
Christians see within this prophecy a foretelling of Jesus' birth and so this reading is used extensively at Christmas where we think of Mary, the young woman, giving birth to Jesus.
Signs and Obedience
Throughout Advent we've explored the themes of God-with-us, and the idea of Jesus returning at the end of time to put things right. We're now on the verge of celebrating Christmas and we think of Jesus' birth in our world.
The sign given to Ahaz was God intervening in history to help him change direction. Sadly Ahaz ignored the sign and the result was devastation to his northern Jewish neighbour, the kingdom of Israel. Joseph had the sign of the message of the angel in his dream and Joseph allowed himself to be changed by the sign. He opened himself up to God, he trusted that the message he had received was correct, he managed to set aside his doubt, the gnawing anxiety that Mary had betrayed him and the gossips in order to take Jesus as his own son. He trusted God when God acted.
Many of us have prayed for signs of God in our life. We may have been desperate for a particular answer to prayer – a prayer for healing, a prayer from exile, a prayer for safety, a prayer for another. We may have begged God to do something. Have we been so eager to allow God to change our direction as an answer to this prayer? Have we been more like Ahaz and ignored the signs, trusting instead what made sense; or have we been more like Joseph who turned his back on the male-centred logic of his age and listened to the angel?
This Christmas let's not get hung up on finding the perfect Christmas, let's not be disappointed if things don't go as we plan or as we'd like, but, instead, let's allow God the time and space to change our direction just as he changed Joseph's.