Sermon Sunday 22 December 2019
Lessons Romans 1: 1 – 7 St Matthew 1: 18 – 25
Prayer of Illumination
Holy God, in this advent season of hope, open our eyes to Your Spirit. May we see and hear You through our reflective wanderings, our meditations, on sacred Scripture. Amen.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph. She was going to have a child through the Holy Spirit. An angel of the Lord appeared to [Joseph] in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home with you to be your wife…..She will bear a son; and you shall give him the name Jesus…’. The evangelist Matthew wrote, ‘A virgin will conceive and bear a son, and he shall be called Emmanuel’, a name which means God is with us.
We have been to many, many Nativity plays and read and listened to the birth narratives a thousand times, but how well do we know the stories? The Gospels are carefully crafted faith narratives: they are theology, not history; poetry, not biology. Joseph encountered God in a dream. I wonder if any of us has ever encountered God in a dream? Are there moments in your life, tender, hidden, secret, fleeting moments in which you felt caught up in something larger than yourself or, perhaps, in the quiet of night in the darkness of a dream felt the presence of Jesus? Over the course of my ministry, I have met a number of people who have felt a presence, a sense of transcendence which, years later, felt as real then as it did when first they encountered it.
Some years ago, I invited the local Orthodox rabbi to preach at a service in my pulpit. Afterwards, in the hall a Sunday School child asked me, ‘Is the Bible fact or fiction?’ I replied, ‘It tells us truths about God’, which was not my best child-friendly answer. I turned to the rabbi and asked, ‘Is the Bible fact or fiction?’ He lifted his shoulders and said, ‘It’s a story!’ What a clever answer, and typically Jewish. What matters is the message of the story and its power to change lives for the good.
Joseph encountered God in a dream but he was not the first one to do so. In the Book of Genesis, it was another Joseph. Set in the fields binding sheaves of corn, all at once, Joseph saw his sheaf of corn rise and stand upright, while those of his eleven brothers bowed in homage before him. It was in a dream that Jacob, the grandson of Abraham, saw a ladder, a staircase, reaching from the earth into heaven with angels descending and ascending. In the Islamic tradition, similarly in the night in a dream the Prophet ascended from Jerusalem to heaven. In the eastern religion of Buddhism, sleepless dreaming deepens the experience of meditation. In Christianity, in the mystical tradition, many of the giants of the faith have experienced dreams or ecstatic visions: the memory and imagination become absorbed in God. In religion, dreams are more than a reimaging of everyday events in one’s life. They are a spiritual encounter with God. Was the dream of Joseph fact or fiction? Does it matter?
For me, Scripture is a doorway into the Divine. In quietness, prayer and a moment of meditation, let yourself feel the presence of the angel. Allow yourself to become aware of God’s presence in your own darkness, in the perplexities and problems which you face. Faith and prayer are not a means of magic, of getting the answers we want; they are a means of being at one with God and becoming increasingly conscious of God’s mysterious Presence. At its best, prayer is like sitting in silence with a partner or good friend, a wholesome, complete and fulfilling silence. Let yourself enter the darkness of Joseph’s dream and see the light of God for yourself. Religion is medicine for the soul.
Every piece of writing has a context. What else was around at the time Matthew was writing? In the Matthean birth narrative of Jesus, there is a divorce or parting, a revelation from God, a woman called Mary and the birth of a son who will save his people. In the Jewish tradition of that time, there was a story of Amram, which was a Jewish re-imaging of the story of Moses. Amram, the father of Moses, on hearing that the Pharaoh intended to kill all new-born male children, decided to divorce his wife; he did not want more children. Amram’s daughter Miriam (or Mary) encouraged Amram to remarry because, once remarried, they would have a son who would free Israel from bondage, from oppression and slavery. In the Jewish story, when Moses was born it is said that “the house was filled with light as on the first day of Creation when God spoke, ‘Behold, it is good!’” In other words, the birth narrative of Jesus does not exist in isolation: it is a Christian re-working of a Jewish story. In the Jewish story, the wife of Amram, the mother of Moses, is 130 years old. So, either through old age or virginity, the point is not biology but theology: it is God who gives life; it is God who saves and heals God’s people. Matthew wants us to see Jesus as the new Moses.
Matthew described Mary as a virgin. This is not biology but politics. In the Roman world, the world in which Jesus lived and the evangelist Matthew was writing, the emperor of Rome, the most powerful man on earth, Caesar Augustus, was born by divine conception. The emperor’s mother was Atia and his father the god Apollo. Is it possible that Matthew’s use of the word ‘virgin’ is to make a political and religious claim that those who follow Jesus belong to a different world order, to God’s kingdom and not Caesar’s? The ‘virgin’ birth of Jesus is a direct attack on the values of the Roman world. It’s politics, not biology.
What does the birth narrative mean for us today? The angel said that the name of the child was to be Jesus. In Hebrew, Jesus is Yehoshua or Joshua; it is the name of the man who led the Hebrew people into the Promised Land. Yehoshua means ‘God saves’ or God heals’. Emmanuel means ‘God is with us’. If we were to dream now, what would our dream be? In 1960, Martin Luther King Jr delivered a speech to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People entitled, ‘The Negro and the American Dream’. A year later, he spoke of a dream of equality. In 1963, standing on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, King said:
I still have a dream, a dream deeply rooted
in the American dream – one day this nation
will rise up and live up to its creed, ‘We hold
these truths to be self-evident: that all men are
created equal.’ I have a dream …
King was a preacher for whom it seems the Bible as fact or fiction did not matter. What mattered was the power of the Bible to change lives for the good. What healing would you want today? The end of foodbanks, the end of child poverty, a society that measures itself by how it cares for the most vulnerable, the voiceless?
Perhaps your dream would be personal: craving for meaning in the frenetic busyness of life in the face of ecological destruction? Craving for meaning in the midst of personal or family suffering? St Teresa of Calcutta said, ‘The most terrible poverty is loneliness, and the feeling of being unloved.’ What would you want said in your dream?
In Judaism, it is said:
Your life was dreamed up long before the world was
created. It waits for you, like a love letter. Unfold it.
Read it. Interpret it for good. Live each day knowing
that your actions are writing a new scroll, spelled
in heartbeats, lettered in breath, each of our days perfumed
by our deeds and tucked into the crooks of ancient trees.
We write our love letters to God, postmark every waking
moment, and God’s response is everywhere one can dream.
There you are: perhaps the point of the birth narrative is no more or less than that God loves us, is with us, will always be with us, heals the soul and that we have nothing to fear. Faith is a love affair with the Divine: God is born is us.