What I said on Sunday
Here’s what I said this morning at our main service, which considering how bad the snow is today was amazingly well attended!
Isaiah 7.10-16; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-end
Christmas Eve, for most people, is a time to buy or wrap last‑minute presents, to meet friends for a drink and to share the joy of anticipating Christmas Day. One person who famously refused to spend this day doing such things was Scrooge, the grasping miser of Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol”. Scrooge was intent upon spending Christmas alone. He refused to celebrate, to give any money to charity and closed his eyes to the hardships suffered by his clerk Bob Cratchit and his family. Above all he refused to share himself. Only after witnessing the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come and revisiting his own youth did he change his ways. He sent a turkey to the Cratchits, raised Bob’s pay and visited his nephew. In his newly acquired humanity he experienced a real satisfaction never achieved by hoarding money.
It is tempting to believe that the way to happiness is through self‑absorption, refusing to share ourselves and our possessions with others. Many people have a fear that by revealing themselves to others, by allowing themselves to be vulnerable, they will be taken advantage of, hurt. Even if we do not live alone, like Scrooge, we can still ignore what happens outside our narrow circle of friends. And we risk developing miserly selfishness and losing much more than we gain.
In today’s Gospel, Joseph faces the temptation to keep to himself. He discovered Mary, his betrothed, was pregnant, but not by him and he was inclined to opt out of the situation by divorcing her. He appeared to be concerned that Mary should not suffer unnecessary shame, but he was not prepared to share his life with a woman of seemingly questionable virtue who might cause him shame. Then in a dream the angel of the Lord urged him to regard the situation from another perspective. He was told that the pregnancy did not simply concern his honour and his own family, it was a matter of supreme importance to the whole world.
Joseph was a man of honour and integrity, a man of God, so he accepted Mary and her unborn child into his home. In doing this he acknowledged his responsibilities not only to his family but recognised his obligations, towards the world, the whole people of God. Interesting, isn’t it, that God should choose to send his Son to enter the world in such a way as to scandalise people by the manner of his birth – he could have chosen a married woman, and made sure her husband knew what was going to happen before his wife became pregnant. But he didn’t. And Joseph, and no doubt members of both families, were shocked. And no doubt many were just as shocked when Joseph broker the news that he was going to marry Mary and raise the child as his own – such a thing was unheard of.
So it was that Jesus was born as Mary’s son, raised and cared for in Joseph’s home, as a true descendant of the house of David. But St Paul’s writing reminds us that Jesus belonged not only to this family and House but to every age. And those who call upon Jesus, in turn, belong to him. Jesus did not come to earth to keep himself to himself. He came to share our life, in all its ups and downs and to share himself with us, that we might share our future lives with God. How remarkable that God should make himself so vulnerable, as vulnerable as a tiny baby, because he wanted to be with us. Joseph, acknowledging his responsibilities to the wider world, hints at what Jesus’ life will be like. Jesus would refuse all narrowness and selfishness. He would ignore the taunts of those who accused him of eating with tax collectors and sinners. He suffered death for the sake of others, rose from the dead to lead the world to eternal life in heaven, and shared his teaching and his vision with those who chose to follow him.
We may not, like Scrooge, shun the Christmas festivities in favour of a quiet day, counting our savings. But we can often be tempted ourselves, and refuse to share our lives. How often, when someone asks “How are you” to we avoid telling the truth and just smile and say “Oh, I’m fine”. Perhaps we believe that we only belong to our family and friends and turn a blind eye to the needs of others. Or if we ourselves ask some, “How are you?” we don’t really want them to actually tell the truth. Perhaps we change the subject whenever we sense that a deep or difficult topic is entering the conversation. Or, we may be happy to share our joys and sorrows with a wide range of people, but stop short of sharing our faith with them. I’m frankly amazed at the number of times over the years that people have said to me, “We can’t come to church on next Sunday because we’ve got family or friends over.” Why not come to church – tell them that church is important and why it is important. Better still, bring them with you. Don’t give them the impression that church is just a hobby that can be set on one side when it suits.
Today’s readings remind us that we, like Jesus, belong to all people who also belong to us. We are all God’s people, we all need the salvation which Christ brings. We cannot simply leave God’s work to God alone, because God has chosen to work with us and through us. ‘Christmas Yet to Come’ will hold little promise for us if we keep our present life and our faith in Christ to ourselves. We need to share the holiness and hope we possess and then discover the joy of following in Jesus’ footsteps.
As Saint Teresa of Avila wrote in those so familiar words:
Christ has no other hands but your hands to do his work today;
no other feet than your feet to guide folk on his way;
no other lips but your lips to tell them why he died;
no other love but your love to win them to his side.