Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
18th Dec 2016
Advent 4 (Year A)
“When Joseph awoke from sleep he did as the angel had commanded him; he took her as his wife.”
Some years ago now, in 2000, Botticelli’s painting ‘Mystical Nativity’ was exhibited at the National gallery as the centrepiece of an exhibition entitled ‘Seeing Salvation’. The painting is called ‘mystical’ because it deliberately substitutes the birth of Jesus as a gentle pastoral scene for something more disturbing. Angels abound, they are in evidence everywhere. They come to the nativity from the heavens, which are painted in gold, and which are ruptured; torn apart. Suddenly, heaven and earth become accessible to the angelic host. A way is opened up and it now ushers in a time of extraordinary communication between God and humankind.
This dramatic message holds our attention, but it needs its compliment, something more earthly and recognizable, to render the Nativity understandable in terms we can all understand. It needs an infusion of the human and something more down to earth. We experience this ‘infusion of the human’ in the witness of Joseph. In Joseph the coming to birth of Jesus is seen as a very practical matter. Alongside Mary’s bold declaration that she has ‘seen’ God’s salvation comes also the rather inauspicious circumstances within which Joseph is to save Mary from public disgrace and take her for his wife. Joseph ‘earths’ the Christmas story in the realm of common sense. In Joseph we meet the man, the carpenter, who will in a dream find his way to marrying Mary and avoid what would otherwise have been a public scandal, for ‘he took her for his wife’. In Jesus’ coming to birth there is met not only the grand expectations of Old Testament prophecy and the coming of the glorious manifestation of the angel Gabriel; of The Word of God made flesh, and the fantastical interaction of the heavenly and the earthly realms. There is also Joseph’s simple and practical witness in which important considerations regarding social custom are being made. With his common sense, there exists a kindling of deep love for Mary and the child about to babe born. Joseph’s positive action compliments Mary‘s ‘Yes‘; her ‘Let it be done according to thy Word‘, for Joseph shows a no-nonsense love that allows our ordinary as well as mystical understanding of the Christmas narrative to anchor itself in practical reality.
Joseph reminds us that individual Christian Faith involves a movement of the human heart and is expressed in an act of commitment (at Baptism), and then many subsequent acts of re-commitment in the life of faith. This involves a very necessary trust in God, a willingness to experience conversion to Christ not as a single, isolated act but as the necessary and continuing renewal of its vital energies. The Baptismal Rite has the candidate not only believe in God and in Jesus whom he has sent, but believe and TRUST. True belief remains the sublime reality, but Trust remains its practical and tough compliment. Faith always needs to be ‘earthed’ in reality. It needs to be, as Joseph the husband, father and worker knows, ‘down to earth’.
Joseph, known to us primarily as a worker, as also someone who works at things. He has learnt to give of himself. Joseph was of course a carpenter, and in carpentry things have to worked out from different angles, worked out patiently, planned; but then comes the moment when the cut has to be made, and this involves informed decision-making but is also a distinct skill, an art. Things have to fit properly and two separate pieces of wood have to find a marriage in one another for the finished article to hold firm. His act of commitment to Mary is a love and a commitment to make things work, and we rightly speak of relationships that need working at. But underlying this is a love which holds things together and helps things along. If Mary is the ‘handmaid of the Lord’ then Joseph is certainly one who serves God, even though in a manner which is, as we say, ‘down to earth’.
And so, on this Fourth Sunday of Advent we see that the heavenly and the earthly realms are met in the nativity of Jesus, and in Mary and then Joseph’s ‘Yes’ to God through the message of the angels. They have both been obedient to God’s will. For the Gospel writer Matthew, the stage is now set, and we are readied, as the Advent promise comes to birth, to commit ourselves (yet again) to making the journey of faith with Joseph and Mary. We go with them to Bethlehem, in faith and love and wonder, to lighting the fourth Advent candle and to seeing what things will come to pass, seeing the salvation which is waiting for us. Now, like Joseph is our time to ‘wake out of sleep’. For now our salvation is nearer then when we first believed. For now, let us be as ready as we are best able to find our lives in God and in the birth of His Son, Emmanuel, 'God with Us'.