I was delighted (and a bit nervous) to be invited to preach at my home church of All Saints on the day of my parents’ 40th Wedding Anniversary.
Here is the text of my sermon:
The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
Only a few days ago we heard these words read in our Christmas services – the words of Isaiah written about 600 years before Christ pointing to the light that was to come into the world. In today’s gospel reading, Joseph and Mary are the people who are walking in darkness.
Joseph is the star of the nativity in Matthew’s gospel. He is a model for us all. Much is made, and rightly so, of Mary’s ‘yes’ to the message brought to her by the Angel Gabriel. Here in Matthew’s gospel we discover that Joseph’s ‘yes’ to the angel is also hugely significant.
Joseph and Mary have been happily settled with relatives in Bethlehem, raising their toddler Jesus when Joseph, seemingly out of the blue, has a dream that shakes him to the core. His small, fragile family is in danger from Herod. An angel tells Joseph, rather abruptly to get up and take Mary and his baby to Egypt.
I don’t know what images are conjured up for you when you think of Egypt? Sunning yourself in Sharm El Sheik? Visiting the Great Pyramids? A Nile cruise? Or perhaps rioting and political unrest? None of these images come close to the fear bound up for a first century Jew in the phrase ‘go to Egypt’. Egypt is a place of darkness, a place of slavery, a prison, the place from which the Lord God dramatically delivered his people. This is all upside down and back to front. Egypt is a place of death, a tomb.
The imagery of darkness is there in the gospel reading: Joseph got up and took the mother and his child by night… There is almost the implication that Joseph woke up from his dream in the middle of the night, hastily packed their belongings and set off in the darkness to the foreign country of Egypt.
Joseph’s obedience to the angel’s command is astonishing. The threat to his family was even greater than what they might find in Egypt. So he went. He said ‘yes’ to God with no idea of what would happen and not with only himself to think about but his wife and small child, a two year old who would struggle with a change in his routine. This sounds a little bit like Abraham and his call to leave his home for the vague notion of a Promised Land. And that is deliberate, I think. Matthew’s original audience were Jewish Christians, they knew the call of Abraham and the promise of descendants more numerous than the stars – even though he and his wife Sarah were old. They also knew that Egypt is the place from which God rescues.
Joseph takes the step of faith that has been taken throughout the centuries by those who sought to follow God. A step that’s taken by us all when we say ‘yes’ to God: a leap into darkness.
And so Joseph models for us the great pattern of salvation that we experience in our lives over and over again – death and resurrection, death and resurrection. He goes to the place of darkness, the place of slavery and returns with the Christ child who will bring light to those who walk in darkness.
Earlier this year, Lord Howell was speaking in the House of Lords about fracking. He described the North East as a ‘desolate’ place. This understandably upset a lot of people – and I’m sure Fr Neil wasn’t too impressed!
The north of Israel in ancient times was viewed in much the same way. Just at the beginning of the Isaiah passage I started with it says:
“But there will be no gloom for those who were in anguish. In the former time he brought into contempt the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali, but in the latter time he will make glorious the way of the sea, the land beyond the Jordan, Galilee of the nations”
In the place where no one expected blessing, the land beyond the Jordan – far from God’s own city of Jerusalem, there was salvation to come.
Picture a different donkey ride. Mary and Joseph, struggling with their belongings on a donkey, travelling for days to reach the “desolate” north of Israel. Jesus, a young boy sits on his father’s shoulders and points out what he can see: ‘look, Abba, another sheep!’ Mary and Joseph reminisce about that other journey they took to Bethlehem, some years before, they smile as they tell Jesus he’s been on this road before. This time they arrive looking like foreigners, they have been living as refugees in a strange land but now they come and find a place to settle by the sea in a small town called Nazareth. They are carrying the Christ child. They are carrying with them the hope of the nations. They are bringing the light that shines in the darkness.
This journey is made possible all because Mary said ‘yes’. All because Joseph said ‘yes’. The Holy Family are a family who say ‘yes’ to God, not knowing what the future will hold. We join with them in the journey – into the unknown. We don’t know what 2014 will hold for us. Mary and Joseph carried the Christ child with them. The message of Christmas that we celebrate in this season is that God is with us, Immanuel. Like Joseph, we carry Christ with us ourselves as we leave this place, as we start a new year, as we move to a place of the unexpected, possibly a place of darkness, into that we carry the light of Christ. God with us. Immanuel.
At the service they made an affirmation of vows and my mother got a surprise new ruby ring which was blessed. As a thank you for using the church for a party this evening they also bought a new set of vestments for the church.