Joseph – a saint for a divided nation? A sermon for the fourth Sunday in Advent – Adel Parish Church.
Isaiah 7: 10-16; Romans 1: 1-7; Matthew 1: 18 – end
“Mrs Battye…you know how ladies make lots of noise when they’re having babies…if Mary’d done that wouldn’t she have disturbed all those animals in the stable?”
I used to love teaching R.E…children ask the best questions…
That 10 year old was really asking what children often want to know – ‘why doesn’t the bible have the interesting details?’ I can sympathise as I’ve always felt this about Joseph. He’s in thousands of nativity plays at this time of year – he’s one of the few bible characters most of the population has heard of – but when we actually look in the gospels, today’s reading is almost all we get. Joseph is the earthly father of the Son of God, and yet we don’t hear one word he said.
I used to tell the kids that the gospel writers included things that say something important about God. So perhaps we should look at what we do hear about Joseph, and what might we learn from it.
Well we first come across him receiving a dreadful shock. The girl he’s about to marry is having someone else’s baby…devastating, and a terrible source of shame. But he doesn’t react how we might expect – he doesn’t expose Mary to public disgrace, even to salvage his honour.
Instead he decides to divorce her quietly. He knows it’ll be even worse for Mary – and he’s willing to spare her as much as possible. Joseph – a man for whom compassion is more important than either revenge or his own position.
We also learn that Joseph was a thoughtful man. The Good News translation says ‘while he was thinking about divorcing her quietly’, an angel of the Lord spoke to him. While he was thinking about it…Joseph an Advent Saint – willing to pause for a while, willing to wait.
And that pause gave God the chance to speak to him. Which was vital, because he had huge adjustments to make. Mary finding someone else would be sad – but not unheard of – but a child from the Holy Spirit…that turns all his plans on their head. I guess he dreamed of having a son…who would join him in the family business, take over in time. However little he understood the angel’s message– he must have realised that the future wasn’t going to be how he’d imagined it.
But by pausing, and letting God in, he saw there might be a larger story. He saw Mary’s side of the story – and had the imagination to see that his challenge might be just a small part of God’s enormous story. Joseph…an Advent saint…looking forward in the expectation that God might act.
I think Joseph is very much a Saint for our times. It’s not been very comfortable being British lately. In a nation that prides itself on tolerance and fairness, Brexit has shown how racism and prejudice often lurk under the surface. We seem to have forgotten that we can disagree and still respect one another.
In the recent election campaign, many of those who hoped to govern the country used personal slurs and downright lies to discredit their opponents. For lots of people voting was a negative thing, voting against a particular prime minister or governing party, choosing the least worse option.
Last week’s election result saw some jubilant and others despairing and genuinely fearful for the future. Whatever our political beliefs…as Christians we’ll agree that our country desperately needs healing, reconciliation, ways of coming together.
Compassion not revenge; pausing to let God in; expecting God to act…Joseph gives us a powerful example to follow however we feel about recent events.
If we always wanted to leave the European Union…and have perhaps become angry at the delay, and those who’ve caused it…we need to take seriously the fears of people who wanted desperately to remain. Our country really doesn’t need a Brexit of revenge. It needs Joseph’s example that caring for others – however we feel about what they’ve done – is more important than our reputation or what the world expects.
If last week’s results seem like a catastrophe…the end of our hopes…we need to readjust as Joseph did. We might still regret the result, but we need to be part of the bigger picture of the future of our country. We need to take seriously the hopes of people who see that future outside the European Union. We need to join the debate so there’s a chance of building a Britain for everyone.
We’re not all suddenly going to change our political views, and nor should we. There is no healthy democracy without disagreement. But we urgently need a different model of dealing with difference.
Joseph’s public reaction to difficult, perturbing news was not a knee jerk reaction – not angry, or vengeful. However he felt inside – he waited and thought before he spoke and acted…allowing God to be part of his reaction.
Britain needs people willing to do that. Most of us are not in positions of power; we aren’t going to be on national media outlets. But in a country of free speech we do have a voice.
If our local MP is not who we hoped for, we need to give him a chance, listen to him, challenge him and hold him respectfully to account.
If our government are not who we hoped for, we need to encourage our MP to listen, challenge, and hold them respectfully to account.
Joseph’s response to his life’s plans being turned upside down was to accept the change and play his part in the different future as faithfully as he could…
…I suspect Brexit won’t give anyone the exact future they hoped for and I’m not saying it’s part of God’s larger plan. But I’m pretty sure healing and reconciliation are. So I pray that with compassion, pausing to let God guide us, and looking forward in hope, we might help our country to unite and move forward.