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Homilies by Rev. Andrew Collis unless indicated otherwise.

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Advent 4, Year A
South Sydney Uniting Church
December 22, 2013

Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

Capable of good deeds’

Isaiah's prophecy has to do with a "young woman" who will give birth to a child, Immanu-El. The name means "God with us" - in a complex and qualified sense. It can also mean "God against us" (wisdom requires discernment). The prophecy is not simple or simply positive. It also has to do with the political and cultural ascendancy of Assyria over Israel and Judah. Still, the child is to be a sign - and the sign will entail refusing evil and choosing good. Matthew connects this prophecy with the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem of Judea (another fraught cultural and political situation). This child is born to Mary of the Holy Spirit. He will bring salvation, wholeness, freedom. He will refuse evil and choose good. He will inspire the refusal of evil and the choosing of good. Good/God be with you ...

Today's Gospel is about the Sign and Son of God. Matthew gives us this sign by way of Joseph. By way of Joseph's dilemma and dream.

We are not given a lot on Joseph, just a few verses. But there's a lot here that's implied. We get a real sense of Joseph's character from these verses about Joseph's faithfulness/uprightness - his love of God and the Law, his love of the Holy Spirit, his love of Mary, his openness to Love and to angels/messengers of Love.

Ambiguities abound with respect to Matthew's account of Jesus' birth. It is legendary and mythic. This shouldn't distract from the theology in play. Ambiguity is part of the story.

We are given a scene of some danger, considerable risk - to Mary and to Joseph and to the child. What is it that Joseph discerns? He discerns the loving thing to do. He refuses evil - in this case the exposure of Mary and Jesus to disgrace and harm. He chooses good - in this case the protection and elevation of Mary and Jesus.

It's an ordinary story in that each of us is given opportunity to refuse evil and to choose good - every day. It's an extraordinary story in that Joseph's decision is the decision of a lifetime. There is extraordinary risk all round. Love involves engagement with scripture and tradition as well as a certain reading against the grain, a willingness to resist the letter of the law for the sake of compassion and grace. Love means believing this angel, here and now, even the one who speaks to me when I am unconscious. Love means discerning holiness amid the spirits of oppression and destruction.

And salvation - "of the people" - depends on this loving discernment and action!

During the week I wrote a fourth verse to a song in progress. It strikes me that the verse describes Joseph's experience of love - with respect to Mary and with respect to God.

"You bet me capable of good deeds" - so we might imagine the trust shown by Mary, the trust that God shows, too. And Joseph experiences, by grace, his own trustworthiness: "I proved it true, following your leads." Love entrusts and love makes trustworthy - to the extent, we might add, that grace leads.

And love brings self-awareness and compassion for others (Jesus can mean "Salvation", "YHWH Saves" or "YHWH Makes Room", "YHWH Makes Space" - Julian of Norwich, of whom more on Christmas Day, envisioned God as "a great refuge, long and wide and all full of endless heavens"). "I know what I need, same as everybody needs."

The fourth verse could also describe the experience of Jesus. It is through his Abba Joseph that the child comes to know his capacities for good and the love of Abba God. Does Joseph not "lead" Jesus in the way of prayer and goodness? Is Joseph's example of fatherly love not a likely inspiration for Jesus the teacher of parables? Is Joseph's example of fatherly guidance not a worthy model for all who would protect, nurture, teach, entrust and help to make trustworthy?

Conversely, is there not something of Joseph in many that offer protection and nurture - is there not something of Joseph in many from whom we have learned life skills, wisdom, sensitivity, compassion, morality, integrity, uprightness/faithfulness? Perhaps we have overlooked someone who has played a Josephite role in our lives?

Salvation depends on the loving discernment and action of all those whom God trusts - on all whom God bets "capable of good deeds".

The first three verses of my song can be assigned to weeks one to three in Advent. The first verse is about hope - the movement from anxiety to anticipation of the Christ (decorating the Christmas Tree).

The second verse is about peace - playing a (small) part in a drama of grace and salvation, despite commercial and crass material realities.

The third verse is about joy - in the face of a stranger, in responses to good gifts, food and drink, the inexpressible mysteries, and so on.

All of this comes as a surprise. I didn't intend to write a song for Advent (this homily is a making conscious of something unconsciously given/made).

And then I read this from Michael Leunig, a cartoonist with a penchant for angels: "For contemporary urban people, there's a certain unexpressed revulsion and fear at the speed of change and growth of pressure and ugliness and menace ... They are looking for freedom from what oppresses them, and modern materialistic life has become something of a monster for many people, whether debt or fear of what is to become of their children. It's a sense you are on your own, there's nothing to catch you when you fall, and no one will care" (News Review, SMH, 21/12/13).

If that's so, then the promise of hope, peace, joy and love is the promise of salvation from fearful loneliness. Hope, peace, joy and love - these are God's responses to our cries for help. God gives by way of solitude, by way of creativity, by way of scripture and tradition, by way of angels and dreams, and by way of faithful others - companions, protectors, teachers, lovers. There is hope, peace, joy and love. "And I'm not lonely, not lonely anymore."

With Alison's help I will play the song now. In the silence that follows, I invite you to think about today's Gospel. What is most surprising to you about the story of Joseph? Why do you think God chose to "risk" this way of coming among us? Does Joseph remind you of someone you know? ... Amen.

Not Lonely

The Concept of Anxiety
A book my older brother gave to me
I cut it up to decorate the Christmas Tree
I'm not lonely, not lonely anymore

Practising the contemplative art
When I play the harmonium part
I'm walking through a crowded supermarket
I'm not lonely, not lonely anymore

I nibble at the edges, I chew it well
I savour the flavours no tongue can tell
A stranger brings me a drink, gives me no trouble
I'm not lonely, not lonely anymore

You bet me capable of good deeds
I proved it true, following your leads
I know what I need, same as everybody needs
I'm not lonely, not lonely anymore