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Title: “The Alternative Annunciation.”
Preacher: Canon Victoria Johnson, Precentor
Date: Fourth Sunday of Advent 18.12.22 4pm
Readings: Isaiah 7. 10–16, Romans 1. 1–7, Matthew 1. 18–end
And they shall name him Emmanuel, which means, ‘God is with us.’
In the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Almost three thousand years ago, a prophet called Isaiah came before King Ahaz. King Ahaz of Judah was in trouble, in the midst of a foreign policy crisis he had nowhere to turn. Isaiah told the king that God would give him a sign.
‘Look’ said Isaiah, gazing into the future, ‘a young woman is with child and shall bear a son and his name will be Emmanuel – which means God is with us.’
King Ahaz looked for the sign, and so did generations after him: kings, princes, ordinary men and women, they all looked for the sign that God was with us. The whole earth was waiting, spent and restless looking for the one who was to come. Waiting for Emmanuel.
About eight hundred years later, we meet Joseph. According to Matthew’s Gospel, Joseph was a descendent of Ahaz the King, of the house of David, a branch of Jesse’s line. But Joseph’s life seemed a long way from royalty. He was a quiet man, we never hear his voice in scripture- he worked with wood and was respected in the village for his devotion to the law of Moses.
Imagine him nearing home at the end of the day, seeing Mary sitting outside. They were soon to be married. But then imagine how his face must have dropped when she told him her news. We don’t know what was said but we can assume that Joseph found himself in the midst of his own personal crisis. Like his forbear Ahaz, he had nowhere to turn. He too, needed a sign.
He eventually decided to walk away from the shame and bury his grief for all that he had lost, and as Matthew records, he planned to dismiss Mary quietly. Little did Joseph know that he was in the midst of the very sign that everyone was hoping for.
In a dream, a voice spoke clearly to him: ‘Joseph, Do not be afraid! This baby is from God, this is the baby of whom Isaiah spoke, and you are to name him Jesus, which means ‘the one who will save’. The world needs this child more than you can ever know. This child is the sign the world has been waiting for.’
From the moment of this alternative annunciation, God would be with everyone in their joys and in their sorrows too. God would hear the secrets of the human heart, the prayers uttered from doubtful lips, God would walk with his children on their life’s journey from first breath to last. God would be with the raging, the abandoned, the lost. God would whisper to the grieving and comfort the distressed. God would be the morning light and evening star. God would send a bright beam of light on the dark places of this world and anyone who felt imprisoned by fear, or loneliness, shame or sadness would be set free all because of this baby, the one who will save.
The incarnation of God, was not neat and tidy, God didn’t enter into a perfect world, and though it was prophesied it was not predictable. God did not work through the usual channels of power and privilege but embraced the very ordinary struggles of what it is to be human. The cosmic miracle, of God coming to us, was to be made real through the faith and courage of a young woman called Mary, and through her, God became part of Joseph’s life when he was least expecting it, just when his own world being turned upside down- I suppose that’s the same for all of us.
We may experience many unexpected annunciations, signs and moments of clarity and vision but these moments do not always align to the times when everything is going well. God didn’t come to confirm us in our comfortableness or reward us for our achievements, God didn’t choose the usual or the expected conventions, God comes to us all and shows us through love that we all belong to Jesus Christ, whoever we are, wherever we are on life’s journey.
Where is God this week? Presumably God is at all those carol services and Christmas celebrations and in all those glitterball moments, but I know God is there with the refugees, in the queues for the foodbanks, in the communities mourning children fallen through ice, in asylum processing centres, in the war zones, on the picket lines and with those waiting for a diagnosis, with those who put their last pence into an electricity meter, with those in the midst of impossible decisions who feel like their world is crumbling around them. This is where God is.
In a poem by Malcolm Guite, chosen by His Majesty, the King for a carol service in Westminster Abbey this week, we are reminded of where God is:
We think of him as safe beneath the steeple,
Or cosy in a crib beside the font,
But he is with a million displaced people
On the long road of weariness and want.
(From The Refugee, Malcolm Guite)
When we least expect it, God comes to us, not always in an obvious way, but kind of like a surprise, a piece of unexpected news, a sign, that we have unknowingly been waiting for. God is there in the doubts, in the rollercoaster moments of life, in the shocks and the sadness. When all seems lost, there is hope sitting beside us. What would Joseph say if he knew his story, told on the lips of millions of children, had become the ‘sign’, – the sign of God’s love for the world and the hope of all people? A sign still being revealed to generation after generation in a multitude of ordinary ways.
It seems that God’s strength is to be found in our weakness; God’s glory can be found in the scars of hands which have been nailed to a cross, the power of God’s love is to be found in the risks that are taken with it, and the gift of God’s truth can sometimes be found in the shadows and the unspoken stories of our lives and what happens between the lines. The annunciation was not only Mary’s story. As we have heard recorded in Matthew’s Gospel, it was Joseph’s story too. And, surely it is ours. God is waiting to be born in us today, can we say ‘yes’ as they did, and make him welcome?
We still wait for the day when the sign given two thousand years ago will come to fulfilment, when the Lord will come again to draw all things to himself, and complete what has already been begun through the birth of a baby, the one who will save, the one they called Emmanuel, God is with us.
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