A Sermon from Sherborne

Dreams and Obedience

From the beginning of the Christmas story dreams have featured very regularly. Now I am someone who very rarely remembers their dreams but for our Holy Family they were God’s way of communicating his message in a profound way. And today is no different; today we have in fact three dreams or three occasions to obey and three geographic locations to describe how prophecies about the Messiah are fulfilled in the birth of Jesus.  Today’s reading picks up the tale where we left off on Christmas Eve.  The Magi have been to pay homage to a king.  They have forgotten the misleading information of Herod and in their own vison have been warned to return home by a different way than they came, and they follow this advice.

Today though our reading does not centre on the Magi that is for next Sunday when we celebrate Epiphany; today Joseph takes centre stage; today Joseph has to step up to the mark; today we find out why God chose him to be the earthly father of Jesus.

We could talk about the obvious parallels in Matthew’s Gospel with Old Testament writings.  We could consider how Joseph’s flight into Egypt recalls another Joseph, back in Genesis, who went to Egypt against his will, but who became Pharaoh’s right-hand man and made it possible for the nation of Israel to survive, grow, and thrive, even under the hardship of slavery.  Matthew reminds us of the story of the baby Moses, hidden in the bulrushes to protect him from Pharaoh’s slaughter of newborn Hebrew boys in Egypt.  It is clear that Matthew draws a connection between the return of Moses to Egypt after Pharaoh’s death, and Joseph’s sudden return when he learns through a dream that Herod is dead.  The young family’s trip back home to Israel reminds us of the journey Moses led through the wilderness, as the Israelites escaped their captivity in Egypt and headed toward the Promised Land.  Matthew connects the story of Jesus’ early travels to God’s call, protection, and provision for his people throughout history.  It’s a powerful connection.  And there are certainly strong connections between Jesus the Refugee and the plight of refugees throughout the world right now.  Refugees who have been displaced by politics, war, and poverty struggle with the same fears and anxiety that Joseph and Mary must have experienced, as they did whatever they could to protect the young child, Jesus.

But nagging in the back of my mind, and perhaps in the back of yours, is the horror of what happens back in Bethlehem. While it’s important to see how the greater story of God’s activity among his people is connected to, and completed in, the story of Jesus, we cannot ignore those middle verses, the ones that speak of an unspeakable tragedy.

The question has been bothering us since the beginning of human history:  How can a just and loving God allow evil to exist?  How can God let innocent people suffer, while evil people thrive and prosper?   Philosophers and theologians have struggled with this question for generations but knowing this doesn’t help when it becomes personal.  When it’s your child being put to the sword, the question is no longer hypothetical.  The pain is real, and the only question we can raise is “Why, God?”

Let’s be clear the slaughter of those children in Bethlehem was not God’s idea any more than the deaths of the children in Dunblane or any of the school shootings in the US was God’s idea.  In this case it was Herod’s.  Herod never felt his position was secure, and he was known for his paranoia and brutality.  He even had his favourite wife and some of his sons murdered when he suspected them of treachery.

God grieves for all the Herods and the Pharaohs and the murderers of innocent children. God grieves for us when we turn away from him. God grieves as only a bereft parent can grieve, but this of course is the Christmas message; Christ came to be God with Us – Immanuel.  He came to be God with us in our sorrow, God with us in our fear, God with us in our wandering, God with us; always.

There’s a little detail in this story, Joseph’s story, of which we need to notice. Every time an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream, Joseph immediately did what he was told to do.  He did not ask, as the weeping mothers of Bethlehem must have asked, “Why, God?”  He got up in the night, packed his family’s belongings, and he went where he was told to go.  Even when he was afraid, he obeyed.

Only Joseph saw the angel.  Only Joseph had the dreams.  Only Joseph knew the magnitude of his task, to protect the Messiah from the danger of Herod’s henchmen.  Just as Mary did not argue with the angel who told her she would give birth to the Saviour of the world, Joseph did not argue with the angel who said, “Go!”  He just went.  He answered God’s call with action.

God is calling us, today.  He is calling us to be a voice for peace, justice, and grace.  He is calling us to challenge the way things are in the world, to stand against evil when we see it, to be the presence of God for those who suffer violence and abuse, to let them know that God is with us, Immanuel. As we become aware of God’s constant working in our lives, we are called to participate in that work.  Whether we are sent to Egypt or Nazareth, whether we are called to feed the hungry or clothe the naked or heal the sick, whether we are tasked with comforting the bereaved or spreading hope to those who have lost it, God calls us. May we, like Joseph, answer that call without hesitation, knowing that God is with us, Immanuel.  Amen.

The Reverend Lesley McCreadie 29/12/2019
The Abbey Church of St Mary the Virgin, Sherborne