St Francis, Terriers - Advent 4 (18.12.2016)

Tony Dickinson

What links an exasperated prophet eight hundred years before the birth of Christ, a much-travelled letter-writer on his way to Rome half a century after that birth, a priest of the Church of England dying in London in March 1791 and us, marking the fourth Sunday of Advent?

Let’s begin with that much-travelled letter-writer: St Paul, as you probably guessed, laying out his credentials for the Christian communities of Rome as someone “called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God”. For us, the word “gospel” has a religious, specifically a Christian, connotation, but it translates a Greek word, “ευαγγελιον”, which was anything but religious. It simply meant “good news” – and in the Mediterranean world of the first century, “good news” was usually political. It might be an announcement about taxation, or the latest victory of the Roman legions. Very often it was the latest slogan from the imperial spin machine, something as content-free as “Brexit means Brexit.”

For Paul, the “gospel of God”, the news concerning Jesus Christ, was unambiguously good. As he spells out in the rest of his letter to Rome, the good news is that in Jesus God is fulfilling his promises; God is welcoming non-Jews into his kingdom: “all God’s beloved in Rome” are called to be saints, irrespective of faith tradition, ethnic origin, gender and skin colour.

But what is the “good news” for Joseph? “Your fiancée is pregnant and the child she is carrying isn’t yours”. Not a message to send most men dancing down the street. And what about King Hezekiah? “Stop behaving like a rabbit caught in the headlights of an Aramaean war-chariot”.

For Joseph the news of Mary’s pregnancy opens up all sorts of possibilities, none of them “good news” as we would understand it. There’s the option of a legally sanctioned “honour killing”. Death by stoning was the punishment Moses laid down for adultery. There’s Joseph’s own preferred option, a quiet divorce – but that doesn’t offer much of a future for either Mary or her child. Both would be outcasts from the community. And there’s the angel’s advice: marry her and hang the consequences.

What those consequences might be were imagined brilliantly by Tony Jordan in his four-part series “The Nativity”, first broadcast six years ago, and being repeated on BBC1 each afternoon from tomorrow until Thursday. Have you ever wondered (spoiler alert!) just why there was “no room at the inn” when Joseph and Mary went to Bethlehem to be registered for the poll tax? Why would none of Joseph’s extended family there give them house-room? It was “her”, dragging the family name in the mud – and today’s readings from both Matthew and Paul remind us that “the family name” is one to be taken very seriously, because “the family” is a branch of Judah’s royal family. Joseph is a descendant of the great King David, the man who turned a loose tribal confederation into a significant regional power.

Where’s the gospel, the good news, in that messy story?

The good news is that God is prepared to play fast and loose with the rules (his own included). Hezekiah doesn’t have to curl up and die in front of the combined military might of Aram and Israel. Before the pregnant princess has weaned the child to whom she is about to give birth their threat will have evaporated. Paul, writing to the Christians of Rome is not just writing to people of Jewish descent. Those who are “called to be saints”, holy, “different”, come from all the races of the Roman empire – and beyond – as Paul notes when he reminds his readers that he has “received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of [Jesus’] name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ”. That “yourselves”, incidentally, includes “ourselves”, Gentiles from the furthest corner of the empire.

Even for Joseph there is good news. It comes in God’s fulfilment of his promises. In Matthew’s telling of the story, he picks up a detail from that long-ago promise to Hezekiah. “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.” Emmanuel, a name made up of three little words of Hebrew: “’imm”, meaning “with”; “anu” meaning “us” and “El” meaning “God”. This child of dubious parentage is “God with us”, “with us” from the womb to the tomb, “with us” revealing God’s boundless, unconditional love.

It has been wisely said that Jesus did not come to change God’s mind about us, but to change our mind about God. In Jesus “God is with us”, now, in these politically turbulent times, as he was with King Hezekiah. “God is with us”, now, domestically, in our family troubles, as he was with Joseph and Mary. “God is with us”, personally, in our hopelessness, our awareness of failure and inadequacy, just as he is in our times of hopefulness and joy.

OK, you may be thinking. We’ve linked the exasperated prophet, the much-travelled letter-writer, and us. What about that dying priest?

At the end of February 1791, John Wesley was taken ill as he returned home from a visit to friends in Balham. Within a couple of days it became clear to his household and friends that he was dying. As his strength failed, he asked those who were gathered around his bed to pray and to praise God. Betsy Ritchie, a close companion during the last two months of Wesley’s life, was one of those present, and left a detailed account of his final hours.

After five days, Wesley’s voice had become weaker and his speech barely audible. ‘Though he strove to speak’, Betsy Ritchie wrote, ‘we were… unsuccessful [in interpreting his meaning]: finding we could not understand what he said, he paused a little, and then with all the remaining strength he had, cried out “The best of all is, God is with us”; – and then, as if to assert the faithfulness of our promise-keeping Jehovah, and comfort the hearts of his weeping friends, lifting up his dying arms in token of victory, and raising his feeble voice with a holy triumph not to be expressed, again repeated the heart-reviving words, “The best of all is, God is with us!”’

John Wesley was right. He is right. “The best of all is, God is with us!” God is with us in our private and public worlds, in our birth, our living, our dying, and beyond. That is the truth that links us to John Wesley and King Hezekiah, Joseph the carpenter and Paul the apostle. May that truth be revealed in all our celebrations, at home and in this church building, during the coming days and throughout the Christmas season. And now to God the Father, who first loved us…