Sunday, 15 December 2013

Dreaming repentance

Matthew 1:18-25
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Normally, on this 3rd Sunday in Advent, we read about John the Baptist preparing the way of the Lord. We read about him going out into the desert and calling people to repentance.
John's message is harsh and uncompromising.
It's never a comfortable thing to hear this time of year - or any time of year.
But that's not why I've chosen to avoid it this year and read, instead, of Joseph's dream.
We've been following a theme of dreaming through Advent.
Beginning with our House of Dreams when we tiled the roof with prayers that we wanted to journey with through advent.
But, though we're not reading, today, of John the Baptist setting out his stall in the desert, our theme of dreaming nonetheless leads us to consider repentance and to re-define righteousness.
Dreams are all very well, but unless we are prepared to act on them, they remain ethereal, without substance.
When we gathered our prayers a few weeks ago, we acknowledged that all of us would be required to play our part in answering these prayers we brought, the longings of our hearts, our dreams.
What's the point in cherishing a dream if we aren't prepared to go and do something about it?
It's in the achieving of dreams that we begin the work of repentance.
Resolving to be the means by which dreams are fulfilled, by which prayer is answered, brings about the kind of turnaround of which John the Baptist spoke in the wilderness.
Repentance is not about beating ourselves up for all that we have failed to do.
It's not about regrets.
Repentance involves us taking a course of action that will make a difference to our world, to our community and to our neighbours.
Our repentance might involve us consciously setting aside more time for prayer in our daily lives.
It might involve us contributing weekly to the food parcels collection.
It might involve us taking more time to notice the people around us - here in worship and in our day to day encounters, taking the time to notice the hurt that lies behind a smile or the loneliness that wears a brave face, or even the desperation that is masked in silence,
Our repentance this morning begins in our resolving to bring the light, the hope, the peace and the love of Advent into todays world.
Our repentance begins when we resolve to find a way to bring about the peace we pray for, to feed the hungry, to shelter the homeless, to share the love of God.
The stuff of dreams - in the palm of our hands.
So we might not have read those harsh words of John the Baptist in church this morning but we are headed down the path of repentance that he bids us travel.

John the Baptist is not the focus of our musings this morning, but Joseph is.
Joseph, who plays a bit part in the Nativity.
At least, that's how it often seems.
We portray Joseph as a benign, insignificant character in the Nativity.
A character who was obedient and faithful.
And he was.
But, in portraying Joseph in such an insipid light, we totally underestimate the subversiveness of Joseph's actions in his time and culture.
It was the law that Joseph should separate himself from Mary on discovering her pregnancy.
Not only should he remove himself, according to the law, he should also publicly disgrace Mary, bringing to attention her unfaithfulness.
In choosing compassion over the law, Joseph risks bringing shame and scandal on himself.
And isn't that a foretaste of all that is to come in Jesus?
How often, through the gospels, do we see Jesus choosing the way of compassion rather than fulfilling the law?
How often do we see Jesus pronouncing forgiveness rather than condemnation?
When he touched a leper to bring healing.
When he rescued a woman about to be stoned for adultery.
When he ate with tax collectors and prostitutes.
Every time, Jesus chose the way of compassion rather than the way that the law would prescribe.
And, often, he was ridiculed and condemned for going against the law and practising love.
Joseph's actions are mirrored in the actions of Jesus as he transcends the law and brings about grace.
So, perhaps instead of seeing Joseph as having a bit part in the story, we might be more influenced this advent by his redefining faithfulness and righteousness.
We might be more influenced by the difficult choices he makes to do the will of God.
His actions wouldn't have gone unnoticed by his contemporaries.
Rather, he was prepared to endure ridicule and shame in order to demonstrate love.
It might be useful for us to ask ourselves today:
What ways might it be time for us to subvert in order to practice compassion?
What traditions or rules do we uphold that no longer serve the purposes of God?
What things do we indulge in that prevent folk from experiencing the amazing love of God?
Are there things that we do, that we have done forever, that we could let go in order to serve God better today?
Where might God be calling us to travel unfamiliar paths, ways that cause us discomfort, so that this community might know that God took on flesh for them?
And are we prepared for the hostility that might be directed our way when we reach out to those God calls us to love?

Joseph's dream, in which God revealed how prophecy would be fulfilled was the culmination of centuries of dreams of the people of God.
All through the ages, God's people dreamed of the day when God would send the Messiah to rescue God's people.
The prophets pointed to that day.
It seems that all of history was heading to the fulfilment of those dreams.
The verses in Matthew's gospel immediately before those we read today, trace Joseph's lineage right back to David.
David, to whom God made some astounding promises, promising to bless David's descendants, promising to always be with the people of God.
Here, in Joseph, a descendant of David, we see that promise coming to fruition, not just for the people of Israel, but for the whole world.
Because Joseph was faithful, because he was willing to go beyond the law of the day, redefining righteousness and compassion, the promise of God through the ages was able to be fulfilled.
And Gods son was born.
Immanuel - God with us.
And so dreams are fulfilled.
And our House of Dreams becomes a stable in which the prayers of the world are answered in the birth of a baby - God with us today.
And so, as we enter this 3rd week in Advent, our task is to make our repentance joyful.
To find ways to strengthen our resolve to journey on, making a difference in our neighbourhood and throughout the world by finding ever new ways to reveal the love of God who keeps promises.
It won't be easy.
But it's God's gift to us - to be the means by which hopes and dreams are fulfilled for all Gods people.
God's gift to us to throw off the restraint of years of tradition, to redefine repentance and righteousness, to escape the mould and, with compassion to bring light, love, hope and peace to the world.
God's gift to you and me.
Thanks be to God.

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1 comment:

Robin said...

Called to travel unfamiliar paths -- yes!