The Rev. Paul Nancarrow. This sermon is based on Matthew 1:18-25.
In our collect this morning, we pray that God will “purify our consciences” with God’s “daily visitation,” so that Jesus “may find in us a mansion prepared for himself.” We pray that Jesus may come to dwell in us, that the Spirit of Christ may be embodied in us, in all the things that make our lives alive.
And our Gospel lesson this morning, going along with the collect, is all about how the Spirit of Christ comes to find a mansion, comes to be embodied, in Mary and Joseph.
I suppose that’s most obvious in Mary: after all, she is pregnant with the baby Jesus, she literally has the embodied Christ dwelling within her body. Through the process of giving birth, Mary will bring the embodiment of God’s Word into the world. So Mary shows us what it means to have in ourselves a mansion prepared for Christ’s dwelling.
But Mary isn’t the only one in the Gospel story who brings the embodiment of God’s Word into the world. Joseph also embodies God’s Word, because Joseph acts out in his person the wisdom God’s Word brings to him, Joseph embodies in his actions God’s Word for his life.
I mean, think for a minute about how Joseph must feel as this Gospel story unfolds. At the beginning of the story, Joseph is engaged to Mary – they’ve not completed their vows yet, they haven’t yet come to live together, but they are promised to each other. And then Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant. And I imagine that makes Joseph feel pretty heartbroken. As far as Joseph can tell, there’s only one reason why Mary would be pregnant, and that is that she has been unfaithful to him. Their vows aren’t even completed yet, and already, Joseph thinks, Mary is breaking them. And that means that all his hopes and his dreams, all his plans for a family, all his expectations of life with someone he loves, all of them are gone, all wiped out by a broken promise.
And it’s not just Joseph’s internal heartbreak that’s involved – there’s also the external matter of the Law. The Torah was very specific about punishment for women who were guilty of adultery: according to the Law, Joseph should accuse Mary publicly, where she would be humiliated, her shame would be exposed, and the crowd would take her out and stone her, they would throw rocks at her, until she became so bruised and battered and bloodied that she died. And for all his own heartbreak, Joseph doesn’t want to do that to Mary, Joseph still loves Mary, Joseph doesn’t want to expose her to that kind of humiliation and danger and death. So he decides to end their relationship quietly; he decides to break off the engagement, and to send her back to her family, and to dissolve all the promises between them, discretely and without making a public fuss.
And that is when the Angel of the Lord comes to him in a dream and says, “Joseph, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child that is within her is not the result of a broken promise, but the child is the fulfillment of a promise. This child is not the transgression of God’s Word but the embodiment of God’s Word. This child Jesus will save you from your sins, and fill your life with the love of God.” The angel says that if Joseph will trust in the promise of the birth of Jesus, then Joseph also will know God-with-him, God transforming Joseph’s sorrow into joy, Joseph’s hurt into healing, Joseph’s confusion into knowledge of the love of the Lord. What Joseph must do is act on that promise, and embody in his own life the part in the story that God has given him to play.
And Joseph does. He does trust in the promise, and he does embody the word, and he does take Mary as his wife, and the child is born, and they do name him Jesus – and the rest of the story we know.
So in this Gospel story, both Mary and Joseph provide the Christ, provide the Word of God, with a mansion, a dwelling-place, prepared for himself. Both of them embody God’s Word, in the way they accept God’s calling, and believe in God’s promises, and live out God’s love in the connections of their lives.
And the Good News for us today is that we also can embody God’s Word, we also can prepare a mansion in ourselves where Christ can dwell, we also can respond to God’s calling and act out in our lives the Good News of God’s love for all.
One of the ways we can do that is in prayer, in the ways we intentionally slow down a little, and open up our hearts, and pay attention to God’s Word speaking to us in the movements of our everyday lives.
Here is a very simple kind of praying you can do in the middle of doing something else. When you are out in a public place, when you are in a spot where people are moving around – maybe last-minute Christmas shopping, maybe running to the grocery store to get some things for Christmas Eve dinner, maybe just walking down the street with the Christmas shops and the Christmas decorations – when you are out, just look at the people around you. Pause for a moment and really observe the persons moving around.
And imagine that Jesus is there right next to you, and you and Jesus are talking about the people you see going by. Imagine how Jesus might be observing them.
“You see that woman over there? – she looks kind of tired and hectic, doesn’t she? Let’s pray for her that she’ll find some peace in the midst of her holiday.”
“Look at the smile on that child! – isn’t that the best smile you’ve ever seen? Let’s pray in thanksgiving for that child’s joy.”
“There’s someone over there who is yelling about something. They sound really angry. Let’s pray for release from anger and a resolution for whatever it is that’s caused a problem.”
“Look at those two. I wonder if this is their first Christmas together. Do you see how much in love they are? Let’s pray for them that they will never forget what it means to be in love.”
It’s a very simple kind of praying. But if you do it for a little while, and kind of let it sink in, you will notice two things happening.
First, you will start to look at people differently. You will start to see them through the eyes of intercession. You will discover that intercessory prayer is not just a matter of saying certain words or listing names in church, but is a movement of your heart toward the well-being of your neighbors. You will find that kind of praying is not just something reserved for the Prayer Book or the liturgy, but is something you can do any moment, any time.
And second, you will find the voice of Jesus getting easier and easier for your imagination to hear. At first it may seem awkward, imagining Jesus standing there, talking to you about the things you see. At first you may wonder if that’s just a kind of fantasy or wish-fulfillment. But if you listen – at least in my experience, if I really listen – then hearing Jesus gets less awkward and more spontaneous, less like fantasy and more like inspiration. It becomes more like your thoughts being the embodiment of Jesus’ thoughts, because the Spirit of Jesus indwells you, because you have provided a mansion, a dwelling place, for Jesus within you.
And that is a way all of us can embody Christ. It may not be so dramatic as an angel in a dream like Joseph’s; it may not be so physical as a kick from a baby in the womb like Mary’s; but if you will stop and listen, every moment has its word from God, every observation has a call into love or compassion or service or joy, every action has its opportunity for us to embody the presence of Christ, so that Christ may dwell in our hearts and our spirits and our minds and our deeds and our world.
So take a moment every day this week to pray that you may be a mansion where Christ may dwell. And then just see what kind of a Christmas that prepares you to celebrate and to share!