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Sermon for Advent 4 Year A

Joseph is told about the birth of Jesus

The Reverend Charles Royden

I don’t know if you have been following the news this week. Apparently Pope Benedict has decided that the Vatican nativity scene will be set in Nazareth this year, placing Jesus in his father's carpentry shop. This will be the nativity set up in front of St Peter’s Basilica.

The report said that the Pope wanted to concentrate on the Matthew account and get rid of some of the fanciful stories which surround the nativity.

When Pope Benedict XVI inaugurates the life-size Nativity scene on Christmas eve, the sheep and hay will be gone. In their place will be a model of three rooms.

Jesus will lie in Joseph's shop, complete with "the typical work tools of a carpenter".

On one side, the shop will be flanked with a "covered patio", while on the other there will be the "inside of a pub, with its hearth".

The news came in an official statement from the State Department of the Vatican, which organises and builds the Nativity scene.

Sources close to the Vatican had said there was a desire to crack down on the various "fanciful Nativity scenes" that have sprung up in recent years. In Naples, a number of Nativity scenes include notorious figures from today, such as Elvis Presley or Silvio Berlusconi, standing amongst the crowd adoring the infant Jesus.

The new setting was inspired by two verses in St Matthew's gospel, Chapter 1:24 and 1:25, the Vatican said, which state: "When Joseph woke up, he did as the Angel of God ordered and took Mary into his house. Without them knowing each other, a child was born and he called his name Jesus".

I can quite understand that the Pope wants to get rid of fanciful stuff. The Archbishop of Canterbury was trying to do the same thing this week on the Simon Mayo show in an interview with Ricky Gervais. But the Archbishop was just trying to remain faithful tot eh Biblical account. He pointed out theat the Bible doesn’t mention three wise men, snow or animals at the crib scene.

But I am not sure why the Pope wants the nativity scene in Nazareth, even the Gospel of Matthew is quite clear that the birth took place in Bethlehem. After Bethlehem the couple then fled to Egypt and then they would have returned to Nazareth.

This all seems to have attracted very little attention compared to the poor old Archbishop of Canterbury who was hauled over the coals by the tabloids.
There you have it, the Pope can get away with it, if he says the baby was born wherever then I suppose that it is OK because of papal infallibility.

Then we had news this week that Tony Blair had become a Roman Catholic. Tony he is reported to have had some considerable difficulty coming to terms with the concept infallibility. He and Cherie were said to be loggerheads. Eventually after many hours of debate Tony agreed that she was infallible after all. (joke)

The nativity stories do raise major issues for many Christians. Sadly each year we get caught up in the debate trying to explain Christmas rather than just enjoying it and being thrilled by the wonder of it all.

We have human stories which are trying to explain that in the little family of Joseph and Mary, God was doing a wonderful thing. Was the birth of Jesus a miracle, yes of course, but the birth of every child is a miracle. They might also be a right nuisance, they might be a massive inconvenience, but they are undoubtedly miracles. Virgin birth is an even bigger nuisance because it is something we have even less understanding about. We just have to put it in the pile marked ‘don’t know’

The point of Christmas is that it is about things which defy explanation, it is about amazing things happening, out of this world events. Dreams and angels and babies being born. Each one of us believes that the miracle of this particular birth was not only that a child was born, but that in that child God was doing something quite special.

Joseph is a fine example to us. His world is turned upside down. He believes his wife Mary is unfaithful, but nevertheless he determines to be kind to her. He is forgiving and understanding, even though he believes that she has committed adultery with another man.

Then when he is minded to divorce her quietly, he believes that God is telling him to take her as his wife. Joseph is an ordinary man, he has all the usual worries of coping with life and his betrothed wife is pregnant. His life is turned upside down. It is at this time of crisis that he is led to believe, and I leave it as vague as that, because he receives this reassuring message in a dream. Yet somehow he is led to believe, that all will be alright.

Joseph had very little reason to be happy at that first Christmas. His wife could be thought to have betrayed him, he had to travel to Bethlehem and then flee a mad king. Yet because of his faith he is able to bring great good out of the difficulty of the situation.

This Christmas, can we dare to try and be like Joseph? To look whatever chaos or difficulties comes along straight in the face and still be trusting in God that good will come out of it? Joseph had very little to go on. He was probably surrounded by people who told him to get rid of Mary, that no good could come out of a woman like that. Yet his faith enabled him to see that God comes to us at times when we least expect it and in ways that we least expect.

All around us, every day of our lives we will hear the words of people who see doom and gloom and speak words of hopelessness. We Christians must be better than that, we have been assured of the future by God himself. Because we are people who believe in the future, therefore we can live better today. We can see the beginnings of a new life right now, in the face of bay born in Bethlehem, (not Nazareth).