Sunday 22nd December 2019
The Forth Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Isaiah 7.10-16
Matthew 1.18-25

Contrary to sceptical opinion which seeks to pit the pronouncements of one Evangelist against another, the great glory of the Gospels is that they possess differing perspectives and priorities which means that they contain differing content expressed in distinctive styles. We would be much the poorer if we only had one authoritative Gospel or if we had more Gospels covering much the same content in much the same way.

A primary example of the benefits of plurality occurs today with Saint Matthew's account of the Incarnation, a bare bones affair whose major features are: the descent of Joseph from King David, underlying the theme of Jesus the King in Matthew; the report of the conception of Jesus by the Holy Spirit, weakened, rather than strengthened, by the supposedly supportive citation of Isaiah; and the total silence of Mary. If we only had this account there would be none of the glorious features of the same story in Luke: The Annunciation; the Magnificat; the Stable and the shepherds, to name but a few. If we had to rely on Matthew, it would be a much less picturesque Christmas, to say the least.

There is, too, quite another aspect of the contrast between the two accounts which demonstrates how different emphases are more resonant over time. What makes Matthew's account of the Incarnation specifically revolutionary, focusing heavily on the venal King Herod, is the claim that Jesus the King was more powerful and more important than earthly kings, a statement that was to resonate during the first 3/4 of  the history of Christianity, particularly in Latin, or Western, Christianity in disputes about the relative importance of ecclesiastical and secular power, most vividly brought to life, and then brought to death, in the English context, in the story of Saint Thomas a Becket and King Henry II..

But as the salience of monarchy as part of our mental furniture has declined, the essence of the Lucan revolution has become more relevant to our concerns, for Luke's revolution was to proclaim the dignity and worth of the poor and the weak, and particularly of women. We should not allow ourselves to be carried away - Matthew showed the concern of Jesus for the poor and weak in the Sermon on the Mount and Luke is specific about the Kingship of Jesus in describing his entry into Jerusalem on what we remember as Palm Sunday - but, nonetheless, we should readily accept the differentiation in the two Gospels because this helps us to sharpen our focus.

For all kinds of reasons, then, it is probably easier for us to find emotional, and even intellectual, alignment with Luke than with Matthew because we are now accustomed to the lexicography of feminism within the wider context of social justice but in our contemporary situation where most of what pertains to justice is mediated through the state, the issue of power - as we will have learned from the most recent General Election - is critical. No matter what our political standpoint, most of us are well-nigh fed up with the exercise of political power for narrow, partisan causes, but we still find it difficult to look at power through the prism of the Kingship of Jesus, to say to ourselves that the only way that God's Kingdom will be established here on earth as it is in heaven is if we acknowledge and live out the primacy of Jesus; it is not so much that religion and politics should not mix but that the teaching and practice of Jesus should always rank above any earthly exercise of power. In other words, our Christianity should dictate our political decisions.

There is, however, another aspect of power illumined by Matthew's Gospel which should command our attention and that is the decisions which the acknowledgment of the power of Jesus the King force us to take. To look at the world from a Christian perspective is to renounce the lazy impartiality of: "A plague on both your houses", to say that politicians are: only in it for what they can get out of it; all equally unprincipled; and, most absurdly, all the same. Christians are not only supposed to be forceful, they are supposed to be thoughtful; and if we, who are steeped in Biblical engagement, supported by 2000 years of Christian tradition, refuse to take power seriously, how can we expect others to be any better.

In Matthew's day, challenging power was a dangerous affair leading, as we know, to the deaths of many martyrs, persecuted first by the Jewish Temple authorities and later by Imperial Rome. Today, I would argue, precisely the opposite situation obtains: the failure of Christians to challenge unscrupulous secular power is endangering Christianity itself; once we descend into a situation where the end justifies the means, where nobody minds liars who agree with them, then it is very difficult to get back to a situation of moral integrity; or, to put it another way, the problem of small l liberals and for Christians is that we will always be on the losing side in the world because we refuse to play dirty. That might leave us feeling that we have preserved our integrity by behaving properly but Christianity is about more than being right, it is about worship and mission, both of which are endangered by cynicism.

There is a frightening parallel between our physical deterioration and our mental deterioration; and just as there are climate change deniers there are also mental change deniers, expressed not so much in what we say as in what we do. Most of us now acknowledge climate change but are struggling to adjust our lifestyle while most of us also bemoan the state of contemporary society, politics, manners and mores without being very constructive in how to raise the profile of Jesus.

In this time when we are looking to a period of Church Growth, we need to start with an emphasis on putting the teachings and actions of Jesus above everything else. We end the Lord's Prayer by asserting that the Kingdom, the Power and the Glory belong to Jesus but we must turn this aspiration into social reality.