The Marmite Church

Sunday 22nd December 2019
The Forth Sunday of Advent
Holy Trinity, Hurstpierpoint
Parish Eucharist
Isaiah 7.1-16
Matthew 1.18-25

After the Crucifixion, the most painted Biblical scene in the Renaissance is the Annunciation described in the Gospel of Luke, asking questions about the nature of obedience, particularly female obedience. Matthew's Gospel, on the other hand, concentrates on the obedience of Joseph, a nominated parent in the most difficult of circumstances. Our account glosses over the terror and the treachery, the screaming and the scandal. As many Nativity parodies put it when Mary tells the family of Joseph that she is pregnant by the Holy Spirit the puzzled but angry response is "pull the other one" but these parodies rest heavily on the Lucan account where Mary breaks the news to Joseph but in Matthew Mary is totally silent and an angel breaks the news to Joseph who might, possibly, be left to break the news to Mary.

But whichever way we  look at it, the stand-out feature of both accounts is obedience a word largely invoked in our culture by the old with reference to the young, the powerful with reference to the powerless and the rich with reference to the poor which, in the last two cases sheds new light on Mary's Magnificat where she is invoking obedience to God as the primary motive for advancing the cause of the powerless and the poor; and this also sheds a powerful light on the notion of obedience to God which is by no  means the same as human obedience based  on age, power or money.

But far from being different from each other, the accounts of the conception of Jesus by Luke and Matthew are simply two different ways of telling the same story. Whereas Luke concentrates on the person and position of Mary, based squarely on the Song of Anna in 1 Samuel, Matthew concentrates on the contrast between the humbly obedient Joseph and the arrogantly self-willed Herod; in other words, we have the lyrically abstract Luke contrasted with the stark, concrete Matthew. Whereas Mary in Luke is speaking in general terms about the rich and powerful, Joseph is confronting the particular, concrete nastiness of Herod.

And here is the crux of the matter: we are, naturally, much better at affirming abstract principles than handling concrete situations. A new wave of social research has shown that, far from sullenly collaborating with the Nazis as the result of intimidation, most Germans were more than content to support Hitler's regime until the back end of 1943. France was scarcely better, Russia turned out to be worse and the English upper class was not immune from the blandishments of Oswald Mosley. That history illustrates in stark terms the difference between affirming obedience to God in the abstract and obedience to God in the concrete which is why the story of Mary and Joseph is so remarkable.

"Ah!" We may say, but they had angels on their side to which the proper reply is that we have Jesus on ours and if we cannot take courage from that, then we are in trouble. For, whereas Mary and Joseph were operating under the command of a quintessentially abstract God, we are operating under the command of an arrestingly concrete Jesus: we know what he said and what he did and, through 2000 years of prayer and scholarship, we know what obedience means and what it requires.

Put simply, obedience is service in the cause of love which will, unless we are extremely lucky, involve sacrifice, which largely explains why Western Christianity is in crisis; seduced by ever greater material well-being we have opted for a version of Christianity which does not require sacrifice although we are always happy to make generous gestures. But, it seems to me, as we face our own crisis of comfort, that we are about to be confronted by three other major crises: the crisis of the ever greater accumulation of power and wealth in ever fewer hands; the negative side of global media making it ever more difficult to separate truth from lies; and the ever more severe encroachment of climate change. And it is in the context of these secular crises that we should view our own Christian crisis. What is required of us, we should ask, in obedience to the teaching and example of Jesus? What does obedience mean in the concrete, rather than in the abstract, always bearing in mind that the broader the smile, the more likely there is a Herod behind it.

I want to suggest three things which we might want to do as we approach the New Year: First, we need to take steps to be more grounded Christians by organising our Bible reading and our study. The cynical world outside is not going to be convinced by a bunch of Christian apprentices. Secondly, as we proceed to understand the Bible and our Christian tradition better, we need to integrate that with the secular crises which confront us; Christianity, as Jesus demonstrated, is a profoundly public religion. There are times for meditation but there are also times for action. Thirdly, on the basis of more regular prayer and study of Jesus and the secular, we should be in a better position to convert abstract assent into concrete action and that, I suggest, is the only route by which we will be able to advance the cause of Jesus which we surely wish to do. For the very world which we describe as indifferent, selfish, cynical, or whatever derogatory adjective we wish to choose is, because of those very vices, alive to the insincerity it practises; for all its vices, the world of social media has remarkably sensitive antenna when it comes to authenticity. Our protestations will amount to nothing if they are shallow and abstract; the only thing which will convince our reluctant world is action that is robust and concrete. We will have to stop being fudge and be salt instead or, perhaps more contemporaneously, we might have to stop being the fudge church and be the Marmite Church instead.