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Sermon: Cathedral Eucharist Advent 4

Sunday 22nd December 2013
Cathedral Eucharist
Isaiah 7: 10-16
Matthew 1: 18-25
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‘Who do you think you are?’ Family trees intrigue us, delight us and sometimes disappoint us. One side of our family was delighted to know that Admiral Nelson pops up in the family tree, and a little deflated to learn that they hail from ‘up North’.  The programme ‘Who do you think you are?’ has been popular precisely because we learn more about a living individual by finding what has shaped them deep down in their roots. Knowing our roots gives us an account of who we are. That applies to nations as much as individuals.

The family tree of Jesus is described by St Matthew, opening his gospel. It’s fair to say there are almost certainly gaps in it, and there are almost certainly additions to it. Nevertheless it is trying to say something very important. It tells us that our meaning and descent is not dependent on our DNA or our genetic inheritance. It tells us how Jesus is ‘the son of David and the son of Abraham’ (Matthew 1.1) and it concludes by saying, ‘so all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations’.

Jesus’ family tree is a theological statement before it is a biological statement. It’s a ‘who do you think he is?’ It contains within it, unusually for a document of its time, some women. None of them, men or women, tick the box of being highly virtuous people. All of them in some way have been compromised, or, in other words, they are deeply human.

The family tree traces those well-known names - Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Rahab, Ruth, Jesse, David, Solomon - and little known names – Aminadab, Nahshon, Asaph. It even takes in Ahaz, the one of whom our first reading spoke. And that genealogy is by way of being an overture, in which the key themes are unfolded which take us to this morning’s gospel reading, which is the verses after the genealogy, the family tree. All these names drive relentlessly on to what we have been waiting for, ‘…and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah’. (Matthew 1.16)

The genealogy of Matthew is profoundly Advent in character. It is about the coming of the Word of God, a coming for which we are called to be expectant and prepared. This coming is a cosmic event not bound by time. Christ born in history. Christ revealed in Word and Sacrament present now. Christ who will come again in glory: the Christ to whom we pray, ‘Maranatha, ‘Amen, come, Lord Jesus’. The coming Christ was not a one off, or some future event, but the Christ who comes into our lives now. The genealogy is as much about the Church today as it was about our history. We are grafted into that tree, like those who go before us, as flawed, compromised and stumbling individuals.

What transforms all this is not a superior biological inheritance but the presence of Emmanuel, God is with us. This is the decisive proclamation of the Incarnation and the Nativity. God is so totally and utterly bound up in our experience that all our life is hallowed. When we feel far from him by self-loathing, doubt or sin, by his grace and Holy Spirit he is still Emmanuel, God with us: ‘This is who I am’. In the bleakest, darkest times of bruising experiences, violence or cruelty he is still Emmanuel, God with us. In the times when we feel great, elated bloated by our own success, and cause to forget him, he is still Emmanuel, God with us.

So our salvation cannot be earned by working that little bit harder, being that little bit more holy. Our salvation is not remote because Jesus just appeared to be human and was really too divine for human flesh. Our salvation is not neutered because Jesus was simply a good moral teacher or so human that he had no divinity. Our salvation, that of the world is sheer gift, and that gift is Emmanuel.

The challenge of the life of the Christian, of the human being, is to continue to work out the implications of this gift. How is my life different given Emmanuel, and what does it look like when I attempt to erase or airbrush out Emmanuel? How can I know Emmanuel person to person?

Well this Sunday gives us a chance to explore the family tree into which we are grafted. ‘This is  who we are, the Church.’ We see the righteous, silent Joseph who speaks in actions and not words. We see the faithful, open, assenting Mary who gives her body to be Theotokos, God-Bearer, the Mother of God. And we see and know Jesus the Christ, God himself, Emmanuel, silently nestled into the womb of his mother. Christ who works deep within us to bring us to the Father, as surely as he grew deep within Mary ready to be born in time, for all time.

In the Lady Chapel of this Cathedral Church there is an icon. It is an icon of the tree of Jesse. It is a visual presentation of the family tree of Jesus. It places Christ at the centre of the icon sitting enthroned on the lap of Mary, his mother who brought him to birth, as he brought her life into being. As you stand and gaze upon the icon, you are contemplating upon your family tree. You might think you can’t see yourself in it, but when you place yourself before the gift of Emmanuel, you are there, drawn into his loving gaze.

I want to close by reading from an anonymous sixteenth century poem, which is going to be sung as our Communion Motet, and I have also placed a copy in the Lady Chapel by the icon. It has a direct and vivid message as we ponder the mystery of Emmanuel, and his blessed Mother, Mary, and his guardian Joseph.

A tender shoot hath started up from a root of grace,
as ancient seers imparted from Jesse’s holy race.
It blooms without a blight, blooms in the cold bleak winter
turning our darkness into light.
This shoot, I saith taught us, from Jesse’s root should spring.
The Virgin Mary brought us the branch of which we sing.
Our God of endless might gave her this child to save us,
thus turning darkness into light.