Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 22 December 2019.
• Old Testament: Isaiah 7: 10-16 (The young woman … shall bear a son, Emmanuel)
• Epistle: Romans 1: 1-7 (Paul’s calling to the gospel of Jesus Christ)
• Gospel: Matthew 1: 18-25 ( Joseph’s story: Mary found to be pregnant)
There is one thing that we will always keep – our names. Governments may prefer the convenience of giving us numbers and we all have plenty of those. And that is before we even start working out how many account numbers we may have to manage.
But our name is always with us – unless of course, God chooses to change it: Sarai became Sarah and Abram became Abraham. Simon was renamed Peter and James and John were nicknamed ‘Boanerges’ or Sons of Thunder.
But in Isaiah the name of Jesus was also set out – not so much what He would be called but what He would be. This was the promise that God would no longer be far away but immediate with His people, living among them, even flesh and blood.
And so the name of Jesus – Emmanuel said many things. It told of His descent from David and would be anointed for the work He was called to. He would be filled with the Holy Spirit and endued with the power to heal, to forgive, to cleanse from leprosy and to raise the dead. He also would die and would be the first of the resurrection from the dead.
Yet our lessons also speak of people being called by God: the young woman, Joseph, Paul.
In Isaiah the young woman would be called to a new area of personal life and service. As a young woman, we would see her as unmarried, and hence a virgin. What else would we expect during those times, before contraception and routine relations before marriage?
Then there was Joseph, devout and serious, already engaged to Mary and yet horrified by her unexplained – or at any rate, unbelieved – pregnancy. What to do? He would be a joke if he stayed in the betrothal, and yet to dismiss Mary publicly would be a permanent and possibly irrecoverable threat to her life and reputation.
She may be at risk of stoning and the baby she carried was already at risk. And yet Joseph would respond to dreams and would discern those arising from a good night out and those in which God was speaking to him.
And Joseph was first called by name. He had a personal standing in the sight of God and then he was reassured that Mary’s condition was indeed of the Holy Spirit, so he should not hesitate to continue the betrothal.
The child would be born and was to be called Jesus. Saviour. The One to save humanity from the most destructive impulses they could contrive and to save and purify not just their actions but their thoughts and ambitions, their motivations and their innermost and most intimate impulses. This is where salvation would begin.
Then there was Paul, called to be an apostle, out of time. Not one of the original disciples but called nonetheless. Called as a mature man of learning to dedicate his life, his status, his learning and his intellect to the service of God.
A life of risk and deprivation, of rejection and abuse. But Paul was also called to the service of God in Jesus Christ.
And so our lessons are all about vocation: to be mother, father, and apostle.
In all these situations, none of these people volunteered their services – all were called into them.
God knew each and called each.
It reminds us of Jesus’ words to His disciples shortly before His death. ‘You did not choose Me, I chose you.’ It was His initiative, His ministry, His empowerment, His glory.
And that is what vocation is all about.