God is doing a new thing - so we can do the right thing
A sermon on Matthew 1:18-25 by Jill Friebel, 23 December 2007
Just when Joseph has sorted his way through this awkward and devastating situation he gets a messenger from God.   He has agonised over what to do because he wants to
do the right thing.  He is a just man and he respects and honours the law and he also loves Mary.  There is so much hurt and confusion for him mixed up in it all as well.  Joseph is depicted as “righteous”, and plans to divorce Mary but quietly thereby caring for another person’s dignity rather than strictly adhering to the Law, which demands are severe and humiliating.  
But a messenger from God appears with a startling and unexpected command of God and he obeys.    Joseph’s decision to live by the heart of the law and not its letter is stretched even further than he would have been prepared to.    God is doing a new thing, it doesn’t fit with his expectations, there hasn’t been any clue from their scriptures that this is how God would fulfil his promise to Israel, but Joseph commits himself to obey God anyway.  In a difficult moral situation, he attends to the voice of God, and he is willing to set aside his previous understanding of God’s will in favour of this word from the living and saving God.  It is the tension that continues through the New Testament “you-have-heard-that-it-was-said-but-I-say-to-you”.  
If the first two chapters of Matthew and first 3 of Luke had not been written we would not have the Christmas stories and carols.  Never has so much attention been given to something that has such little mention in the Bible.  The virgin birth, the shepherds, the wise men, the flight into Egypt, the stories we love to hear and sing about, especially if we were an angel, or a shepherd, a sheep or even lucky enough to be Mary or Joseph in the Christmas play.  They are deeply embedded in our psyche.  
Some notable doctrines of the church have evolved from the theology that comes from understanding the narratives – some that are not agreed upon by all.  Even this week the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Rowan Williams, “has described the Christmas story of the three wise men as nothing but a “legend”, and says not all followers must believe in the virgin birth of Jesus.”  The Age.   There would have been a time in my life when a statement like this from an influential church leader would have put me into a spin.  It would have cast doubts for me about his faith and just whether he really believed the bible which some will likely do.  
Now, I find myself in a similar position to him in that I too have been doubted by some family members and friends whether I really believe the Bible. Just on my holiday in Perth one told me she was worried about me because she was sure I didn’t and that she thinks I am in danger of going to hell.  So while I have some sympathy for her fear, I would also want to gently challenge her and others to read and ask hard questions about what they believe and how they come about it.  Can they describe how they make decisions in interpreting scripture or do they just believe what they have been told?  We are all in this ongoing process and struggle and at different stages of the journey and whether we realise it or not all of us are interpreting all the time.  It is just that some know we are struggling with the difficulties while others want to say, “This is what the Bible says, I believe it and that settles it.”  
During the years of my own study, questioning and struggling I discovered that the Bible isn’t flat – like the world isn’t.  God was doing a new thing in me and so “doing the right thing” was turned on its head.  What I had thought was right, especially in regard to moral issues, was not nearly as clear-cut as when I thought the Bible was flat.  Gradually “the magnitude and complexity of knowing what the Scriptures say on a particular subject and what does it mean for us today” dawned.  
The stories in question surrounding the birth of Jesus are complex and controversial and from the bit of reading I have done I personally have no difficulty in believing in the virgin birth.  But I do not fear for Rowan William’s salvation or doubt his character because he may not.  Nor do I think any the less of his biblical scholarship and greatly value much that he has written.
But what I do want to say is that GOD DID A NEW THING in my life (and is still doing new things) and thus the question keeps coming, WHAT DOES IT MEAN FOR ME TO DO THE RIGHT THING NOW in “this” situation.  What I once judged as moral or obvious now needs time and pray and study.  The Scriptures have become a living book, one where God’s Spirit keeps bringing new light and another word.  
We as Baptists are know “as people of the word” but there is a danger that it could mean a word that it is stuck in a certain cultural form that has little relevance with what the living word means today.  It avoids the question of what does in mean for me or for the church community now.  In the past slavery was supported from what Paul said, just the same as women’s ministry and same sex loving couples still have Paul used against them.  But the reality is that it is not nearly so clear and defined – and the radical work of Jesus continues to bring us to new ways of seeing.  This is one of the reasons why I appreciate our community here at South Yarra.  I believe we are attempting to be people of the word, attempting to be open to being challenged about what it means today.
So Joseph stands, at the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, as a model of what Matthew hopes for all disciples. He writes from such a church.  As Jewish Christians who had always reverenced the Law, they sometimes found themselves torn between strict adherence to the letter of the Torah and the supreme demand of love to which their new faith called them.  If they neglected the Law, they were accused by others, and perhaps by themselves, of rejecting Bible and tradition as the “unrighteous.”   But Joseph is pictured as “righteous” in a way that respects both the Law of the Bible and the Christian orientation to love, even if it seems to violate the Law.  Matthew doesn’t explain how this can be done, but the first story has made contact with a live issue in Matthew’s church and ours.  
I have only just realised there was a niggling doubt within me which I hadn’t put into words until recently that maybe I don’t really believe the bible any more.  But having spent time reflecting and praying I know I do, and I hang onto it as though my life depends on it.  I believe in it as much as anyone. But we have to be like miners and not Sunday afternoon strollers.  If we stay on the surface it looks flat.  But if you get a pick and shovel and start digging, you find another world you didn’t know existed.  Or get into the shafts of some of the scholars who have gone a long way down and have a look around and you will find diamonds and jewels that change your world.     We just don’t always have to agree on each other’s interpretation, but we need to be doing searching and interpreting.
It’s hard to give up the simplicity of thinking that every word in the Bible is the last word, no matter how tied it was to its own time and history.  When I think of how hard it is, I remember that line from the Tom Hanks character, the team manager, in the movie A League of Our Own.  When one of his players tells him that playing baseball is too hard, he responds to her, “Its’ baseball.  It’s supposed to be hard.  If it weren’t hard, then everyone would do it.”
Matthew narrates his gospel looking back from the resurrection.  God has done an new thing, the powerful, mysterious presence of the God of Israel, the creator God, bringing Israel’s story to its climax by doing a new thing, bringing the story of creation to its height by a new creation from the womb of the old. Whether the details of the birth story happened exactly as we know them or not it, doesn’t change what it means.  
What new thing does God want to do in you?  What is God wanting to bring to birth in you is the Christ – the living Word - allowed to form and grow within you?  Are you like Mary surrendered to God who said “Yes, I see it all now: I’m the Lord’s servant, ready to serve.  Let it be with me just as you say.”  “Doing the right thing” takes on unexpected and difficult changes and choices as you listen to God.  What is the new thing God is doing in our community here as body of people, how will it call us to new ways of doing the right thing?   Can we really be the people of the Word in action – the evangelos – the gospel?  And bring to birth something beautiful that brings life and love to the world.