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  • Writer's pictureFather Benjamin von Bredow

Adopting God.

A Sermon for the Sunday after Christmas

December 31, 2023 at Holy Communion

Matthew 1:18–25

“Mary will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (Matthew 1:21). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.

One of my favourite decorations in this church is this small statue bust of the Holy Family which lives on the table in that corner. Joseph and Mary together form a kind of throne for the Christ Child. However, Mary and Joseph are not perfectly side-to-side: it is implied that Joseph is placing his arm around Mary’s shoulder. Joseph cares for the Mary, the Mary cares for Jesus.

Joseph is more removed from the Christ Child than Mary, since she interacts with the baby more directly, but Joseph is also the figure holding the whole family together. He wraps his arms around both of them. He is the least vulnerable of the three figures: he is neither a helpless baby nor a teenage mother, but “a righteous man” as our Gospel reading says. Like his ancestor Boaz about whom we heard in our Old Testament Lesson, he is well-regarded and faithful man, someone who can be counted on to shelter Mary and her baby.

Of these three figures—St Joseph, the Mother of God, the Holy Child—who are we supposed to learn from? We get another hint from this statue: the three figures together form a single whole. It’s really a trick question: all three figures represent ways in which we receive the mystery of the Incarnation.

At the end of the third week of Advent, there is a special prayer service, called an “Ember Day,” for which the Gospel reading is the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that she would conceive the Son of God. We take the role of the Virgin Mother: we learn that we must also, with total openness, receive into ourselves the Word which God wants to plant and nurture there. Every Christian must become the Mother of God, giving body and soul to God so that the life of Christ can be grown in us.

And then, of course, on Christmas Eve we reflected on the Christ Child himself. He is the Son of God, coming forth from the Father in eternity, who now comes into the world to share our humanity. And because Jesus has shared our humanity, in him we can share in God’s divinity. We are adopted into the family of God, made God’s children. So Christ is our example: we can and we ought to live as children of the heavenly Father.

So now, on the Sunday after Christmas, Joseph is our example. Whereas on Christmas we discovered that we have been adopted by God—and in fact we get that message reiterated in our Epistle reading today—we now learn that we, with Saint Joseph, also have to adopt the Christ Child.

Our Gospel reading could be called, “The Annunciation of St Joseph”: it is the scene in which an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him that Mary will bear God’s Son. Joseph receives this dream because he is troubled. A young woman has been entrusted to him as a for her protection, in a permanent state of betrothal—this is how the ancient church understood the story: Joseph is not Mary’s fiancé in the ordinary sense, but a kind of husband-as-legal-guardian—and Mary is pregnant. The child is not his. t seems clear that he can’t keep her, but he also doesn’t want to shame her publicly, as would have been normal and expected, so he wants to settle the whole thing quietly.

The angel is asking him to treat Mary’s child as his own. He asks Joseph to adopt Jesus—in fact, to adopt God, since Jesus is “Immanuel,” God-with-us.

There is a simple way out of this that Joseph could have taken. He could have slept with Mary, lied a little bit about the date of conception, and treated Jesus as if he were his biological child. Start a family with Mary, endure the shame of his betrothed being pregnant before the final part of the marriage rite was completed, and move on with life. Most people probably assumed that Jesus was biologically Joseph’s child anyway.

But St Joseph doesn’t take that route either: he refrains from touching Mary, out of respect for the God who chose her to conceive his Son. Ancient tradition says that Joseph never did lie next to Mary. He fully embraces his role as an adoptive father. He treats Jesus as his own beloved child because that is the role to which he has been called, the way in which he proves his faithfulness.

Christianity is the religion of adoption. God adopts us into his family. And we adopt one another as brothers and sisters and fathers and mothers and children. When his natural family was perplexed at him, Jesus “stretched out his hand toward his disciples, he said, Here are my mother and my brothers!” (Matthew 12:49).

But we also, like St Joseph, adopt God. When we sometimes talk about “asking Jesus into our life,” we often mean that we ask Jesus to become a friend to us, a generous and loving peer, or perhaps to become for us a mature and wise elder and guide. But asking Jesus into your life is also like welcoming an adopted child, someone you have a responsibility to nurture.

St Paul talks about our spiritual growth as “growing up to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of Christ” (Ephesians 4:13). It is as if the infant Christ has been entrusted to us. Coming to maturity in the spiritual life means helping that infant Jesus grow into the adult Christ, the one who speaks words of wisdom and reaches out in love and endures suffering for his friends.

Our spiritual maturity depends on adopting as our own the Christ Child who has joined himself to our inmost soul. For all of our pretentions to adulthood, we all start as baby Christians. The birth of Christ in us is, as the Bible says, “a new birth” into a second spiritual infancy. But, unlike natural children who grow taller whether we create a sheltered space for them or not, it is possible to remain a spiritual infant for a long time. St Paul complains about this when he writes to the Corinthians (1 Corinthians 3:2). What makes the difference is whether we are willing to show the protective and nurturing care which will help the life of Christ in us grow to maturity.

Becoming a Christian, and then living as a Christian, is a change of life no less demanding than adopting a child. When a child comes along, every pattern has to change, and priorities that once seemed important take second place to the new life in your care. It is the same with being a Christian: you become the caretaker of something precious and vulnerable, and paying that new life proper respect means a change of priorities. Your life is no longer your own, but must ever thereafter be devoted to the nurture of the Christ you carry with you.

Are you willing to take mature, fatherly responsibility for your own spiritual growth? Have you adopted the Christ Child who has been entrusted to you?


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