In my title parish, we had a parishioner called Edna, a former Baptist missionary. Out of ecumenical spirit, she worshipped with us and participated in many aspects of parish life such as study and prayer groups. Often Edna would disconcertingly enquire, ‘how’s your walk with the Lord?’ It was an embarrassing question for many in middle class, middle of the road, middle England Southgate, where the conversation usually focused on the uniformed organisations or forthcoming bazaars and fetes. But it’s a question that, although it could be rather narrowly individualistic and pietistic, is nonetheless very important. As the Principal has been reminding us this Lent, it’s easy to stay close to the means of grace but not be affected by them and so one’s own walk with the Lord is always important.
The hope for a close walk with the Lord echoes in various places in the Scriptures: ‘Keep my steps steady according to your promise,’ prays the Psalmist. ‘What does the Lord require of you,’ asks the prophet Micah, ‘but to do justice, and to love kindness and to walk humbly with your God?’ And it is perhaps particularly in our minds during Lent, a season when we long to have minds that are calm and focused in prayer; habits that are regular, attentive and prayerful; bodies that are woken up and purified by Lenten disciplines: and the purpose of it all, to have a closer walk with God.
The Evangelical eighteenth century poet William Cowper puts the desire for a close walk with the Lord at the centre of his great hymn. One noticeable thing about it is how similar are the first and fourth verses, describing a close walk with God. Such a walk is, marked by a calmness and serenity that Cowper, himself a depressive and prone to bouts of violent insanity throughout his life, would have particularly craved. It is illuminated by a pure light, shining and leading us towards Christ. But, despite their close similarity, there is a very clear difference between these two verses. The first is a construction that my linguistic experts tell me might in Greek be expressed in classical languages by the optative mood or the rather alarming-sounding subjunctive of desire. In other words, it is aspirational ‘O for a closer walk with God’. It expresses a wish for something that the writer doesn’t yet have and indeed may never have. By contrast, the final verse is much more assured: ‘So shall my walk be close with God, Calm and serene my frame; so purer light shall mark the road that leads me to the lamb’. By the time we get to the end of the hymn, he has seen his way to achieve what he wants to achieve, so that the mood is no longer of desire, but of satisfaction, fuflilment, assurance.
What then has come between the first and the fourth verses? What are the all-important factors that cause the unfulfilled hopes and aspirations of verse one to turn into the assurance and calm certainty of verse four?
First and foremost in verse two, it is the action of the Holy Spirit: ‘Return, O holy Dove return, sweet messenger of rest; I hate the sins that made thee mourn, and drove thee from my breast’. Fundamentally, it is the Holy Spirit who enables us to walk closely with God. Our ability to have such a walk is grounded not in our own strength, but in the Holy Spirit, who must continually return to enable us to do what we cannot do unaided.
But what we can do is to aid the work of the Spirit by a conscious commitment to embrace true worship and put an end to idolatry. This generally rather calm and soothing hymn strikes a note of something more turbulent and violent in the third verse, perhaps giving us a glance into the author’s personality: ‘The dearest idol I have known, Whate’er that idol be, Help me to tear it from thy throne, And worship only thee’. What Cowper seems to imply here is that the idols that we set up may not in and of themselves be bad. A golden calf, in itself, is made with the gifts of God’s good creation and, in itself, it can be a beautiful object, a marvellous work of craftsmanship. What is wrong is not the idol in itself, but the way that we love and value it.
Staying with Cowper’s hymn, I’d like to offer some thoughts then on how it relates to St Joseph.
First of all, Joseph is the one who, in his marriage to Mary and in the responsibilities he undertakes, has almost the closest possible walk with God. Joseph takes up a God-given vocation to serve the mission of Jesus, by being his guardian and, in human opinion, his father. In the words of one theologian, ‘As a physical act, fathering a child lasts but a moment, but as a spiritual vocation it is a perpetual effort and joy’. From Jesus’s conception, through his birth in Bethlehem the flight to Egypt from Herod, the life of the Holy Family in Nazareth, the years in which Jesus grows up into adulthood, Joseph is there, closely walking with him.
And Joseph shows us what this close walk entails: radical openness to the Holy Spirit. Mary is told in Luke’s gospel that ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’, and in Matthew, we hear of the angel telling Joseph not to be afraid to take Mary as his wife ‘for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’. Joseph is called to be open to all that the Spirit is doing; to respond to the Spirit with willingness, to pray ‘Return, O holy Dove, return’, even when the work of the Spirit would have appeared to him extraordinarily disconcerting and bewildering.
And then, moving to verse 3, what might the idols have been for Joseph? Perhaps we catch a hint in the gospel: ‘Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to a public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly’. In taking on paternal responsibility for Jesus, Joseph gives up some rather important things: a reputation for living up to the sexual ethics enshrined in Jewish law; the chance to live a normal life according to the customs of his society; social acceptance, respectability probably the love of friends and relations. As with other idols, these things are not necessarily bad in themselves, but when they become overriding allegiances that impede the work of the Spirit, they must be torn down from their throne in order to maintain the true worship in the Spirit that enables a close walk with God.
In the aftermath of the response to God that Joseph and Mary make, the prospects of our having a close walk with God are now completely changed. The incarnation of the Word in human flesh means that now all humanity is taken up into Christ. From now on, our walk with God can be close in a way that formerly it could not be, because Christ has come to be one flesh with us. Ever since the time that Joseph played the role he did, we, like Cowper, can move from aspiration to assurance: our walk will be close with God because he has come to be one flesh with us, and whatever we do is now done by him and through him and in him.