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Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2013

The INOVA hospital group is running ads on the radio to promote its women’s care facilities. It talks about birthdays, but says it is not talking about the kind with presents and cake and ice cream. Instead it is talking about the actual birth day of the child. The ads call birth a miracle, and most of us think of birth in that way.

Jesus’ birth was a miracle with a capital M. Here was a baby, begotten of God and born of a woman, fully human and fully divine. Matthew does not have much to say about the details of the actual birth, but he wants his readers to know from the beginning who Jesus is and what he means for the people ofIsrael. Mary and Joseph had not had sexual intercourse when Mary was discovered to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Joseph had nothing to do with the birth at all, Matthew is saying. God is the one that initiated the birth. God was going to do something entirely new through this child. The child was a catalyst for change in the world (Charles M. Wood) God was going to enter the world as a human being to share our lives, the pain as well as the joy. Divine activity was taking place in the world, not just through God’s words to the prophets, but through Godself.

Jesus’ divinity is also shown through his title and his name. Matthew hearkens back to the prophet Isaiah to reiterate his prophecy to king Ahaz that a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall name him Emmanuel, which means “God with us”. At that time, no Israelite would have even thought of God appearing on earth. They would have thought of another king coming to help deliver them from exile inBabylon. Or that God would stand beside the Messiah and tell him God’s word for the people (Douglas R.A. Hare). Matthew interprets the title of Emmanuel to mean exactly what it says – “God is with us”.

Joseph is told to name the child Jesus, which means “one who saves”, because he will save his people from their sins – not from oppression, not from exile, not from any temporal misfortune, but from their sins. Only God could forgive sins, so Jesus was truly God.

Even though Jesus was truly God, he was also truly human and needed a human family to raise him. Isaiah talks about the child knowing how to refuse the evil and choose the good. Somebody had to teach him how to do that, how to live by the law, and that someone was Joseph. Joseph was the perfect father for Jesus. He was pious and a righteous man who lived by the law. Since a betrothal in Israel was the same as a marriage, Mary’s pregnancy pointed to her not as a fornicator, but as an adulteress. When Joseph found out that Mary was pregnant before they had lived together, he could have had her killed, but instead he chose the most lenient response the law would allow to handle it. He would divorce her and even do it quietly, so as not to shame her. His love for her must have been great, and he must have been in tremendous pain.

But that was not what God wanted. Instead, God wanted Joseph to marry Mary, so God sent an angel in a dream to tell him not to be afraid, but to do so. It was a terrible scandal that Mary was pregnant, but an even more terrible one would result if Joseph married her. Tongues would wag about this unconventional situation, and the couple would be looked down on and possibly shunned because they were different. Joseph was afraid of all this but he trusted the angel and he married Mary.

Just these few moments in Joseph’s life show us how he would be such a good father for Jesus. Joseph would teach Jesus how to obey God. Even when Joseph had no idea where his and Mary’s life with this special baby would lead, he trusted God and did what God’s messenger said. There were many times Jesus prayed for God’s guidance, and he trusted God’s will, even in his darkest moments in the Garden of Gethsemane. Joseph also knew the law and knowledge of the law was passed down from father to son, so Jesus learned the Torah very well. In addition, Joseph was a merciful man – he wanted to divorce Mary quietly instead of having her killed. During his ministry, Jesus was kind and merciful. Finally, Joseph taught Jesus to act outside the box of the law when it was necessary to fulfill God’s will. He married Mary, which was not in accordance with the law, and from that marriage came Jesus’ righteous upbringing. Jesus thought outside the box too. He healed on the Sabbath, he protected the woman caught in adultery, he conversed with Samaritans and he had all sorts of dealings with sinners and tax collectors.

Matthew also had to work in the line of David conundrum so that Joseph could be Jesus’ father in line with prophecies in the Hebrew Scriptures. In the genealogy that precedes the story, the last phrase does not say Joseph who was the father of Jesus, but Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born. Nothing says Mary came from David’s line, so that part had to be supplied by Joseph. Joseph was married to Mary by the time Jesus was born, and that made him his legal father. When Joseph named Jesus, he legally if not biologically put him in the house of David.

This account of Jesus’ birth raises some questions and provides some answers. The questions are about Jesus’ divinity and purpose. Can I believe Jesus is truly divine and truly human? Do I have to believe in the virgin birth to believe that? There are many theological explanations of how Jesus could be truly divine and truly human and still be born of a human mother and father. One example is that the gift of the Holy Spirit to Mary made her ready to conceive a divine child but the pregnancy was made possible by a human (Marianne Blickenstaff).

Another question that must be asked is whether or not we need to be saved. Can I find forgiveness and meaning and purpose through my own actions? Can I minister to myself instead of letting God minister to me? (Daniel Harris) A quick survey of our efforts at forgiving our own sins and musing on why we were created will show us that we cannot do this on our own.

The answers this passage provides tell us about God’s desires for us. God will help us cope with difficult situations. Mary and Joseph had one of the most difficult you can imagine, and God helped them not only through the birth but on into the future. God speaks to us and wants us to be obedient. God sent an angel to Mary (in Luke’s Gospel) and sent an angel to Joseph several times in Matthew’s gospel. Each time, they were obedient to God’s will. God wants us to go farther than we think we can go, as Joseph did in marrying Mary. God wants us to take risks for God’s kingdom and will show us what God wants us to do. Finally God does not want us to be afraid when life gets to be more than we can handle. Even if we cannot see even one step in the journey ahead, God will help us take that step, if we let God into our lives to do so.

The questions and answers raised by Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth give us plenty to think about on this last Sunday before Christmas. Just who have we been waiting for –  a prophet, a king or a human and divine Messiah, who will change our lives by teaching us to live a different way (Aaron Klink). Just whom do we trust in, ourselves or a God who loves us unconditionally and has acted and will act on our behalf if we trust God. Are we waiting for a tableau of babe in the manger or a powerful messiah who will bring us wholeness or both? Does the incarnation help us trust, lead us to act, cause us to take risks for the kingdom, or are we basically unchanged by this Advent season. Consider all this gospel says as you prepare for Christmas and make yourselves ready to welcome the Incarnation of God on earth, this miracle of birth with a capital M.

AMEN

 

Works Cited:

Charles M. Wood, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1, Theological Perspective  p. 94
Douglas R.A. Hare, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1, Exegetical Perspective, (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 97
Marianne Blickenstaff, A Season of Hope and Anticipation, Session 3: Luke, (The Thoughtful Christian, 2013), Participant Guide, p. 2
Daniel Hare, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1, Homiletical Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p. 97
Aaron Klink, Feasting on the Word, Year A, vol. 1, Pastoral Perspective (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009), p.96