Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
December 22, 2013
Amid all the contradictions and distractions of Christmas, celebrating the birth of Jesus persists as a witness to the incarnation. Sentimentality about a mother and a baby isn’t enough for such a holiday. This mother and baby are special, unique. Even for those without faith, somehow the baby Jesus is Immanuel: God with us as we read in Isaiah 7:14.
The baby whose birth Isaiah announced was a sign to doubting King Ahaz that God was still present and active in Judah when they were threatened.
Taking our cue from Matthew, the church has understood the name Emmanuel as pointing to Jesus, not just as a sign that God is still with us but as the very person by whom God is with us.
In his 2011 Christmas Article (rejected by The New York Times), spiritual writer Frederick Buechner asked, “Who is this God? How is [this God] with us? That’s where the problem lies.”
The birth of Jesus is also a sign to us. It signifies God's love, mercy, power, and grace. Sometimes it takes a sign to convince us of these realities, just as it did for Ahaz. For the main character in the movie It's a Wonderful Life, it took an angel to convince him of his worth. For Dickens's Scrooge it took a vivid nightmare. For the characters on the "Peanuts" Christmas special, it took Linus's recitation of the story of Jesus' birth.
We are very familiar with Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and the visit of the shepherds. We know that Matthew told of the visit of the Magi, but we have neglected the account of Jesus’ birth in Matthew 1:18-25.
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
“Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”
24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Luke obviously interviewed Mary for his Gospel, and she and many women are prominent throughout it. Matthew only briefly mentioned Mary at Jesus’ birth and death, and critics spoke of her in 13:55. Matthew focused on Joseph.
Luke reported angels from heaven speaking to the shepherds, but the Magi in Matthew only heard from angels in dreams. The star the Magi saw in Matthew is not mentioned in Luke. Neither of them said anything about Mary on a donkey or the Magi with camels.
Neither said anything about Joseph and Mary searching for a place to stay. The word translated “inn” is really the same word as “guest room” such as the upper room for the Last Supper or where Elijah stayed with the widow (1 Kings 17:19 LXX). Nor did they say anything about a stable, which is distinctly European. The manger would have been by the kitchen where food scraps supplemented the feed of a few animals that stayed in a place below the house floor.
I mention these things, not to debunk familiar images, but to encourage us to read carefully and appreciate the power of the Gospels.
Matthew uses a very short passage to describe Jesus’ birth. The pageantry is gone and we are kind of left with the cold hard truth. Yet that leaves us to also to focus on the way God weaves in and out of the lives of everyone involved. Sometimes I would like to have been a fly in the room. Can you imagine the tension and anxiety that Mary and Joseph both felt? Yet God comes to Joseph in a dream and weaves another part of the picture.
Matthew’s focus on Joseph opens a window into answering Frederick Buechner’s question, “Who is this God? How is [this God] with us?”
I have come to appreciate and gain insight from some Eastern Orthodox icons. In Nativity icons, Joseph is typically shown in the lower left-hand corner being tempted by a demon figure to doubt Mary’s story of Jesus conception and the injustice of God asking him to raise a child not his own. Matthew gives us a rather different picture of Joseph.
Mathew makes a point of saying that Joseph gave Jesus his name. (v. 25) In that culture, that was Joseph claiming this child as his own by adoption. That gave Jesus legal right to the throne of David. It made Joseph his “real” father. Sometimes adopted children are asked about their “real” parents, meaning their biological parents, but they know that those who raised them are their “real” parents. So, yes, Matthew (and Luke) agree that Jesus was conceived in Mary by the creative power of the Holy Spirit, but Joseph was still Jesus’ “real” father.
Joseph could have easily thrown up his hands and let things be. God took a lot of risk to trust that Joseph would be faithful and obedient. He loved with God’s love. Joseph gave himself away to make room for Jesus. He took seriously his dream that God was still active and would be active in the world. He lived beyond what the world told him was the truth. He was responsive.
Joseph sets aside law, custom and tradition-everything he has studied and believed and practiced-in order to follow this word from God.
How can we learn from Joseph how to respond when we suddenly discover that God is with us?
Perhaps you know Leo Tolstoy’s story of Martin the Cobbler whose Advent prayers led him to believe Christ would come to him on Christmas Eve. All day he watched people go by his shop, and he helped several of them. He shared a bowl of soup with an old man. He gave a warm coat to a young woman with a baby. He reconciled a woman who was selling apples and a boy who stole one, paying for the apple. As he read the Gospel and prayed that evening, he was disappointed that Christ hadn’t come to him. Then from the dark corners of his room he heard a voice, “Martin, it is I,” and one by one he people he had helped through the day appeared and vanished. When he turned again to the Gospel he read in Matthew 25:40, “Just as you did it to one of the least of these, you did it to me.”
Bob Cornwall, who is a Disciples pastor, says that the message to Joseph, the righteous man, is to accept the messiness of this birth, accept that it is within the work of the Holy Spirit, and that it is important that he accept not only this message but Mary and her child, as a sign that God is with us. We, who now read this word from Matthew, have our own choice to make. Will we receive as Joseph did the word of encouragement and hope, that no matter what the case – God is with us? God has been with us, is with us, and will be with us – without end.