Sermon for December 22, 2019

Gospel: Matthew 1:18-25

I’m not sure if you noticed, but that was Matthew’s version of the Christmas story. You might want to double check the bulletin – there were no shepherds, no manger, no animals, and no Bethlehem. There was an angel, but the fact that Jesus was born is almost a side note. Matthew says, “Joseph took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” In Matthew’s Gospel we don’t find the Christmas story we are used to hearing. We do get the narrative about the magi from Matthew, though – that doesn’t show up in any of the other gospels. We’ll hear that in two weeks, on the 12th Day of Christmas when we will also celebrate the Epiphany. Luke is the Gospel that has the Christmas story we will hear on Christmas Eve, with angels, shepherds, stars, and singing. I just want you to be aware that each Gospel writer told a different story – in many aspects, not just at Jesus’ birth (sidenote: the writer of Mark’s gospel doesn’t even have a birth story!). Each of the gospel writers were writing to their own community, made of different people. 

Matthew was a Jew writing to Jews about a Jewish man, Jesus. This is why it is extremely important for him to include references from the Old Testament, or Hebrew Scriptures, in his gospel. We had one of those references today in verse 22, “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel.’” It’s important for Matthew to show that Jesus is the fulfillment of the scriptures – that everything that was written before pointed to him, that Jesus is the savior the people have been waiting for, the one God sent. 

Matthew locates Jesus in a long line of ancestors going all the way back to Abraham, the one through which Jews, Christians, and Muslims all trace their faith roots. Matthew is the gospel writer that writes out Jesus’ genealogy, his family tree, in a long list of who was the father of who. We would easily recognize some of the characters: Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Boaz, Jesse, and King David. Surprisingly to us, Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage through Joseph, which, if you paid attention to the story, is not his birth father. For some Christians, this is troubling – it seems irresponsible for Matthew to trace Jesus’ family tree through his adoptive father instead of through Mary. But for Matthew, it was essential that Jesus be recognized as the true son of Joseph because that was the only way for him to be an authentic descendant of David, and thus for all of scripture to be fulfilled in Jesus. Through Joseph’s choice to fulfill what the angel said, Matthew shows Joseph’s full adoption of Jesus and thus his reception into the family tree.

The name “Jesus” that Joseph is instructed by the angel to give the newborn boy reveals the mission and purpose he will fulfill. “Jesus” is the Greek form of Joshua, Jesus’ Hebrew name (because Greek doesn’t have the sh- sound). Both names mean “God saves/helps.” Hence, Matthew elaborates, “for he will save his people from their sins.” The connection to Joshua would have been vivid for Matthew’s hearers. If you remember, Moses was the one who led the people to the promised land, but he was not allowed to enter it. The one chosen to lead the people out of the wilderness and into the promised land was Joshua. Both stories – Joshua of the Old Testament and Jesus (or Joshua) in the New Testament – are stories of people being saved from bondage into life. From slavery into freedom. From captivity to salvation. 

Matthew shows over and over in his short story of Jesus’ birth that he is the fulfillment of everything that has been written – through the verse from Isaiah that we heard from our reader and in the Gospel text; that Jesus is Joseph’s son, connecting him to the lineage of David; and even his name that connects him to the Exodus story – each detail reveals that Jesus is the fulfillment of all the stories that have been told. He is the one the people have been waiting for. 

In Joseph, we see an example of the man Jesus will become. He says that when Joseph discovered Mary was pregnant, he planned to dismiss her quietly. There is a lot said between the lines of these few verses. First of all, you need to know the context here. We imagine Mary and Joseph being engaged, but it was not engagement like it is today, where you can break it off and it might be fairly easy, depending on how much the couple shares as far as property. It was betrothal – a binding, legal contract agreed to by both families that could only be broken by divorce or death. Essentially, they are already legally married. They just haven’t had the ceremony, or the consummation yet, which Matthew points out multiple times. 

For Joseph to imagine he will dismiss Mary quietly is a bit absurd, especially given that they lived in a small community. What’s interesting is that his intention to do that – to dismiss her quietly – would have been breaking the law. As Joseph’s betrothed, discovering Mary was now pregnant and not by him, her punishment should have been to be dragged to the city gate and stoned to death. But Joseph doesn’t do this. He even seems to end up saying, “oh, it’s okay; I know you’re pregnant and it’s not mine, but it’s okay; we’ll still get married.” Back then and still today that would be scandalous. But it’s not that he doesn’t have a backbone or self-esteem. He’s been visited by an angel, which might also seem absurd, but he chooses to believe it is real, and he chooses compassion toward Mary, which ends up making him part of the fulfillment story as well. He is breaking the law to do all of this, so it’s fascinating that Matthew calls him a righteous man or one who follows the law. Jesus will end up doing the same thing – breaking the law to show compassion and calling out a system that sometimes oppresses people and incriminates them for seeming to lack morality. 

As we prepare for the 12 days of Christmas to begin (remember, they don’t start until Christmas Day), today’s gospel story from Matthew reminds us that Jesus is indeed the one we are waiting for. Emmanuel was birthed into broken rules and a complex and messed up family tree. Jesus was God-with-us in the midst of pain and scandal and fear from the beginning. He still is those today, showing up where we least expect. Sometimes we may need to break the rules of the establishment like Joseph and Jesus in order to practice mercy and compassion. We ask for courage in the face of fear, and for a sign like the angel to Joseph, a sign like Jesus for the people, a sign of God’s salvation come to earth, bringing us peace, hope, joy, and love. Happy Advent, people of God. Jesus the Christ is coming, and is already here. May you know of God’s abiding presence with us now and forever.