Advent 4A 2004 Matthew 1:18-25
Finally! Finally we’re beginning to talk about baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph and think about angels singing, and shepherds
watching and listening, and stars dancing in the sky over Bethlehem. Well almost. There are a few things we need to think
about somewhat seriously before we really get to the manger scene.
The first thing is this: each Gospel writer begins the Gospel story in a different way. Luke, probably our favorite, spends
some time getting John the Baptist born and in place so he can announce Jesus at his baptism some thirty years later. In
the middle of the John the Baptist story, Luke brings the angel to announce to Mary that she will bear this Son of God, and
then Mary goes off to spend three months with Elizabeth, the mother of John. And finally on Christmas Eve here, we will go
to Bethlehem with Luke and hear the angels, watch the shepherds, and see the Holy Family in the manger.
Saint Mark skips the whole manger scene, starts thirty years later with the preaching of John the Baptist. The circumstances
of Jesus’ birth aren’t important to John. Jesus baptism and the announcement by God the Holy Spirit that Jesus
was the Son of God – that is what is important. Forget the angels and shepherds and manager and get on with the main
thing. Mark has a point, I think. But I do love the story Luke tells at this time of year.
Saint John is similar to Luke but John begins with that powerful hymn and creedal statement we read here on Christmas Day:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was
life, and the life was the light of all people.” And then John mentions John the Baptist in passing, moving straight
into Jesus work on earth.
Matthew does it with this remarkable story of the birth of the baby that is the annunciation on the lips of an angel in a
dream to Joseph. Before that is a long genealogy of about father to son, son to son to son, all the way back to Father Abraham.
It is interesting to note that Saint Matthew also mentions four women who are mothers of this lineage: Tamar the Canaanite
woman who bore Jesus’ ancestor Perez by the father of her dead husband; Rahab the harlot, mother of Boaz; who married
Ruth, another foreigner, a Moabite, who was the great grandmother of King David, and Bathsheba the wife of Uriah, by whom
David fathered king Solomon. Jesus might not get into the Colonial Dames or DAR with such an interesting set of ancestresses.
This genealogy goes to Joseph, except that Matthew like Saint Luke) tells us that Joseph is not really the father of this
new baby Jesus, the one we celebrate at Christmas. This would really lead to disapproval from the Sons of the American Revolution.
When I was a young boy, a man named Perry Smith farmed alongside our lower farm. He was childless but loved children. It
was always a pleasure for me to sneak over to Mr. Perry’s house where he would regale me with stories and his wife would
fill me with sweets. But I had to sneak because, you see, Mr. Perry Smith had been born out of wedlock and his mother never
named the father. My parents, who never missed a Sunday in church, would say that Mr. Perry Smith turned out to be not so
bad, considering…. Neither did Jesus, when you think about it. But I wasn’t to visit. So I sneaked, and I’m
glad I did.
The next thing to notice in Matthew’s story is that the whole message, the annunciation, is given to Joseph at night
in a dream when he was asleep. In this dream the angel came and said to him, "Do not be afraid, for the child in her is from
the Holy Spirit." What a dream, with an angel, a messenger of God, one sent from heaven to earth, and with an earth shaking,
possibly soul shattering, message. So one of the main things to notice about this as we move in these last days to Christmas
is that the expectation of Jesus, according to Matthew, is outside all of our normal categories.
The second thing to notice in this story from Matthew is that the baby has no father; and in this family, like every family,
it is a scandal when a baby has no father. And Joseph was at the edge of scandal, but that is not the point. The accent, rather,
is that the baby is from the Holy Spirit.
We need not explain this text any more than this. Our need is to be dazzled at Christmastime that something is happening beyond
all of human calculations. This is a baby and a wonder and a gift that is designed to move us beyond ourselves and beyond
the beginnings of the scandal of particularity in which the earthly Jesus was wrapped. And we can set aside all of the silly
speculation that has gone on about biological transactions and notice rather that this newness comes because God's Spirit
stirs among us.
- In the very beginning it is God's Spirit, God’s wind, God’s breath, that moves over the face of the deep and
creates a new world, a new heaven and a new earth.
- From the bondage of the chosen people in Egypt, it is God's Spirit, God's wind, God’s breath that blows the waters
back at the Red See and lets his people go free.
- Throughout our salvation history it is God's Spirit that calls prophets and apostles and martyrs and ordinary people to
do extraordinary things.
- In the beginning of the church, it is God's Spirit that came upon the disciples and created a community of faith and mission.
- And in our time, it is God's Spirit that begins something new when the world is exhausted, when our imagination fails,
and when our task seems difficult and even impossible.
That is what Matthew is telling us, that God's Spirit has stirred and caused something utterly new in the world. God has
caused this new baby who will change everything among us. That’s why we read it this last Sunday in Advent.
The last thing to notice is that the angel gives Joseph two names for the baby. Names are very important in that ancient
world. And can be in our own time, if the several instances I know of parents and grandparents making an issue over what
a grandchild is named or called. First, the angel says, "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people." The
Hebrew name Jesus – Yeshua --comes from the Hebrew root verb for save. Hence Savior. Imagine on Christmas a baby named
Savior. Many babies in the Old Testament are named Savior. It is the word for Joshua, for Isaiah, and for Hosea. Each
of them saved Israel, and now Jesus will save us.
- Jesus will save us from sin and guilt.
- Jesus will save us from death and destruction.
- Jesus will save us from despair and hopelessness.
Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves.
The second name that the angel gives for the baby is Emmanuel, God is with us. In Jesus God was present in the world and
made everything new. Whenever he showed up where people were in need, he saved them – the tax collectors, the thief
on the Cross who believed, the lepers, the deaf, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the unclean, even the dead. His very presence
makes new life possible, and the church – the Body of Christ himself -- consists of all the people who have been dazzled
by the reality of God who has come to be with us in this season of need and of joy, all through this miraculous baby.
Saint Matthew’s Gospel brings us right to the edge of Christmas. He gives us an angel's message in a dream that is
beyond our control or expectation. The message is that something new and different and powerful is coming into the world
now, a child named Savior and God is with us, God himself. So we are to be ready to have our lives and our world contradicted
and challenged and changed by this gift of God from God himself. (1)
The last Sunday in Advent, the season of the coming of the Christ child. Are we ready for what is to come – are we
ready for all of it?
1. Adapted from The Protestant Hour, A New World Birthed", The Revd Dr. Walter Brueggemann, December 19, 2004, at textweek.com
for Advent 4A 2004. See also The Anchor Bible Dictionary entries on Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.