Scripture: Matthew 1:18-25
We so often focus on the story of the birth of Jesus as written in the Gospel of Luke. We read it every Christmas Eve. And I see why we do, it has the most detail of the story. It’s much easier to plan a play for, it has all the characters, it has movement, it has a great plot line. But it’s not the only account of the birth of Jesus. There is a simpler version, like what we find in the Gospel of Matthew this morning. It’s a story with a greater focus on Joseph. It’s not a big surprise, really. The world is male centered at the time. The strong focus on Mary in the Gospel of Luke would probably have been a greater surprise given the time and place of the Gospel of Luke.
It also has something to do with the audience. Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience and is leading them to the conclusion that Jesus is the Messiah. He draws them in by following the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph, highlighting his Jewish heritage. This is important, because the infant will be identified by the heritage of his father. So by showing Joseph is Jewish, we know that Jesus is a Jew from the family line of David. This is also important, because they audience knows from their teachings in the Old Testament that the Messiah comes from David’s family line.
Matthew also shows us he is speaking to a Jewish audience because he makes some assumptions. He assumes his audience knows about Jewish customs, thus does not explain them, unlike the Gospel of Mark for example.
We see a hint of this in our reading from this morning when Matthew makes reference to “the prophet” and then quotes from the prophet Isaiah. He knows that when he says, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” his readers will immediately know he is referring to Isaiah.
One of the challenges to the Jewish readers is that Joseph still marries Mary. She becomes pregnant before they are married. The law is pretty clear about this, she must be stoned to death for her infidelity. We’re told Joseph is a faithful man, which means he follows the Law, and he knows should happen to Mary. Because he doesn’t want to bring her any shame, he intends to leave her quietly. This is also to protect himself I may add. Joseph would also face a great amount of shame if word got out that his fiance was pregnant before they were married.
So what is Joseph to do? He has every right to be the first to throw a stone at Mary. Yet, one night, Joseph is asleep and an angel comes to him in a dream. The angel has an important message for Joseph; that baby Mary is carrying, he is the Messiah! Well, as a faithful man, this changes everything for Joseph and he takes Mary to be his wife.
This is a dramatic change for Joseph. The emotions he’s been feeling about being betrayed by his fiance who carries a child that is not his own have been turned to feelings of great hope and joy.
There’s also something about the name that is chosen, or names as we see in this passage. Joseph is told that he will name the child “Jesus.” This name is significant because translated from the Greek means “the Lord saves.” Jesus is the one who is coming into the world to be the Saviour, the one who saves people from their sin.
The other name mentioned in the reading is from the prophet which says the virgin will name her son “Immanuel.” We are told, right in the reading it means “God with us” which is close, but not quite right. If we translate Immanuel from the original Hebrew it should read, “God is with us.”
Seems like a pretty small difference, but I don’t believe it is. “God with us” sounds pretty good. And if you read through the Old Testament you can see how God was with the people through it all. If we add the “is” and make it “God is with us” doesn’t that sound a little more personal? Doesn’t it sound a little more reassuring?
“God is with us” seems to indicate God is personally with us; he is always with us; he is ever present personally in our lives. And in Jesus, God comes personally to be at our side.
In Jesus both of these names are appropriate. Jesus is the one who saves and he is our God who is with us.
Matthew’s telling of the birth of Jesus may be brief, it may not have a great plot line like Luke has put out there for us, but Matthew has given us much to think about as we come to celebrate the birth of our Saviour this week.
For one, God does not follow conventional rules. God is well aware of the risk of choosing Mary to be the mother of his Son. He knows how people interpret the laws he gave to the people. He knows people will look upon her with shame and that she will have to leave her village in order to survive. Yet God chose her, of all people, to have his Son, even with all the risk.
In the same vein, by choosing Mary and Joseph, God also chose parents who would protect him in his early years. Joseph, being a good, faithful step-father of Jesus, was able to hear from the angel again and flee to Egypt to protect Jesus from King Herod who sought to destroy any threats to his reign. This was possible because they were alone, apart from their families, away from home. They were what we would call today “refugees” seeking safety and freedom in their lives. Other, older, established parents may not have had such flexibility and adaptability to protect Jesus in the same way.
So I guess it’s somewhat appropriate God chose Joseph to be the step father. He is a man who has been faithful to the laws of God for his whole life, only to have everything turned upside down when God chooses his little family, against all odds and expectations, to be the family for his child, the Messiah, the Lord of all.
Another thing Matthew gives us to think about is the response to such a gift. In some ways, Mary had it a bit easier than Joseph, at least in terms of believing. The angel came to her, and she became pregnant. There was an undeniable physical change for her. But Joseph was not part of that conversation. He came to learn later, in a dream, what was going on.
Dreams can seem pretty real, and also pretty convincing. But then we wake up and realize it was just a dream, and then we forget about it. The other night I had a dream where a high school friend passed away. It was really convincing. The next day I had to look and verify that it was indeed just a dream. I’ve lost two old friends earlier this fall, I had to make sure I hadn’t lost another.
Joseph could have woke up and thought to himself, “Well that was a weird dream!” and forgotten about it. He could have convinced himself that Mary was still in the wrong and walked away from the relationship. But the dream was so real, it was so vivid, it was so convincing, he had to follow up on it. He had to believe it.
What is our response to the news that Mary is with a child? But not just any child; she is carrying God’s child. In her womb is the Prince of peace, the Lord of lords, the Messiah, the Saviour of the world!
On this Sunday of Advent we call the Sunday of love, what is your response to the fact that God loves you so much he sent his Son into the world so you would come to know him more and have eternal life with him? How does that make you feel?
Jesus Christ is the Saviour. He is the one who saves. Through Jesus God is with us.
This is the one whose birth we celebrate. He is also the one we wait for to return.
Jesus Christ, God is with us, the Saviour, our brother, our trusted friend, has come into the world so we may know the hope, peace, joy and love of our God personally in our lives for all of eternity.
May we know these things in our hearts this season, and for all our years, as God continues to work in our lives, our homes and our church, everywhere, to prepare us and others for the return of our King.
Let us pray,
Thank you for coming into the world to save us. In our struggles we place our trust in you as you lead us into relationship with our Father in heaven.
May we experience the hope, peace, joy and love of God this season of Advent, into Christmas and for all our lives.
We ask in your Holy Name. Amen and amen.