God with us

Advent 4 2010

Matthew 1:18-25

Marian Free

In the name of God, who was not afraid to take on human flesh to save the world that he had created. Amen.

As you were listening to the gospel, I wonder if you thought to yourself – something’s missing here. If you did you were absolutely right – many of the things we associate with the birth of Jesus were not mentioned – mangers, shepherds and more. If you didn’t notice something missing, you would have done what we all do – that is you would have heard this as the story, just as on another occasion you would have heard the shepherds and manger as the stor. It is possible for all of us to hear and/or read the accounts of Jesus’ birth without noticing that there are in fact two quite different stories – one in Luke’s gospel and one in the gospel of Matthew. In popular imagination however there is only one – the one in which Gabriel appears to Mary, Joseph has a dream or two, the couple go to Bethlehem and after the birth of the child are visited by first the shepherds and then the Magi. Two different stories have been conflated into one in our minds and in the popular imagination.

Only Luke and Matthew even record Jesus’ birth. Apart from the virgin birth which must be a very early tradition, Matthew and Luke tell the story quite differently. Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus. He is keen to confirm that Jesus is both the Son of God and the Son of David. Having established the latter through the genealogy, Matthew moves to demonstrate how it is that Jesus is the Son of God. Mary is “found to be with child from the Holy Spirit”. “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Joseph’s son, the son referred to in the genealogy is by this reckoning also the Son of God. Matthew’s account is quite sparing and gives Joseph, not Mary, prominence. Mary is dispensed with quite early without having been addressed and without any attempt to explain her situation – how she found out she was pregnant, what she thought of the situation, whether or not she saw or heard an angel and whether or not she was surprised by what was happening. The annunciation of Jesus’ birth is made to Joseph not Mary, as is the command to name the child who is to be born.

Matthew is addressing a Jewish Christian community. It is important that he demonstrate that faith in Jesus is not only consistent with the Old Testament but that it is a continuation of that story. Matthew makes this point in a number of ways. The genealogy begins with Abraham – the founder of the Jewish faith and it continues through the line of David from whom the Messiah was said to come. Jesus’ conception is described in a similar way to that of the patriarchs and judges. Furthermore, the annunciation by the angel is consistent with Old Testament annunciations. The angel appears to Joseph and communicates Jesus’ birth, name and identity in much the same way that the angel spoke to Abraham. What Abraham is told: “Your wife shall bear you a son and you shall name him Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant” is much the same as what Joseph is told: ‘She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” The formula: “bear a son” is repeated three times, as is “call… a name”. “She will bear a son .. you are to name him Jesus.” “The virgin shall bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel – God with us.” “Until she had borne a son and he named him Jesus.”

Matthew is clearly concerned, not only to make the link with the Old Testament but also to make Jesus’ identity clear to his readers. Jesus is a version of the Hebrew Yeshua or Yeshu which are shortened forms of Joshua which means “God saves”. The second name, the name in the prophecy is an unusual choice, but it is one which fits a theme running throughout Matthew’s gospel. In “Emmanuel” or God with us, the past, present and future join together seamlessly. The one who is announced as Emmanuel is the same one who is present with the community now and the one who will return at the end of time. The story of Jesus is present and future tense as well as past. The Jesus whose birth is announced is the same Jesus who concludes the gospel by saying: “I am with you to the end of the world.”

The Old Testament annunciations include the person’s name and role. Jesus’ role is to: “save his people from their sins”. A formula that sounds familiar to our ears was in fact quite foreign to Jewish and Old Testament expectation. A saviour would set people free from oppression, someone sent by God would convict people of their sins. A saviour who would free people from their sins is a Christian view, an interpretation of the life of Jesus after the fact. At this point, Matthew breaks with the Old Testament to reveal something new about the person of Jesus – he will save God’s people from their sins. The removal of sin will be by grace and not by any effort on the part of the people.

Matthew’s short account concludes with Joseph’s compliance with the angel’s instruction. In words that are almost exactly the same as those the angel spoke to him Joseph takes Mary as his wife, she bears him a son and he names him Jesus.

It is clear that the tradition of the virgin birth is very early and that both Matthew and Luke use that tradition as the basis for their re-telling the story of Jesus’ birth. Thereafter their accounts are very different. What is important for us, is not so much trying to work out who is right and who is wrong but to listen to the voices of the evangelists, to look beyond the stories to the communities to whom they are speaking and whom they represent and to try to discover what the early church looked like and how it made sense of the birth, life, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Jesus, Emmanuel is God with us – God as a living presence in our community in our day and age. Our experience of God with us is formed and informed by the experience of the early Christian community, their records of Jesus’ life and teaching and their interpretation of the same. We cannot take ourselves back to the first century when Jesus walked on earth, nor can we put ourselves into the earliest communities as they tried to make sense of what they had experienced during the life of Jesus and were continuing to experience as a result of knowing the risen Jesus. What we can do, through prayer, bible study and worship is to maintain an openness to the presence of God, develop a willingness to be informed by that presence and a readiness to respond with grace to God’s call on our lives.

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