The birth ... took place in this way
| Matthew 1:18-25
||Sun, December 23, 2001
Rev. Ed Searcy
|“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way”. With this we arrive at a chapter in the story which everyone knows. Right? Well ... be careful ... pay attention. Notice that these eight verses which describe the birth of Jesus say nothing about a journey or an overcrowded inn or a heavenly host singing “Glory to God’ nor even of the beloved, bedraggled shepherds. Of all this, not a word. No “swaddling clothes,” no “pondering these things in her heart”. Nada. These eight verses describe the birth of Jesus. In the verse that follows we read: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem.” In Matthew’s Gospel today’s lesson is the only description of Jesus’ birth. The church has long realized that the stories that are told of Jesus’ birth in the gospels of Matthew and Luke are difficult - if not impossible - to harmonize ... though the Christmas pageants of our memory managed without much difficulty to place the star above the shepherds ... and to have the wise men arriving at a manger. Well,that is one way to deal with such divergent narratives. Or we can view the stories with the sceptical lens of modernity and judge Matthew and Luke to be rife with inaccuracy. But, instead, we do something else here. Here we read these confounding stories as God’s Word to us. They are precious to us because we know from experience that, in listening to these texts with care, we may yet be transformed by the God who inspires them with life even now. That is surely reason enough to pay attention when Matthew announces that “the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”
“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.” Matthew tells us that this is an extraordinary ... and a shameful birth. The Messiah is born to an unwed mother. Oh, yes, she is formally engaged. But the marriage has yet to be consummated. We remember not so long ago when, in our own culture, such events were cause for great shame to all involved. The birth of Jesus the Messiah is cause, says Matthew, for public disgrace. He tells us that Joseph “being a righteous man and unwilling to expose (Mary) to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. Joseph’s lineage, it turns out, knows a few things about dealing with shame. In the extraordinary genealogical list of “begats” that begin the story, four women appear. Three are named: Tamar, Rahab and Ruth. The fourth is unnamed, but not unnoticed: "And David was the father of Solomon bybthe wife of Uriah". The wife of Uriah - that would be Bathseehba, of course. Now the presence of women in a patriarchal geneology is, itself, very unusual. But, what is more, these four women share one thing in common with Mary - each of them is subject to public disgrace for their part in generating David’s line. The birth of Jesus the Messiah involves, says Matthew, public disgrace.
Joseph is faced with hard choices - to distance himself from Jesus by shaming Mary in public; to quietly dismiss Mary from their marriage vows and leave the neighbours gossiping about his role in the matter ... or to adopt the child conceived out of wedlock as his own ... and to bear the consequences. In Matthew’s telling, Joseph becomes the first disciple ... the first one faced with the choice of what to do when confronted by the arrival of the Messiah ... and the disgrace that accepting him will bring. Perhaps we are only now beginning to sense that this is the shock which lies hidden in our beloved Christmas story. For a long time we have imagined that celebrating the birth of Jesus was anything but cause for disgrace or shame. In fact, we have belonged to a culture which has, in the past, shamed those who did not celebrate this Messiah’s birth. But now we are beginning to see that singing carols of joy at the birth of the One whose Kingdom comes to disrupt all our familial and national kingdoms will likely cause us shame in families and disgrace in nations. We are beginning to see that we share Joseph’s dilemma.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way ... she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit“. On this Matthew and Luke agree: the conception of the baby in Mary’s womb is miraculous. Like her elders Sarah, Hannah and Elizabeth - all of whom bear children in their barrenness - young Mary conceives a child impossibly. Of course, though Matthew and Luke agree that this is the truth of the matter, this does not make such a tale any easier for the modern mind to trust. In a world of scientific miracles where genetic codes are broken and fetuses are conceived outside the womb we wonder at such pre-scientific talk of a ‘virgin birth’. And, since the rest of the New Testament seems to know nothing of such a miraculous conception, we like to think that we can discard such as the irrational dreaming of another age. But the story has not changed: “she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit”. Mary’s boy child is, the story claims, the product of the Holy Spirit. This Messiah is the real thing. He is destined to be God’s own child ... from the very beginning. Notice that our modern, rational, objective minds have a hard time believing in such a miraculous child ... until we put down our $10 and spend more than two hours entranced in the world of another child of destiny - Harry Potter. Of course, Harry Potter exists only in a fantasy world in which good overcomes evil through the life of a community that gathers around a child who is destined to save. But the story of Jesus Christ claims not to be a fantasy. It purports to tell the truth about us and about the world. Leaving the theater, we re-enter the ‘real world’ where children are not destined to save. Leaving the church we must always decide which is the real world - one in which the birth of Jesus is all quite explicable and ordinary ... or one in which the birth of Jesus is the extraordinarily miraculous birth of the one destined to save his people? We answer this question every day ... with our life.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” It is the story of the birth of Jesus the Messiah - Emmanuel. As with all births it includes the question of a name. Names are so important ... and often so coincidental. Yet some names seem strangely prescient. Could Mama and Papa King have had any idea the social reformation that their infant son - Martin Luther - would herald? Matthew tells us that the name of the Messiah - the Christ child - is not accidental. He is named Joshua - which means ‘God saves” - after Joshua who fought the battle of Jericho. He is named, in Hebrew, Joshua “for he will save his people from their sins”. But most of us have long forgotten that Mary and Joseph called this little first-born ‘Joshua’. We only know him by the Greek version of that Hebrew name: ‘Jesus’. Of course, that is all the more fitting, since “his people” turn out to include far more than just the Jewish descendants of Abraham and Sarah. “His people” turn out to include non-Jews, outsiders like you and me. “His people” turn out to be tax-collectors and sinners, the lame and the blind, the imprisoned and oppressed. “His people” turn out to be the criminal next to him on the cross and the enemies he commands us to love. This Jewish miracle-baby is, it turns out, destined to “save his people from their sins”.
Then the text adds another name. It says that this Messiah Saviour is the long awaited ‘Emmanuel’, the one who will be “God with us”. You don’t have to be a major in literature at the university to hear how the text is straining to make a point. In a few brief verses the titles pile up: Messiah. Jesus - saviour of his people. Emmanuel. It is as if Matthew knows that he has some convincing to do. Which, of course, he does. Because, to be honest, the way in which this Messiah goes about “saving his people from their sins” is highly unorthodox. Or perhaps you have forgotten the scandal of the Christian gospel. Namely, that Emmanuel -“God with us” - will not have (or use) the power to set things right but will, instead, be murdered by the powers that be in the ‘real world’ of violence and corruption. Paul knows that this is heresy in religious circles and sheer foolishness in the rest of the world (I Cor. 1:22-23). Matthew knows it, too. That is why the name of this destined child - Joshua Emmanuel, the Messiah ... or ‘Jesus Christ’, for short - is so crucial for the readers to know ... and believe.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way ... an angel of the Lord appeared to (Joseph) in a dream”. Notice this - fully four of the eight verses in the telling of Jesus’ birth take place in a dream! According to Matthew, the central thing to know about the way in which the birth of the Messiah took place is the contents of a dream. It turns out that this New Testament Joseph is akin to his famous Old Testament forbear - namely, the Joseph known for his multi-coloured dream-coat ... the one whose dreams are anything but fantasies. Everything turns on a dream. In the dream Joseph learns that God is up to something new in this disgraceful birth and this destined child. In the dream Joseph receives the assurance of God in pursuing a courageous and unexpected social path: “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife”. In the dream Joseph is told the name of the child ... and the purpose of the child’s life. Everything turns on the dream. According to Matthew, the birth of Jesus reaches its climax “when Joseph awoke from sleep (and) did as the angel of the Lord commanded him”. Joseph wakes up and remembers the dream. Joseph wakes up and believes that the dream is the truth. Joseph wakes up and acts as if he is still dreaming.
Now I realize that Christmas Carols are not holy scripture. But perhaps you will forgive me for imagining that many of our carols have attained the status of scripture. In truth, many know the carols ‘by heart’ when they cannot recite a single verse of scripture. That is why I am fascinated by the opening line of our next hymn ... a hymn written by the renowned preacher, Phillips Brooks, for the children in his Philadelphia Sunday School after visiting the place of Jesus’ birth in 1867: “O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie! Above thy deep and dreamless sleep, the silent stars go by”. Dreamless sleep. That’s interesting. I have been hearing and singing this carol for forty-seven years ... and only now have I noticed this odd phrase. Dreamless sleep. Brooks must imagine that Bethlehem’s sleep is undisturbed. That it is peaceful, without nightmares. Perhaps Bethlehem’s current residents long for such long, dreamless nights of rest. Or maybe not. Maybe Bethlehem’s residents long for a dream to break into their long slumber ... long for an angelic word, a sign that God’s promised Saviour is near at hand. Maybe Phillips Brooks has it about right. Maybe we inhabit a world of deep and dreamless sleep, a world that has been so long without the odd disruption of an alternate dream that we have come to call this narcotic slumber the ‘real world’. Maybe coming here ... to worship each week ... is to enter the world of Joseph’s dream. Together we hear an angelic message of One who comes to save his people. Together we dream that his people includes those who gather at this Table. Together we dream that his people somehow includes even our enemies. Together we dream that our destiny is caught up in his destiny, that his dying and rising prefigures our own death to the world’s ways and rebirth to the way of Christ. Together we dream that the Kingdom of God which comes upon us is, in fact, the ‘real world’. Everything turns on the dream. Our story reaches its climax each Monday when we wake up and remember the dream ... and believe that the dream is the truth ... and act trusting that the ‘real world’ is a fake ... and the dream is reality. Amen?