Today's readings for: Fourth Sunday in Advent; Year-A 2016 Isaiah 7:10-16 Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19 Romans 1:1-7 Matthew 1:18-25
Transcript of the Sermon given by Reverend Roberta Hamilton
“Emmanuel- God with us!” is the most important theme in the Gospel of Matthew. It is where Matthew begins and where Matthew, in the ‘Great Commission’, ends. The gospel of Matthew is the story of Jesus of Nazareth, God with us. Sadly, we never read in church the very beginning of the gospel. Verse one says, “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham.” The significance of this can pass us by as Twenty-first Century Gentiles, but for the first audience, whether they were Jewish or Gentile, it made some significant claims. Firstly that Jesus was the Messiah- the person who was going to save his people. Jesus is also the Son of David, in other words the successor of the great King in whose line the promise would come true, but more than that he is the son of Abraham, to whom the first promise of God’s faithfulness was given- it all goes back to Abraham. In the various covenants or promises that God made to Abraham, God said that out of Abraham’s family would come the nation, which would be a blessing to all the nations! And that is the promise that Jesus of Nazareth embodies as both Messiah for Israel and Emmanuel for us all!
Have you ever read the genealogy that follows? I had only ever skimmed over it with the thought that it was a very boring bit, put there to delay me in getting into the exciting story. When I was at theological college, however, I found myself doing a tutorial presentation on this genealogy and discovered that rather than being boring it was a fascinating document. The thing that is so interesting is that among the list of men who “begat”, in their groups of fourteen generations, there is mention of some women. Now quite apart from the fact that women don’t get a look in in these ancient documents, they are interesting women. In a patriarchy, the emphasis on the male line means that the probity of the woman becomes very important. The thing that is fascinating here is that the women who are listed are not good Jewish girls, in so far as they are either not Jewish at all, or they are not strictly speaking ‘good’. The first woman to get a mention is Tamar, you can read about her in Genesis 38. She is the daughter-in-law of Judah, one of Jacob’s sons and Joseph’s many brothers. Poor Tamar is married and her husband dies. After he dies she is married off to Onan, famous for the fact that he refused to do his duty and spilled his seed on the ground, and who also subsequently died. The third brother is too young to marry so poor Tamar is sent back to her father in disgrace. She then makes a plot, seduces her father in law, gets pregnant and subsequently proves the child is his- you’ll have to read it, it’s one of the best OT stories! It ends with Judah confessing that Tamar is “more righteous” than he was, (which, of course, wouldn’t be hard). The other women mentioned are Rahab, the foreign prostitute, Ruth the stranger from Moab, and Bathsheba (not called by name but referred to as the wife of Uriah), who was a Hittite. None of them are quite right in Jewish terms and yet here they are highlighted in the genealogy of Jesus, rather than all the other good Jewish girls that could have been listed! And then, of course, we come to Mary- she was a good Jewish girl, except for the fact that she was pregnant outside of matrimony. What is the point of all this? Well, there are several implications and I think the first is that God is faithful to God’s promise even if the conventions of society are flouted- which is really very good news for us. And the second is that God is God of the whole world, working out God’s purposes regardless of the Jewish nation. This is the great message that the new young church is bringing to the world in Matthew’s day. And whether this gospel is written for Jews or for Gentiles, the message is the same, “God with us”, is for everyone.
I also think that Matthew is highlighting the fact that things have often happened quite unconventionally in God’s plan and so Mary and Joseph and their particular set of circumstances don’t need to bother us. In days gone by the church was very concerned with keeping up the conventions and moralities of society, wasn’t it? Thankfully much of that attitude has passed. However, we still face some challenges- we are going to have to think hard when the marriage equality act comes in, as it surely will at some point. That is a discussion for another day, but I do think that it is important to realise that God can be present in any situation!
This story of Joseph and the angel is also very interesting, isn’t it? Here is Joseph, placed in an awkward position, who tries to do the right thing in worldy terms. The angel says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife,” and if we think about it we can see why he might be afraid. If Joseph takes Mary to be his wife he will be raising the child of someone else, and as first born that child will inherit the largest share of all that Joseph leaves. This is important in a culture like theirs, and still, indeed important in ours! But there is more to it than that, if anyone else realises that his wife has been unfaithful he will be regarded as a cuckold- one of man’s greatest fears, and of course, he might also question Mary’s ability to be faithful after marriage. This is quite serious and so, of course, are the consequences for Mary. At best she might be an outcast, and the worst case scenario is that she might be stoned! So there is plenty for them both to fear.
The angel tells Joseph that Jesus is born for a purpose, and that is to save his people. So they call the baby Jesus, or Yeshua- saviour! Then, as now, a popular name. Now Matthew, in an explanatory aside, quotes Isaiah, who says that a young woman will bear a child, who will show everyone that God is with them!
I could go off on a tangent here about virgins, young girls and paternity, but I’ll save that for another time. It is important to say that when Isaiah made this statement it was about a very short term situation and was not, for its first hearers, about the coming Messiah.
If you look at the Isaiah reading and put it in context, what Isaiah is saying is that even though they are about to be overrun, within a short time, the period of time it takes for a child to be born and then weaned- two or three years- they will know that God is with them. The interesting thing for us, apart from the fact that Matthew then uses this text, is that Ahaz doesn’t actually want a sign from God. Ahaz has made his plan, which is an alliance with Tilgath-pileser, which leads Judah to become a vassal state of Assyria. He protests that he doesn’t want to trouble God- and really, that sounds like many of the decisions we make in our world, doesn’t it? Isaiah won’t let him get away with it and tells him that in the next few years whether he likes it or not, God is with them! It strikes me that in his context, as in ours, that often life is much more comfortable if we think that God isn’t there.
When I was a child there was still a kind of superstitious believe in a God watching all the things we do, writing them down in his book, and always the potential of punishment. A bit like Santa who knows who’s been naughty and nice! I think that has gone- there is very little sense in our general society of a God who is watching us and judging our actions.
I am going to talk more about the incarnation next week at Christmas, but here I want to say that when Jesus was born into an ordinary family, to God-fearing but ordinary human parents whose lives did not always go smoothly, it was not about God watching us and judging us, but about God sharing our journey, and in that process transforming it. By coming into an ordinary family, and a family that might not have met everyone’s standards, by living generously, and dying generously, God transformed humanity itself. As Graham Kendrick puts it, in his hymn Meekness and Majesty, the “Lord of infinity, stooping so tenderly/lifts our humanity to the heights of his throne.”
In the incarnation God becomes part of our lives and gives us all the means to live differently, to live Kingdom lives. God was always with God’s people but after Jesus birth and life and death, God had entered our struggle in a different way.
And this shows us the faithfulness of God. God had made a covenant with Abraham, with Jacob, with Moses and with David, Solomon and then with God’s people through various prophets, most notably the promise of the heavenly banquet to which all the nations are called in Isaiah. The promise to Joseph, “God with us”, is another sign, and when God, God’s-self comes in the form of a human being, a baby born to ordinary parents, it is the manifestation of God’s ongoing relationship with humankind. The outpouring of the Holy Spirit is the ultimate expression as we, indwelt by the Holy Spirit, become transformed from one degree of glory to another.
So “do not be afraid” to take this child of Mary’s to yourself this Christmas. Embrace the promise of “God with us” as the promise of a faithful God and let God use you, irregular and imperfect as you are, as God’s dwelling place. Seek for God in each other as we live together in God’s family here on earth. And walk forward confident in your faithful God who is Emmanuel- God with us.