Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Unto Us a Child Is Born -- Lectonary Reading for Advent 4A

Matthew 1:18-25 Common English Bible (CEB)

18 This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:  
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,         And they will call him, Emmanuel. 
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have sexual relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.

                Few texts of scripture engender as much controversy as this accounting of the birth of Jesus.  Luke offers a more detailed account, but it might not be as emotionally charged as this.  It even raises questions about how to translate a passage from the prophet Isaiah (7:14).  Is it a young woman or a virgin?  Should the reading of Matthew determine the translation of the Hebrew in the passage in Isaiah?  Bibles were burned over that question.  Then there’s the question of Mary’s future sexual relationship with Joseph – what does that word “until” mean?  

            I offer this disclaimer before wading into this passage because it is shrouded in controversy.  At the same time there is great meaning to be found here.  We must be careful not to be drawn into rabbit holes trying to chase problematic exegetical and theological questions while missing the point of this rather beautiful passage.

            It is important to note that this reading follows upon the genealogical statement that precedes it.  In Matthew 1:1-17 there is a series of begats that link Abraham through David and on to Joseph, the husband of Mary, “of whom Jesus was born” (vs.  16). This is the genealogy, the genesis of Jesus the Christ, who is the son of David and son of Abraham.  As Messiah, Jesus is heir of the promises and callings of these two ancestors.

If Luke focuses on Mary, Matthew focuses on Joseph.  Mary does speak in this passage.  Instead, the focus on Joseph’s response to the news that his betrothed is pregnant.  As a righteous man, he ponders his choices.  It is within his rights to disown her, to make her a spectacle, to cast her out.  But that wouldn’t be true to his character. Rather, he is thinking about quietly setting her aside without calling attention to her situation.  The angel, the messenger of God, offers Joseph a different option.  The angel reveals to Joseph the fuller meaning of this pregnancy and future birth.  The child might not be his, but it is – however it took place – a matter of the Holy Spirit. 

            As he ponders the question of what to do, the angel reveals that the origin, the genesis of this child, is to be found in the Holy Spirit.  Joseph is told to focus on the mission and purpose of this, what appears to be, messy situation.  Now, that might not satisfy every reader.  We may want to fill in the blanks.  Could it be Joseph (with Matthew covering up), or a Roman soldier, or . . .   Many have followed these trails, but in doing so miss the point.  Matthew wants us to follow the lead of Joseph, and recognize that in the messiness of this conception, the Spirit of God is present.  Indeed, there is an eschatological component involved. 

Looking back to the genealogy, the story of Jesus is linked to that of Abraham, who receives a promise that through his seed, the nations will be blessed.  And David is the lynchpin of the realm of Israel, the throne of which, Jesus is proclaimed heir.  In this dream, two specific names are given, both of which define the ministry of Jesus going forward.  First of all the angel tells Joseph to take Mary as his wife, accept the child as his own, by which Jesus is linked to  Abraham, through David, and they are to name him Jesus (Yeshua).  Why this name – a name that should lead us to Moses’ successor – Joshua?  He is destined to save the people from their sins.  That is the meaning of his name. 

But that is only the first name to be given – there is a throne name – a further name or title that reveals something of what God is up to in this person whose birth seems rather mysterious.  As is true throughout Matthew, the situation at hand fulfills Scripture – in this case Isaiah 7:14.
The problem with this appeal to Isaiah 7 is that Matthew draws from the Septuagint, which uses the Greek word parthenos, which is often translated as virgin, to translate the Hebrew almah.  Almah simply means a young woman, without any specific reference to her virginity.  As a result, due to the choices made here, whole doctrines concerning Mary’s virginity and thus her purity (keeping Jesus unstained from original sin) have developed.  But in our debates over Mary’s virginity, we may miss the point Matthew is trying to make.  For Matthew this young woman is pregnant and the child she carries is from the Holy Spirit.  We are urged to leave it there.  Jesus isn’t a Greek demi-god, who is the product of divine-human sexual relations.  Whatever the physical origin of this pregnancy, it is now sanctified by the Spirit.

The focus then is to be on this name – Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.”  For Isaiah, the birth of a child, perhaps the child of the king of Judah, is meant to be a sign that God is present.  God hasn’t abandoned God’s people.  What was true then was true in the first century, and it remains true today.  Here is the eschatological element.  David Jacobsen notes the connection between this name – Emmanuel -- and the promise that it entails, with a word found at the end of the Gospel:  “Remember I am with you always” (Matthew 28:20).    Jacobsen writes:
The birth of Jesus is a birth of a new world, even as the old one is tottering around us.  Matthew’s text is not just about Jesus’ first birthday, but a new birthday for the world, which is in the midst of its own birth pants, receives a startling promise of divine solidarity to see it through to the crowning of a new genesis,  a new creation.  [David Schnasa Jacobsen, “Matthew 1:18-25 – Exegetical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Gospels--Matthew, Volume 1: A Feasting on the Word Commentary, (WJK, 2013), p. 13].
            The message to Joseph, the righteous man, is to accept the messiness of this birth, accept that it is within the work of the Holy Spirit, and that it is important that he accept not only this message but Mary and her child, as a sign that God is with us.  We, who now read this word from Matthew, have our own choice to make.  Will we receive as Joseph did the word of encouragement and hope, that no matter what the case – God is with us?  God has been with us, is with us, and will be with us – without end.

            Such is the message of Christmas and the incarnation.  

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