The Holy Gospel according to Matthew. Glory to you, O Lord.
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
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 pregnant from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to divorce her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had given birth to a son, and he named him Jesus.
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to you, O Christ.
Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of our hearts, be acceptable in your sight O Lord, our strength & our redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)
In the last decade there was a TV series called The Big Bang Theory, about a group of smart scientist that worked together and how they lived out their lives. One of the characters was named Sheldon Cooper. He was a boy genius who was highly intelligent book wise, but not so much when it came to life. Well when the series was almost over there was a spinoff series made called Young Sheldon, it went back to Sheldon’s life as a young boy and how he came to be the person who was in The Big Bang Theory.
In one of the episodes sometime early in the 2nd season Sheldon, and his sister Missy, were ready for bed and were looking out the bedroom windows over the porch and chatting. Sheldon said, “Do you ever feel lonely and scared?” Missy replied, “Well, sometimes; but then I remember what they say in Sunday School, about how God is always with us and I feel better.” Sheldon thought a few minutes—then he said, “Yeah, well, that praying stuff is all right I guess; but sometimes you just need somebody with some skin on them.”
Most of us know how Sheldon feels. There is a lot of talk about “blue Christmas,” about people who are particularly sad and lonely and depressed this time of year. Many of us have some sad memories associated with the Advent and Christmas seasons, and those of us who have lost a loved one whose absence is deeply felt at every holiday celebration. And in the midst of that loneliness and ache, there is often a nagging questions like:
- “Where is God in all this?”
- “Why did God let this happen?”
- “Why doesn’t God ease my suffering?”
On a larger scale, many of us look at the world around us and think– “How long, Lord, how long?” It is legitimate for us to wonder:
- “If God is good and powerful, why is there so much evil in the world?
- Is God indifferent, or just incompetent?
- If God can do something about this, why hasn’t something been done?
- And if God can’t, then why should we bother with God?”
Whenever December 25th falls on a Sunday, then December 18th becomes the de facto last Sunday before people disappear into their family enclaves and traditions around the holiday.
So many of our traditions evoke nostalgia for a better time, so much so that some of us (not just the children), have an almost bittersweet response to the moment all the presents are unwrapped and the dinner plates are cleared. We search for meaning in these occasions, but only God can fulfill this inner yearning for peace of mind and purpose of life—God gives us a sign in Emmanuel, God-with-us, the only gift that outlasts everything that a broken humanity can hurl at it. All other gifts become additions to the trash heaps. The Word of God will last forever.
In Isaiah King Ahaz is worried about the future of his nation. He feels threatened by forces beyond his borders, beyond his control. He feels powerless. Many of us can relate at this time of year—the holidays summon existential questions about who we are, what we are doing for our loved ones, and how we can best live God’s purpose for our lives. We know that stewardship begins with our relationships—to God and each other. Everyone wants peace, happiness, and contentment for the people they love. When the wolf is at the door for any number of reasons, it is easy to feel overwhelmed by the task of caring for our loved ones and answering God’s call for us. God, who sees all, is weary of our worrying, so a sign is given to Ahaz (and us). A son will be born—a leader of the people—and the threats that seem insurmountable will fade away in the face of this promise.
In Romans Paul’s proclamation to the church in Rome is the opening of his theological magnum opus. Scholars believe that Paul was writing to people whom he had yet to meet, and so he is setting the stage for an explanation of who he is as an evangelist and his views on the world in which they find themselves. It is important for Paul to share with his reading audience that first and foremost he is an apostle of Jesus Christ who was the fulfillment of signs given through the prophets over the millennia preceding their moment in the early church. In belonging to the risen Christ, the people of God in Rome are “called to be saints,” which is another way of saying stewards of the mysteries of God.
In Matthew Joseph is facing a family crisis. Mary, his betrothed, is pregnant. In his time and culture this could lead to her being called out a publicly executed, especially if he himself were to call for it as a means of maintaining his honor in a society that was blind to the divine presence in their midst. We are led to believe that though his heart is broken, Joseph will not seek revenge against this seeming betrayal of fidelity. Rather, he will “dismiss her quietly.” Every family has that chapter that no one talks about—this will be Joseph’s entry into that particular genre. God has other plans. What normal human beings would understand to be shameful—even punishable—God intends to share with the world for thousands of years to come as a sign of God’s everlasting covenant with creation. God models faithful stewardship by planting a seed of hope in the midst of a community living under occupation from the Romans. This seed of hope belongs to us as well as we struggle under the occupation of our fears and anxiety. The child born to Mary is a sign that God is with us in the midst of the pain and fear. The author of Matthew is keen on connecting the narrative of Jesus with the prophecies of old, and this reading is no exception, which is why this gospel reading is paired with the Isaiah passage.
It’s as if Isaiah realizes that Ahaz is afraid enough that he needs some concrete, earthly assurance; he needs someone with skin on them, in order to feel confident in God’s presence and protection. So the promise is made: “Look, God will send someone with skin on them and before they are old enough to know good food from bad, this crisis will be over, and Judah will be safe.”
This promise of “Emmanuel,” of “God with us,” of God “with skin on,” is something that Matthew picked up and applied to the story of Jesus. New Testament Scholar and Bishop N.T. Wright points out that until Matthew wrote his gospel; no one else had ever placed any significance on this passage as applying to the promised Messiah. But Matthew did.
But the important thing here is not the virginity of the mother but the divinity of the child. Matthew plainly asserts that in this child, God is present, God is here, God is with us.
Over and over again from Abraham and Sarah to Jacob and Joseph and Moses to King David and on to Amos and other prophets, to the Virgin Mary and the Righteous Joseph; the word of comfort and promise keeps on coming, “Don’t be afraid, I am with you.” Ahaz was afraid, and turned away from God’s promise and sign—and put his trust in the mighty armies of Assyria. That worked for a while but ultimately failed. Joseph the husband of Mary was afraid, but in a dream God told him, “Do not be afraid.” And then made to him the same promise that was made to Ahaz—“The child will be a sign of Emmanuel, of “God with us.”
Our calling today is to trust in the promise of God and not be afraid; not be afraid of the ordinary trials and tribulations of life and not be afraid to stand for the Kingdom of God, and not be afraid to take action on behalf those suffering in poverty, and not be afraid to stand with and speak out for those who have been pushed to the margins of our society.
- Our calling today is to be a sign of “God with us,” in the world.
- Our calling today is to be someone with skin on them for those who are hurting and suffering.
- Our calling today is to reach out to the world with the love of God, realizing that when we do so in the name of Christ, we are the hands of Christ in the world.
And if we find ourselves slipping back into fear, searching our hearts, or perhaps the night sky, for a sign of God’s presence in the world, if we find ourselves yearning for someone with skin on them—we must remember this: the church is the body of Christ in the world. We can turn to those other ordinary, sinful, frightened, people in the pews around us and know that God is here in our midst. “God is with us;” in this place, and in this life.
In dealing with the early stages of Mary’s pregnancy Luke ‘s gospel focuses on her visit to her relative Elizabeth. That story offers us the incredible song of justice which she sings while she is there. Mary’s courage and faithfulness inspire me.
But today I think it’s worth thinking about Joseph. Joseph had no idea what he was getting into when he became engaged to Mary. When Mary wound up pregnant, the only rational assumption he could make was that she had been with someone else. But rather than seeking revenge by exposing her to public disgrace, he planned to break off the engagement quietly to preserve her reputation as best he could, without actually marrying her. Marrying her probably seemed off the table, not only because she appeared to have been with someone else, but also because she seemed to have broken his trust. And then an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream to say that Mary had not been with someone else or broken his trust, and that marrying her was exactly what he should do. Joseph obeyed the angel and married her.
At every step in the process, Joseph behaved in a way that was gentle and honorable, not judgmental or vengeful. God calls us also to act with honor and gentleness rather than in judgment and vengeance.