Preacher: The Rev’d Jenny Wilson, Canon Precentor

Readings: Isaiah 7:10-16, Matthew 1:28-25

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

Matthew is a story teller. His story has one theme and that theme is found in its opening chapter, and found again in its closing chapter, that theme makes bookends for the gospel. We heard in the first chapter of the Gospel of Matthew, this morning, an angel telling Joseph in a dream that the son Mary is to bear shall be named Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ In the final verse of this Gospel of Matthew, Jesus says to the disciples who meet with him on a mountain, “Remember I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

God is with us. That is Matthew’s theme. God is with us always. Telling us is Matthew’s purpose.

The Gospel of Matthew, in verses just prior to those read this morning, opens with a genealogy.

An account of the genealogy* of Jesus the Messiah,* the son of David, the son of Abraham. (Matthew 1:1)

The first seventeen verses of this gospel place the story of Jesus in the context of the story of God’s action in human history. The genealogy begins with Abraham and moves in a pattern – Jewish writers delighted in such patterns – fourteen generations from Abraham to David – fourteen generations from David to the time of exile in Babylon – and fourteen generations from the time of exile in Babylon to Jesus. Jesus belongs in human history. The pattern points to key events taking place every fourteen generations. Jesus appears at the end of the third pattern. Jesus is the key event in the story of God and God’s relationship with God’s people Israel.

In order to belong, though, Jesus needs Joseph to give him his name. For Joseph occupies the thirteenth place in the final fourteen generations.

Joseph is betrothed to Mary. But Mary, Jesus’ mother, is pregnant, pregnant at this time of betrothal. Matthew tells the story:

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* takes place in this way. When his mother Mary is engaged to Joseph, but before they live together, she is found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, plans to dismiss her quietly. (1:18-9)

Joseph is a good man. The Law of Moses requires capital punishment in such cases, but whilst the Jewish rabbis have over time softened this response, the penalty for Mary would still be severe. Joseph is doing all that is humanly possible to give a compassionate response to this awkward situation. We need to remember Joseph, for at times we are like him. Joseph is doing all that is humanly possible. Sometimes we do that. But sometimes God needs more than that. God needs more than human compassion. And so God intervenes and sends an angel.

An angel is a messenger of God. That’s what the Greek means. Rarely, though, do they come with golden wings. That’s the problem for us. Recognising them is a problem for us. Angels are portrayed in art and music and literature in such a way – with such beauty – that we might understand the holiness of such an encounter, but such portrayals can leave us a little blind to angelic approach. We do not always believe such an encounter is possible. Matthew’s story would have us at least allow the question to hang in the air.

Just when Joseph has resolved to dismiss Mary, an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and says, ‘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.’ (1:20-1)

Angels usually begin their encounters with the same opening words: “Do not be afraid.” This is a clue for us. If we suspect that God is trying to tell us something, we will probably be frightened. God is asking Joseph to step out of what is humanly possible, to go beyond what his compassion and kindness would have him do, and to believe and do the impossible.

The weight of God’s request of Joseph is similar to the weight of the angel Gabriel’s request of Mary, found in Luke’s gospel. Angels ask us to believe the impossible and to do the unimaginable. God through the angel’s voice shows us a reality and a trust and a courage beyond what we think an ordinary human being can find. A reality and a trust and a courage founded in the presence and love of God.

“Let it be with me according to your word.” Says Mary to Gabriel, when God asks her to bear God’s Son, to bear God’s love to the world. And the one to whom Mary is betrothed is worthy of her. When Joseph awakes from sleep, he does as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he takes Mary as his wife, but has no marital relations with her until she has borne a son;* and he names him Jesus. (1:24-5)

And the fourteenth generation is in place. Jesus then belongs, belongs in David’s line.

Matthew is a story teller. And story tellers often weave in tales from olden days, family stories, faith stories, to help the hearers understand the significance of the story being told and how it fits in with the narrative of the community or family in which it belongs.

When the angel speaks to Joseph in a dream, he reminds Joseph of the words of the prophet Isaiah, words we heard read in our Old Testament reading this morning:

All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’

Matthew is keen on this fulfilling idea. He writes of Jesus fulfilling the scriptures many times in his gospel; he quotes scripture forty times. We need to be a little careful about what this means. It is not that the prophet Isaiah had a vision of Jesus coming as Mary’s son. Isaiah is not predicting Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. It is more subtle than that but just as profound. Matthew is taking a story of significance in the faith, Isaiah’s story, and allowing it to reflect on the story he wishes to tell. In the original context Isaiah refers to a promise that God’s people would be delivered from a threat of war before this child was raised and so the child is given the name Emmanuel, God with us. Isaiah is making it clear that God is presence at a difficult time in history. Matthew sees Jesus as the fulfilment of all scripture and so he allows stories from the Jewish scriptures to resonate with the Jesus story to help the hearers understand Jesus’ significance. We do the same. When we are trying to understand events that affect us deeply we may well ponder them in the light of a family story, of or a novel, or of scripture.

God is with us. And it takes great courage and not a little faith to live in that truth. It may well be demanded of us at some key time in our life that we trust that truth and that that truth is all we have. One scholar explored this truth as it affected the people of Israel:

“In every season of its life, Israel lived with the uttered promise of [God] in its ears. This promise which defies every logic … assures Israel that its life and eventually all of the historical process, is not a cold, hard enactment of power and brutality. It is, rather, an arena in which a powerful intention of well-being is resolutely at work.”[1]

Our life and everything that happens is not a cold, hard enactment of power and brutality. It is an arena in which a powerful intention of well-being – God – is resolutely at work.

Speak that to the people of Aleppo. Speak that to the relatives of those who were murdered as they knelt praying in a church in Egypt. Speak that to the coral dying on the Great Barrier Reef. Speak that to a friend seating nearby who is struggling with illness or frailty or grief.

Can we be like Matthew, the gospel writer, and place the God story alongside the stories of struggle and despair and even defeat?

Our life and everything that happens is not a cold, hard enactment of power and brutality. It is an arena in which a powerful intention of well-being – God – is resolutely at work.

Jesus will be born. God is with us. God is always with us.

[1] Walter Brueggemann Theology of the Old Testament p172.