Matthew 1:18-25 - The Birth of Jesus the Messiah
18 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 from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
I love the Nativity story. It is full of anticipation and hope in the midst of fear and messiness and just plain, real life. It also seems to be to be so often misrepresented and misunderstood. Most nativity plays (and sermons, for that matter) are a collaboration of the two scriptural accounts which can facilitate us missing some of the precious depth of the story. A short blog post isn’t the space to get in to all the nuances but if Marcus Borg is right when he says that the nativity stories in both Matthew and Luke (they are not in Mark and John) are ‘overtures’ to the book they are written in, it seems that we should pay close attention.
Why is Matthew telling a story of an evil ruler wanting to kill all the new born Jewish boys to rid himself of the threat a predestined saviour to the people might bring? This boy who is saved by divine intervention? To a Jewish audience this would all sound very familiar. Why are there 5 dreams, 5 scripture fulfilment, 5 mentions of Messiah, 5 women in the genealogy? Because there are 5 books in Torah. And Matthew is setting up Jesus as the fulfilment of the Torah, a Messiah who will be even greater than Moses.
Our text this week is loaded. We read of a man whose fiancée becomes pregnant, and not by him. According to the letter of the Law, Mary should have been stoned to death for this offence. It says that Joseph was a righteous and a just man. Naturally, a ‘just' man would follow the law? Not here. This is part of the Nativity being an overture for the whole book of Matthew. Joseph being ‘just’ results in Joseph breaking the Law of Moses and quietly divorcing Mary so as not to publicly expose her. True justice is never retributive, it is always seeking restoration. Here Joseph, despite his hurt, is moved by compassion for Mary and wants to protect her life. Joseph’s compassion and love foreshadow the words of Jesus during the Sermon on the Mount as he takes people deeper into the heart of the Law. ‘You’ve heard it said, but I tell you…’.
An angel appears to Joseph to help him understand the situation. He is told that his wife will bear a son who will be the saviour of his people. Imagine what it was like for Joseph to hear this? ‘Listen I know this situation is absolutely mental but the silver lining is that the child is the Messiah’. It’s hard to fathom.
Born to a teenage girl fleeing for her life as a refugee. (Please, just take a minute to think about that)
This Christmas season, what does it mean for God to be with us?
What does it mean for God to turn retribution on its head, to turn the law on its head and to break in to the world with grace?
To respond to the broken and weary with compassion, to respond to the powerful with disruption, to respond to sinners with mercy and understanding, to respond to refugees with a welcome instead of a warning?
I think how he does it is through us. Do we respond this way? Are we aware of people's stories this Christmas season? A season that can be full of painful triggers for people?
How we respond may be a moment for them to think ‘Immanuel. God is with us’.
Ferg Breen is married with two kids and is a counsellor, psychotherapist, lecturer and pastor in Dublin. He also performs motivational seminars inspired solely by the work of David Brent.