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Advent 4 – The Messiah’s Who and How

The Angel Speaks to Joseph in a Dream by F. Morel

The Messiah’s Who and How
Advent 4A
Rev. Dr. Clint Burnett
Matthew 1:18-25

Good morning, grace, peace, and greetings in the Lord to you from your brothers and sisters from your sister parish, Old North Abbey. Today is the fourth and last Sunday of Advent, the last week for us to wait in anticipation not only for God the Son’s first coming to earth in the form of the Christ-child but also for us to ponder and consider his second coming as righteous Judge, which, according to the witness of Sacred Scripture, will occur soon. Our readings from Holy Scripture and in particular our Gospel text for today center on the theme of Christ’s coming into the world as a testimony to God’s faithfulness to his people and to his world in unexpected ways. Our Gospel reading accomplishes this by underscoring two aspects of the birth annunciation of the Christ-child: the “How” of his Birth and the “Who” of his identity. 

The Text’s Original Meaning

As our text begins, St. Matthew provides a heading for us. He informs us that he is going to tell us about the “How” of Jesus the Messiah’s birth, for it occurred “in this way.” Unfortunately, our English translations of Matt 1:18 obscure this verse’s connection with what has occurred earlier in the Gospel and with God’s story of worldwide redemption, which begins in Genesis. The term that St. Matthew uses and which the ESV renders “birth” is the Greek word that we transliterate into English as “genesis.” It is the same term that appears one more time in St. Matthew’s Gospel, at its very beginning, in Matt 1:1: “A book of the genesis of Jesus the Messiah, son of David, Son of Abraham.” 

This word, genesis, is found in the story of creation in the Greek version of Gen 2:4 that St. Matthew read. There, we find “This is the book of the genesis of heaven and earth when it was created.” By adopting this exact phrase, “book of the genesis,” to begin his Gospel, St. Matthew is telling us that Jesus’s story is a new beginning. It is the beginning of God’s promise of New Creation; a time when the Triune God rules uncontested over every square inch of the universe and sin, death, and decay no longer exist. After the Evangelist introduces his book as a new Genesis, like the book of Genesis, he provides a genealogy of the new Adam with an emphasis on Jesus’s Jewish and Davidic ancestry from Abraham to his earthly father Joseph who is a descendant of David.

The next time that St. Matthew uses the word “genesis” is found in our passage as he begins to describe how this new Adam, this true son of Abraham, and rightful heir to David’s and thus Israel’s throne was born. Consequently, in parallel to the genealogy of Jesus’s human ancestors, St. Matthew now stresses the Messiah’s divine ancestry, his Incarnation from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.  

Therefore, this beginning of God’s New Creation comes in the most unexpected ways.

Instead of Jesus being born to the Jewish king and queen in their royal palace, God chose to commence his rescue operation of Israel and the world through a young virgin who was betrothed to a man who although a descendant of King David was not the reigning monarch. In ancient Palestine, the marriage custom among Jews was that a man would contract a marriage with a young lady, probably about 12 years of age, at which point Jewish custom considered them to lawfully be husband and wife. However, the wife would remain in her father’s house for about a year whilst the husband made all the necessary preparations. When the husband had everything ready, he would go and bring his wife into his house with much celebration and the two of them would “come together” in the Biblical sense, if you catch my meaning.

St. Matthew informs us that as Joseph is busy readying everything ready for his bride, Mary is found pregnant from the Holy Spirit. St. Matthew does not tell us how Joseph is informed that his wife is with child because his main point is to stress that Jesus is God from God and thus Joseph is not his father. In the story, Joseph thinks, as any person rightly would, that Mary has been unfaithful to him. For we who acknowledge Jesus’s virgin birth daily and weekly as we recite the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds respectively, it is difficult for us to grasp how Joseph, not to mention Mary, must have felt at that time. The reason is that there is no precedent in the Old Testament, Jewish culture of the day, or in the larger pagan Greco-Roman world for the Incarnation: for God becoming human. 

Granted as we read in today’s Old Testament reading, there was a prophecy about the virgin birth. However, as St. Matthew explains this prophecy was only fulfilled in Jesus. In the pagan culture of Jesus’s day, we find a plethora of stories of the pagan gods taking on the guise of a human from time to time and even gods fathering and mothering children with humans. However, in each of these cases, the child in question was formed in a union between a male and female, which is not the case with the virgin birth, for it is the product of the Holy Spirit’s creative work in Mary’s womb.  

Given that Mary and Joseph are married in the eyes of Jewish custom of the day, he is torn about what he should do. St. Matthew tells us that Joseph was a righteous man, which means that he attempted to live his life according to the precepts of God’s Law. In this Law, in Deut 22:13–21 in particular, there is legislation about what a husband is supposed to do if he suspects that his wife has been unfaithful, which is a public trial. This was a viable option for Joseph. However, it is not one that he chose. In an echo of Jesus’s teaching in Matt 23:23 that God desires mercy not judgment, St. Matthew says that he did not wish to publicly disgrace Mary. Instead, he was leaning toward writing her a certificate of divorce and putting her away secretly to spare her shame. 

While Joseph was still pondering these things, an angel appeared to him in a dream to explain to Joseph the “How” of Jesus’s virgin birth by focusing on the second point that St. Matthew stresses: the “Who” of this child. Mary is “with child” from the Holy Spirit. Thus, she has not been unfaithful to him. Rather, Mary has been faithful to God and allowed him to begin his work of New Creation through her. In the language of the Nicene Creed, the angel tells Joseph that Mary is pregnant with “the only Begotten Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God.” 

At this point, the angel gives several directives to Joseph, which underscore the “Who” of Jesus’s identity. Joseph is to name the child, an act that would have acknowledged him as the child’s earthly father and thus cemented the baby’s ancestral link to King David, and Joseph is to call his name Jesus. This name is carefully chosen and reflects Jesus’s identity. The reason for the name, according to the angel, is that Jesus will save Israel from its sins. In the Bible and for most of western history, names meant something. The name Jesus is the Greek transliteration of the Hebrew name Joshua, which means “The LORD saves.” Thus, the name chosen for the Christ-child reflected his divine mission and in particular his task of rescuing Israel and the world from sin. The major way that Jesus accomplishes this task is through his death, burial, and resurrection, which we, like St. Matthew before us, celebrate in the Eucharist. This is evident in that when St. Matthew  records the institution of the Sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, he does so in the following language, which is unique to him. Jesus says: “this is my blood of the new covenant poured out for the many for the forgiveness of sins” (Matt 26:28). Thus, Jesus’s self-sacrifice serves to fulfill the prophecy that the angel spoke to Joseph: he will save his people from their sin.

Finally, St. Matthew provides an editorial comment on the events that he has just related, stressing the connection between the “How” and the “Who” of the Christ-child’s forthcoming birth. The virgin birth, the naming of the child as Jesus, and his mission of saving his people and the world from sin is happening to fulfill Holy Scripture, Isa 7:14 in particular. Thus, St. Matthew notes that the Incarnation of Jesus is none other than how God intended to be Emmanuel or “God with us,” the people who participate in God’s New Creation. Upon hearing that Mary was pregnant with God the Son, Joseph awoke from his sleep and obeyed the angel’s commands, He took his wife, although they did not consummate their marriage until the Christ-child’s birth, and when the Christ-child was born he named him Jesus. 

The Text’s Application

Our Gospel reading for this week and other Scriptures provide us with four points to consider. First, the Christ event, including Jesus’s birth, is the beginning of God’s New Creation of the world. One of the things that we are meant to focus on during this Advent season is the fulfillment of God’s New Creation at Jesus’s second coming. In the process, we are meant to realize that the world we see and live in now is not as it should be. God does not reign uncontested over every square inch of it, especially in the hearts and minds of humans. We live in a fallen, broken, and evil age, which is evident as we consider the many evils occurring all around us: the ongoing war in Ukraine, the oppression of minority groups in China, the persecution of Christians in Asia and Africa, and the list goes on and on. For this reason, we are to feel out of place. Our Advent text today reminds us that God has already started to remedy this problem with the Christ Event and when Jesus returns he will deal with the problem in its entirety by recreating the world to rid it of death, disease, and sin. Thus, in a way the Church lives in a perpetual state of Advent, the time between the two comings of Jesus and one of the ways that we must gain encouragement in our present situation is by looking backward to how God has begun to fulfill his promises to his people and the world so that we can be assured that God will soon finish the job.  

Second, St. Matthew wants us to know that in the midst of our waiting for the fulfillment of God’s New Creation, he has not left us alone. The first coming of Jesus was as Emmanuel, God with us, and even though Jesus has ascended to God’s right hand, he still remains Emmanuel. Before Jesus ascended to that location at the end of St. Matthew’s Gospel, he promised his followers that he will be “with you all the days until the end of this age” (Matt 28:20). Therefore, Jesus is always present with us as our comforter and fountain of peace. He is present with us as we pray the Daily Office, as we ask the Triune God to bless our meals, as we go to work and interact with co-workers and clients, as we prepare supper for our families, as we love on our children, as we have conversations with family members and friends, and as we visit those who are sick in hospitals and their homes. In all these circumstances, Jesus is present with us. In a special way, however, Jesus is our Emmanuel in Word and Sacrament. As we gather as a parish, he speaks through the Deacon as he or she comes into our midst and reads the very words of Jesus and as we partake in the Eucharist he is present in the bread and the wine imparting grace to those who participate.

Third, our Gospel reading stresses that God operates in the midst of our broken and fallen world in the most unexpected ways. God’s cosmic rescue operation is launched into another gear by the Incarnation of God the Son, the person of the Godhead through whom all things were made who became fully human. Thus, to save the world, God the Son humbled himself by moving from his heavenly throne to live in our world as a human. As noted, there is no precedent for the Incarnation in human history at this point. There are no comparative examples of the Incarnation in the Old Testament, in Judaism of Jesus’s day, nor in the pagan culture of the Roman Empire.

Pagan gods may take on the appearance of a human, but not full frail humanity with all its weaknesses. According to the ancient poet Homer, the pagan gods live in everlasting bliss. What is more, God the Son became incarnate in the womb of a virgin who appears to have been of the poor or lower middle-class society of Judaism of the day. If I were the God of the Universe and I was going to become human, I would have chosen the womb of a woman who was at the apex of the ancient Greco-Roman world so that I might have lived a life of luxury. But thanks be to God this is not the God to whom our lives are devoted. In short, everything about the Incarnation is counter-cultural to first century Jewish and Greco-Roman values. This should be a reminder to us of how God operates. Consequently, we must be open to God’s powerful, unexpected work all around us, in the voice and words of a child, in a handshake, smile, or hug, in a random act of kindness, in a phone call, in the sending of a card or note, and the list goes on and on.

Finally, this morning our Gospel reading reminds us of our place in the beginning of God’s New Creation, obedient, self-less, trust-filled service. Throughout this story, Joseph trusts God that his wife has not been unfaithful to him and that the baby in her womb is born of the Holy Spirit. He obeys the angel’s command to name the Christ-child Jesus. And, he does not know her biblically, if you catch my drift, for the entirety of her pregnancy. Notice that Joseph does not think about himself and he appears not to be concerned with what others might think of him and if they will gossip and talk about him behind his back. His devotion is to God first and foremost. On the fourth Sunday of Advent next year, we will see St. Luke emphasizing the same obedient, self-less, trust-filled service of the Virgin Mary. When she hears from the angel Gabriel that she shall conceive the Christ-child see says, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” Like her husband Joseph, Mary is only concerned about the affairs of the kingdom and rendering faithful, obedient service to the King of the Universe. May God help us in the rest of this Advent season to gain encouragement from God’s beginning of New Creation, from the fact that Jesus is our Emmanuel and thus always with us, to remember that God works in the most unexpected ways, and to be like Joseph and Mary and serve God with total and true devotion. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.  


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