Yr A ~ Advent 4 ~ Matthew 1:18-25
If you were going to make a kids Christmas pageant out of the nativity story according to the Gospel of Matthew you would be in a heap of trouble.
Journey to Bethlehem? Nope.
Birth in a stable? Nope.
Drummer boys, wise men, or reindeer?
Nope, nope, and we need to talk!
Well, there are wise men in the next chapter, but they don’t arrive for a few weeks! So we don’t have any of the usual Christmas nativity trappings here in Matthew’s gospel. All we have is Joseph, and in the background a scandalously pregnant Mary.
You know that whole controversy and argument that people get into over whether Mary was a virgin or not, and how did she really become pregnant, and maybe it was actually Joseph’s baby after all, and, and, and…
I am going to settle the controversy for you this morning once and for all because I have a very strong opinion about this, and it happens to be correct, and I’m not afraid to tell you what it is. Are you ready? The truth is…
it doesn’t matter!
It totally doesn’t matter. The means of Jesus’ conception does not matter one tiny bit.
What does matter, and what we ought to be focusing on, are Joseph’s reactions!
Ok, to be fair, maybe you’d argue that Jesus’ conception matters theologically. I’d agree, but probably for different reasons. And to make that argument you need to know a little Greek.
You’d need to know that the word in verse 20 that has an angel telling Joseph about Mary’s child is a form of the Greek word gennao. It is the same word that dominated the first 17 verses of Matthew – what we affectionately call the “begats”. This one begat that one, that one begat the next one, that next one begat another one. On and on it goes through the generations. They did a lot of begetting over the years!
So with 40 or so soundings of the word gennao ringing in your ears (and remember, the gospels were primarily spoken, not read) when you hear that the Holy Spirit is involved somehow in the begetting of Jesus your interest would be piqued. Gennao means begat, but it equally means “to engender, to cause to arise, to excite.” Maybe that’s how we should think of it, less conception and more that the Holy Spirit engendered or caused Jesus to arise?
Now add this.
This complex Greek word can also be translated as genesis. Genesis and gennao share the same root.
Verse 18 in English says “The birth of Jesus took place in this way…”
But the word isn’t simply birth, it’s genesis.
“The genesis of Jesus took place in this way…” – just like in Genesis 1 where the Holy Spirit is present and moving as a new creation is formed.
Us uptight Westerners all fixate on Mary’s supposed virginity (which I’ll get to in a second), but the original Greek speaking Jewish audience would only have heard genesis, genesis, genesis – and the Holy Spirit is moving again!
Now about the virgin thing, which I’ve already said doesn’t really matter, but it’s out there so I’ll say a few things about it. It’s all about the subtleties of language and things getting lost or added in translation.
Matthew builds his account on Isaiah 7:14 which we read as “Behold, a virgin shall conceive.”
But that’s English. Hate to break your bubble but the bible wasn’t written in English.
We get virgin from the Greek word parthenos – which strictly speaking means maiden or unmarried daughter, who most likely would be a virgin but not by definition.
And Matthew got parthenos from the Greek translation of the Hebrew bible – but in the original Hebrew Isaiah 7:14 uses the word almah which simply means a woman of child bearing age who has not yet had a child.
“Behold, a woman who could have a child but hasn’t had one yet, shall conceive.” Previously childless, but nothing whatsoever about virginity.
So, if you need Mary to be a virgin in your take on the Christmas story that’s ok, but Matthew’s text does not demand it, at all.
Ok, now let’s talk biology. In biblical times they had no real concept of how babies were actually made. In their understanding women contributed nothing to the process except the fertile soil. To be blunt, a male’s contribution was visible and a female’s contribution was invisible, so they didn’t know she made one. So their language and imagery of conception was not about egg and sperm uniting but about seeds being planted. If this story happened today we’d be all worried about DNA and paternity tests – and we’d miss the whole point!
Again I’ll say that this stuff doesn’t really matter. The factual little details that many of us love to argue about are really inconsequential in the meaning of the story. The historicity and the scientific accuracy of the story are not even on the table. It is not a medical story – it’s a spiritual story.
The point is not that Jesus’ conception is somehow more miraculous than any other conception, it’s that Jesus represents a new Genesis – a new beginning. They want us to understand that from his very first moment, from his very conception, Jesus was absolutely and utterly surrounded by and immersed in Spirit. That means theologically we’re starting something significantly new here, and the Holy Spirit is what’s engendering it and causing it to arise!
Now let’s get back to Joseph.
After learning the news of his fiancé’s untimely pregnancy, “Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.” (Mt 1:19)
Quick explanation. They were betrothed, which in their time meant they were legally married but were not yet living together. The legal, contractual stuff was fixed but then there’s a waiting period before the big ceremony and celebration and the start of their shared housing. They couldn’t walk away from an engagement like we can today, they had to divorce.
It wasn’t all that hard for a man to divorce his wife or betrothed. All he had to do was quietly have two witnesses go with him and say that adultery had occurred and the papers were signed and the couple was divorced. The part that isn’t clear to us is whether or not the full cultural Law of Moses was in effect at that time – but if it was Joseph was well within his rights to have Mary stoned to death. In fact, that would have been the righteous and law-abiding thing to do seeing that she scandalized him. It would have been expected of him.
Had Joseph gone through with the divorce he still would have been a good guy, according to the law. The only way Joseph could be a bad guy in this story is if he was actually the father and he still chose to divorce her or have her stoned – which would not be nice but still would’ve been legal!
(And yes, if you ask me he probably was the father, but again, because this isn’t a medical story that really doesn’t matter.)
I think we’ve heard the story so many times that we forget how scandalous a pre-marital pregnancy was. Even in our lifetimes we know of families that were scandalized by this and young women were sent away and sometimes forced into adoption. Joseph could have made the whole problem go away and still been righteous in the eyes of the law.
But he didn’t!
Think about that.
He could’ve washed his hands of it all and been patted on the back for it, but he didn’t!
How many times do we follow the letter of the law and declare ourselves righteous?
How many times do we do the minimum and break our arms patting ourselves on the back?
But Joseph’s example demands more of us.
What character and spiritual traits could we learn from Joseph? Plenty!
Joseph is the epitome of selflessness and love, going far beyond what was required to embodying what love looks like. It seems to me that this is really what Christmas is all about. This kind of love is at the heart of Joseph’s story, and Mary’s story in the gospel of Luke, and in God’s story of giving light to a darkened world. Christmas is rooted in holy love.
Joseph ought to be the star of all of our Christmas celebrations. Even if you weren’t a Christian, or you wanted a more secular expression of Christmas, surely you’d find the ultimate expression of human love in the character of Joseph!
If you can’t persuade someone to be more Jesus-y about Christmas perhaps you could persuade them to be more Joseph-y!
Imagine how much warmer and richer our Christmases would be if we had as many Joseph songs as Santa songs! (Can you name even one?)
Before I finish I just want to take a step back and ground this whole conversation in Spirit.
What made this whole thing possible?
What single element utterly influenced this whole story and arguably set our entire Christian faith into motion?
Because if this single thing didn’t happen then Mary may have been disgraced and shunned, or stoned to death, and the child within her may never have come to be born – and if he had he certainly wouldn’t have had the same upbringing and parenting that shaped his character and prepared him for his life’s work.
So what was the single event that changed world history?
Joseph had a nap!
When Joseph laid his head down that day he was resolved to divorce Mary quietly. It was a done deal. The matter was settled in his mind.
Then he went to sleep.
A deep sleep is one of the prime ways God seems to communicate with us. All through the bible are stories of people who had significant spiritual encounters in a dream.
It’s because you’re quiet, you’re not distracted by anything, there’s no external stimuli, it’s just you and your breathing. That’s how we pray. Just you and your breathing with no distractions.
That’s when God shows up!
Well, more accurately that’s when you are finally able to notice that God has been there all along!
Joseph didn’t decide to go above and beyond with Mary just because he was a good guy. He did it because he had a profound spiritual experience that changed the course of his life. He had a sacred encounter that so moved him that he was inspired to take the harder, more honourable, more loving path.
Without that nap and that dream and that first hand personal spiritual experience, Joseph divorces Mary.
You don’t have to take on the world by yourself.
You don’t have to have the internal fortitude to tilt against windmills and battle the forces of evil.
You don’t have to single-handedly change the way North America does Christmas.
All you gotta do is take a nap! Rest and breathe. Pray!
And in the quiet the Spirit will come forth.
And in that sacred moment you’ll get everything you need – not to change the world, just to change yourself.
Until we are changed the world never will be.
Until hope is born in us we cannot live in hope.
Until peace is born in us we cannot have peace.
Until joy is born in us we cannot live joyfully.
And until love is born in us we cannot love as we ought, like Joseph.
Allow your heart to be changed and transformed by the Spirit through prayer, and the world will change.
That’s all Joseph did. He allowed the Spirit to move in him, and the Spirit called him to a deeper love than he was able to offer on his own.
And do you know what that love looked like?
It wasn’t a new ministry initiative that sought to battle injustice.
It wasn’t a speaking tour where Joseph explained to the world what the Spirit did for him – heck, Joseph is actually silent in the bible – doesn’t say a single word.
Nope, all he does is love.
Strong. Silent. Holy. Love. And that changed the world.
So I command thee to nap!
And dream of a love being born in you that can engender a genesis in your heart this Christmas – because that changes everything.