here are times when we are presented with a story that is not at all what it appears to be on first read. Masquerading as one thing, these are stories with ulterior motives. For example, The Wonderful World of Oz, though it is presented as a children’s book, is regarded as a commentary on 19th Century American society.
In the same way, our reading from Matthew is not as it appears to be. Or perhaps more accurately, it is so much more than what it appears to be. Though often read as a story that establishes his righteousness and saintliness, this is not a story about Joseph. And as an aside, Joseph may be one of the most dubious, righteous figures. Any righteousness he can claim—i.e., not abandoning Mary when he finds that she is pregnant, a low bar if you ask me—comes not from Joseph, but from God. Yes, Joseph features prominently, but this is not a story about Joseph.
Nor is it even a story about the birth of Jesus. After all, if it were a story about his birth, the actual birth is almost entirely lost in the story. It is only mentioned in passing and in the past tense.
You would be excused, however, if you had read it in any of these ways. After all, centuries of tradition have trained us to look at this story and to see Saint Joseph in his holiness. The flood of holiday spirit causes us to hear any mention of Jesus’ birth and, between the lines, to read automatically of shepherds, wise men, mangers, and brightly shining stars. And then there is the lectionary, which leads us to read this story in isolation from the rest of scripture so that we miss its context within the larger story of God.
The first clue to all of this, the first clue that something more is going on here, is the problem of Jesus’ name. For after the angel speech in Joseph’s dream, the narrator turns to us to explain that this was to fulfill the prophecy, that a child shall be born and he will be named Emmanuel. Then, in the very next sentence, Joseph names the child Jesus.
Now just to be clear, Jesus is not the same name as Emmanuel. Neither was Emmanuel Jesus’ middle name. Nor was it a nickname. At no point do we ever hear anyone call Jesus by the name, Emmanuel. We might be tempted to write it off as a textual error, a mistake of the author, but that would be wrong too.
To understand what is going on here, we must first understand what this story is about. We must first understand that this is a story about God. We must understand that above all else, this is a story that proclaims that God has kept the covenant, that God has fulfilled the promise.
And what promise is that? It is the promise alluded to by the angel, the sign spoken by the prophet Isaiah in our first reading this morning. “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they will name him Emmanuel.”
Isaiah was not speaking about Jesus. Isaiah was speaking of an actual child, a child born eight centuries before the birth of Jesus, a child who was named Emmanuel. Born into a time when Jerusalem was under siege by two different armies, Emmanuel’s birth was given as a sign from God. It was a sign that God was with the people and that God would deliver them. It was a sign because the people could find hope in the fact that God was with them, and so they gave themselves in marriage. It was a sign of trust that God was with them and that their war-worn city still had a future, so they brought forth new life. They gave birth to the next generation.
Our story this morning proclaims boldly that the promise of Emmanuel has been fulfilled. It is the claim that God is with us in the fullest, most complete, sense. It is the claim that the promise of Emmanuel, the promise of God-With-Us, is embodied in Jesus. It is the claim that the present world, in the throes of chaos and danger, a world where the very future seems in danger, that there is still hope. There is still a future, for God is already laying the foundation of a new creation, a new future.
Therefore, this is also a story about Jesus. It is not a story about his birth. It is a story about who Jesus is. For Jesus is the incarnation of God’s desire to be with us. Jesus is the incarnation of God. What’s more, it is a story that asserts that Jesus is the culmination of God’s relationship with God’s own people. While our reading this morning only hints at all this when it states that Joseph was a son of David, the idea is fully explored in the first seventeen verses of Matthew, in the form of a genealogy.
Now, most people are happy with this omission in our reading because many people find the genealogies boring. This is because to fully appreciate them, you must have a broad familiarity with the Biblical stories. It is also because, in a culture that links one’s identity and moral virtue with one’s accomplishments, genealogies are little more than historical curiosities.
But in scripture, genealogies are used to make claims about the identity and character of a person. In ancient times, they were a bit like your resume. If you wanted to know the measure of a person, you needed to know their lineage. Jesus’s lineage is a sweeping theological treatise. In it, he is linked all the way back to the patriarch and matriarch of God’s people, Abraham and Sarah. In it, Jesus is portrayed as a continuation of all the ancient stories of Genesis—of Isaac, of Jacob and his twelve sons, and of Judah. He is a continuation of the great kings of Israel, of the faithfulness of David and the wisdom of Solomon. Jesus is a continuation of the story of God’s people in Exile and of their restoration to the Promised Land.
While that is all very impressive and grand, even more importantly, the lineage of Jesus includes five women. Each is a fascinating character, worth exploring in your own scriptural readings.
First, there is Tamar, who fought for what was due to her by God’s law, and single-handedly preserved the line of Judah by tricking her father-in-law into sleeping with her. Then there is Rahab, a prostitute in the city of Jericho. She hid Israelite spies in her home and so helped the Israelites to conquer Jericho. Then there is Ruth, who has an entire book devoted to her story. By her faith in God and loyalty to her mother-in-law, Naomi, Ruth overcame great adversity and reclaimed all that she had lost. She also married Boaz, the son of Rahab, becoming the great-grandmother of King David.
The fourth woman is Bathsheba, the woman for whom David committed the great sins of adultery and murder. But Bathsheba would rise above David’s sin and becomes the Queen Mother of King Solomon. Finally, there is Mary, the mother of Jesus. By her faith and courage, she welcomed God’s plan for her, knowing that it could make her and outcast or even lead to her own death.
What is remarkable about these three women is that most of them weren’t even Israelites. They were foreigners. They were gentiles. They were also not passive recipients of God’s activity and of God’s righteousness. Each of them, who for their own reasons were disadvantaged by a world that denied them agency, took matters into their own hands. Each of them were the prime movers of not just their own lives, but of the story of God’s people.
Their inclusion in Jesus lineage makes a claim about God’s help, God’s salvation, coming from unexpected quarters. It makes a claim that Jesus, deeply rooted in the history of the Israelites, is also bound to all the people of the earth. He is the culmination of the covenant made with God’s people, and the salvation he offers is for all people.
Even more than that, their inclusion tells us that God-With-Us comes about because of people who took God’s work into their own hands. Christ comes among us because of people who, in the face of great adversity and against all odds, saw where God was working in their world. It is because of people who met God in the world and moved the story of all humanity forward.
That, my friends, is what this story is about. Though the appearance of angels, dream revelations, and the birth of a baby, are all enticing and exciting, they are almost distractions. This story is about the good news that Christ is what it looks like when God is with us. It is the good news that God keeps the covenant. It is the good news that God still has a plan, that God still has a vision of the future. And it is the good news that even when the world seems its most bleak, even when we feel powerless to change it, even when our very lives are in danger, that God enters the world to be with us. When we rise to meet God in the world, God is with us. When we seek to take part in God’s mission, and so move forward the story of all God’s people, God is with us.
Preached by Adam Yates