Isaiah 7: 10-16, Psalm 80, Matthew 1:18-25
We all know that our names carry a lot of meaning, pointing towards our family lineage and identity, carrying the stories of our family’s journey with all their hardships and successes. Any parent knows both the joy and challenge of finding the appropriate name for a new born child, deciding whether to carry on some vestige of family names to honour your past, or to express some spiritual quality found in nature such as bird, a flower, or a season, or whether it should be a new name never heard before pointing toward the future. I know that my daughter Jess and her husband Micah went through lots of discussions to settle on the name of Isadore Howard before he was born, choosing to use the name of Micah’s great grandfather Izzy and his father’s middle name Howard. And there are lots of family stories around those names as I assume each of you may have stories about your ancestry, reminding you where you are from and what kind of person you are called to be as your best self.
Imagine then the sense of risk and responsibility that Joseph took in being asked by a divine being to name Jesus, remembering the story of how Adam and Eve were once given the power by God of naming all the animals and plants at the beginning of creation. Matthew introduces the story of Jesus’ life as a new act of creation, beginning with the naming of Jesus, Emmanuel which means “God is with us”.
Matthew wants us to be clear about the identity of Jesus, lifting up his credentials so to speak that qualifies him to be named “Jesus”, which means ‘he saves’, for Matthew lays out in the beginning of his book the mostly patriarchal genealogy of Joseph which can be traced back to Abraham. Another time it would be worth having a detailed look at this genealogy, but for now I will invite you to notice how the generations are grouped into sets of 14, a derivative of 7, one of those powerful symbolic numbers in scripture, and to notice that this includes a list of royalty, beginning with King David, including those kings who were corrupt or incompetent.
Another important clue to what Jesus ministry would become was the inclusion of the names of some of the mothers who were not Hebrews, such as Rahab who was a prostitute and Ruth, the Moabite who was a foreigner. The last male to be named was of course Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born. In the listing of all of these various relatives, Matthew does not hide the fact that there were some interesting deviations in how God’s family unfolded, giving room for all kinds of people to become part of this spiritual family. It is encouraging to note this as well as we head into our own Christmas activities and family visits where stories are often told about family members, usually including the ones everyone prefers could be forgotten or dropped out of the family tree. It might bring some comfort to realize that even Jesus had some dysfunctional family history and that was all part of God’s unfolding plan.
Some people might wonder how this all makes sense since the story tells us that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus. But connecting Jesus with Joseph ensures Jesus’ identity as a relative of King David, and therefore able to be called the Messiah. A number of communities in the ancient world used remarkable birth stories to show that an important person was under the divine hand from the beginning. Matthew explicitly says that Mary was a virgin (parthenos) when Jesus was born. This unusual dimension of Jesus’ birth indicates that God has had a hand in Jesus’ life from the very beginning. Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth in such as way that we will see that God is the one who plants the seed in Mary for a child to be born, for a new kind of generation to begin that will address the sins of their generation.
Of course, this is all kind of confusing for Joseph, who is very disturbed to find out that Mary has become pregnant before the time that they are living together. What else is a man to think except that she had an affair going on with someone else or that maybe she has been assaulted by one of the Roman soldiers that travelled throughout their region (this was a story that went around later in the century to discredit Jesus’ divinity).
Not unlike any man today, he was conflicted because he loved Mary and struggled to discern the right thing to do, to live up to the moral standards he had been taught. The law in Deuteronomy 22: 23-27 were pretty clear that the woman was considered responsible for what happened to her (still sadly the law in some conservative Muslim countries even today and even in the attitude of some of our own courts towards women) and that the punishment would be death by stoning. But Joseph loved Mary and did not want her to experience more harm and humiliation, so he decided to end the engagement quietly. It was a messy time in his life and hard to determine what the right thing to do was. He slept on it.
Even though the Christmas season is often portrayed more through the lens of Luke’s gospel story, complete with a warm stable, softly braying animals, a myriad of angels filling a starry sky, Matthew begins the story of Jesus life in the midst of a man’s inner conflict and struggle with moral choices and what it means to truly love someone and do the right thing. It is in the midst of the messiness of life that Jesus is born, where God shows up as Emmanuel.
I am certain that there are examples of times in your own life when you had some tough decisions to make, with no clear path forward, nights when your mind raced, thoughts stirred and broiled in your dreams as you mulled over what the right course of action should be. Of course in these days of such troubling political turmoil in the United States as a decision has been made to move forward to impeach their President, and as we have recently heard that the evangelical journal, Christianity Today has publicly supported that decision, we can imagine that there are many people in that country and in our own as we are directly affected by these actions, that are struggling with their sense of morality, justice and what is the right thing to do when you truly love the people of a nation and what to believe in beyond the personal self-interest.
And just consider the challenging decisions that the government of Nova Scotia had to make this week concerning the future of Northern Pulp Mill near Pictou, demanding they stop pumping contaminating wastewater into lagoons near the Pictou Landing First Nation, by January 31st, 2020.
As so many of our existing institutions, structures and belief systems seem to be under attack right now, or at least seriously challenged or as in the case of the churches teaching, simply disregarded, there are certainly many occasions where we are mulling over what the right actions are to take, wondering what values and ideas we may need to let go of and what new ways of thinking, organizing and relating to each other that the world needs to be embrace. I know that I myself having many sleepless nights as changes are happening so rapidly and as ideas about morality, respect and integrity are constantly being changed or challenged.
So Joseph, in the midst of his personal dilemma, sleeps on it and is visited by an angel who whispers clearly in his night-time mind – “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 form their sins.” His fears were addressed by this angel and he was given clarity in how he should act. The promises of the prophet Isaiah, announced generations before him, would be fulfilled by his actions and Joseph would name this child Jesus, Emmanuel.
Joseph was a man of action, listening to the word of God spoken by the angel, a man who fulfilled the spirit of the law of love, letting go of his own pride and lifting up the one he loved in her time of need. And by adopting Mary’s son as his own, the child of a peasant girl, joins Jesus to the family tree enabling him to become an offspring of Abraham and King David, carrying forward the covenant promises of God. The promises that were given to Abraham and Sarah, passed on throughout the generations, is that God would be with us always, and as Jesus’ promises at the end of Matthew’s gospel, even until the end of time. Jesus in his ministry would continue to teach how the law of love should be chosen in so many messy situations that people encounter in their lives. He would save people from their sins.
Through our own baptisms, for some men even their circumcisions, we are still blessed to receive the promises of God, that the Spirit will still be with us today to address our fears head on, to join us even in the messiest situations that life can throw at us, to bring us the wisdom and clarity of thought that will help us to make the right choices, to know what is moral, true and just.
On these last three Sundays of Advent we have heard from the voice of the influential prophet Isaiah who spoke some difficult truths to society from inside his political system, and then from John the Baptist, the radical voice who emerged out of the wilderness speaking to the depths of the human soul calling for renewal, and then from Mary who trusted in God’s voice and placed her faith in what God was growing within her – a son.
And now today we have received wisdom from Joseph, the adoptive father of Jesus, whose troubled mind finds peace by choosing the higher moral directive to love and to trust that this child that was to be born would make a difference in the world and would even save lives.
It is to this kind of faith and believing that we are still called today, in our generation. Through that believing, Christ will come again, even in your life, in our life as the church, in our society, even in our times of deepest darkness. Matthew’s story of Christmas reveals to us again that God’s path for redemption, for the healing and salvation of this world will find a way to continue creating God’s most awesome and interesting family lineage even beyond the birth of Jesus, urging us to choose the way of divine love, even going so far as planting the seeds of that eternal love in the most unlikely people.
Now it’s our turn to believe, to keep that divine lineage growing, to claim our own identity as the sons and daughters of God whether through our baptism in Jesus’ name or the through the faith stirring in our hearts calling us to actions of love and justice. The angels are still speaking, bringing words of courage in the face of our fears, and as real as they may be, encouraging us to choose love, even in the most difficult of choices that we have to face when we feel overwhelmed by chaos. Christ is born again for the name he was given by Joseph is Emmanuel, God is with us, a promise that will not be broken. May we find our inner courage and strength renewed in the season of Christmas to make the choice for love.