Readings Isaiah 7.10–16, Matthew 1.18–end
Preacher Canon Robert Titley
Between now and Christmas Day, we the Great British Public are set to spend £45,000 per second. Exhausting, so no wonder that for many the Day itself is a feast of TV watching.
Among the hardy annuals on the box, some are just frivolous (and why not?) while a lot of the more serious films and dramas can be divided into two unequal groups. The majority fall into what we can describe as the Call the Midwife camp. They tell stories of trouble, heartbreak even, but with the promise of a happy ending and a warm glow. In the other, smaller camp are darker things, and chief among them is the EastEnders Christmas special, with its annual dose of family strife and betrayal. This year, I understand, Janine is planning drastic action in the Butcher household on Christmas Day. Remember, you heard it here first.
Of the two gospels that supply our Christmas stories, Matthew and Luke, today we get Matthew, which is more of the EastEnders kind. Christmas in Luke is no walk in the park – there is a hard journey to Jerusalem for Mary and Joseph then no room at the inn – but Matthew’s is much darker. King Herod looms over it all, trying to recruit the Wise Men as useful idiots to locate Jesus, ordering a child massacre to liquidate the one baby he sees as a rival, and driving the holy family into exile.
In today’s reading Matthew is not much different. This Fourth Sunday in Advent is the day for remembering Jesus’ mother Mary. We lit a candle to celebrate her at the start; the first reading was Isaiah’s prophecy, ‘a young woman shall conceive’, which Christians quickly saw as pointing to Mary, and which Matthew quotes this morning (notice how Isaiah’s original words ‘a young woman shall conceive’ become ‘a virgin shall conceive’); we just sang Mary’s own song, the Magnificat; and an anthem later will tell the story in Luke’s gospel of the angel Gabriel coming to Mary with news of Jesus’ coming birth.
When Matthew tells us about Mary, as he does this morning, he does it through Joseph. He and Mary are engaged. He discovers she is pregnant (Matthew says she is ‘with child from the Holy Spirit’, but Joseph’s decision to end the engagement quietly suggests that he suspects another man, not God). Then an angel appears to him in a dream and persuades him to go through with the marriage. In both stories, Luke and Matthew, there is talk of fear – both angels say, ‘don’t be afraid’ – but Matthew’s story also has darker notes of shame and scandal.
Mary and Joseph live in first-century Palestine. There’s nothing like a welfare state, so the family is the only reliable source of social care. To bring a child into the world outside marriage is to step outside that web of care, which is dangerous and brings sanctions: you run the risk of being cast out, or worse. Joseph, though, is a decent man and wants to do the decent thing. He will even go so far – on the basis of a dream – to marry Mary, and hope he finds the courage to endure the smirks, the whispers behind his back and the jibes in the local bar.
Matthew’s Christmas stories describe the world into which Jesus will come. It’s unmistakably our world, in which people do wrong things, or attempt to do the right thing, but can’t stop hurting each other even as they try, as Isaiah puts it, to ‘refuse the evil and choose the good’. What do we do in such a world?
What do we do, for instance, about Syria, which has seen its own child massacres? It’s been hit by one of its worst winter storms in a century, and the UN estimates that about three quarters of all Syrians will need aid to survive. It’s asked for an unprecedented £4 billion. But aid can release resources for war fighting, and who do we want to win Syria’s war? And if the answer is ‘the opposition’, which of the eleven major groups do you want to come out on top? Sometimes you can’t lift a finger without hurting someone, and you know that not lifting a finger will also do great hurt. This is the true meaning of the biblical idea of sin: it’s not just bad deeds but a web of hurting and being hurt that we can’t break free of.
So what do we do? Today’s story begins to tell us what God does. A baby is coming. Joseph knows the child is not his. The angel tells him it isn’t really Mary’s either, not in the deepest sense: notice how he talks about the child in a very impersonal way, literally, ‘that which is conceived in her’. This is God’s baby, deep down. This is God’s initiative, this is God starting to do for us what we cannot do for ourselves. Call him Jesus, says the angel, which means ‘God saves’, because he will save his people from their sins.
How will he do that? He won’t lift us clean out of the web of hurting and being hurt, but in him we shall see God inhabiting our own flesh and blood. We shall find there a promise that, as with Mary herself, God can work in us things we could not conceive ourselves, and an assurance that we are not on our own. That is why he has a second name, Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’
Let’s not forget Joseph, though. He is asked to take on more than he can conceive, only to be relegated each Christmas to being a mute figure in the crib. So let’s give him a voice. This is ‘I am Joseph’, by UA Fanthorpe.
I am Joseph, carpenter,
Of David’s kingly line,
I wanted an heir; discovered
My wife’s son wasn’t mine.
I am an obstinate lover,
Loved Mary for better or worse.
Wouldn’t stop loving when I found
Someone Else came first.
Mine was the likeness I hoped for
When the first-born man-child came.
But nothing of him was me. I couldn’t
Even choose his name.
I am Joseph, who wanted
To teach my own boy how to live.
My lesson to my foster son:
Endure. Love. Give.
Young woman or virgin? The original Hebrew word in Isaiah can only mean ‘young woman’. Matthew’s gospel is originally written in Greek, and when the writer quotes Isaiah he uses a Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, which we call the Septuagint. Parthenos, the Greek word that the Septuagint uses at this point in Isaiah, can mean either ‘young girl’ or ‘virgin’. Matthew’s context of Mary being ‘with child of the Holy Spirit’ means it has to be rendered ‘virgin’.