RCL Texts: Isaiah 7.10-16; Psalm 80.1-7, 16-18; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.(1-17)18-25.
I speak to you in the name of God: Father, Son, & Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Mary will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1.21).
St. Matthew’s account of the Gospel does not begin with a narrative ‘bang’. In fact, there’s very little that would hook a modern reader. The Gospel begins with a genealogy, more specifically, Jesus’ genealogy through the line of his earthly father, Joseph. This long list of difficult to pronounce names is omitted from the Lectionary, and while any potential reader is breathing a sigh of relief, this list of names, regardless of length and tounge-twisitng names, remains important. So important in fact, that Matthew begins his account of the Gospel with it.
I always wondered why Matthew was the first Gospel in the New Testament. Why not Mark, which is the Gospel that was written first. Or what about John’s account, with its opening chapter that offers a profound poetic description of Jesus? Or what about Luke, the historian with an eye for detail and historical fact? So why Matthew?
The simplest answer is Matthew’s account of the gospel is the most Jewish, which is to say Matthew’s primary target audience were his fellow Jews and he therefore emphasized aspects of Jewish theology and liturgy in order to clearly identify Jesus as the long-awaited Messiah promised to God’s people. Therefore, the gospel according to St. Matthew offers a natural ‘bridge’ between the Old and New Testaments.
But why start with a genealogy?
Well, as previously stated, Matthew’s goal is to identify Jesus as the promised Messiah. What better way to confirm this than through Jesus’ family tree. Matthew wants to highlight two things: that Jesus is the son of Abraham and that Jesus is the son of David. In other words, like Abraham, Jesus is the “ideal Israelite” (Keener, 51) who will fulfill God’s promise made to Abraham that in him “all the nations of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen. 12.3). Like David, Jesus is the true heir to the throne of Israel, and therefore the rightful king.
Yes, Matthew traces Jesus’ lineage through the men. However, regardless of what our modern sensitivities might make of this, there is no controversy here; this was common practice in a patrilineal culture. What is counter-culture is Matthew’s inclusion of five women, four of whom were embroiled in sexual scandals, and two of whom were Gentiles. None of this is to suggest that the 42 men mentioned where above repute; there are some scoundrels in this crowd as well.
So, how does including ethnic outsiders and less than virtuous men and women bolster Matthew’s case that Jesus is the Messiah? Wouldn’t it be better to simply omit the family tree, especially since Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father, and get on with telling about Jesus’ life and ministry, following Mark’s straightforward approach? Perhaps. But Matthew’s point in including the genealogy is meant to underline the reality and scandal of the Incarnation – the fact that God the Son came to earth to be born of a woman – to be fully human – and to live among us. Moreover, the genealogy Matthew provides is meant to make it clear that “so much is Jesus the focal point of history that his ancestors depend on him for their meaning” (Keener, 53). Therefore, the gospel is itself proclaimed in this genealogy because it implicitly tells the story of how God is at work in the lives of ordinary men and women and through them does extraordinary things, most importantly providing a human family for Jesus, the Messiah.
And why a Messiah? Verse 21 of the Gospel reading is very interesting: “you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins”. His name will be Jesus because he will save people from their sins. Jesus is an English transliteration of the Greek Iasous which is a transliteration of the Hebrew Yeshua (which is in turn transliterated into English as Joshua). Yeshua means ‘Yahweh saves’. Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah. Jesus is Yahweh-with-us. This is precisely why Mary and Joseph had no option in what to name their boy; their son is God the Son, the God who saves and delivers his people.
And what from what does Jesus save his people? From their sin.
Sin remains the biggest problem the world faces. Indeed, all problems on earth – wars, political turmoil, climate change, hunger and poverty – boil down to sin. The world’s greatest need remains wholeness and healing that can only come through reconciliation with God. In order to save the people from sin and to restore us to communion with God, our neighbour and creation itself, God the Son, had to come to earth as a human, to live and die as a human, to be resurrected from the dead as a human. This is the scandal of the incarnation. And this is why Christmas is really not about fluffy sheep, angelic choirs, sentimental traditions, or stockings lined in a row. Christmas is about sin. More specifically, Christmas is about how God saves his people from sin and suffering. Christmas is about God’s plan to put the worlds to rights, about God’s desire to bring healing and wholeness to the world.
God brings His healing and wholeness to the world through the most unexpected means: through an infant born to a virgin, through living and dying and rising again as a human. Jesus’ life on earth begins with a mom and a dad. But more than that, his life begins through Mary’s conception by the Holy Spirit. There are those who remain scandalized by the Virgin Birth, as though Mary herself was unware of how babies are made. Nevertheless, Matthew treats Mary’s pregnancy not as a far-flung conspiracy that needs intricate justification, but rather as simple fact. Matthew does not back up his outstanding claim with medical charts nor does he attempt to respond to cynics with careful arguments; Matthew simply backs up his claim by appealing to Scripture. Matthew is confident that the same Word who spoke through the prophet Isaiah is the same Word who created everything our of nothing who is the same Word that Mary carried in her Womb. Mary, like Matthew, accepts this Word in faith.
Not only is Mary is final name mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy, as Matthew makes it clear she is part of the fulfilment of Scripture. Indeed, the child she bears is the fulfilment of the entirety of Scripture and the culmination of human history.
For this reason, Mary is central in God’s story of salvation. Unfortunately, “Mary finds no place in many theologies”. Her faith is “reduced to an abstraction, an abstraction that doesn’t need a mother” (Ratzinger). And yet, Mary is important because Jesus is important. Mary is the Second Eve, the one through whom the Second Adam is born. St. Paul calls Jesus the ‘Second Adam’, the one in whom grace and eternal life are found. The Second Adam did not come from heaven like a lightning bolt or a divine apparition; he came as a child, born to a Virgin.
Because Mary is Jesus mother, she is our mother as well. Her faith in receiving God’s word – that she, a virgin, would have a child despite the seeming impossibility of this – is exemplary. Her “may it be so according to your word” is the essence of faith for all those whom Christ calls his brothers and sisters. In this way, Mary is the mother of our faith and therefore should have a central place in our theology. To be clear, giving a clear and central place to Mary in our theology is not the imposition of Roman Catholicism into the Anglican Church; rather, it is faithfulness to Scripture and the traditions with which we’ve been entrusted.
And what of Joseph, Jesus’ earthly step-father if you will? Joseph’s faith is also exemplary. He too receives the word of the Lord at face value and does as he is commanded. Therefore, Joseph should not be reduced to a secondary character either; his role in God’s story of salvation is central as well, and not only because of his family tree. The sheer fact that Jesus was born into a family of husband and wife is a clear indicator of the way in which God orders human relationships and does so toward human flourishing. The family unit of husband, wife, and children is central not only to the propagation of the species, but also the God’s story of salvation. Simply put, the story of Jesus’ birth makes it clear that families matter to God. It is through families that God works his plan of salvation.
Therefore, we rightly celebrate Christmas as a time for families to gather. However, for many Christmas is a time that exacerbates the sting of the loss of a beloved family member or amplifies the pain of family brokenness. For many, Christmas is not a time of joyous celebration brought on by the hustle-and-bustle of the season, but rather is a time of anguish and agony. If anything, Christmas is a season to be avoided, to stay away from others, lest the pain become overwhelming.
The sorrow experienced by so many at Christmas is evidence of the brokenness of our world, an indication that we need healing and wholeness. Indeed, we need only consider Jesus’ family tree to see that family brokenness is not a modern phenomenon. It is precisely for this reason that Jesus came into the world: to free us from our brokenness and to make the world whole once again.
Advent is a time of waiting and preparation. Today on this the fourth Sunday of Advent, our waiting and preparation is nearing an end; Christmas is almost here. And yet, amidst the brokenness of our world, our waiting and preparation remain ongoing beyond Advent. We wait and prepare for the Second Advent of Christ, the one born of a Virgin, who will come again to put the world back into its proper order.
As the sisters and brothers of Christ, those adopted into God’s household, may we as a church family embody the reconciling love of Christ by reaching out to the broken and inviting them into God’s family where they may receive forgiveness and healing.
So, come let us celebrate his coming among us as a child and come, let us longingly await his coming again that he might save us from our sins.