Dear Working Preacher,
There are a handful of passages in Scripture -- and this is definitely one of them -- that trouble a surprising number of our people regarding the relationship between the gospel accounts and history. Perhaps it's that the scene Matthew's depicts forms a beloved part of the Christmas story, or maybe it's the way "born of the virgin Mary" figures in both of our creeds, but this seems like one of the passages that confuses or confounds many Christians.
Typically, those troubled come from both ends of the spectrum. That is, some feel that adherence to Matthew's account of Jesus' "virgin birth" is essential to the faith, while others feel that it epitomizes those elements of Christianity they simply can't believe. Likewise, there seem to be two main answers that clergy are prone to give, some striving vigorously to prove the historical reliability of the virgin birth, others contending just as forcibly that believing such "metaphors" is not essential -- and can sometimes be detrimental -- to Christian faith.
For my money, both approaches to the question of the relationship between history and faith miss the point...entirely. Matthew is not writing history. Or, to be more accurate, Matthew is writing history the way all first-century historians operated: he is telling a story in order to educate and persuade. He is not, however, writing history the way we understand it today, with the goal of offering a neutral, unbiased, and objectively accurate account of history according to the rational standards of our post-enlightenment twenty-first century world. Don't get me wrong. Matthew definitely tells a story he believes is true, and he wants us to believe it as well. But it's not the "facts" that Matthew presses upon us but a larger, narrative truth that he can only confess. And by taking pains to prove or disprove the historicity of the passage we miss the treasure Matthew offers: a confession of faith that in Jesus Christ God is creating once again in order to keep God's promises to Israel and, indeed, all the world.
There are two key elements here, and Matthew weaves both together beautifully. First, Matthew is interested in creation, and although the NRSV misses the nuance of the translation, he actually talks about genesis -- beginnings -- twice in the first chapter of his gospel (1:1, 18). Matthew is describing, that is, a new creation. Little wonder, from this point of view, that the Spirit that blew across the waters at the beginning of time is again active, this time conceiving in Mary a child who will be, quite literally for Matthew, a new Adam. (Note, in this context, the similarity of the character of temptation of Jesus in Matthew 4 and that of Adam and Eve in Genesis 3.)
Matthew is also interested in God's promises to Israel. And here is why Joseph is central to Matthew's account, as it is through Joseph that Jesus' lineage can be traced to David. God made some pretty big promises to Israel through David, and Matthew believes that God is keeping all these promises and more in Jesus. The primary promise -- made in response to David's desire to build God a house - that is, a temple -- was to establish David's house, or descendants, forever. Note how God begins this promise: "I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be a prince over my people Israel, and I have been with you wherever you went..." (2 Sam. 7:8-9). God's promise is to be with David and his descendants forever. And in Jesus that promise is kept, except that now God is not just with David and his line, or even Israel, but all of us. For this reason Jesus shall be called Emmanuel, "God is with us." (And Matthew isn't done here -- in the chapters to come he will also stress how God keeps the promises made to Israel through Moses as well!)
And here's the point, Working Preacher. When we focus on the historical questions we miss Matthew's beautifully woven tapestry of confessions -- confessions that the God who created the earth so long ago is not deterred by human sin but is creating once again in order to renew and redeem creation and all of us; and confessions that God keeps God's promises, often in ways we could never expect.
Are these questions of history important? Absolutely, as they shape our sense of how the Bible is, in fact, God's Word to us today, and it is important to help our people read it as it was written: as a book of faith to believed, not a history or science textbook full of facts to be proved in a laboratory. But save that kind of discussion for adult education class (actually, take it up in confirmation, too, as our kids also crave the chance to connect head and heart!).
In the sermon, however, spare me the historical explanations and just confess: Confess that creation was not once and done. Confess that God is still at work in the world. Confess that God keeps God's promises. Confess that we see all of this -- God's ongoing creative and promise-keeping work -- most fully in the baby Jesus, born of Joseph and Mary, and eager to be received by all who listen for a word of mercy, hope, and grace even today.
Thank for your faithful labor, Working Preacher, as through your proclamation God's promises are sounded once again and create faith even now. Thank you and, even more, thank God for you.
Yours in Christ,