How is the birth of a Messiah supposed to take place?
Should friends gather for a baby shower? Is it important to identify the gender beforehand? Who will be in the delivery room? Will the press be invited?
These twenty-first century questions aren’t much help when reading Matthew’s first-century story about the birth of Jesus. What they reveal is that Matthew isn’t so much concerned with the birth of a baby as with the birth of a Messiah. This is quite another matter.
The passage begins, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way” (1:18). This verse marks a shift in the text from genealogy to narrative, but the two belong together. Already, in v. 16, we have heard about Joseph, the husband of Mary, from whom was born Jesus, the one who is called the Messiah. This easily overlooked verse actually serves as a prelude to the story that begins in v. 18. It is an important verse because it breaks pattern with the preceding entries in the genealogy where each new generation is begat by the preceding male. Not so Joseph. He may be the husband of Mary, but he is not Jesus’ father. (Later, this is a paradigm that we are all invited to participate in: “And call no one your father on earth, for you have one Father — the one in heaven [23:89]).
When we come to v. 18, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way,” we are primed to recognize this as the start of an answer to an unarticulated question about the origin of Jesus the Messiah. It is a question that will appeal to our burgeoning interest as a culture in ancestry, an interest that divides those whose ancestors are known from those whose ancestors are unknown. Matthew reveals that the Messiah arises from the intersection of the known and the unknown. The instability of this intersection is a helpful reminder that we only ever see a part of the whole story.
Such is the case for Joseph. We know that the child Mary carries is from the Holy Spirit, because we have been told, but Joseph has not. At this moment, Joseph must respond to Mary from the place of his partial knowing. In the 21st century, we may be tempted to turn this into a regular soap opera, wrought with emotional drama and indecision. Writing in the first century, Matthew says that Joseph responds in character: as a righteous man he chooses not to disgrace Mary, but to separate from her quietly. As it turns out, Joseph represents an example of a model type. In the Gospel of Matthew, the “righteous” are those who behave in ways that reflect the nature and will of God (e.g., 5:45; 9:13; 13:49; 25:37).
It is important to note that the first decision by Joseph arises before an angel appears to him in a dream. What he learns from the angel causes him to change direction and to take Mary as his wife (a decision perhaps made easier by his not having made a public fuss). Yet it is Joseph’s first decision to set Mary aside that is attributed to his righteousness. The second decision is simply a response to new information. It is the stability of Joseph’s character in the face of an unstable situation that makes it possible for the story to move through to its end.
The angel tells Joseph that his role in the birth of Jesus the Messiah is to give the child its name. The act of naming is also an act of adoption: it draws Joseph and Jesus into relationship so that later in the narrative, people will refer to Jesus as “the carpenter’s son” (Matthew 13:55 — the only reference to Joseph after chapter 2). Yet the name Joseph is instructed to give reveals that this child belongs not just to Joseph and Mary, he belongs to “his people” whom he will save from their sins.
An aside to the reader tells us that all of this is to fulfill the words of the prophet (Isaiah 7:14, 8:8, 10). Joseph doesn’t hear these words. He responds only to the words of the angel, takes Mary as his wife, and when she gives birth to a son, names the child Jesus. Joseph will continue to be guided by dreams and angels until he brings Mary and Jesus safely to Nazareth.
The words of the prophet provide us, as readers, with more information about Jesus than just his name. This Jesus, the Messiah, is Emmanuel — God with us (see also Matthew 28:20). This may prompt us to ask, where has God been? Isn’t God always with us? An answer to this question is lodged in the genealogy, which wends its way through patriarchs, women, and kings to the Babylonian exile. It is here that the story leaves off before the appearance of Jesus the Messiah. Wherever God has been or may be, the people (Jesus’ people) are in exile — in Babylon, in Rome (called “Babylon” in early Christian literature). And they are waiting to be delivered from the missteps that have landed them there, repeatedly.
These people are our ancestors by faith. Like them, wherever we find ourselves, we are waiting to be delivered from our sense of God’s absence to a time and place where we know that God is with us. This doesn’t necessarily mean it will be a place of certainty, when and where we know the whole story. Instead, it will be a place where we will be invited to respond to what we see in front of us with righteousness that does not seek to disgrace, and to even change direction when new information enables us to see more than we could see before.
The birth of Jesus, the Messiah, opens our eyes to this time and place. Not the birth of a baby, but of our awareness of God with us: A generative space in which to grow.
God of promise, you made a commitment to Joseph that you would make Jesus a savior to all. Renew your commitment with us, so that all may know the saving grace of your son, Jesus. We pray these things in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
All earth is hopeful ELW 266Peace came to earth ELW 285 Joy to the world ELW 267, H82 100, UMH 246
I look from afar, Palestrina/Shephard