Commentary on Matthew 1:18-25
With its focus on Joseph as the chief character, Matthew’s unique story of Jesus’ birth will probably not be the model for any children’s Christmas pageant, in many of which Joseph seems to walk in the shadows as a necessary,
if somewhat embarrassing, appendage. In contrast, Matthew’s narrative takes great pains to identify Joseph as the father of Jesus, tracing out his link to King David in the elaborate genealogy that opens the gospel. And in our lesson, even if Jesus’ birth is clearly a miracle of God’s power through the Spirit, still Joseph is the real father, who by naming the child according to God’s command, in effect adopts this child as his own. That adoption is no mere fiction, but becomes Matthew’s way of ushering us into the mystery of the incarnation, apart from which this Jesus could not stand in the line of Davidic ancestry. If the mystery of the “word becoming flesh and dwelling among us” (John 1:14) were not enough, Matthew’s story is a veritable cornucopia of Matthean themes that could occupy the preacher for this Sunday or through the year.
Genesis and New Creation
Though disguised in translations, twice (1:1, 18) Matthew describes what is happening in Jesus as a “genesis,” a creation. This verbal link invites reflection on the place of this story in the story of God’s creative work from the beginning. In the first story, the Spirit of God moved over the face of the deep. God spoke and the world came into being. Here again by the Spirit and promise of God a new creation comes into being. How far is God willing to go in order to make good on God’s promises? Even to the point of doing creation all over again? Early Christians frequently imagined the Christ event, especially the resurrection of Jesus, as the eighth day of creation. What would it mean for the preacher to invite us Christians in this modern technologically savvy world to reflect on what happens in this Jesus as God’s continuing act of sustaining creation?
Incarnation and Mystery
If God acts to create, it is precisely in this world that God meets us and works out the particular shapes and stories of mercy. Matthew’s birth story underscores the common places of life-a Mary, a Joseph, the birth of a child; people faced with decisions involving religious traditions, law, and community or having to do with marriage, family or a decision to divorce-as the arenas in which God surprisingly enters human life with creative and transforming power. If God comes among the common and the everyday, the preacher can be the one who is able to point us to those everyday signs of God’s presence which are in some sense an extension of the great sign of God’s coming in the birth of this child of promise.
Obedience and Faith
Joseph, the central character in this story, is no wishy-washy person, but a person of strength and purpose. He is committed and faithful to his religious tradition and ready to act on that commitment. When the call of God comes to him through an angel in a dream, he is not just ruminating; he has already made a definite decision, “resolved” upon a course of action. Told against the backdrop of Old Testament stories of others to whom God’s call has come, this story is noticeably different. When the call comes, Joseph speaks not one word either of question or objection. He simply acts directly and immediately in obedient response to the call. Both in the original and in translation, the story makes this clear by describing Joseph’s actions of response with exactly the same words as used in the angel’s instructions. Joseph becomes visibly and audibly an example of the power of God’s call to transform our decisions and our lives. So here at the beginning, he is a model of faithful discipleship long before we hear Jesus’ commission at the end to “Go and make disciples” of all nations.
Joseph makes his decision to divorce Mary because he is righteous (19). Here in this story we meet explicitly for the first time an important theme of Matthew’s gospel. We are meant to ask, “What does righteousness look like?” And we are given a model of righteousness in Joseph’s faithful response to God’s call. The story also makes clear that this is no easy matter for Joseph or for us. What Joseph initially understands as the righteous thing to do is challenged directly by the call of God to act precisely opposite to what he saw and expected the law to demand. What happens when our notions of righteousness and justice come up against the ways of God’s creative mercy? In Joseph we meet one who risks becoming disobedient in the eyes of the world-becoming an outcast to family and community-dare we say, even becoming sinful and suffering-for the sake of being obedient to God’s call. So the story invites us to think of another in this story who became sin for us, that the promises of God might take shape in new creative power. When law and righteousness or justice seem to clash, how deep do the promises of God go? How far will discipleship lead us?
Of Dreams and Decisions
At every stage of this story, Joseph’s decisions are prompted by God’s intervention through a dream. As we prepare for Christmas and to receive this child we, too, might ask what happens when God is an intrusion into our nicely laid plans and decisions? How do we know when God is speaking to us and when it is just bad food? Depending on your perspective, intervention can be the good news of rescue or deliverance, or it can be just plain meddling. In Advent we pray, “Stir up your power, Lord, and come.” Are we really ready to risk that such a prayer might be answered? To be open to this story means to invite the possibility that obedient discipleship may transform us and lead us in ways we had never imagined.
Promise and Fulfillment
This story is not all surprise. Matthew more than any other gospel writer presents the story of Jesus as fulfilling what was spoken through the prophets. The first of those many references occurs in this story. The miraculous birth and the name “Immanuel,” God is with us, are scripted by God promises. That promise begins this story and stands again at its conclusion, “Remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Jesus is for Matthew the fulfillment of all of God’s promises. And God’s promises frame this story just as they frame each day of our lives.
What’s in a Name?
The angel says, “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This is serious business. We belong to God and God will be with God’s people. But just how far God is willing to go is left to our imaginations at this point in the story. But let it whet the appetite of hope. If even just the contemplation of that promise can so radically change of the life of even a righteous person, just imagine what its fulfillment in the story of Jesus might do in your life and mine!
By the Power of the Spirit
Robert Smith sums up this story well in his Augsburg Commentary (p. 36). This Jesus is “pure gift, holy surprise, a fresh act of God, a new genesis, a new creation.” And all it comes about “from the Holy Spirit.” We live with the awareness that God’s power is among us and ready to lead us in ways that we can only imagine. Is that good news, or is the prospect a bit frightening? If we do not anticipate the Christmas event both with hope and with just a bit of anxious fear, then we are not sufficiently tuned to the implications of God’s presence among us.