When Christians ponder the last leg of Advent and the arrival at Christmas, generally it’s Luke’s time in the spotlight. At least, that’s how it works for most of our remembrance and liturgy. Luke’s way of emphasizing the risk, fragility, and high hopes surrounding Jesus’ conception and birth lends so much to our sense of what Christmas is about and how the Messiah’s Advent tells a marvelous theological story.
In Year A of the Revised Common Lectionary, when we want to let Matthew speak with its own integrity, it’s a useful exercise to read Matthew 1:18-25 while trying, as much as possible, to banish Luke 1-2 from memory. That’s difficult, because Luke has trained us to expect more in our Christmas story. When we enter into Matthew’s less colorful account, we’re left with virtually no attention to Mary. Instead, we get to wonder about Joseph’s very shady attempt to be righteous, and we’re left to chew on a hundred questions about whether anyone has any idea about what God is up to in the incredible arrival of a child who will somehow “save his people from their sins.”
Matthew makes the nativity story nearly entirely about Divine initiative. There’s no significant attention given to faith, emotion, virtue, agency, consent, joy, or even wonder. No songs, either. This doesn’t necessarily mean that Matthew is cold-blooded. (If it weren’t for the existence of Luke’s infancy narrative, would we even pause and subject Matthew to such scrutiny?) Matthew’s narrative greets us as a gospel of discovery and in-breaking. Those aspects don’t rule out the possibility that the story’s human characters are churning with expectation, ingenuity, and insight, but Matthew takes no effort to reveal those things. Instead, Matthew tells a story about what God is doing and will yet do, whether or not anyone recognizes it for what it is.
I’m not suggesting that human beings have no role in theology, nor am I implying that theology doesn’t address and describe us. Rather, I mean that Matthew asks us, for now, to be quiet about the people. God is active here, in unseen, unexpected, and unexplained ways. “Why? How?” we respond with hunger, and Matthew just says, “Shhh. Wait.” That’s not too far off from what the angel in our text says to Joseph, which is, in essence, “Do nothing. Keep going. Watch what happens.”
If there are prominent tensions and emotions in Matthew’s account, they have to do with noting danger and the fear that can arise in dangerous circumstances. That seems to be Joseph’s issue, and once we get to Chapter 2 the risks become much clearer, with the duplicity of King Herod, his horrific violence, and the flight to Egypt in search of sanctuary. It’s a short Christmas story that Year A assigns to the fourth Sunday of Advent, but there’s enough there to show us longstanding norms and securities getting upended.
Even with all of the threat in the air, however, people in Matthew with incomplete knowledge continue to show up and, practically inexplicably, respond in the right ways. It’s true for Joseph in his response to his dreams, and it’s true for the magi. Even though Matthew keeps Mary hidden, we can reasonably assume that it’s true for her, too.
How will the Messiah’s Advent come to fulfillment? Matthew intimates that God will take care of it, and even confused people will somehow figure out how to participate if they stay alert to the cues and the divine correctives.
Congregations will have the opportunity to contemplate Christmas’s deep mysteries next week, when Luke 2 (or maybe you’ll choose John 1) sets the table to peer deeper into incarnation, salvation, and praise. But Matthew asks you to proceed more slowly and with less knowledge as you approach the Birth.
In a nutshell, what’s Matthew’s message for this point in time, before we go to the manger in a cave and hear the angels’ songs in the fields?
It’s simple. Watch what happens. Pay attention.
Most of you, Working Preachers, don’t have the luxury of offering a message as brief as that one, not with Christmas Eve bearing down on us. But you can amplify Matthew’s emphasis; stretch it out over your allotted time. Direct attention to the ways God’s weird in-breaking continues among us, even in obscure circumstances. Describe where salvation is taking place. Point us toward the locations where God has pledged to bring salvation. Encourage us to watch before we worry about responding or contemplating.
Invite us all to pause at the wonder and the refreshment that Christmas brings. Remind us that the prospect of “God is with us” resounds with comfort and joy, but only to some. Because at the same time, God’s arrival will threaten more norms than Joseph ever imagined. And when norms are threatened, the people who are regularly harmed by them can expect more discomfort and peril to fall on them.
Finally, dear partners in this ministry, don’t forget to show up yourself for worship. Be grateful for the vocation you have. It’s a vocation that calls all of us to watch what happens as a result of God’s strange commitment to this stubborn world.