Advent VI, Year A – Matthew 1:18-25
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
December 22, 2019
Growing up, my sister and I were very close to all of our grandparents, but I was particularly close to my paternal grandfather Charles Everson. My granddad was an interesting character with interesting hobbies like flying airplanes and repairing old clocks, but one of the things I’ll always remember about him was fascination with our family history. Over the years, he traveled around the upper Midwest and Back East going from library to cemetery to county courthouse looking for clues that would lead him further back in time in our lineage. Ultimately, he was able to trace both the Everson line and that of his maternal grandfather to the late 1700’s on this side of the pond, but he ended with problem: he couldn’t figure out where we came from in Europe.
Matthew’s gospel begins just before the passage we heard this morning with the long genealogy of Jesus, and it too ended with a problem. The purpose of the listing of his genealogy was to show that Jesus, the Messiah, was the son of David, and as it lists “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah,” and so on, we expect to hear, “Joseph was the father of Jesus.” Instead, we hear, “Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.” This is this problem that St. Matthew is working out in verses 18-25 that we heard today.
Joseph was engaged to be married to Mary at this point, but they were not yet living together. Inn their day, engagement meant that they were legally married, but didn’t yet live together or have marital relations. Thus, Mary being pregnant meant that not only had she been unfaithful to her betrothed, but that she had legally committed adultery. Or at least so Joseph thought. If she had committed adultery, Joseph was legally obliged to divorce her. But being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, he planned to dismiss her quietly. Just as he had decided to do this, an angel visited him in a dream and explained that Mary was pregnant not by another man, but by the Holy Spirit. The angel addressed Joseph as “son of David,” reminding us of the lineage problem going on. The angel continues by instructing him to name the boy Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. We don’t hear it in our context, but there’s a play on words going on here that only the Greek speaking Jews would have caught. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua which comes from the verb “to rescue” or “to deliver.” All of this was to fulfill the prophecy that we heard from the prophet Isaiah: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel” which means “God is with us.” It isn’t until the very end of the story that we hear of the actual birth of Jesus in the most back handed way. “But [he] had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son.” That’s it. The genealogical problem that Matthew is trying to work out is finally solved in the very last phrase of this passage: “and he named him Jesus.” By naming the child, Joseph acknowledges him as his son; in effect, Joseph adopts Jesus, and thus incorporates him legally into David’s line.
It is odd to hear a story of Jesus’s birth during the season of Advent! But this passage works because it isn’t really about Jesus’s birth. Matthew is much less interested in the story of the actual birth than he is in the identity of the one being born. The babe that is to be born is the one the prophets spoke of so long ago. He is the son of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; he is the son of David, Solomon, Uzziah, Amos, and Zerubbabel; he is the son of Joseph and Mary. He is the promised one who will redeem Israel from all its distress and iniquity. He is the one who will finally lead them out of exile into the Promised Land for all of eternity. His name will be Jesus as he will save his people from their sins.
Now there are many in our world today who think that humanity doesn’t need a Savior. There are many who think that sin is an antiquated notion from the Middle Ages used by the Church to control people by fear and intimidation. But really, all one has to do is look at the public sins of the clergy who, in essence if not in fact, control the Church to know that humanity needs a Savior. Beyond public sins, most of the scandal in the lives of the clergy happen inside where no one but God can see, just like you.
God could have chosen to come into the world in a multitude of ways – perhaps using a 24th century transporter from Star Trek. But he didn’t. He chose to come into this world in a most scandalous way: he made a teenage girl from an unimportant village who was barely married pregnant by supernatural means. But thanks be to God, the scandal of the Incarnation meets us in the scandal of our lives today. We so often think that our own sinful lives, whether it’s out in the open like you see on Judge Judy or, more often, eating away at our insides and making us feel like we’re going to rot from within…we often think that a holy God would want nothing to do with us. Thanks be to God: the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob; the God of David; the God of Joseph and Mary chose to become human in the person of Jesus Christ to rescue us from the mire we’re in.
I remember my grandfather telling me of various scandals he’d discovered in his research of our family history, some of which were quite salacious and even juicy. I also remember learning of various scandals in our own more immediate family over the years, some of which are quite painful and difficult to think about. But closer to home, I am very aware of my own sinfulness and need of a Savior.
Friends, this Messiah that had been promised to rescue Israel from exile is the same Savior we’ve been waiting for during Advent. He will come very soon to rescue us from our sin, and at the last day, he will come again to redeem this old world he created that has been so deeply and totally upended by human sin. Soon, our waiting will be over. Soon, we will see our salvation. Come, Lord Jesus!
 David Bartlett, and Barbara Brown. Taylor, eds. Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary. Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008, 95.
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