A sermon preached at St Mary’s Iffley by David Barton on 18 December 2016
Isaiah 7:10-16 Matthew 1:18-end
The week began for me with my son in law sending a delightful short video of our granddaughter being the angel Gabriel in her nursery school nativity show. She did well, waking up the shepherds and passing on the good news. And it was touching and reassuring, as all nativity plays are. Even in this deeply secular age, they continue, loved by everyone. I suspect they tap into the assumption in our Western Culture, that Christianity is a faith that has to do with comfort and reassurance. That is what Christmas is about.
It’s not a bad thing for people to think of our faith. But it goes deeper, much deeper. And Matthew’s Gospel is a sharp reminder of that, because it is so much the opposite of the nativity play. This account of Jesus birth is plain, sober and short. That passage we just had is the heart of it, and its more about Jesus conception and naming than birth. First we are told of Joseph’s embarrassment at discovering that Mary carries a child that must be illegitimate. But before he can do anything about it, an angel intervenes and he learns that, unbelievably, this is God’s child, and Joseph must name him Jesus.
What we miss here this morning is that we have not heard the first seventeen verses of this Gospel leading into this passage. They list the names of all Joseph’s ancestors, through King David, right back to Abraham. And now we learn that Joseph, despite this proud lineage, has nothing to do with the parentage of this child. Indeed, he doesn’t even get to choose his name. So all of that history is swept aside. This is God, doing something new. And then we are simply told that the child is born. No more. Nothing to mark the birth. No place is mentioned at this stage. No bed even. Just the child, the mystery of God, vulnerable before us. And in the next verse Matthew reveals just how vulnerable. Strangers – no local visitors here, just strangers – arrive with strange gifts. But unwittingly they have betrayed Jesus to the forces of destruction. Again the angel warns, and Joseph and the mother and the child flee from a massacre to become refugees in Egypt.
And that’s it, except for two things. A detailed picture of the strangers at Herod’s court – which is really all about the deviousness of political power. And that reference to Isaiah.
A virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name will be called Immanuel, God with us. Of course we remember it set to a beautiful tune by Handel in the Messiah. More material for the reassuring Christmas. But not for Matthews first audience. When Matthew was writing his gospel it was not long after that huge crisis in Palestine when the Romans had surrounded and besieged Jerusalem and destroyed the temple and the city totally. It was a horror that remained in everyone’s memory.
And this reference to Isaiah, which was of course our first reading, goes back to another time that Jerusalem was surrounded and besieged. Those too were dark days for Jerusalem. As Isaiah and Ahaz talk the armies of two kingdoms threaten its collapse. Ahaz – not the best of kings – wants to make an alliance with another larger power – a disastrous option. Isaiah’ message is the opposite: Don’t trust power, Trust God. And as a sign to a reluctant Ahaz he points to a young woman and says that the child that she will have will be called Immanuel God with us. In other words, at this difficult moment, this woman is staking her faith in the presence of God to save her and her child. The message to Ahaz is do the same: trust God, even in this dark time.
It’s important to get this passage right. This is a prophecy about the name of the child, Immanuel. God with us. It’s not about the way this child will be born. Nor is it prediction of the birth of Jesus. Prophecy is not about predicting the future. Prophets proclaim the truth of God now, in a given moment. The Hebrew word Isaiah uses in that first reading, is, as our translation rightly says, young woman, not virgin. (It’s possible at this moment Isaiah is actually pointing to his wife!) Only when it’s translated into Greek in the Septuagint does it become Virgin.
Matthew writes for troubled people in hard times. In the Isaiah passage and the Herod passage, he is contrasting hard political and military power with human trust in God, and hope placed in the vulnerability of a human child. And behind all of this is something else. Matthew’s Bethlehem is not very far from Jerusalem and Calvary, the place of the cross.
It’s one of the things we always forget. The real beginning of Christianity is not the birth of Jesus. It’s the darkness of the cross. On the cross, this child, grown into a man, holds onto the invisible light of God. In his weakness there on the cross, is the definitive presence of God. Here Jesus is Immanuel, God with us. And because of that, out of this darkness, totally unexpectedly, comes a life and a joy and a hope that can only be from God.
That shapes Matthew’s account of the nativity. The gospels are, all of them, written backwards from the resurrection. For Matthew God does not change. What is true of Jesus on the cross at the end of his human life, is true at the start. If we see that, and accept it, then we will see the graciousness and the love and the healing that underpins all God’s dealing with us.
God’s power seen in the weakness of a child. The power of a child lies in the fact that it empowers us to love and forgive and to forbear, to be patient and self giving. A child makes clear our human interdependence, which all of us need of we are to be fully alive. It’s all of the things that this child, grown to a man will lay out for us in the beatitudes. Our way of way of living as Christians. God’s vision in this child is to change the world by creating communities of that quality of love, where our God given humanity is infectious, changing things by drawing people in. That is what we Christians foolishly assert against Assad’s barrel bombs and Putin’s fighter planes. And here in the west too, where we seem in danger of forgetting our humanity and interdependence as we retreat behind the anonymity of our computer screens and mobile phones.
That’s Matthew’s message, but something else too: he uncompromisingly chooses the Greek translation of Isaiah for his quotation, Virgin – leading to that phrase in the creed which causes so much contemporary head scratching! “Born of the Virgin Mary.” For Matthew it is mystery and miracle. But one essential for each of us. The virgin birth points to the truth that you and I live, not just by what we plan and do for ourselves, but by the love and power of God. God loves each of us, Augustine said, as if we were his only child. The true self of each one of us lies in that mystery. So when we recite “born of the Virgin Mary” we are making room for that miracle and mystery in our lives. We don’t understand it of course. We have no words to speak of it. Like Joseph’s dream, it’s such a quiet entry into our lives. It’s unnoticed by those around us, and yet it changes us. Matthew writes his gospel to tell us that this gift is life changing and world changing.