December 28, 2014 Isaiah 62: 6-7, 10-12 Matthew 1: 18-25
Rev. Dr. Andrew Purves
Theme: “Yahweh saves” by being “God with us:” Jesus is Emmanuel.
Welcome to flat Sunday. Many of the poinsettias have gone. The Christmas trees look a bit wilted. It is mostly now all over – secretly some of us sigh, “Thank goodness!” It’s back to work tomorrow. Somewhere around 33 or 34 years ago, when I was minister in a congregation, Christmas fell on a Saturday. So I had to preach on Friday night, then Sunday morning. I have no idea what I preached that morning, but for some reason I remember the sermon title; “The Gospel for Cold Turkey Sunday.” We are in the liturgical season of left-overs. Some of us will note Epiphany in passing, but more or less we are heading for what we call “Ordinary Time,” as the uninspiring prelude to the penitential season of Lent.
So: what is the gospel for flat Sunday? What’s left to say after Christmas Eve?
The daily lectionary has selected for us to read from Isaiah and Matthew today. Especially as I read Matthew’s account I was struck by a simple observation: Christian faith is about an event, about something that happened. Christian faith is about a birth, the birth of a boy. We know this.
But as I pondered this, I wondered if we really know this? I wondered if we have lost the unfamiliarity, the foreignness, of the story. (Repeat) A baby was born long ago, in a far-off place we would not recognize today, among a militarily occupied people who lived under brutal and violent subjection, amid grinding poverty of a sort I cannot imagine, in an insanitary animal shelter, with no midwife, obstetrician, or pediatrician to help, to an unmarried woman, most likely illiterate, whose spoken language we would not understand, and whose religion would have been entirely incomprehensible to us. It is important to grasp the foreignness of this mother and the birth of her baby in order to be truthful. The crèche of baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, cows, sheep, shepherds, and wise men really does not do justice to the awfulness and foreignness of the story. This baby was born into a pre-modern, pre-third or pre-developing world, in a country that was barely on the map of the then known world. This baby was born for total and utter anonymity. This baby was born to be unknown. In terms of the relentless march of world history, of birth and death, that was what was to be expected.
Uncomfortable as it may feel to say, Christian faith is about an event that should always be profoundly, deeply foreign to us, because that event, that birth, happened in another place, in another time, and in a social and religious culture that is entirely outside our modern, western experience. That is not our fault; it is just the way it is.
But there is still more to the foreignness, a second dimension. There is more to our not really having much clue towards understanding what this birth was about. Christian faith is centered on an event that is a mystery that we cannot explain by way of human reason. (Repeat) At its core it is supernatural event, that is, it is about an event, a birth, within human history that has its source and meaning outside of created nature. Christian faith is about God breaking into time and space as the birth of this baby, and as such about God’s freedom to act that is not constrained by the laws of biology or physics, yet which happens within the physical world. We cannot and must not naturalize, as it were, either the conception or the birth of this baby, yet conceived he was and born he was, as datable and as physical and you and I.
Christian faith, then, is about an event that is a mystery. It is a mystery that is within history, yet that is not available for explanations from history. Another way to say this: Christian faith is based on a miracle, the free act of God coming among us as this baby. The church must never apologize for or try to explain away the essential mystery at the center of the Gospel. That is part of its true nature.
So there is a double sense of foreignness. There is the foreignness of an historical event, the birth of a baby, so far removed from our experience that it is at best opaque, only very dimly seen. And there is the foreignness that in this opaque historical event, while ordinary on one level, on another level a mystery is revealed in which God has uniquely, unilaterally and unconditionally acted.
All normal things considered this baby was born to live and die and remain unknown apart from a mere handful of similarly unknown people, his parents, siblings, neighbors and friends. But something more than the birth of an unknown baby has taken place. As this baby, God has acted. How do we know this? We know this because THIS BABY HAS A NAME.
In fact, this baby has two names, one is his given name, the other, we might say, is his theological name. Because of what his names tell us, everything, and I mean everything, has changed. And because of his names we have some sense of what his birth means. The two dimensions of foreignness remain – its historical distance from us and its essential nature as mystery, but with the names given to the baby that double veil is pulled back somewhat, and we see this birth, this baby, in a new light.
The passage we have before us this morning from Matthew contains two accounts about the naming of Mary’s baby. In the first account of the naming of the baby we overhear the words of the angel or messenger of the Lord who appears to Joseph to tell him that his fiancée’s pregnancy was God’s work, and not the act of human procreation. One can only imagine his reaction: “Are you kidding me?” His worldview is just smashed open. That which can’t happen has happened. That which is incomprehensible has in utero become physical; that which is supernatural has occurred within our human nature as a growing baby within Mary’s womb. Her baby is male, and he, Joseph, is to name him Jesus.
The second account of the naming of the baby is an editorial addition that Matthew inserts, a kind of commentary perhaps, that this impending birth fulfills the old prophecy found at Isaiah 7:14, which reads, “the Lord of his own accord will give you a sign: it is this: A young woman is with child, and she will give birth to a son and call him Emmanuel.”. The child will be named Emmanuel.
So let’s look briefly at the names. The names, as I said, pull back the veil that hides a double foreignness, and tell us what this birth, this event, means.
So, the first name: The angel says to Joseph that ”She (Mary) will bear a son; and you shall give him the name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.” What’s in a name? In Greek, Iesous, which is Matthew’s Greek for the Hebrew name Yesua, is a shortened form of Yehosua, which in English is Joshua. What’s in a name? Can you catch the connections? Think about Joshua in the OT for a moment. He was Moses’ successor who led the people into the land promised by God. So this naming is very significant in Matthew’s understanding. This Joshua/ Yesua / Jesus was hereby named as the successor to Moses’ authority, not just over Israel, as Joshua was, but now with a universal reign. Jesus’ name means that he inherits and fulfills Moses’ role but now on a scale far larger than the original Joshua. In other words, Jesus is here the leader or former of the new Israel, whom the angel names as “his people.” And the meaning of the name, a name by the way that was quite common at the time, literally means “the LORD helps.” Matthew, however, tweaks its meaning just a bit, telling us that the name means “the LORD saves.”
So from among meaningful, though somewhat common names at the time, Jesus is given his name. Jesus is named among mortals, uniting him with humankind. Somewhat interestingly, perhaps, this is the only place in the NT where an attempt is made to give the meaning to Jesus’ name. But it is an important place. Whereas the first Joshua, the son of Nun, saved Israel from their Gentile enemies, Jesus, the son of Mary, incorporated into the lineage of Joseph to be son of David, will save his people from their sins. The name “Jesus” is a kind of shorthand statement of the Gospel.
All of that is quite a mouthful. And this naming of the boy Jesus illustrates something of the layers of meaning in almost every verse of scripture. Let us now move quickly on to the second naming. This son born to a young woman is to be called Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” Again some Hebrew: the word immanu means simply “with us.” “El” is a short form of the Hebrew word for “God,” (Elohim). What does this mean? Matthew in his side-bar observation is saying to his readers that Jesus is the fulfillment of the whole scripture wherein God promises to be our God and we to be his people, and GOD WILL DO THIS BY BEING WITH US AS JESUS.
Let me now put this together. Jesus, that is, “God saves” is Emmanuel, that is, “God is with us.” Here is the Gospel in a nutshell. God saves through the birth of the baby Jesus, who is the act of God being with us. That’s what’s in a name!
Let me finally and briefly try to unpack something of what all of this means, when we reflect on the birth of Jesus, and what his names indicate about the meaning of this event. Jesus, that is, “God saves;” and God saves as Emmanuel, as “God with us.” God has elected or decided, as the act of God’s freedom and love, that God will not be God apart from or without his people. God will not be God apart or remote from us. God will not allow an infinite separation between himself and us. Or to put it positively, God has elected or decided that God will only be God in relationship with us, and God will do that by becoming and being one of us. As the baby of Bethlehem the holy God, high and lifted up, has drawn near to be with us, and as God with us, be one of us and live among us. Jesus, who is Emmanuel, means that God saves by being with us.
As the baby Jesus, and later in his maturity, but still always Mary’s son, the fullness of God has dwelt bodily with us (Col 2:9). The holy God, in God’s choice to be God with us, has become carnal = incarnation. God now does not go back on what God has become for us as the baby Jesus. God does not now undo what God tied together in Jesus’ birth, that is, God with us. The resurrection and ascension of Jesus are the signs that the divine promise is being kept. Now in his Spirit, Jesus is still God with us. Amid our cancers and divorces, our bereavements and our failures, as in our loves and joys, our successes and our delights, from the heights to the depths, from our getting up to our lying down, from our births to our own dying, in our unbelief and in our faith, in our sinfulness as in our faithfulness, God has promised when he came as Jesus, who is Emmanuel, that he will be God who saves us by way of God with us. This is the testament of God: In and as the baby Jesus, and now through his Spirit, God is with us.