December 16, 2010

A Small Part in a Great Story

by Jake Wilson
Isaiah 7:10-26; Matthew 1:18-25

By Matthew 1:18, Matthew has already named Jesus as the Messiah several times. Indeed, Matthew’s genealogy is constructed to show that the son of Joseph and Mary is also the Messiah. Reading the birth narrative in light of the genealogy helps us remember that what we encounter in this particular birth is the continuing of the story of God’s covenantal love for his chosen people, and indeed all the world. The birth of the Messiah comes as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham and David as well as in the wake of the sad history of the murder of Uriah and the deportation to Babylon. The genealogy reminds us that the birth of the Messiah is part of the history of God’s action with and for God’s broken people.

The birth account then, like the genealogy, stresses God’s prior action and the response of God’s people. As we enter Matthew 1:18-25, several significant events have already taken place. Joseph and Mary are already engaged. Mary is already pregnant. Joseph already knows that Mary is carrying a child not his own, and he has already decided what to do. All of this is recounted in a sparse two verses. In this way, Matthew’s account lacks the flair of Luke’s birth narrative. There is no startling visit from the angel Gabriel, no Magnificat. Perhaps most significantly, we lose Mary’s beautiful self-offering found in Luke 1:38: “Here I am the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word.” In light of Mary’s radical openness to God and her willingness to obey, it is common to recognize Mary as the first disciple and the mother of the Church. This claim is much harder to construct from Matthew’s account of the birth, where Mary has no speaking lines and her actions of reception and obedience have already been accomplished. 

Where Matthew leaves Mary silent, however, Joseph (who also has no speaking lines) takes on a more prominent role as a righteous man of faith. Joseph is addressed by an angel, and though he never speaks, his actions embody Mary’s, “Here I am….” In obedience, Joseph changes his plan to send Mary away and names the child as instructed by the angel. Later in Matthew’s story, Joseph again hears from the angel of the Lord and once more responds with obedience as the family flees to Egypt.

If Luke offers us a picture of Mary as the mother of the Church, Matthew offers us Joseph as its earthly father, a righteous man who mirrors Mary’s obedience and willingness to respond to God’s mysterious ways with both faith and action. 

Matthew’s economy in his treatment of both Mary and Joseph stresses to the reader what we already discern through the genealogy, namely that the coming of Jesus the Messiah is not a human achievement but the continuation of God’s covenantal love. Matthew calls upon the prophet Isaiah to tie the birth of this particular child to the history of God's people, a history populated by prophets who pointed with eager expectation to this event. By the time we meet Mary and Joseph in Matthew’s gospel, the event of the Incarnation is well under way. What remains is not for them to enable or establish the grounds for such an action, but rather to respond to God’s prevenient self-giving with obedience and faith. 

On this the last Sunday before Christmas day, the preacher lifts up the prevenient self-giving of God in the event of the Incarnation. This is an event to which we can respond with openness or hostility, but an event that is not dependent upon our response.  Rather it is the fulfillment of the long history of God's steadfast love.

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