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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Advent 12/22/2019

Year A of the lectionary is somewhat unique in that on this Fourth Sunday of Advent we get not just anticipation of Jesus’ birth which is what happens in years B and C, but this year we get Christmas come early, Matthew’s version of the birth itself. In our minds and in our nativity scenes and in Christmas pageants, we tend to blend together Matthew’s account and Luke’s more familiar Christmas Eve account and that’s OK. But…it’s also useful to consider their versions separately because while there is overlap between the two, they do have different points of theological emphasis which are worth taking some time to talk about.

Actually though, for Matthew, what’s probably most important is not today’s part of the story but the rest of his infancy narrative, that is, what happens in chapter 2 with the story of the Wise Men and then the flight of Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus to Egypt all of which we will get, albeit out of sequence, next Sunday and on Epiphany, January 6th; so more of that in the days ahead. Today’s chapter 1 verses though, do set up the next chapter and they also provide some insight and background for the whole of Matthew’s gospel.

The focus today is on Joseph and the angel’s announcement to him concerning the baby to be born and you might say, “Wait a minute; doesn’t the angel appear to Mary?” The answer is “yes” but that’s in Luke and we are more familiar with his story that has the angel appear to Mary followed by Mary’s song of praise, what we know as the Magnificat, “My soul magnifies the Lord.” Luke’s version that focuses on Mary is more familiar and it’s much more poetic and it’s portrayed much more often in hymns and other works of art.

Matthew’s focus though is on Joseph and inquiring minds might wonder why considering the fact that our theology says that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, not Joseph, and born of the Virgin Mary. So why the focus on Joseph?

Today’s reading gives us the last half of chapter one, but omits the first half which consists of Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. I preached on the genealogy a few years ago and, despite being quite boring to read, the genealogy does include some points of interest regarding names that are included and also about some names that are not included, but I’m not going to get into all that today.

The basic pattern of the genealogy though, is for example, “Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,” and so forth. In the old King James Version it’s a long list of “begats:” Abraham begat Isaac. That’s the pattern until you get to the bottom line as it were, the generation that is the point of the whole thing, the generation that includes Jesus. Based on the listing of the previous generations you would expect, “Jacob was the father of Joseph, and Joseph was the father of Jesus who is called the Christ.” That’s what you’d expect, but instead it’s “Jacob was the father of Joseph, the husband of Mary, of whom was begotten Jesus, called the Christ.”

We know the story so unless we were paying close attention which is unlikely at the end of boring genealogy, we probably wouldn’t even notice that change in the phrasing. But it is significant in that, while it does mention Mary, obviously she’s important, it also makes Joseph the one connected to the ancestry of David. More on David in a moment, but for Matthew, for his gospel, it’s important to make the connection between Joseph and David.

Before I get to David though, also of note in this first chapter of Matthew is something one would miss without a little knowledge of Greek. In English, chapter one, verse one reads: “An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah.” In Greek though it’s, “An account of the “genesis” of Jesus the Messiah.” In verse 18 where in English it’s “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place this way,” in Greek it’s the same word as in verse 1; it’s “Now the genesis of Jesus the Messiah took place this way.”

We hear “genesis” and we think, first book of the Bible, more specifically we perhaps think about the beginning of the book of Genesis and creation. I’ve often said that those who wrote the gospels chose their words carefully and this is another example. By starting Jesus’ genealogy with the word genesis and by starting the birth story with the word genesis, Matthew is announcing a new creation, a new beginning. It’s more common to think of John announcing a new creation in his gospel, starting as he does with the words, in the beginning, “in the beginning was the Word” just like the book of Genesis opens with, “In the beginning God created…” In a different way though, Matthew is also announcing a new creation; that’s part of what he’s up to.

Back to David; when the angel appears to Joseph in a dream, the angel’s words are addressed to Joseph, son of David. Again, the David connection is important to Matthew, the consensus being that he himself is a Jew, writing to a predominantly Jewish audience, trying to convince them that Jesus is the Christ. For Jews, for that to be true, the David connection has to be made. Christ or Messiah means “anointed one,” and in particular the anointed king of the house of David.

To further emphasize this, the opening verse of Matthew’s genealogy calls Jesus the Son of David and it then mentions David five times, more than anyone else. Matthew’s gospel as a whole refers to Jesus as the Son of David more times than do the other gospels combined. In chapter 2 that follows today’s reading, Bethlehem, the city of David, is identified as the place of Jesus’ birth. I don’t think there’s much question that all of this is important in Matthew’s proclamation about Jesus, hence the focus on Joseph as the link to David.

But what about Joseph? Again, we can assume that there is intent in how Matthew talks about Joseph and for starters he calls him a righteous man. In Judaism being righteous was a designation that implied conformity to the Law of God, such conformity to the Law of God being the ultimate Jewish standard of holiness. Being a righteous man and finding that Mary was pregnant and knowing that he wasn’t the father, Joseph had choices. He had every right to demand a trial that would get to the bottom of things and most likely make Mary an object of disgrace. Even before the angel intervened though, Joseph’s intent was not to disgrace Mary, not to exercise his righteousness at her expense, but to divorce her quietly. Trusting the word of the angel though, he changed course becoming a model of faith. He had to have had questions about all this but still, he took Mary as his wife and became the guardian and protector of Jesus.

For Matthew, Joseph may very well be representative of how he saw himself, which is as a Law observant Jew who accepted Jesus as the Christ, the anointed one. In Joseph then, Matthew portrayed what he thought a Jew could and should be in light of the appearance of Jesus.

A final point on this is that when the angel appeared to Joseph he was told that Mary was to “bear a son and you are to name him Jesus.” In Judaism it is understood that if a man says, “This is my son,” he is to be believed. In naming the child then, Joseph becomes the legal father of Jesus and Jesus becomes a Son of David, part of David’s line, with that identity being part of God’s plan. Again, Joseph did what the angel said to do. In every instance he was obedient and his obedience was critical to God’s plan, obedience that was appropriate for a good and righteous man. For Matthew, Joseph is a model of faith.

I don’t know if there are any St. Joseph’s Lutheran churches around, but there are a lot St. Joseph’s Catholic churches including our neighbors down the hill. If all we had to go on was Luke’s birth narrative, we might wonder about the appropriateness of that name, but Matthew’s telling of the story and how he then builds on some of these themes in the next chapter and really throughout the rest of his gospel makes Joseph’s sainthood quite understandable. He is an important part of the story and he is a model of faith.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
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