Matthew 1.18-25 | Advent 4A

John Michael Gutierrez, PhD

The Holy Gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ according to Matthew

18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22 All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:

23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

The Gospel of the Lord

Miriam, Hey, Miriam. there’s someone at the gate. Can you see who it is? I’m starting to fit a plow together. Matthew, a tax collector, you say. Tell him to come back next month. I’ll have finished the roof and stairs in Sepphoris and have some money then. What? not a tax collector. Oh, Matthew, it’s you. Sorry, don’t you know tax collectors, and all that. Please. Sit there while I finish up. There’s some water for your hands and feet.

Oh gosh, Matthew, where to begin. I’ve had a lot of years to think about that time in my life. Well, Ok, this is my view on how the events around Jesus’ birth unfolded.

In those years Nazareth was a small, poor village like so many others in the Galilee. But because it was close to Herod’s Galilean capital Sepphoris with its roman garrison, our village supplied skilled labor for the building projects. I was apprenticed in the family construction business. Through construction work our family and others in the village were working more than we had been in a long time. Although, as you well know, Roman taxation practices required exhausting, physical labor merely for survival. Everyone here experienced varying levels of poverty and bad health. But it was also a time to strengthen ties between the village’s clans. The elders and relatives of our families negotiated the first steps of the marriage and made the betrothal arrangements for Miriam and me. While our families come from the same village, we only saw each other on occasion. Really not much opportunity to get to know each other. I would begin the process of constructing a room in the family house and she would remain in her father’s household. But in the intervening months, before I could get a room built I had no idea how much things were about to change.

I could and did visit Miriam from time to time. On one of those times she was standing behind me. I whirled around so fast I lost my balance. Our conversation was stopped short. You’re what? – pregnant! pregnant by YHWH’s spirit! It swept me off my feet. I didn’t know her very well. I didn’t have a reason to distrust her. Did our families take too much for granted? Did we get our signals crossed? Please – tell me the truth. I tried to listen to her. I tried not to blame her. But that one word built a wall between us. Something had been lost. I felt that my undivided affection with Miriam had been stolen. Not another word was spoken between us that day. Things weren’t going as planned, not as I had planned anyway, and not as things were supposed to go. Boy, oh boy, did that one word ever change things and set in motion a most improbable, dare I say, miraculous series of events.

Look around this workshop, as you can see, I’m a tradesman, poor and someone of no consequence. Yet when I think back on that time, I realize I was being led by the Lord in a way that would transform my life in ways I would never have imagined.

It’s safe to say that my days and nights were filled with anxiety and exhausting flights of emotion. I was out of my mind. Night after night as I lay in the dark, as I pulled the blanket up over my head – I hoped that in the morning it would all be gone- just a bad dream. But I woke up every morning with a headful of ideas that were driving me insane. Could I take the risk? How do I remain faithfully obedient to the Lord? What kind of person will I become? What will others think of me? I don’t know if I can do this Lord. I need some help here.

On the other hand, should I leave her to deal with the unborn child? Would she be driven to despair, feeling abandoned? As I was thinking over Miriam’s explanations, what if they were true? Do any decisions need to be seen in a different way? What if Miriam came into the family? Could I let this child be raised as if he/she were my own? Admittedly, there were more than a few moments when I believed she had been unfaithful but it took another event (more about that in a few minutes) and years of reflection to gain a more even-handed understanding of Jesus’ birth.

And then, there were the questions, so many questions: Do I risk disobedience, becoming an outcast to the family? How should I tell the elders? What would they decide? Should I have a plan to present to them? Culturally, there’s not a lot of wiggle room. The religious traditions are simply too strong. Upon such a revelation, a response is required. The betrothal had been damaged, a violation of trust. It is a matter of personal/family honor and shame. This pregnancy, well, it’s proof that this marriage was a wrong decision. Understandably some in the family, on both sides, were outraged and would have kicked her to the curb. But I had to find some way to repair the family boundaries, to put off feuding and an endless getting even.

And do I risk becoming an outcast in the village? Will word of the pregnancy burn like a wildfire through our village? If I went ahead with the betrothal, then folk would think I had gotten her pregnant. That might be a lot easier. The town folk would have fewer reasons to question our commitment to each other. I was trying to handle this with a minimum of damage. A public divorce would bring shame and dishonor. It would have been messy. If I decided it would be simpler to break the betrothal privately then only two witnesses would be required before the elders. Although nothing is ever really private in a small village! I figured that for the rest of our life, we will be surrounded by scandal if we followed through with the betrothal. I realized I was juggling how to set things right for the child and his/her upbringing in the village. I was trying to shield him/her. I was hanging onto every bit of hope that I could muster that I could put up with the sideways glances and the gossip. I would try to protect her and the child from what I could. I would try to protect myself from what I could. Maybe I would just be angry about what has happened and maybe I would just let people talk.

I have always been careful to faithfully observe Torah and by grace I will continue. But how could I be faithful to Torah and be righteous in this situation? Leading with my heart, caring about Miriam’s vulnerability, I decided to break the betrothal privately. Ah, but that decision didn’t settle things. I still yearned for assurance that what I decided was the right thing among Torah’s options. Now all that was about to be turned upside down. Honestly, Matthew, sometimes I do lose sight of my faith. But the Lord is always there, waiting for me to come to him with my weaknesses.

But the Lord didn’t wait for me this time. He intervened with a luminous dream, cutting short the nightmare visions of accusation and estrangement playing in the theater of my dreams – unveiling the truth, – speaking to the depths of my heart, – revealing what my reasoning had failed to grasp, – plunging me back into the village.

The angelic messenger instructs me to do something more daring than a private or public dismissal of Miriam. He tells me to embrace Miriam’s pregnancy as an act of YHWH’s spirit. It’s a boy, Joe Davidson. And you will name him Jesus. Although not the father, as a Davidson, I’m to name the boy so he can take up his place in king David’s ancestry. I’m to parent this child who is the divine presence in Israel. I’m to commit myself to participating with Miriam in YHWH’s plan.

YHWH certainly is the Lord of mystery. So this is how the messiah would slip in among us – wrapped in a scandal, wrapped, also, in a miraculous act of the spirit. Through Miriam, the messiah’s destiny was set in motion. Wrapped up in Jesus, hope and deliverance came to Israel. He would not be a political or military ruler but an antidote to sin, the spiritual and moral virus which infects everything, of all the – moral, emotional, physical, intellectual – stuff in our lives and culture that just doesn’t work. He gained his power by embracing the failures.

The angel called me Joseph Davidson in the dream and that pushed me to go back and climb up my royal family tree. I found four branches, each of them, a woman, who had something of the same honor/shame shadow cast over them that makes their inclusion in Davidic ancestry extraordinary. In David’s monarchy, itself, there is Bathsheba who sprouted a branch under circumstances viewed by many as unsuitable to the dignity of royal lineage. Then there was David’s great-grandmother, the Moabite, Ruth who sprouted Jesse – the royal branch itself. And at the conquest of land, a Canaanite prostitute, Rahab was grafted in becoming Ruth’s mother-in-law. Lastly, way up in the canopy, the honor/shame incident with the patriarch Judah, himself, and Tamar, the Aramaean. To the participants in these ancestral events, things must have looked like a scandal, but when I look back now, YHWH’s hand is visible, steady and sure.

These weren’t the only women or times in my family’s royal history when events remained outside the hands of human management. I hope this isn’t too subtle. But think back with me for a moment, Matthew, to consider an event in the monarchy of Ahaz, the 10th king of Judah. Threatened by the armies of Syria and Assyria, Ahaz needed to learn that fortified cities don’t protect. Sooner or later they’re smashed down. YHWH points out a young woman to Ahaz. A young woman whose imminent birth of a Davidic princeling named “God with us” will offer Ahaz a sign of hope that the dreaded kings would be put down.

“God with us” Now I want you to consider for a moment the profound meaning cascading down upon me in that name.This child, Jesus, conceived in a virgin, Miriam, by YHWH’s spirit, is “God with us”, the real presence. Although merely a description for Jesus “God with us” is the sign of hope that underscores the surprise, the excitement, the wonderful mixing of the miraculous, the unexpected, the divine, the human. This child, Jesus, “God with us” sets in motion the accomplishment of YHWH’s saving act in his death, as a ransom for people from every clan and nation, by his resurrection and reaches its climax when he sits beside the Ancient of Days to judge Israel and the nations.

So I finished building the room in the family house. The child was born. I held him ever so lovingly in my arms. Miriam completed her mothering ritual. At his circumcision he was named Jesus. By naming the child I became his legal father and he sprouted his branch in the royal family tree. After a road trip to Egypt we returned to Nazareth and Miriam brought all her belongings to set up our household. I fed him, walked him around the room until he fell asleep on my shoulder. He squeezed my finger tightly as he took his first steps. I took him to the synagogue on the Sabbaths. I apprenticed him into the building trades. I listened to his hopes and dreams as we worked side by side. And then, one day – he was gone.

And may I say to you, Matthew, you know more about that part of his life than I do.

Now, my beloved, may the word of the Lord richly dwell in us in all wisdom. Amen

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