“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.”
That’s all Matthew’s Gospel has to say about Mary’s pregnancy. It’s Luke’s Gospel that gives us the stories that the Church tells in Advent and Christmas: the angelic appearances to Zechariah and Mary, the visit to Elizabeth, Magnificat, the journey to Bethlehem and the birth in a barn, the shepherds visited by an angelic host. Two more of the four Gospels, Mark and John, tell us nothing about Jesus’ birth. John focuses on Jesus’ cosmic nature as the Word that was in the beginning with God. Mark has Jesus as bursting on the scene as a full-grown adult.
And Matthew begins with a genealogy – sixteen verses of Jesus’ ancestors, from Abraham to Joseph. Those first verses tell you something about Matthew: he is intensely interested in Jesus as the continuation – and the completion – of the Old Testament story of God’s relationship with humanity. It’s a theme throughout his account of Jesus’ life, including in today’s Gospel, in which Matthew tells us – for the first time of many – that Jesus fulfills an Old Testament prophecy. “All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’.”
If you’ve been paying attention this morning, you know which prophet Matthew is quoting – this passage comes from today’s text from Isaiah, chapter 7. We hear a lot of Isaiah in Advent; the Church throughout the ages has followed Matthew’s lead and interpreted many passages from Isaiah as pointing towards Jesus. I think that’s okay; we believe that the Bible is inspired text that can, by the power of the Holy Spirit, speak in fresh ways, its meaning never locked down or exhausted. But I also think it’s pretty important for Christians to understand that these texts aren’t only ours. That they had a prophetic word to offer before Jesus was born, and that they continue to be holy texts of hope for people who do not see Jesus as the Messiah.
The gist of this passage from Isaiah 7 is that God is telling King Ahaz, through the voice of Isaiah, that their current crisis – an attack on Jerusalem by two neighboring peoples – is nothing to worry about and will be over soon. That image of the young woman and child is basically giving a timeline. Take a young woman who is currently pregnant – (the Hebrew word here is almah, a young woman of marriageable age; this is a perfectly normal, non-miraculous pregnancy) and by the time the child she bears is old enough to know good from evil – twelve years at most – the nations that currently threaten Judea will be empty. Utterly defeated by another enemy. And Judea will be living high off the hog, curds and honey for days. The child is to be named Immanuel, meaning, God is with us. Meaningful names like that are very common, in the prophetic books – I guarantee you that it did not even cross Isaiah’s mind that anyone would think that the child itself was God. Because the point of this passage, for Isaiah and his first hearers, wasn’t the child, but the promise that their deliverance would come soon.
Now, Matthew knows the Hebrew Bible well, and he reads this passage, and connects it with what he knows and believes about Jesus, whom he does believe is God. He interprets the text in a new way, becoming one of the first to read the Hebrew Bible through the lens of Christian faith. And he quotes this Isaiah text, as he begins his account of Jesus’ life and teaching.
I think Matthew is quoting another Old Testament story, too. It’s less obvious; there are no direct quotations, more of a narrative parallel. But given how well Matthew knew the Hebrew Bible, I think it’s not just a coincidence. The story I have in mind comes from the book of Judges, from the time when the people Israel were living in the promised land, but before their first kings, Saul and David. It’s the story of the birth of Samson, famous for his great strength; less famous for his poor impulse control and anger issues.
Judges chapter 13 begins with, well, with an annunciation. There was a certain man of the tribe of Dan, whose name was Manoah. His wife was barren, having borne no children. And the angel of the Lord appeared to the woman and said to her, ‘Although you have borne no children, you shall conceive and bear a son. Now, be careful to avoid wine and unclean foods, and keep yourself pure during your pregnancy, for the boy shall be dedicated to God from birth. It is he who shall begin to deliver Israel from the hand of the Philistines.’ Then the woman told her husband, ‘A man of God came to me, and his appearance was like that of an angel of God, most awe-inspiring; I did not ask him where he came from, and he did not tell me his name; but he said to me, “You shall conceive and bear a son. So then drink no wine or strong drink, and eat nothing unclean, for the boy shall be dedicated to God from birth to the day of his death.”
Then Manoah begged God, saying, ‘O Lord, I pray, let the man of God whom you sent come to us again and teach us what we are to do concerning the boy who will be born.’ God listened to Manoah, and the angel of God came again to the woman as she sat in the field. But her husband Manoah was not with her. So the woman ran quickly and told her husband, ‘The man who came to me the other day has appeared to me.’ Manoah got up and followed his wife, and came to the man and said to him, ‘Are you the man who spoke to this woman?’ And he said, ‘I am.’ Then Manoah said, ‘Now when your words come true, what is to be the boy’s rule of life; what is he to do?’ The angel of the Lord said to Manoah, ‘Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her. She is not to drink wine or strong drink, or eat any unclean thing. She is to observe everything that I commanded her.”
Is Matthew deliberately echoing this story from Judges? If he is, he’s probably doing so in order to evoke that sense of a baby dedicated to God from birth, a baby who has been seized by God’s holy and redemptive purposes, called to deliver his people from bondage, since even before he was conceived. Now, Samson went on to be a pretty ambiguous figure, but Matthew might still choose to play a few notes from his birth narrative.
Now, I believe – 100% – that the author of Judges intends this story to be funny, in an ironic way. What I can’t decide is whether I think Matthew is in on the joke. He describes Joseph as concerned about marrying Mary, when she turns up pregnant with no sensible explanation, and he seems to find that concern quite legitimate. (By way of contrast, Luke tells us exactly nothing about how Joseph made his peace with the situation.) But while Matthew seems sympathetic to Joseph’s need for his own angelic visitation to settle his fears, the author of Judges is poking fun at Manoah for not believing his wife, who is much more ready to hear God’s good news than her husband. When the angel comes a second time, in response to Manoah’s prayer, it disses Manoah and appears – again – to his wife. SHE has to go find her husband. And the angel’s words emphasize that it’s already been over this: “Let the woman give heed to all that I said to her… She is to observe everything that I commanded her.’
The angel in Matthew’s Gospel is much kinder to Joseph, but the fact remains that we’ve already been told that Mary’s child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and yet an angel still has to come angelsplain the situation to a reluctant husband.
Maybe Matthew isn’t in on the joke. Matthew isn’t, generally speaking, a playful or humorous gospel. Perhaps he doesn’t realize that evoking the story from Judges casts the shadow of Manoah’s ridiculousness over Joseph. I have to admit that there’s a part of me that wants Matthew to be outside the joke. Because I don’t like how he tells this story. I don’t like that he gives a man’s concerns about paternity and honor more weight in the narrative than a woman’s risky Yes to God. And I don’t like that he displays what strikes me as an unnecessary and counterproductive level of interest in the state of Mary’s ladyparts.
But. But. Just when I’m ready to dismiss Matthew as a clueless misogynist, there are the grandmothers. You’ve been hearing their stories. Tamar getting the son Judah owed her, by any means necessary. Rahab using the only resource at her disposal to save her family and claim a new future. Ruth the vulnerable outsider, whose loyalty and love made her part of God’s story. These are not easy stories to tell, especially not with kids in the room. But Matthew evokes them, in those sixteen verses of genealogy, just north of today’s Gospel text. Among Jesus’ ancestors, he names: Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar. Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab. Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth. All women with messy histories of wife-hood and motherhood. Women are not usually named in Biblical genealogies. But Matthew names these women. Evokes their fierce, heartrending, hopeful stories.
It feels like a discovery, to me, to read this story of Joseph this year in light of the genealogy that precedes it, and especially the stories of those surprising women. Maybe what Matthew is up to here is putting Joseph in line with those grandfathers. With Judah, Salmon, Boaz, Manoah. All respectable Jewish men, of some standing and wealth, who had deep-seated cultural assumptions about manhood, marriage, and fatherhood. All men who had to loosen their grip on masculinity and mastery, paternity and propriety, control and comprehension, in order to let God’s purposes play out. All men who, graciously or reluctantly, quickly or slowly, opened themselves to fatherhood and family in ways that were not what they had expected or hoped for.
The midcentury theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote, “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, honor, vanity, pride, and reputation, before the manger.” Long before the baby in Bethlehem, Judah, Salmon, Boaz, Manoah, Joseph, were all called to lay down honor, vanity, pride, and reputation before the manger. Before the humble, perplexing, messy ways God chooses to step into our lives and change our stories.
In a few moments, we’ll sing a song that’s become a ritual of Fourth Advent for us: Cloth for a Cradle, cradle for a child… And you’ll be invited to come forward and lay a strip of cloth across our little manger, as a sign of our intentions to prepare our hearts to welcome God, at Christmas and always. May the rich stories of God’s people that we’ve gathered around us this season, stories of brokenness redeemed, emptiness filled, fears transformed and respectability transcended, inspire us to look for what we may be called to lay down before the manger, as a gift of gratitude and humility, and to make room for God to be born anew.