The Fourth Sunday of Advent
Readings – Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 16-18; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
We are all most familiar with the birth narrative from the Gospel according to St. Luke with a visit by Gabriel, a visit by Mary to Elizabeth, a stable behind an inn, and a manger, with shepherds, and with angels singing. The birth narrative from the Gospel according to St. Matthew is quite different, and there are no birth narratives in the Gospels according to St. Mark and St. John.
St. Matthew’s version begins with a long list of ancestry, immediately preceding today’s reading. Chapter two which immediately follows is about King Herod and the visit of the wise men from Persia whose number is not noted, though there are three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Joseph’s ancestry includes three remarkable named women from the pages of the Old Testament – Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. Rahab was a Canaanite prostitute. She hid the spies of Joshua sent into Canaan ahead of the planned invasion by the escaped Egyptian slaves who had been wandering around the wilderness after crossing the Red Sea. She was the ancestor of Joseph who was descended from King David.
The second remarkable named woman was Ruth, a Moabite, who was a widow who followed Naomi back to Israel where she met and married Boaz. Ruth was a Jew by choice and the great-grandmother of King David.
The third remarkable named woman was Bathsheba, a Gilionite, wife of the murdered Uriah the Hittite. Following his death, she became the eighth wife of King David and the mother of the future King Solomon.
Note the similarities between these three remarkable women, a Canaanite, a Moabite, and a Gilionite; all were non-Jews, yet a part of the ancestry that Joseph claimed.
My first point, St. Matthew was making sure that his readers knew that Jesus was multi-ethnic and multi-national from his very roots. He was a descendant and destined for a mission to the people of Israel and beyond. While Canaanites, Moabites, and Gilionites were outcastes in Joseph’s day, there were no outcasts in God’s world. In St. Matthew’s Gospel following the resurrection, the disciples were to meet the Risen Jesus in Galilee, beyond the borders of Israel, for the mission was to all people.
The second point is easily overlooked in our own day. There is a hymn #435 that begins, “At the name of Jesus every knee shall bow, every tongue confess him, King of glory, now…”. Scholars tell us that the name of Jesus, like Joshua, means “God will save us”. They also tell us that it was a very common name in ancient times, like John or Bill today. There were hundreds of boys named Jesus. This reminds us that Jesus was a boy of the masses, a man of the people, one who took up the trade of his father Joseph. It was an illustration of God being among the people, not separate from the people.
The third point for this morning presents a theme that St. Matthew threaded through his entire Gospel. Joseph was presented as “a righteous man”. He was a devoted follower of the law. And what was the law for an unwed woman who was with child? Traditional law—she was to be publicly stoned to death. The contemporary rabbis softened it a bit, she was to be publicly shamed and divorced. Our reading tells us that Joseph was prepared to do neither, that he was “unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, [he] planned to dismiss her quietly”. Here an angel, a messenger from God, intervened and said, as all angels did, “do not fear”, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife”. The angel encouraged Joseph to go beyond the righteous following of the law to something his grown son would later say in the Sermon on the Mount.
Joseph went beyond righteous to love. And his son would time after time go beyond righteousness to love. As St. Paul wrote in I Corinthians 13:13
In today’s reading, we have three components of the Good News the author St. Matthew wishes to share throughout his text. There are no outcasts in God’s world. God is intimately among us. God’s love is the love that goes beyond the rules. This is the God who came into the world on Christmas Eve, and who will forever reach out arms of love to embrace us, all of us.