18th December 2016 - Hugh Perry
God called on King Ahaz to have faith, the positive faith of putting trust in what is reliable rather than clutching at straws. This proves too hard for the King so now Isaiah gives him a sign.
Maurice Andrew stresses that this was a passage written for its time, not a prediction for centuries to come.
Furthermore and the word Isaiah uses does not mean ‘virgin’ but young woman and she may just have been standing there while Isaiah and the king were talking.
Matthew 1: 18-25
Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy that places Jesus within the family tree of Hebrew leadership as well as within the scriptural tradition through John and Elijah.
In so doing Matthew introduces Jesus as someone his culture would recognise as destined for a life that will change history.
In the roles Mary and Joseph play the traditional male authority is set aside offering a powerful example that God’s ways are distinctively out of step with conventional human behaviour..
Bill Loader suggests the birth narratives are not really about the baby Jesus; they are about the Jesus whom we see in ministry and crucified under the banner ‘King of the Jews’. The Christmas stories always need connecting with the grown up Jesus and we should not put tinsel around the cross at Christmas.
Isaiah is trying to give hope to a distressed king and Dr Andrew suggests Isaiah might have pointed to a pregnant woman walking past where they were talking and used her condition as an example of the possibility of a future. Maurice then suggests that the real question in this passage is, ‘What does it mean for Isaiah to suggest that the woman’s child will be called ‘God with us’.
That’s not just a question for Isaiah and his king; it is also a question for us. It is certainly a question for the distressed young man who sat outside our church sobbing on Wednesday. That question became apparent when we finally found out his name and the police were able to summons his people, which included his pregnant partner. By that stage I had been dismissed and the conclusion of that drama was handled by two very component police officers. But looking out the office window it crossed my mind that whatever mess that man had got himself into in the past, there was a future that could be precious to him. A woman with child could also be a sign for him.
It is quite acceptable for Matthew to quote the Isaiah passage to claim that Jesus is the predicted messiah because Isaiah’s illustration of a pregnant woman is a universal illustration of hope. All children are an affirmation that God is with us and Jesus’ birth is a sign that God is with all of us who have been born.
King Ahaz was looking at the frightening world of being surrounded by powerful empires and was probably hoping for a powerful ally who would protect him.
Isaiah’s message was both depressing and hopeful. Lands would be laid waist and powerful empires would crumble but the future would be in the hands of the next generation.
Isaiah’s prediction and similar statements by other Hebrew prophets was taken up by popular culture to mean that God would send a special child who would defeat the enemies of God’s people and bring a better world into existence.
On reading Matthew’s Gospel one perspective could be that the genealogy that precedes today’s Gospel reading indicates that to some extent the gospel writer buys into that image of a military messiah. A king who tradition demands must be a descendant of David.
By the time of Jesus David had acquired mythic status as the ideal king who had received the divine promise that his descendants would always rule. At the time of Jesus there was a strong feeling that the reason Israel had been a subject nation of so many greater empires was that they didn’t have a descendant of David as their king.
Understanding David as the perfect king however ignores the fact that David had many of the failings of other feudal monarchs. He drafted young men into his army, he had polygamous marriages in which he treated women as possessions. He even conspired to murder one of his soldiers to acquire another wife and his sons where capable of raping their sister and murdering each other.
However the urge to be ruled by a superstar is still strong today as we transfer all our fondest hopes onto high profile people in the hopes that they will make us great again. In so doing we ignore the totalitarian rulers of history who have spent more time meeting their own wants than dealing with the needs of their people.
However I think as Christians with two thousand years of hindsight we can be more generous in assessing the skill of the gospel writers as story tellers.
In exploring that possibility the lectionary and our Advent journey suggest we use Matthew as an example and today’s section as a starting point.
As we have mentioned Matthew begins with a genealogy that traces Jesus back from his father Joseph through David and his father Jesse all the way back to Abraham. So Matthew is saying that Jesus as a descendant of Abraham is one hundred percent Jewish and is also a descendant of the idealised King David.
Matthew is drawing his readers into the story by fitting the expectation that the messiah is the expected descendant of David and therefore genealogically fit to be God’s chosen one.
But in the very next section of the passage we read this morning, Matthew explains that Jesus is not Joseph’s son. Mary was impregnated by the Holy Spirit.
So in the first unexpected twist in a narrative of the unexpected, the meticulous genealogy of the previous section becomes redundant.
Matthew’s first century readers would want to know why Joseph didn’t take Mary out to the city gate and have her stoned to death. Therefore Mathew explains that Joseph was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace. However she was pregnant and he proposed to dismiss her privately. In our world we might understand that as a private no fault divorce or a negotiated agreement. However with our understanding of Middle Eastern shame honour societies the gospel wording still sounds a bit dangerous. So an angel appears to Joseph in a dream and says.
‘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.’ (Matthew 1:20)
We can read that as a declaration of a once in history virgin conception or the first hint of a new way of understanding the human condition. The reader is introduced to an understanding which shifts us from our animal instinct to a more divine way of being a true loving human person.
Furthermore we still need that shift. While I was at assembly in Dunedin I went with others to tie white ribbons on the iron fence around Knox church in preparation for their white ribbon Sunday. Along with many others I have put my white ribbon badge back on my jacket as an affirmation of my opposition to family violence.
One of the features of family violence in New Zealand is the murder of children by step fathers. That’s not unique among humans, other primates do that too. So do other animals. A feature of maleness seems to combine the urge to mate with a completive urge to ensure that no other male’s genes survive.
The angel in Matthew’s gospel points out that Mary’s son is from the Holy Spirit. If, in reading this story, we allow ourselves to see Mary as the archetype of all mothers then all children are of the Holy Spirit.
That surely is the theme of all the gospels. It is certainly the message we are left with at the end of Matthew’s Gospel where the apostles, on behalf of us all, are commissioned to go into the world and be Christ to others.
What this story also tells us is that it’s not genealogy that’s important in insuring a child’s potential but love.
Joseph, we are told was a righteous man and that could mean that he was a stickler for the rules or that he wanted to see the best in people. The fact that he dreamed of a message from an angel might well indicate that he went to sleep with his mind wrestling with the issues Mary’s pregnancy presented. The proof that the message was heaven sent lies in the reality that his decision to be the father of the unborn child changed the world.
Children's Commissioner Judge Andrew Beecroft recently highlighted a report that claimed that children who did not receive good nurture and care before the age of three were less than ideal citizens as adults.
Judge Beecroft’ comments suggested that the wider community should provide support for those under three who were identified as being at risk rather than building more prisons to house them as adults.
In other words the community needs to recognise the potential of each child and understand that a newborn child is of the Holy Spirit. Just as the righteous Joseph put the life of Mary and her child ahead of the culture of his time our faith calls us to be the village that supports all children regardless of their circumstances.
In a society where a solo mother can become deputy prime minister we must surely be able to divert public money from tax cuts to child welfare and early support for vulnerable children.
Sir Tony Robinson titled his autobiography No Cunning Plan in an allusion to his role as Baldrick in the ‘Black Adder’ comedy series. But Matthew certainly had a cunning plan in constructing his Gospel.
He begins with a genealogy that places Jesus as not just a descendant of David but also a descendant of Abraham and therefore completely eligible to be the expected messiah, the true king of God’s chosen people. He also alludes to the prophetic tradition of a messiah by quoting Isaiah’s example of a pregnant young woman.
Then comes the first twist mentioned earlier, after tracing the genealogy through Joseph Matthew informs his readers that Joseph is not Jesus’ biological father. At that point the message from heaven assures both Joseph and the reader that Jesus is born of the Holy Spirit. That is a prelude to baptism where all who follow Jesus are born of the Spirit. As for needing to be descended from Abraham to be God’s people, John the Baptist puts an end to that idea. ‘For I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children of Abraham.’ (Matthew 3:9)
Jesus then goes on to build a new people of God by giving a new law and feeding the five thousand in the wilderness and so mirrors Moses feeding mana in the desert and giving law from the mountain on the nation forming Exodus journey.
Right in this first chapter Matthew introduces Jesus as the unexpected messiah or Christ who is counter cultural. Jesus is the Christ who changes the world through love rather than power. Jesus is the Christ who even before he was born brought the message that each child is of the Holy Spirit. A message that biologically a child can be conceived in or out of a loving relationship but it is love that realises each child’s true potential.
A single person, a couple or a community, whoever wholly realises a child’s potential through love is indeed a holy family.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p., 407.
 Warren Carter, Mathew and the Margins: A Socio-Political and Religious Reading (London, New York: T&T Clark International 2000), p. 66.
 Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), p., 407.