At long last the Christmas story we have all been waiting for. But if we have been waiting for a Christmas card sweet and gentle account it is not here in Matthew. (Advent Four. Matthew 1:18-25; Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; and Romans 1:1-7.) This is a nitty gritty, earthy, account of the hopes and longings of the Hebrew people, the chosen ones, who down through the generations have been holding on waiting for God to save them, to restore them to the times of King David, to a land of plenty and justice. And Matthew makes clear that Jesus is the fulfilment of all that longing, holding on, and the faithfulness of God.
For those of us waiting for the relief and joy of Christmas we are nearly there. Sort of. For although we hear the birth mentioned the way in which the story is told is still all about context and helping us understand, as Matthew did, that the story of Jesus is the fulfilling of the story of God’s faithfulness to the Chosen People (which today we rightfully read as all of humanity)! Hearing the gospel in the context of the prophets and psalmists, and our forebears in faith, both makes the meaning more powerful but also more complex.
So let us consider some of those broad brush strokes that paint the context for this story of birth and hope, that prepare the way for the One who will come among us as one of us, as Emanuel - God with us. Firstly, in the verses we did not read (verses 1 – 17) we discover a genealogy which is a strange list of names, divided into neat groups of fourteen to amplify the message of sacred numbers heralding God’s powerful presence. We also might notice that there is a sprinkling of women’s names (unusual in a genealogy of that time) and they are not the names of the great women you might expect – such as Sarah – but somewhat curious if not dubious women. Women who were foreign, who engaged in strange behaviours in order to contribute to the line of Jesus. While scholars are somewhat divided as to what it means I think we can take that Jesus counts as his grandfathers and grandmothers those who struggled to hold on, to belong and to contribute, and that in this Jesus is very much one of us ordinary very human ones, as well as of the royal line of King David. It is another way of letting us know that Jesus is indeed fully human and fully divine.
Secondly in the story of Joseph we meet an interesting and worthy character who is obedient, kind and just, and who listens deeply to his dreams and the whispers of God’s messengers, and who takes action to protect the dream of God expressed in human form in the infant Jesus. In Joseph, father or step-father of Jesus, we also have a character who resonates with the story of the earlier Joseph whose dreams and attention to them, saved not only him but his family and people from the worst effects of the famine. There are also echoes of Moses in that Joseph will shortly have to seek refuge in Egypt in order to protect Mary and Jesus from the worst excesses of King Herod.
And thirdly in the story of the miraculous birth we are reminded of those other stories of miraculous births that form part of the Hebrew story: Sarah and Abraham, Rebekah and Isaac, Hannah and Elkanah, Elizabeth and Zechariah. These were all stories about barren women and sometimes aged husbands who were blessed with children who became special actors in God’s work in the world. And of course we hear the resonances of that mysterious sign given by the prophet Isaiah to King Ahaz that the sign of hope in their time of struggle was not a mighty army or alliance but a maiden with child. So in describing Mary as a virgin we are meant to hear that her child is an even more special and powerful expression of God being poured into the world.
As we remember the story of the divine entering into our human story it is good to reflect on our flawed and earthy story of the generations that made us and often nearly destroyed us; of the moments and characters that fed us manna in the wilderness and spoke hope into the times of exile and failure; of the outsiders who brought their survival instincts and curious wisdom into our family tradition; of the dubious and heroic actions that were necessary to keep the family line going, even to us. God has been joining us in our human condition since our ancestors first walked upon the earth, and came to us in Jesus so that we might know without doubt that we are included and blessed. Let us give thanks for all that makes us who we are, acknowledging the pain and shame of what nearly broke us and giving thanks for what strengthened us, and expressing hope for what may yet come. As we remember we also make room for Christ to be born anew in our time and in our lives wherever hope and love are needed.
We might also with Joseph listen deeply to our dreams and messages that something new and precious is on the way and that we are called upon to protect and nurture the dream of God in this time. What new shoot, even maybe especially, that which is springing up in strange places? What is under attack that needs our protection and attention? Where are we called to set aside convention, ego, and self interest to honour something of the spirit and how shall we know it is of God?
We at this point in Christian history can imagine that it has all been done and there is nothing left to be revealed. But I think that while the great work of Christ has indeed been done it needs to be born in each generation, in each heart, in each community. As the mystic Meister Eckhart said six hundred years ago “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to the son of God fourteen hundred years ago and I do not also give birth to the son of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. For God is always needing to be born.”
Now we are ready enough to celebrate the remembrance of the birth of baby Jesus and to invite the Christ into our world to be our hope, our restoration, and our initiator into a larger more just more loving life that will have no end. So go in the direction of your dreams, attend to the needs of your heart, your family, your community, our world and be a beacon of hope, peace, joy and love.
Even so, come Lord Jesus Christ, come be born in us and among us. Amen.