a sermon on Isaiah 7:10-16 and Matthew 1:18-25 for the Fourth Sunday of Advent
Poor forgotten, ignored Matthew. In our world, it’s easy to forget that someone other than Luke tells us the story of the birth of Jesus. Matthew’s telling that we heard this morning is so different from the other, more familiar version that it’s maybe even fair to wonder if we’re talking about the same story at all! In Luke, we have a bunch of angels—several special messengers sent to speak to Elizabeth, Zechariah, and Mary, not to mention the “multitude of the heavenly host” who announce the birth of Jesus to the “shepherds abiding in the fields, keeping watch over their flocks by night”—but in Matthew, Joseph is the only one to receive heavenly guidance from these angelic messengers amidst the strange situations surrounding Jesus’ birth. In Luke, the birth story starts out with a long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but in Matthew, Joseph and Mary already live in Bethlehem and travel only after Jesus is born as they flee to Egypt to avoid Herod’s murderous intentions and eventually move to Nazareth. In Luke, the family of the newborn is visited right away by shepherds from the nearby countryside, but in Matthew, it takes a while for the wise men from the east to make their way to Bethlehem.
Our cultural visions of the Christmas story and even many of our Christmas carols try very hard to blend the two different gospel stories together, to merge all their different details and paper over all their differences, but today for once I want to give Matthew his due. Luke will get equal time in just a couple days, but today we set aside the familiar shepherds and angels and listen instead for this incredible sign and wonder in a slightly different way.
Matthew has to set a bit of context for the birth story, but he tells us a lot less than Luke, too. The only thing that precedes this story in Matthew’s gospel is an account of Jesus’ ancestry, tracing his roots back to the most historic Jewish fathers Abraham, Isaac, and David. But then it seems that the fatherly connections don’t really matter at all! All those ancestral connections seem to be only for appearance’s sake, as we quickly learn that Jesus’ earthly father Joseph—the one with all those connections to Abraham, Isaac, and David—wasn’t really his father at all! In fact, Joseph nearly abandoned Jesus and his mother Mary when he found her pregnant before they lived together. Once he got word of her pre-marriage pregnancy, clearly because of another man, he was prepared to leave them behind entirely because he was “a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace.” In our day and age at least, those sound like code words: Joseph didn’t want to be responsible for another man’s child, nor did he want to be married to a woman who would not be married to her child’s father.
Thankfully God stepped in and sent an angel in a dream—the first of the three heavenly messengers who speak to Joseph in Matthew—to clarify things a bit. There was no need for him to desert Mary, “for the child conceived in her [was] from the Holy Spirt.” The angel went on to tell Joseph that this child would be a son and that he should name him Jesus. Joseph did as the angel instructed, marrying Mary right away, walking with her through her pregnancy and childbirth, taking her son as his own and naming him Jesus, just as the angel had instructed.
Alongside this narrative, Matthew adds in a bit of commentary and explanation. From the very beginning, Matthew’s version of the gospel story seems to place great emphasis on Jesus’ connections to the people of Israel. Matthew’s record of Jesus’ ancestral line goes through David, the great and legendary king of Israel, and ends with Abraham, the beloved father of this great nation. And Matthew often links his stories to those of the prophets so that Jesus is more directly connected to their cries for redemption and new life. Here, in telling about the birth of Jesus, Matthew connects this story to the words we heard from the prophet Isaiah this morning. These words had originally been offered to King Ahaz of Judah while the nation was under siege by Israel. Israel had hoped to replace King Ahaz with someone more favorable to them who would make an alliance against the outside power Assyria, the nation that would ultimately destroy Israel and scatter its people all across the Mediterranean region. Isaiah’s words of comfort to Judah during this siege were certainly not originally focused exclusively on a child who would come centuries later, for the people and the king were looking for a sign of God’s intervention in the short term, someone who would give them hope that they would emerge safely from the siege, someone who would make it clear that God was with them—Emmanuel—in the midst of a very difficult time. Exactly who this child was in Isaiah’s own time remains the subject of much debate among scholars, but Isaiah clearly had someone else more contemporary and immediate in mind in addition to any thought of Jesus.
While some might argue that reading the prophet in this way and listening for his original intent beyond his appropriation by Matthew takes away from the prophetic connection to Jesus, I think this reading ultimately gives us space to think about these things for ourselves. It reminds us that Isaiah’s words might having meaning and importance for us in our own time, that we too are looking for a sign of God’s presence, that we also long for Emmanuel, God-with-us, that Jesus comes to us in this season, too. Just as Isaiah prophesied that a young woman would bear a son who would be a sign of God’s presence, just as Matthew suggested that Jesus was the embodiment of this promise in his own time, these stories of God’s presence from Matthew and Isaiah remind us that there are signs of God’s presence among us in these days.
These signs may not be as earth-shattering as the birth of a Messiah. They may not be as controversial as the birth of a son out of wedlock. They may not fit into our assumptions of how God is at work or what God’s work should look like. These signs of God’s presence may be as small as a simple smile from an unexpected passer-by on a busy holiday street or as substantial as a major act by a prominent and powerful person to indicate God’s care and concern for the poor. These signs of God’s new life in our world may be as unnoticed as a small gift of a few dollars given to those in need or as impossible to miss as a world-changing gift that impacts the lives of millions of people around the world. And these signs of God’s Emmanuel may come to us in dramatic angel messages that are impossible to miss or in still, quiet voices that we might not hear if we are distracted by the busyness of these holidays.
Whatever they are, wherever we hear them, these signs are always too real to ignore and too important not to share, for they point beyond themselves to a sign and wonder beyond our wildest dreams. The ultimate sign, the ultimate gift, the ultimate mark of these days is the coming of God to dwell with us, not just in a little child born in the midst of troubled times in Israel 2700 years ago, not just in a little baby born out of wedlock in a small village in Palestine 2000 years ago, not just in a burst of light amidst these darkest days of winter, but each and every day when God’s presence and light shines on us anew to show us the depth and breadth of God’s amazing love, to show us the lengths to which God will step in and intervene in our world, and to show us that God is not finished with us yet, that there is something greater and newer ahead for us and all creation, that God can and will transform all things and send great light into our world.
So as we finish our Advent preparations and begin our Christmas celebrations, may God’s light break forth upon us to show us the signs of God’s presence in our lives, may we see the wonder of God’s amazing love breaking into our world, and may God give us voices to join with angels of all sorts to proclaim these things to others as we continue waiting and watching and hoping and praying and working for God’s light in Jesus Christ to shine in us and upon us and through us each and every day until he comes again. Lord, come quickly! Amen.