9/12/01 10.45 a.m. Matthew 1:18-25 ( Isa. 7:10-16 )
We shall be looking at three features of today's gospel : A Special conception; A Special Name; and A Special Word from God.
A Special Conception.
"God, it is apparently alleged, works uniquely and directly in a divine intervention on physical matter, in order to bring about his saving miracles of incarnation and resurrection... The choice of physical miracles with what might be called laser-beam-like precision and power would, I suggest, not seem to be a choice which he cared, or would care, to use."
This is what David Jenkins, former Bishop of Durham said at General Synod in July 1986. The problem that he, and others like him have, is that their presuppositions about God determine their beliefs. They would claim to be open, yet their minds are closed to a God who intervenes. Something that is central to Christianity.
So let us look at the evidence for the virgin-al conception, which is a more correct term than virgin birth.
Mary was pregnant whilst engaged to Joseph, but they had not had sex, or "came together" as verse 18. Verse 25 says that they had no union until after Jesus was born.
So Joseph wasn't the father. Yet he clearly cared for Mary and decided to divorce her quietly, without exposing her to public ridicule. A private divorce was in front of two witnesses. In Israel at this time engagement was binding and could only be broken off by a divorce.
We do not know what Joseph thought. He may have considered that Mary had been unfaithful, but if she had, would she have been stupid enough to make up a story that she was pregnant with God's son ? Perhaps he feared that people would think that the child was his, and couldn't face these accusations. Or he could have believed Mary and thought that God didn't want him involved, so he decided to get out of the way.
The Israelites were not primitive in the sense that they knew that Mary was a virgin. Matthew's gospel account of the conception of Jesus was written from Joseph's perspective. Luke's from Mary's. Yet they are united in their claim that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit.
This makes sense from a number of points of view. This miraculous intervention of God is consistent with the way that God performs miracles in the Old Testament. With the miracles of Jesus in the N.T. And with the resurrection of Jesus that interrupts the certainty of death. The same God who created us and the universe is free to enter into it in a way that breaks the normally accepted and observed norms.
So Jesus did raise people from death, feed thousands from a small packed lunch, walk on water, calm the storm, and conquer death.
A tourist looked around an art gallery in Florence and exclaimed, 'Are these masterpieces ? I certainly don't see much in them.' The curator replied, 'Sir, these pictures are not the ones who are on trial. It is the visitors who are on trial.' The Bible is not on trial today. But it will come up on the Day of Judgement to try those who reject it's testimony.
Jesus could have entered this world other than through a virgin-al conception, and without being born. God could have zapped him down to earth as a 30 years old to immediately begin his earthly ministry. But God didn't choose to do it that way.
The conception and birth of Jesus shows that God, in Jesus, wanted to experience everything that is means to be a human being. Apart from one thing. That is to sin. The virgin-al conception points to the deity of Jesus and enables him to be sinless through this divine nature. Without Jesus being sinless his death for us on the cross would be useless. And God would not have raised him to life on the third day.
The special conception of Jesus pointed to the fact that he would be a special person. The conception and birth of Isaac ( Gen.21 ) and John the Baptist ( Luke 1:5ff ) are other examples of special births. Now everyone, and every baby is unique and special. But Jesus was special in who he was. God and man. And what he had come to do. To reveal God to us, and reconcile us to him through dying for us on a cross. Something that we celebrate and proclaim in this service.
Jesus was physically Mary's son, legally Joseph's son, and truly God's Son. By being born into Joseph's family Jesus fulfilled the prophecies that the Messiah would be a descendant of David, and of Abraham. This is why Matthew lists Jesus' family tree in the first part of Chapter One.
A Special Name.
Our names mean something, although we, and our parents may be unaware of the meaning of our names. Jim comes from James which comes from Jacob meaning follower, supplanter or deceiver. Melanie means dark. Joshua is Hebrew for Yahweh saves. Chloe green shoot. Brian, Celtic meaning doubtful. Roy is Gaelic meaning red. John, Hebrew Yahweh is gracious. Ivor means yew. Hey yew Ivor! Eva means life. Alan, Celtic for harmony. Give us a song Alan ! Judith, Hebrew Jewess. Ethel noble. Margaret, pearl. Paul little. David, beloved. Dorothy, gift from God.
In the time of Jesus people's names would often reflect something about their nature. Sometimes people would be re-named to reflect this. In Acts 4:36 Joseph was renamed Barnabus which means "son of encouragement", reflecting his ministry of encouraging others. God's name was treated with respect because it was, and is tied up with his nature.
We have two names for the baby in this passage. The proper name of Jesus which is the Greek version of the Hebrew Joshua which means Yahweh, or God saves.
The purpose of this child is that, verse 21, "he will save his people from their sins."
This uses the words at the end of Psalm 130, verses 7 & 8 : " O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. He himself will redeem Israel from their sins."
The hope of Israel at the time of Jesus was that the Messiah or anointed one from God, would save them from Roman rule. To free them from the slavery of a foreign, occupying force. To give them victory and to establish a prosperous political kingdom under the Messiah.
Yet already we have an indication that this child has a different mission. Not salvation from Roman rule but salvation from the rule and effects of sin. A setting free from a desire to sin, and a freedom to relate to God, unaffected by sin. The kingdom that the Messiah would bring in is a rule over people's lives. His heavenly kingdom will not be seen until his second visit.
The fact that Psalm 130 says that God himself will redeem Israel" points to Jesus being God and man. The idea of redeeming uses the image of the market place. Of paying a price to buy something or someone back. Although the Jews were not expecting this to happen God, in Christ paid the price for our sins when he died in our place on the cross.
The baby is also called "Immanuel" which means "God with us " , verse 23. It is a title, like Rector, rather than a proper name, like Jim or Jesus. Of course there are many other titles used in the Bible for Jesus.
God with us can mean that Jesus is God and man and is therefore, God's way of being with us. It can also mean that because Jesus has come to remove the barrier of sin that separates us from God that this brings God close to us in that way. I don't think that we have to accept just one of these explanations. Especially as verse 21 tells us that Jesus will save his people from their sins.
We have had A Special Conception; A Special Name; and now...
A Special Word from God.
Our first reading was from Isaiah, written over 600 years before the birth of Christ.
Matthew's gospel was written for Jews. He uses parts of the O.T. more than all the other gospels added together to show that Jesus is the Messiah ( Hebrew ), the Christ ( Greek ), the anointed one from God. The O.T points to the need for a Saviour, to save us from our sins. And it points to the one who will be the Saviour, Jesus, Immanuel.
An African Chief wanted to know the secret of Britain's greatness. Queen Victoria, holding a Bible in her hand said, 'Tell the Chief that this book, the Bible is the secret of our greatness.'
When Matthew quotes Isaiah in verse 22 he introduces it with the words, "All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet...
One of the ways that God speaks to us is through the Bible. It contains everything that we need to know how to be put right with God, and how to live life God's way.
Someone was sitting in a garden watching the plants and flowers. A butterfly landed on a beautiful flower. Sat for a few moments, then fluttered off to another. Alighting on this for a short while before moving on. Deriving no benefit from them
A botanist came with a large notebook and magnifying glass. He studied the flower intently, wrote copious notes and drew many pictures. When he had finished his knowledge was shut in his notebook. Little remained in his mind.
A bee then entered the flower, spent dome time in it, and emerged laden with pollen. It went in empty, and came out full.
Some go to the Bible like butterflies. Going from one passage to another, but getting nothing from their reading.
Others are like the Botanist. Studying, and taking notes, yet never really getting to grips with the teachings of the Bible. Just scratching the surface.
Some, like the bee, spend time over the Bible, digest it so it feeds their minds with wisdom and their lives with heavenly sweetness.
So we have a special conception, a special name, and a special word from God.
What should our response be to this ?
We should be filled with awe that God wants to reveal himself to us, and that he has made the first move by becoming a man.
Joseph responded to the words of God in obedience. As did the wise men in Chapter 2, and Mary in Luke's gospel. Our lives should be characterised by that same obedience to God's will for us. The way to know God's will is to know his word, the Bible.
Because of who he is, what he has done for us and the names he has been given we should worship Jesus. Not just on a Sunday, and coming together to worship on a Sunday should be a priority, but we should also worship him every other day of the week.
PRAY : Lord your intervention in our lives is stunning, unimaginable, even shocking. Help us to understand the immensity of your love and power. Sweep us joyfully toward the celebration of your coming this Christmas, and in the year ahead. Amen