Sermon Title: “Emmanuel” by Pastor Rosanna McFadden
Good morning! It is the first Sunday of Advent: a time which has already taken a lot of preparation, but is itself preparing for something greater. This, as we sill see in just a bit, fits very neatly in this morning’s scripture. But first, a brief overview of the season which Steve introduced for us this morning.
Advent is the four Sundays before Christmas Day, and for each of these four Sundays through Christmas Eve, we are going to be asking the question How Far is it to Bethlehem? In its simplest form, this is the question posed by kids who are pumped up about opening presents: How long until Christmas? Or driving to Grandma’s house: Are we there yet? These are valid questions, not only for children, but for anyone who is eager to get to an occasion or destination. But the journey to Bethlehem may not be a straightforward one, and especially for adults, How Far is it to Bethlehem? May not have a simple answer. Bethlehem was and is a geographical location, but it is also an emotional and spiritual place: it is where Jesus is. And Jesus is not only in a Galilee far, far away: Jesus is in our world today, present and active, Emmanuel, God-With-Us. During these Advent services, we are going to consider what it meant for human characters in the nativity story to get to Bethlehem — we’re going to meet a number of angels along the way, as well — but we’ll also consider what the human stories might tell us about finding our way to the emotional and spiritual place where Jesus can be born in our lives. I have borrowed the title and some of the beautiful reflections from Ann Weems’ book, Kneeling in Bethlehem, for our worship resources each week.
Our reading from Matthew chapter 1 locates us at a moment, but not a place. It begins, “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” Many of us would be just fine if the story started there, but it doesn’t. The birth of Jesus is not the beginning of the story — it isn’t even the beginning of the gospel of Matthew. I decided to be kind to Steve and not have him read the first 17 verse of Matthew — you may remember what it is: it’s the genealogy of Jesus. In the King James version instead of naming Abraham as the father of Isaac, it used the older term “begat” which means to cause, or to conceive. This usually applies to the man who caused this baby to come about, as opposed to the woman who gives birth to the baby. Ask any woman who has been in labor and told her husband, “This is all your fault.” Of course, this is a bit ironic in the case of Jesus — because Matthew tells us at the end of all the begats that Jesus’ mother Mary was begat by the Holy Spirit. Why would Matthew even bother giving us this information about the man who was not Jesus’ biological father?
The genealogy is heavily coded for a Jewish audience — the folks for whom Matthew was writing his gospel. Not just the names, which is an all-star list of Jewish pedigree, including Abraham, Isaac, and King David, but also the number of generations, which Matthew reminds us of in verse 17–14 generations from Abraham to David; 14 generation from David to the Babylonian exile and separation from Jerusalem; and 14 generations from return to Jerusalem to the coming of Jesus, the Messiah. Seven is a number of significance, 14 is two sevens, there is a balance of 3 blocks of 14. Jesus is located within, and is the apex of Jewish history and the rise, fall, and fulfillment of Jewish society. This gives Jesus legitimacy in a Jewish context, and it gives Matthew credibility with a Jewish audience.
There are some interesting additions in here, too: Rahab, who is the mother of Obed and grandmother of Ruth and great-great grandmother of David was a Canaanite prostitute who helped the Israelites. Solomon’s father is David, and his mother is not named, but described as the wife of Uriah. We know that her name was Bathsheba, and you might remember how she came to be David’s wife. One commentator describes Matthew’s genealogy as a “flourish of strumpets,” which is a lot funnier in British English where a strumpet is a woman of low morals. Let’s just say there is some tart fruit in the family tree.
Joseph is a man of impeccable Jewish credentials, including his connection to King David, which ties him to the ancestral home of Bethlehem — David’s royal city. Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth, a small village in the region of Galilee, 90 miles from Bethlehem. So the most literal answer to How Far is it to Bethlehem, at least for Joseph and Mary, is 90 miles. For Joseph, that journey began hundreds of years, 42 generations before, when God set Jewish history in motion with Abraham. But for this man, his emotional and spiritual journey began when his fiancée, his betrothed, came to him and told him she was pregnant, and he knew he was not the father. Being an honorable man, Joseph resolved to divorce her quietly, but when he decided to do this, an angel came to him in a dream, and told him to take Mary as his wife: the child conceived in her was by the Holy Spirit. He would save the people from their sins and would fulfill the prophecy to Isaiah about God-With-Us. That angel would not have made sense to anyone but a Jew, who understood that the Messiah is God’s anointed, and had been taught the writing of the prophets and the promise of Emmanuel, God-With-Us. But there also had to be a huge helping of the human response of Not-My-Son. Joseph being a righteous man meant he was a faithful and observant Jew, but taking Mary as his wife and legitimizing her pregnancy meant he was a compassionate man who was willing to change his mind and his course of action. It likely meant that he knew not only that this Son would be special, but that it was probably going to be a rough ride. It had been 14 generations — almost 500 years — since the restoration of Jerusalem, and now Israel was occupied by the Roman Empire. It isn’t as if there was a clear path to Jewish freedom and independence. In fact, that didn’t seem likely. At all.
All of this is part of Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem: it had to include doubt and uncertainty — maybe even disbelief. He likely had some questions and concerns about what his son’s life would be like. He probably wondered what it would be like to mentor the Messiah. And that was before he had to make a couple-day journey over rough terrain with his heavily pregnant wife.
I was drawn to Ann Weem’s description of Joseph as the guy standing at the back of the nativity set. Joesph is a man who is generally a background character, but it is precisely his background which makes him integral to the story. It is Joesph’s family which gives Jesus legitimacy. It is Joseph who backs this baby up with 21 generations of heritage and history. We may not bring that genealogy with us on our journey, but we are still welcome in Bethlehem. The early apostles and evangelists widened the welcome of Christianity so that it would not be only a Jewish sect, but a worldwide movement of people who were inspired by the Holy Spirit to follow the way of Jesus Christ. The same Spirit which begat Jesus begat the Church, and caused the birth of an international and movement which spread throughout the Roman Empire, and eventually the world.
Joseph did not give his consent to Mary’s pregnancy. It was accomplished — the child was begat — by the time he heard about it. But he was righteous enough and man enough to go along with the plan, God’s plan. He was not too proud or too frightened to listen to an angel. Whatever his doubts may have been, he sheltered his wife and child. I love that description of Joseph as standing, not in the background, but at the entrance to the stable, to guard and to greet. To watch over his wife and infant son, but also to see what guests might arrive. This strikes me as a pretty good description of what we in the church should be about: being conscious of our heritage and history, being righteous but willing to listen to angels if we need to change direction; guarding what is precious to us, but also being willing to greet whomever the Lord sends — even if they seem kinda scruffy. I think there is a lot we can learn from Joseph, not only as a man of God, but a model for the church.How far is it to Bethlehem? We’ll keep asking that question in the coming weeks. But Joseph’s combination of righteousness, flexibility, guarding and greeting is a journey we can learn from as we find Jesus and seek what that gift of Emmanuel, God-With-Us means for each one of us and for the church.