God is with us!
Preacher: The Revd Rob Ryan, Cathedral Curate (2010-2012)
19 December 2010, 10:30 (Advent 4)
Have you noticed how people love their titles? ... and how amazing some titles and names have be- come. I’ve been in work places where titles have meant you have made it ... and in my last role I was very proud of my title. It’s sad but true - we do like our titles!
I have stumbled upon titles that people have for themselves and I wonder whether you can translate them for me:
A Transparent Wall Technician - Window Cleaner
Theft Prevention and Surveillance Offcer - Night Watchman
Landscape Executive and Animal Nutritionist - Gardener
Crease Elimination Specialist - someone who irons for a living
Porcelain Polisher - Toilet Cleaner
Wealth Distribution Offcer - Thief
At certain events or functions, people are introduced by their titles ... some are pretty elaborate to signify their level of importance, some are even padded out with previous titles and roles. The last time I was introduced as a speaker it was Rob, Pioneer Curate at Rochester Cathedral charged with creating a fresh expression of church, previously Director of Gillingham YFC and Senior Manager of Local Ministries in England for British YFC .... embarrassingly elaborate! I got the feeling it came from their need to justify having chosen an unknown curate to address them.
It’s interesting however, that those with real authority, those with real power, those we really want to take note of have very short titles.Take the most powerful man in the world, (Lord Sugar!!) ... Barack Obama .... he is not introduced as being the previous Senator from Illinois, or as graduate from Harvard, or even as the 44th president. No; all you will simply hear in announcement will be ... Ladies and Gentlemen .. the President of the United States of America. Nothing else needs to be said.
Today’s gospel reading is about titles and names.
This is an amazing story.A wonderful account.There is so much here, and yet so little.There is so little of the story that we have grown up with.There is no visit of the angel Gabriel to Mary.There is no census.There is no journey to Bethlehem.There is no ‘no room at the inn’.There is no inn keeper. No stable. No donkey. No shepherds washing their socks. There is very little, if any, of that traditional con - tent of the story that we have grown up with.
It’s a pretty basic, no smells and bells account of the birth of Christ. Hang on ... is there even a birth in this story? If you blink you could miss it as only slight reference is made to it in the last few words of todays gospel reading.
The lack of padding out and the absence of any indication of place or time of this event causes me to believe that Matthew views all these ‘other things’ as pretty unimportant and superfuous.
You could actually start to think that this is all about Joseph. It is certainly tempting to look into his character and learn lessons for ourselves today. Here we have a young man struggling with the tension between the law and doing what he believes to be right.
To put this is context, Joseph and Mary are engaged. Engagement at this time in history, and within this culture, meant something very different to what it means to us today. There is a clue in v 19 with Joseph being called Mary’s husband. Being engaged meant they were already together, but the fnal stage of the marriage had not yet happened. But it had progressed so far that the only way to stop things now would be to have a divorce.
Joseph clearly suspects Mary of having sex with another man (who wouldn’t!) ... adultery.The punish- ment for adultery in the law was clear .... death by stoning.That is the dilemma that Joseph and Mary are dealing with. So ... we could probably learn a lot by looking at Joseph struggling with law and com- passion.
But ... tempting as it is to look closely at Joseph I wonder whether if we do that we would be in danger of missing the central point of Matthew’s account.
Matthew draws our attention to the names.
But frst ... a problem.Well more than one actually coming from Matthew’s use of the prophecy in v 23 which originally comes from Is. 7:14.
Matthew seems to be using this as a prophecy that directly foretells the birth of Jesus.That is all very nice and it fts, but this was not written about Jesus. This is not a prophecy that has been lying frozen for some 700 years waiting for Mary and Joseph to come along with the baby Jesus. It’s a prophecy from Isaiah for his actual time and was fulflled within his lifetime.
We heard in the frst reading that this promise is a sign to King Ahaz and the House of David. There will be a birth of a royal son during whose infancy the kingdoms that Ahaz feared, Syria and Israel, would suffer harm.That happened and the royal birth referred to is probably that of King Hezzikiah.
Matthew knew that.
His listeners would also have known that.
So, what is going on here?
Before we attempt to answer that, I wish to draw out another interesting issue with this prophecy. ‘The virgin shall bear a son’ ... fne ... ‘and call him Emmanuel ... not fne .... because, as we have just heard, they call the baby ... Jesus.That’s not even close! It could not even be a nickname!
They may not be close, but the names and the naming by Joseph are important aspects of this story which we need to understand. I suggest that the starkness of this story is deliberate so that we notice these two names and ask ourselves that question - ‘what is going on?’
Here we need a little reminder of the God Story.All through the OT God promises to be with Israel. Back in 2 Samuel 7, God makes a promise to David saying ‘I will be a father to your son, and he will be a son to me.’ God promises to always be with Israel in a special way through the descendants of David; the House of David.
This promise to David is fulflledagain and again in the OT, as with Hezekiah who I mentioned earlier. As with many OT prophecies there are always deeper meanings in addition to the simple immediate in- terpretation. Matthew is saying, ‘yes that prophecy was partially fulflled in Isaiah’s time; but now, with the birth of Jesus, comes the supreme once for all timeless fulflment - our ultimate rescue.
Joseph is important and vital in his humble obedience to God by naming the child. This may seem simple, but by agreeing to name the child, Joseph bestows the Davidic line on Jesus. The importance and signifcance of this is shown through the opening words of the angel; ‘Joseph, son of David.’ This is the only occasion when this title is used for anyone other than Jesus. Matthew is reminding us of the Davidic line that Joseph is part of before Joseph then passes it to Jesus. Essentially Joseph agrees to ad- opt Jesus, and gives him his name so that he also becomes part of the House of David.
The naming may be of vital importance, but so is the actual name. Jesus, which means ‘he will save’.This child is special. He is from the line of David and He will save his people.
So we have here the child who will deliver, but wait ... that is not all, there is even more.The child will also be called Emmanuel; not so much a name, but more of a title that indicates his role of bringing God’s presence to us.
We have here the promise from God to always care for Israel through the House of David and Jesus is the fulflment of that promise.
The promise to be with us.
That is a pretty mazing promise.
Emmanuel means.. God .. is .. with .. us.
Jesus is God with us!
This is the crux of this birth story.
This is the whole reason this story is simple and un-embellished.The most powerful and important hu- man in the world has a short title (The President of the US).
Jesus is introduced with one word ...
In the same way that the OT prophecies and promises have continual fulflment, so it is with Em- manuel.
Jesus is still with us today.
In fact, Emmanuel frames this whole gospel; it opens with the baby who is God with us and closes with Jesus promising ..‘remember, I am with you always to the end of the age.’
The name of Jesus allows us to be with God.
It is true that God is always with us.
But; our spin separates us from God.
Jesus takes away that sin - he saves us ..
so that not only is God with us
but we can now be with God.
Wherever we are, however we are, however we think we are ...
God is with us
and that is more than enough to cause us to celebrate today!