Sermon: Advent IV — How Silently, How Silently

The Holy Family, Giorgione

Sermon: Advent 4A

How Silently, How Silently (Matthew 1:18-25)

The Lord be with you.

Whereas the Gospel of Luke tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Mary’s perspective, Matthew tells it through the eyes of Joseph. Both of these accounts share common elements in describing what took place.

  • Both testify that Jesus was to be conceived in Mary’s womb by the power of the Holy Spirit and not through normal human sexual intimacy.
  • Both record that the main characters received divine revelation about the momentous event from angels.
  • Both tell how these human participants felt hesitation and fear when they heard the news.
  • Both stories go on to show how both main characters eventually trusted God’s word and faithfully obeyed.

Above all, both stories emphasize the identity of the baby to be born. This child was to be the Messiah of Israel, the one who would save his people from their sins, the promised King who would sit on David’s throne, the presence of God himself in the midst of his people.

Neither Matthew nor Luke attempt to explain or defend these remarkable claims. In both cases the narrative proceeds in simplicity, reporting astounding events in folksy stories.

One chief characteristic of Matthew’s Christmas stories is their connection with the story of Israel as told in the Old Testament.

  • Immediately preceding today’s Gospel is a genealogy, tracing Jesus’ lineage back to Abraham through the line of David the King.
  • Matthew begins his story with an interesting word. Verse 18, translated literally, says, “Now the genesis of Jesus the Messiah was like this.” The story of Jesus is the new origin story, a new Genesis story, the beginning of the new creation, just like the book of Genesis tells the story of beginnings in this creation.
  • In the original creation story, the Spirit of God hovers over the unformed creation. Then God simply speaks and things are created and put in order. Similarly, in Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth, it is the power of the Holy Spirit that brings about the conception of the infant Jesus. And, as in Genesis 1, it is God’s Word that now forms and names a new creation.
  • Mary’s husband is named Joseph. He has dreams and the actions he takes in response to those dreams make possible the birth of Jesus, the one who will save his people from their sins. In Genesis, it is Jacob’s son Joseph who had dreams, and his subsequent actions led to the ultimate redemption of the Hebrew people in Egypt.
  • Right after this story, in Matthew 2, we have the story of the wise men from the east, who came to pay tribute to the newborn King. If you read it carefully, you will discover that this story reflects narratives in the book of Numbers about Balaam the prophet, who foretold a star that would arise to lighten the world.
  • Then you have the story of King Herod and the horrific deaths of the children in Bethlehem, forcing Jesus and his family to escape and flee to Egypt. This reflects the story of Moses. When he was born, Pharaoh likewise ordered the deaths of all the Hebrew children, but Moses was spared in Egypt.
  • Matthew 2 ends with the Holy Family returning from Egypt and Matthew cites the prophet Hosea, who said “Out of Egypt I have called my Son.” The story of the Exodus foreshadows the story of the Messiah.
  • Finally, in Matthew’s birth story, Joseph names the baby “Jesus.” His name is akin to the name “Joshua,” the one who followed Moses and led Israel into the Promised Land. Also, in this passage God says he will be called “Emmanuel,” which means “God with us.” This reminds us of the God who accompanied Israel all the way to the Promised Land, never leaving or forsaking them.

These Old Testament stories tell the story of Israel, how God created the universe and redeemed the Hebrew people through Joseph and Moses and Joshua to be his priests so that they might bring his salvation and blessing to the whole world.

Matthew’s story of Jesus tells about the beginning of the new creation. God’s Spirit brings Jesus into the world to save God’s people through a New Moses who will lead his people out of exile and through a New Joshua who will bring them into a new life of redemption and blessing.

The second thing I note about Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth is that these stories are written in the same fashion as those in the Old Testament. They are filled with simple, ordinary people who hear God’s Word, learn to trust, and then faithfully do their part to bring Jesus to the world.

Here we see a simple man of trade and a village maiden in the formal betrothal period of their marriage. They have not lived together yet nor slept together. Out of the blue there is an unexpected pregnancy. This brings disruption to their lives, as well as fear, suspicion, and doubt. They wonder how to save face and protect each other’s reputations. These are down to earth, human dilemmas. They figure a way to discreetly handle the difficulties, and in the course of time, the woman bears a child.

This is the drama of human life, plain and simple. Of course, the story also tells us about divine wonders such as a virginal conception and dream visits from angels. But even these come in the form of quiet miracles. They take place in quaint and private settings and pondered over with personal deliberation. This is a man and a woman and their families trying to figure out what in the world is going on and getting some quiet, private divine guidance along the way.

Is this not the wonder of Christmas — that God chose to come to us in such ordinary circumstances, in the lives of common people like you and me, in a small village away from the crowd, away from the press and publicity and all kinds of hullabaloo? Doesn’t it impress you that these are people like us that God chose to begin his work of making a new creation?

This is the story. Matthew tells us — Joseph and Mary, love and marriage, some tough decisions, and a baby boy. Luke tells us about a village called Bethlehem, a few shepherds and a manger.

“How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n,” the Christmas hymn says. “So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heav’n.”

The greatest story ever told is also the simplest, the most human, the one we can all relate to, because it happened in and through the likes of people like us.

May God do it again this year. May God come to us right here, in the midst of our ordinary lives, our regular human affairs, our dilemmas, our struggles, this Christmas.

And through his Word and Spirit, may God impart to our hearts wonders that can scarcely be told. The wonder that he has come to save us from our sins. The wonder that he has come to live with us, now and forever.

May the Word of Christ dwell in us richly, in all wisdom. Amen.

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