Fourth Sunday of Advent
St. Alban’s Episcopal Church ● Albany, California ● December 18, 2022
By Steve Hitchcock
In these four Sundays of Advent, we have been preparing for Christmas. But this year, Advent is also the season when we prepare to read and follow Matthew’s Gospel in the months ahead.
Today, on this last Sunday of Advent, our Gospel reading was from the first chapter on Matthew. These eight verses introduce us to themes that will be repeated as we make our way through the 28 chapters of this Gospel.
In the Sundays to come, it will be easy to get lost or maybe even discouraged. As our sainted sister Patricia Elmore exclaimed to me one Sunday, “What’s going on in Matthew?”
Today’s Gospel reading includes three themes that will us help us hear –and act on – the good news that isn’t always obvious in Matthew.
Fifty to 60 years after Jesus’ death, the writer of the Gospel was trying to help his own community make sense of the life and ministry of what John Meier famously termed “a marginal Jew” who executed by the Romans.
Matthew’s Gospel made the case that the story of Jesus’ life and ministry was their story, too. Now, centuries later, we’re still reading this Gospel because that story is ours as well.
And it is a story that enables us to live with joy and hope even as our world seem to be falling apart.
Matthew’s community was going through a very difficult time of transition. The Jerusalem temple – the focus and center of Israel’s worship and identity – had been destroyed. Many had fled Judea and Jerusalem to Syria, some to Antioch where the Gospel may have been written. They must have had a sense of great loss, grieving for all they left behind. To help fill this void, Jewish synagogues arose and flourished in places like Antioch.
In many of these synagogues, Jews who confessed Jesus as the Messiah were being forced out. Equally unsettling, those Jews who believed Jesus to be the Messiah were being joined by Gentiles who had never read or observed the Torah.
Our own St. Alban’s has been going through a difficult transition, and we have lost so much – including family members and friends who have passed away. Many of us as individuals are grappling with changes: new jobs for some, retirement for others, and for some of us the distressing accommodations of old age. We’re all navigating new patterns and new skills to live through this unending pandemic.
As we struggle with our loss and disruption, the message for Matthew’s first readers and for us today is that we are still connected to our history and tradition as God’s chosen people.
To help his reader see this connection, Matthew makes Joseph the focus of this account of Jesus’ birth. Joseph’s forebears included the great king David. In Jesus’s time, the expectation was that a new king David, the anointed one or Messiah, would liberate them from Roman oppression. The Joseph in today’s reading was also connected to the Coat-of-Many-Colors Joseph, the son of Jacob or Israel who was taken to Egypt and eventually helped save the people of Israel from famine.
Today’s reading shows how Jesus was connected to Joseph and thus to David. In culture of first century Palestine, Joseph and Mary already married. Engagement and marriage were all rolled into one. After the engagement was announced, Mary, probably 12 to 14 years old and likely a distant cousin of Joseph, would remain for a year in her father’s house and then move in with Joseph, probably at his father’s house.
Despite Mary’s unexpected pregnancy – thanks to the intervention of a dream and a visiting Angel – Joseph does take Mary as his wife. Following the angel’s directions, Joseph names the child Jesus – or, in Hebrew, Joshua, the great judge who led the Israelites into the promised land. Joshua was seen as the new Moses, and throughout Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus will be cast as the new Moses, the liberator of his people.
In the weeks and months ahead, we too will have opportunities to see how our lives today are connected to God’s people throughout history. The promise is that immersing ourselves in that history will give us a foundation and a foothold as we navigate the transitions we face both as a congregation and as individuals.
Joseph is also the pivot point for the second theme we will see throughout Matthew’s Gospel. We hear that Joseph was a “righteous man.” In post-Temple Judaism, adhering to the Torah became the mark of faith, and righteousness was a key concern. Throughout Matthew, we will hear Jesus call for righteous living, for fulfilling all of the Torah or God’s law.
But then our reading goes on to tell us what it really means to be “righteous.” Joseph was unwilling to expose Mary to shame. He was willing to do the decent thing and divorce her, so that she could eventually remarry. Joseph, following the Spirit, goes even further and takes Mary as his wife and accepts her into his household. Even more so, by naming Jesus, Joseph declares that Mary’s child was his son.
The point of all this is that Matthew wants his readers – and us – to know that being righteous is being compassionate, that mercy is the way to manage all relationships. And this mercy and compassion are to be directed at those, like Mary, who are at the bottom of the social and economic ladder.
Midway through Matthew, in chapter 15, the story of Jesus and Canaanite woman is a pivotal expression of this compassion. In that story, Jesus – like Joseph – changes his mind and agrees that, even though she is not of the house of Israel, healing and restoration to community can be hers.
For Matthew’s readers, this emphasis on compassion had two implications. First, they were being encouraged to forgive and welcome those in their community who had fallen away and wanted to return. Second, the leaders in the community were being urged to pay special attention to those who were new to their gatherings – those who will be called the “little ones” or “the least of these” throughout the Gospel.
For us today, that spirit of compassion and mercy can be the guiding principle for all we do as a congregation – including our service in the community. We rejoice that those who haven’t been able to be part of our Zoom worship are now with us on Sunday. And we look forward to welcoming those who will visit St. Alban’s in the weeks ahead.
The third notable passage in our reading – one that sets a theme for Matthew’s Gospel – is “they shall name him Emmanuel, which means God with us.”
For Matthew’s community, this phrase reminded them of what they heard and experienced when they gathered for the Eucharist – when the Risen Christ was present among them. This was the promise made in Jesus’ final words to the disciple in the last verse of Mathew: “I will be with you always.”
For them and us, Jesus is “God on the ground.” In our birthing and in our dying, in our loving and fighting, in the pews and on the job, God is in the midst of us. All that is possible because the God who is with us – this Immanuel – is the one suffers death on the cross and empties the tomb.
This theme of God with us is reinforced by passage quoted from Isaiah, which was our First Lesson today. In the months ahead we will hear many other passages from Isaiah quoted by Matthew. For the message of Isaiah was that the time of conniving kings like Ahaz and elaborate Temple worship is over. Political power and cultic practice aren’t enough any longer.
In Isaiah, the One who is to come – the one for whom the way is prepared – is God, or as Isaiah has it: “The Lord [Yahweh] himself will give you a sign.”
And this God who is with us in death and resurrection remains – despite all the loss, change, and transition we experience –our sure foundation. In Chapter 1, verse 1 of Matthew’s Gospel, the word for “beginning” is the same word as “Genesis.” That same word was used again today in verse 18 as the word for “birth.” Matthew is giving us the good news that the birth of Jesus is nothing less than the creation of the world, the promise that life will be preserved and renewed.
And won’t that be something to celebrate next week!