He [Joseph] did as the angel of the Lord commanded him. He took her [Mary] as his wife but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son. And he named him Jesus.
In Matthew’s Gospel the birth of Jesus is reported by Jesus almost as an aside. It isn’t here that we see the stable. We don’t read of a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a manger. There are no angels, at least none when anybody is awake. There are no shepherds whose terror is transformed in joy and wonder. And Mary is hardly visible. It is not until the next chapter that the cast of Christmas characters is filled. But by then the stable has been left behind and Joseph, Mary and Jesus are living in a house. None of the details of that Christmas scene are given to us here.
Matthew is much more interested in the circumstances that bring Christmas about. How Mary came to be expecting a baby, and what Joseph did about it. The birth of Jesus is reported simply as something that happens when a woman has been pregnant about 39 or 40 weeks. In the natural course of events a baby, even the most important baby, arrives after that amount of time. Matthew reports it that way: as the natural inevitable conclusion to what he has really been interested in. The circumstance of that pregnancy.
Matthew begins his telling of the story of Jesus, and his description of the circumstances of Jesus birth with a genealogy. He starts with the long list of names, which we hardly ever bother to read. But Matthew reminds us that the birth he is talking about, the birth which we are celebrating doesn’t just come at the end of 40 weeks of waiting. It comes at the end of more than 40 generations. He lists 42 fathers and sons, beginning with Abraham. They are witnesses to the whole history of Israel, ff which this pregnancy and birth are the climax. All that history has been leading up to this moment. In that list there are 14 kings. The group in the middle of the list were rulers of God’s people. They are the ancestors, including most critically King David, of the one who will rule over God’s people for ever. But by the time of this pregnancy and birth the members of that list have become much more modest. That kingdom has gone, swallowed up by foreign invaders, who themselves were swallowed up by other foreigners. The end of that list is Joseph, who is described as the as the husband of Mary. Mary appears as the fifth woman on that list. All of the women in the list move the story and God’s mission forward in surprising, even shocking ways: There was Tamar, who had to seduce her own father-in-law to have child, to continue the list of fathers and sons that brought us to this point. There was Rahab the prostitute who helped the Israelites as they invaded and took control of her homeland, the place where this story now takes place. There was Ruth a foreign woman, a widow who seduced her dead husband’s relative to find a place among God’s people, showing that God’s people are open to outsiders. There was the wife of Uriah, who isn’t even given her own name here (it’s Bathsheba), who was made pregnant by David who then had her husband killed to cover his crime, which shows that even the best of rulers still have feet of clay, and yet God was still working through that towards the birth that we are celebrating now. If nothing else that list and the women on it in particular establish the notion: God moves in mysterious ways his wonders to perform. And lastly Mary, a young woman engaged to be married – who most mysteriously of all finds herself pregnant, without her fiancé’s involvement.
But it is Joseph’s reaction to this pregnancy and to the subsequent birth which establishes a central theme of the story which Matthew tells about Jesus. It sets up the answer to the question we might be asking this morning: What does this birth mean? What is the meaning of Christmas? To which Matthews telling of the Christmas story, such that it is, gives the answer: There is a righteousness which goes beyond mercy. There is a righteousness which is being revealed in the birth of this child.
“Righteousness” is a way of talking about the way we give our lives meaning. To be righteous is to live the life worth living, a life which serves a better and higher purpose, both individually and collectively as part of a community. In conventional terms righteousness might be defined as obedience to the law. That is, staying within the boundaries set be the traditions and customs of the people around you and the society you are part of. And in Israel’s case those traditions and customs have been established by God. They are the Torah. If Joseph had accepted righteousness only on those terms the birth which we celebrate this morning might never have taken place, at least we would never have heard of it. The natural reaction to discovering Mary was pregnant, and knowing that he had nothing to do with it, would be be for Joseph to assume that Mary had done something she hadn’t. The natural assumption would be that she had betrayed his trust and become pregnant with someone else. The tradition, those customs, have a name for that, it is called adultery. And the tradition, those customs are clear what should be done about this. The woman should be punished, even killed by being stoned. At the very least she should be condemned and rejected. This part of the story reveals the strength of Mary’s character, from what we know of her side of the story in Luke. In saying “let it be with me according to your word,” in allowing herself to join that list of women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba, she is like them, taking a risk, being made vulnerable so that God’s story can progress. She knows that Joseph is a righteous man. And she knows how righteousness treats women in her position. But she also has faith in God, a God who does move in mysterious ways.
But that is the narrow, the conventional understanding of righteousness. But even by himself Joseph has broader understanding of righteousness. There is a righteousness that goes beyond obedience to the law, and acceptance of custom and tradition. That righteousness is a righteousness tempered with mercy. Joseph’s inclination to respond to the situation he finds himself in is in the highest and best tradition of his people. Joseph has heard and grasped what God has said through the prophet: I desire mercy not sacrifice [Hosea 6:6]. He knows that punishing Mary serves no purpose. His sorrow and disappointment aren’t going to be played out that way. The deed is already done. To treat Mary as narrow righteousness would require doesn’t undo it and it won’t restore his disappointment or sorrow, it would only ruin at least three lives and possibly end two of them. God asks through the prophet that we recognise that narrow punitive righteous will in the end do nothing to restore the hurt and sorrow that touches our lives. Joseph already sees that mercy is the best way out of this situation:
Being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace [or worse!] he planned to dismiss her quietly.
This is how the Christmas scene is set. This is where the meaning of Christmas becomes apparent. There is a righteousness that goes beyond even mercy. This is why God intervenes in this birth. Joseph is visited by an angel in a dream. And like Mary, he is asked to do something courageous. He is asked to set aside the conventions of custom and tradition. He is asked even to set aside his own feelings. He is asked to accept Mary as his wife, and to accept her child as his son. At the heart of the Christmas story is the message that God is doing something completely new and surprising in Jesus. It brings with it the promise that if we can, like Joseph, make a place for Jesus we can experience a righteousness that goes beyond mercy. We can experience a transformed way of living that allows God to guide us into life, life in all its fullness, a life that takes us beyond the hurt and sorrow that life often serves up to us, into a life that becomes part of God’s story. This is what Joseph and Mary found by allowing themselves to be joined to that list of 42 generations of God’s working with his people. That is what they found by allowing Jesus to become the determining factor in their lives, which surely his birth with them was
We talk a lot about the real meaning of Christmas. It is the gift that God is giving us a Christmas. The quality of that gift is revealed in Matthew’s telling not of the details of Jesus’ birth but in the circumstances that lead up to it. In the birth of Jesus God gives us the possibility of a righteousness that goes beyond mercy, a life that is worth living because it serves the highest purpose of all, the Glory of God. John, who doesn’t describe Jesus’ birth at all, puts it this way:
To all who received him
That is to all who like Joseph, set aside conventional ideas of righteousness and who have the faith in God to go beyond mercy and make space for Jesus in their lives:
To all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. [John 1:12]
The whole gospel leads from and back to this place. The meaning of Christmas is that God gives us the possibility to be his children, to have a righteousness that goes beyond mercy, to live lives that are filled with his presence, like the presence of a child given after a wait of 40 weeks or 40 generations.
Christmas, a righteousness that goes beyond mercy by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0