Nativity Lectures 2021 [1]

The just and the innocent meet

This year’s lectures come from Matthew’s gospel and will focus attention on the behaviours of a just man and an innocent girl, two avenues of divine intervention, and the projection of the Saviour-king. I have decided to avoid the customary storytelling priority of combining the different narratives into one.

Virgin found pregnant

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 1:18, NASB

The birth story here begins with an engagement gone crazy.  There is no midwife or prenatal care,  only the slightest hint of a dating life shows up here.  If you are looking for medical inspiration or a seasonal devotional boost, Matthew’s gospel is not the place.  You will especially not find a blow by blow of Mary’s or Joseph’s life and their relationships with their families, The nativity story in Matthew’s gospel begins with  a depressing disappointment and a severe challenge to a man in love.

No legal advice in sight

In a crisis of this sort a person living under the Sinai Covenant looks for an honourable answer to the question “What shall I do?” The other more particular question that presented itself was “How shall I end this”?  A man and a woman engaged to be married in Judea do not walk away in the dark of night.  An engagement has the same dignity and legal status as a marriage.  This is why Joseph thought of Mary and the public fallout that would certainly follow an official “putting away”.  Matthew uses the term apoluo, used also of divorce in Matthew 5:31, 19:3, 7, 8, 9)  He wanted to do just that: end the engagement secretly. The Sinai Covenant has no inroads here, but the prophets do.

Familiar Birth stories

The narrative of the birth of Jesus might be expected to have the issues of conception, a wedding, the preparations for his birth, insights into the wisdom of the ways of dealing with pregnancy over some portion of the nine months of gestation  It ought to have some something about the onset of fatherhood, something about labour, the delivery, the baby’s weight and stature.  Not this one.

Go on, marry your intended

Provocations, thoughtfulness,  and resolve emerge, and the answer comes in a dream, not from a scribal interpretation of the Law. The relief for both the just man and  the innocent virgin is beyond imagination.

Provocations, thoughtfulness, and justice without divorce emerge

GOD is with the just and the innocent.  The just, like the innocent and innocent, rely on their personal connection with Israel’s God.  Here are the signs that the people of New Testament times  may have had no benefit of a prophet, priest, or king advising them.  These two, Mary and Joseph,  are not face to face with God like Moses  and Joshua, but they face their life’s challenges with all the power of heaven

But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream

Matthew 1:20

 The dream comes after Joseph decides what to do, and after having thought about how to do it.  The term rendered considered signifies putting energy in (enthumeo).

A just man responding to a provocation of this kind by conceiving a wish is remarkable indeed.  The natural course is to seek to deal with the perpetrators: discover how the “damage” to one family plan occurred, assign blame, and punish the offenders.  Joseph, Matthew tells us, sets up his priorities around his love for Mary.  Perhaps in some worlds a righteous man rushes to judgment, carried by his rage and hurt.  Perhaps in other worlds, a righteous man only needs a couple of witness to mount a convincing case.  In other world a righteous man might go with what his eyes have seen; a virgin girl pregnant  A righteous might be satisfied with only a woman’s confession that she has missed a period.  A righteous man has the option of not throwing the book at alleged wrongdoing.  The just person in Jesus’ birth story is a man who decides secretly divorce his fiancee.  We dare to imagine that God cannot do the same!

The instruction package begins with ” do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife”, then it explains why the pregnancy has happened the way it has, without a male contributing to the conception.  Then the angel hands Joseph the most amazing announcement in family life, of the kind that an informed Israelite would be aware of and excited to be a part of.  Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, and Mary’s own cousin Elizabeth were barren until God changed their direction in life. Mary’s conception was a result of the Holy Spirit action, not infidelity.  It is quite certain that the husbands of these barren women were not exercised as Joseph was. 

More reason to marry than most could find

A descendant of David does not spend many days without being reminded of his relationship to the house that built the temple, and to whom an eternal throne was promised.  The grandeur of the Jewish tradition most certainly includes the remission of sins.  The temple and the tabernacle were designed to house God’s name and offer people access to the systems for the remission of sin and the restitution of any imbalance caused by human behaviour.  The news that Mary’s baby was the result of God’s Spirit and the revelation that the child was destined to save his people from their sins more than satisfied Joseph.  She will give birth and you will name the child.

“She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:20-21, NASB

Instructed by a dream

From Matthew’s account we gather the assurance that where law and sacrifice – the grounds and processes of the levitical system – might have resulted in anguish, disappointment, and even death, God is with the innocent woman and he is with the just.  God plants his intervention direction into Joseph’s dreams, distinctly apart from the political and religious status quo.

(20) But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. (21) “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:20-21, NASB

This change of direction is a preview of Christ’s mission. Matthew is making the gospel his axis without polemic.  His narrative shows that grace was at work in glorious and mysterious ways.  God is with the couple, and yet the narrative is not without written authority.