“A New World Birthed,” Walter Breuggemann (Dec. 19, 2004)
Each of the Gospel writers begins the Gospel story in a different way, and Matthew does it with this remarkable story of the birth of the baby that is on the lips of an angel in a dream to Joseph. Before that, the part that I didn’t read in Matthew 1, is a long genealogy of 17 begats about father to son, son to son to son, all the way back to Father Abraham. The genealogy goes up till Joseph, except that Matthew plays a trick on us, because he traces this royal pedigree, but then at the last minute, in a trick, he tells us that Joseph is not really the father of this new baby, the one we celebrate at Christmas. There are some important things to notice about this narrative of the beginning of the Gospel according to Matthew.
The first thing to notice is that the whole message to Joseph happens at night when he was relaxed and his guard was down. And in the night we are told that the angel came and said to him, “Do not be afraid, for the child in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Now that is a mouthful. It is a mouthful from an angel, a messenger of God, one sent from heaven to earth, a message given from outside, not in human terms, not in earthly terms, not according to Joseph’s normal assumptions. The angel spoke in a dream, not when Joseph was awake and in control. So the first thing to notice as we move in these last days to Christmas is that the expectation of Jesus, according to Matthew, is outside all of our normal categories. Our business is not to explain this text. Our business is to be dazzled at Christmastime that something is happening beyond all of our calculations. This is a baby and a wonder and a gift that is designed to move us beyond ourselves.
The second thing to notice in this story from Matthew is that the baby has no father; and in this family, like every family, it is a scandal when a baby has no father. And Joseph was at the edge of scandal, but that is not the point. The accent, rather, is that the baby is from the Holy Spirit. Now we may set aside all of the silly speculation that has gone on about biological transactions and notice rather than this newness comes because God’s Spirit stirs among us. The Bible is largely a reflection on how God’s Spirit makes things new.
- It is God’s Spirit in Genesis 1 that creates a new world, a new heaven and a new earth.
- It is God’s Spirit, God’s wind that blows the waters back in Egypt and lets our ancestors depart from slavery.
- It is God’s Spirit that calls prophets and apostles and martyrs to do dangerous acts of obedience.
- It is God’s Spirit that came upon the disciples in the Book of Acts and created a community of obedience and mission.
- And, now, it is God’s Spirit that begins something new when the world is exhausted, when our imagination fails and when our lives are shut down in despair.
That is what Matthew is telling us, that God’s Spirit has stirred and caused something utterly new in the world. God has caused this new baby who will change everything among us.
The third thing to notice is that the angel gives Joseph two names for the baby. Names are very important in that ancient world. First, the angel says, “You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people.” The Hebrew name Jesus is the verb save. Imagine on Christmas that we have a baby named Save. Many babies in the Old Testament are named Save. It is the word for Joshua, for Isaiah, and for Hosea. Each of them saved Israel, and now Jesus will save.
- Jesus will save from sin and guilt.
- Jesus will save from death and destruction.
- Jesus will save from despair and hopelessness.
- Jesus will save from poverty and sickness and hunger, and in all of the stories of Jesus that the church remembers, it is Jesus who saves.
Advent is being ready for the saving one who will come when we cannot save ourselves.
The second name that the angel gives for the baby is Emmanuel, God is with us. It is the faith of the church that in Jesus God was decisively present in the world that made everything new. And in the New Testament we have all of that evidence that wherever Jesus came, he showed up where people were in need, and he saved them-lepers, the deaf, the blind, the lame, the hungry, the unclean, even the dead. His very presence makes new life possible, and the church consists in all the people who have been dazzled by the reality of God who has come to be with us in this season of need and of joy, all through this miraculous baby.
So Matthew prepares us right at the edge of Christmas. He gives us an angel’s message in a dream that is beyond our control or expectation. He tells us that it is God’s Spirit who makes all things new through this baby, and he names the baby twice. The baby is named Save, and Jesus saves from all that kills and is flat and sad. He names the baby God is with us, and we are not alone. Notice that this story does not ask us to do anything. But I believe it invites us to be dazzled. It invites us to ponder that, while our world feels unsavable, here is the baby named Save. Our world and our lives often feel abandoned, and here is the baby named God with us. So we are to be ready to have our lives and our world contradicted by this gift from God. We may rest our lives upon the new promise from the angel and we may be safe and we may be whole and made generous because Christmas is coming soon.
Let us pray.
Coming Son of God, blowing Spirit of God, hovering Father God, we are very sure in these hope-filled days that neither life nor death nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come, nor powers nor height nor depths nor anything at all in creation can separate us from you and from your love for us. For this we are grateful. We give you thanks for your gift to us. In the saving name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.