I can’t quite wish you a Happy Christmas yet, but my WELCOME together with LOVE is part of the theme I would like us to consider on this the 4th and last Sunday of Advent. Today, in Matthew’s Gospel, we heard about the approaching birth of Jesus from the point of view of Joseph. From other New Testament sources we know that Mary was an excited Galilean girl, probably very nervous, but nonetheless looking forward to welcome the birth, of her baby who she knew, was to be a very important boy.
OK for her then, but what about Joseph. It is assumed that he was probably older and more staid than Mary and it must have come as a great shock to find out that his young fiancée was pregnant. Wow, that was a stoning offence. I doubt if HE welcomed the news when he first heard it. But God is good; He knew the characters of both of them. That Joseph, her husband-to-be, was an upright man, and that he wouldn’t want to make a public example of her. God also knew, that while Joseph was deciding to set the marriage aside privately, that he would listen and follow the will of God, when it was explained to him by an angel in a dream – who said
The child she is carrying is from the Holy Spirit. She is going to have a son. You must give him the name Jesus…
The only point where the two Gospel stories come close is when the angel says to Joseph, as Gabriel said to Mary, ‘Don’t be afraid.’ That is an important word for us, too, as we read the accounts of Jesus’ birth.
At this point those who are not Christians will be heard laughing out loud. “From the Holy Spirit; A virgin birth, you must be joking!” Since a boy I have always accepted that the conception of Jesus was just another of the wonderful mysteries of the Christian faith. However, I also remember reading as a school boy, in the now defunct Sunday Pictorial that a number of women had claimed virgin births, but they had only produced girls. And surprise surprise, some fifteen years ago on the web, I found that while it would be a scientific anomaly to give birth while a virgin, it is not a scientific impossibility. This has been known to happen in nature, although it is rare. When it does happen, all offspring are female; it’s all to do with females having two X chromosomes. However, there is 1 in 5 million chance for a women to have both an X and Y chromosome, so, the birth of a son cannot be completely ruled out as impossible.
In the Bible, we are told that it was through the activity of the Spirit that Mary became pregnant. That is indeed all that needs to be said, since we are concerned with the entry of the infinite God into his creation. This is something that cannot be described, any more than the act of creation can be described in any detail. Nor can the virgin birth be rejected simply because it is a miracle. The miracle is the incarnation itself, that God chose to have his Son born as a human, and if we can accept that miracle, there should be no difficulty about accepting the means by which God chose to effect it.
Bishop Tom Wright accepts that for centuries now many opponents of Christianity, and many devout Christians themselves, have felt that these stories are embarrassing and unnecessary – and untrue. Some go further saying that this story of a miracle birth, has had an unfortunate effect. They have given the impression that in its self sex is dirty and that God doesn’t want anything to do with it. They have also given rise to the legend that Mary stayed a virgin for ever, (something the Bible never says; indeed, here and elsewhere it implies that she and Joseph lived a normal married life after Jesus’ birth). This has promoted the belief that virginity is better than marriage, and all that it implies.
It is of course true that strange ideas have grown up around the story of Jesus’ conception and birth, but Matthew (and Luke) can hardly be blamed for that. They were telling the story they believed was both true and the ultimate explanation of why Jesus was the person he was. They must have known that they were taking a risk. In the ancient pagan world there were plenty of stories of heroes conceived by the intervention of a god, without a human father. Surely Matthew, with his very Jewish perspective on everything, would hardly invent such a thing, or copy it from someone else unless he really believed it? Wouldn’t it be opening Christianity to the sneers of its opponents, who would quickly suggest the obvious alternative? Well, yes, it would; but that would only be relevant if nobody already knew that there had been something strange about Jesus’ conception.
In John’s gospel we hear the echo of a taunt made during Jesus’ lifetime: maybe, the crowds suggest, Jesus’ mother had been misbehaving before her marriage. It seems as if Matthew and Luke are telling this story because they know rumours have circulated and they want to set the record straight. Everything depends, of course, on whether you believe that the living God could, or would, act like that. Some say he couldn’t (‘miracles don’t happen’); others that he wouldn’t, because ‘if he did that, why doesn’t he intervene to stop wars and genocide?’ But Matthew and Luke don’t ask us to take the story all by itself. They ask us to see it in the light both of the entire history of Israel – in which God was always present and at work, often in very surprising ways – and, more particularly, of the subsequent story of Jesus himself.
Does the rest of the story, and the impact of Jesus on the world and countless individuals within it ever since, make it more or less likely that he was indeed conceived by a special act of the Holy Spirit? That is a question everyone must answer for themselves. In the OT reading we heard Isaiah proclaiming that God himself will give a sign. ‘A woman has conceived and will bear a son named Emmanuel.’ Now, the name ‘Emmanuel, was not given to anyone else, perhaps because it would say more about the child than anyone would normally dare. It means ‘God with us’.
Matthew’s whole gospel is framed by this theme: at the very end, Jesus promises that he will be ‘with’ his people to the close of the age. God is present, with his people; He doesn’t ‘intervene’ from a distance. He is always active, and sometimes in most unexpected ways. And God’s actions are aimed at rescuing people from a helpless plight, demanding that he take the initiative and do things people had regarded as (so to speak) inconceivable.
This is the God, and this is the Jesus, whose story Matthew will tell us through the Gospel readings in the coming year. This is the God, and this is the Jesus, who still comes to us today when human possibilities have run out. God with his powerful grace and love always offers us new and startling ways forward, in fulfilment of his many promises. During the Christmas season we will have Joy, but there also the challenge, to remember Christ all the year round. We must not put him away in a box together with all the other Christmas decorations. We also have to remember that Christ does not remain a child. He grows into manhood and challenges us to follow in his footsteps and to obey the commandments and the will of God. A challenge which most of the world finds too difficult to accept. Joseph accepted God’s word and welcomed Jesus as any other normal father would, and I’m sure he loved him as he watched him growing up, and while he was passing on his skills as a carpenter to Jesus.
Yes, welcome and love. That’s what we have to do, welcome and love baby Jesus this Christmas tide. WE also have to allow him to grow and be the man who will challenge us by revealing the true nature of God. As well as loving God, Jesus also teaches us that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves. Do we welcome and love our friends who are non-Christians this Christmas time? Probably yes. But do we love and welcome those we do not know when they come to church at Christmas or for baptisms or weddings or funerals? God loves us all and we too should always be loving and welcoming to all of God’s children. WE owe it to God, we owe it to them!
Come, thou long expected Jesus,
born to set thy people free;
from our fears and sins release us,
let us find our rest in thee.