Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
4th Sun of Advent
St Barbara’s 22.12.2019
Rev Tulo Raistrick
This is such a well-known story that it is possible at times to almost not hear it, for it to merge in with the Christmas carols, the Christmas tree and the mince pies, and become part of the “tradition” of Christmas rather than its source.
So I hope this morning that together we may be able to dig a bit deeper, to unpack the story a bit more. That may leave us feeling at times a little bit uncomfortable, for well-known stories can take on the feeling of a lovely warm pair of slippers – they make us feel cosy and feel-good – when there is also something of challenge as well.
Well lets start with Mary and Joseph. Our reading from Matthew describes them as being engaged or of Mary being pledged to Joseph. A more old-fashioned but perhaps more accurate word to use was they they were betrothed. A marriage in ancient Jewish culture consisted of three parts: the drawing up and signing of a deed, the exchange of money, and the bride moving into the home of the bridegroom for the consummation of the marriage. Betrothal consisted of the first two parts: the contract and the exchange of money. It was as binding as marriage, and after betrothal, the couple could only be separated by death or divorce.
Thus when Joseph finds out that Mary is pregnant his reaction as a righteous Jew, committed to acting piously and honourably, is to divorce her. It is a sign of his kindness and gentleness that he wants to do this quietly – he doesn’t want to heap any more shame on Mary’s head than is already there.
But in response to the angel appearing in his dream, he obediently does what God asks of him, and does not break off the betrothal. This is some act of faithfulness and faith on the part of Joseph, willing to suffer ridicule and taunts of being cuckolded for standing by someone who on the surface appears to have been unfaithful to him. Joseph’s courage pales only in the light of what Mary herself has to endure and come to terms with. As Luke draws out in his gospel, she is the one who carries the greatest burden.
But the surprising thing for us, perhaps, two thousand years on is what the betrothed status of Mary and Joseph has to tell us about their probable ages. They were young! Girls in the Roman and Jewish world were normally married by the time they were twelve and half years old. This was to ensure they entered the marital home before puberty began, and also to guarantee, that in a world where child mortality rates were high, there was the longest possible child-bearing period for the girl. There was normally 12 months between betrothal and marriage. This puts Mary’s age at between 11 and 12.
That may feel an uncomfortable thought. In poorer countries around the world, in places that more closely resemble the poverty and poor health of ancient Israel, the practice of marrying this young would not be regarded as surprising, even today.
And there is no evidence to suggest that Joseph was much older – the normal age for males to marry was 14. Within the catholic tradition Joseph is assumed to have been older, on two grounds. Firstly because after Jesus turns twelve he is not mentioned again. However, early deaths two thousand years ago were far from uncommon. And secondly, because a belief that Mary remained a virgin all her life would mean that when the gospels refer to Jesus’ brother and sisters, they must be referring to his step-brothers and sisters, in other words, children of Joseph from a previous marriage. But the gospels give no evidence for this at all.
The point is that God entrusts two young people, one probably about 14, the other about 11 or 12, with the most extraordinary of responsibilities: to bring into the world, to nurture and protect, to raise and to educate God’s own son. There can be no greater calling, and he places it in the hands of this young teen and pre-teen.
What a challenge for us? To value the faith, the belief, the commitment of the young. To not wait for them to “grow up” before we see that they have a place in God’s work, or a place in the life of this church, but to delight in them now. And just as we can learn from the perseverance, the courage, the obedience of Mary and Joseph, so may be too we can learn from the young people of our church too. We can learn from their faith.
A second area that feels so familiar and yet merits further unpacking is Matthew’s quoting of the prophet Isaiah “that the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel.”
Isaiah spoke those words to King Ahaz of Judah. The nation of Judah and its capital of Jerusalem was under grave threat from the nations of Syria and Israel to the north, who were threatening to invade. Isaiah tells Ahaz not to panic. In particularly poetic language he tells Ahaz that in the length of time it will take a virgin in his court to get married, have a baby, and for that child to grow old enough to tell right from wrong (lets say a period of 6-7 years) those two threatening nations will have collapsed and no longer pose any danger. And as a sign that God is on Ahaz’s side, the child will be called Emmanuel, “God with us”.
Unsurprisingly, no one had ever thought before that such a prophecy was about a coming Messiah. Matthew was the first person ever to do so. Having reflected on the birth of Christ, he saw how these verses from Isaiah suddenly took on new meaning. They may have been fulfilled 700 years earlier, but in a much fuller sense, here was Christ fulfilling them now. He truly was born of a virgin; he truly was “God among us” as all the subsequent events of Jesus’ life were to show.
Just as Jesus fulfils words of the prophets in ways hitherto unimaginable, so Jesus fulfils our hopes and desires in ways way beyond our imagination or expectation too. As Paul writes to the church in Ephesus, Jesus is able to do “immeasurably more than all we can ask or imagine.” Jesus continues to exceed our expectations, if only we will let him. The challenge is to not keep him in a box.
Which leads us onto a third area of challenge: what is truly meant by the virgin birth? David Jenkins, a former bishop of Durham, stoked up huge controversy a few years ago by questioning the virgin birth. Understandably the media had to simplify complex arguments into simple sound-bites that did his and his opponents views little justice. But it is right to ask the question. Matthew and Luke have very differing accounts of the birth of Jesus – one from Joseph’s perspective, the other from Mary’s – but where they both correspond in detail, what they both strongly insist upon, is that when Mary conceived she was a virgin. That her conception was nothing other than miraculous, that none other than God was the father of the child she bore.
But some have taken the idea of Jesus’ miraculous conception to also mean that he had a miraculous birth. That he passed through Mary’s uterus wall like a ray of sunlight through a window, as one church tradition suggests. That there was no pain or trauma in the birth, that Mary remained in a place of peaceful, undisturbed tranquility as she brought the saviour of the world into the world.
But there seems little evidence for this in the gospel accounts. That whilst they make much of the conception being a supernatural miracle, the birth was a normal one, a natural miracle, if you were, the one experienced by women throughout the world every hour of every day. As the excellent Birmingham theologian Paula Gooder puts it: “What makes Mary such an inspiration is that she, an ordinary young girl, was able to welcome God into the world with tears and joy, with agony and peace, with dread and with courage, as women throughout the centuries have done and will continue to do. It is the very fact that she experienced one of the most primal, disturbing and joyful experiences of life that makes the birth of Jesus such a moving event. Such an experience does not diminish her in my eyes at all – in fact it elevates her.” Those of you who have experienced childbirth may be able to identify with those words.
However we understand the conception and birth of Jesus, it remains a miracle beyond our comprehension. Like those medieval paintings of Jesus as a baby, painted with an adult face, as the artists’ struggled to find a way to convey the truth of Jesus both being human and divine, so Matthew and Luke’s accounts are ultimately about pointing us to a truth that is barely graspable: Jesus is fully human and fully divine. His is a birth, and a life, like no other.
And the names he is given point us to the same conclusion. He is to be called Jesus – or in Hebrew Joshua – one of the most common and popular of Jewish names, the equivalent of being called Oliver or John today. Jesus is so human. And yet he is to be called Immanuel too, “God with us” – an extraordinary name. God coming among us, sharing our life, living among us. For the greatest miracle of Christ’s birth is this: that God should choose to come and live our lives, born of a young, vulnerable mother and nervous husband, to show us what God’s love is like, and to rescue us (for that is what the name Jesus means) from the darkness and death of the world. This is a birth like no other. One that transforms our world and our lives forever.