(Matthew 1: 18-25)
One of the aspects of my job as a prosecutor that I enjoyed the most was trial work. As morbid as it may sound, I found that the homicide cases were the most challenging and stimulating. They were like a puzzle with at least two of the pieces missing. The victim couldn’t tell you what happened and the defendant, under the advice of counsel, wasn’t talking unless he or she was foolish enough to talk to the police or tell a friend something only he or she would know. Trial work isn’t even close to what they portray on television. It’s not done in an hour with commercial breaks or a word from our sponsor. There’s a lot of preparation that has to be done before you get to call your first witness. Most of it’s reading reports, statements and interviewing witnesses and then comparing notes looking for both consistencies and inconsistencies. Thorough trial preparation begins with reading, rereading and reading again to find those bits and pieces of evidence that help you connect the dots.
My last big case involved a lot of reading. There were police reports, lab reports, scientific reports, autopsy reports, expert opinions, and witness statements. The case involved the initial trial, two mis-trials and a retrial and each time we would discover things we had previously overlooked or failed to realize the significance of what it was telling us. Something as serious as a murder conviction will not withstand appellate review if all the “t”s are not crossed and the “I”s dotted. You not only have to convince the jury of your theory of the case, but you also have to make sure the appellate court finds sufficiency to support the verdict. And, based upon my experience I can state with confidence that a jury of twelve citizens is a whole lot smarter than a roomful of formally trained legal scholars. Juries can see a case for what it is and not what it is not.
And this is what I think Matthew is trying to do in our scripture reading for this morning. I think he knows that the everyday people that Jesus came to save needed him the most. You know, the sinners, and not the righteous as he pointed out in Matthew 9: 13 when he said; Healthy people don’t need a doctor, but sick people do. I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners. What Jesus was saying resonated with the “sick” people. He made perfect sense with his simple message of love, forgiveness and redemption. But there were people who needed more, people who needed the dots connected. Any break in the chain of evidence would nullify the jury verdict.
If you try to read the gospels of Matthew and Luke together you most likely will get confused because they are written for different audiences and from different perspectives. Luke’s audience were Gentiles, while Matthew wrote his gospel for a Jewish audience knowing that they would need some concrete evidence to back up what he was putting forward. Matthew’s gospel serves as a connection between the Old Testament and New Testament because of its emphasis on the fulfillment of prophecy. A Gentile audience wouldn’t be as concerned with a verifiable connection to the Old Testament. They liked what they were hearing and the back story wasn’t as important to them.
Chapter One starts out by tracing Jesus’ ancestors from Joseph back to Abraham through King David fulfilling the Old Testament prophesies about the Messiah’s line. This would be very important to Jewish believers. In Isaiah 11: 1 the prophet says; A shoot will grow up from the stump of Jesse; a branch will sprout from his roots. A Jewish listener would know that Jesse was the father of King David and that the Messiah would come out of line of David. I think God anticipated there being some skeptics as the people were expecting that a current sitting king and queen would bear a son who would grow to be the Messiah and lead them to freedom with a mighty army, and not someone from a lineage that contained gentiles and people of questionable character. God sent them a man of the people, someone who had more in common with them than some supposed royal.
After laying out the genealogy Matthew gets right to explaining how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. He says; When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. We are then told; Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. Joseph was a righteous man and not one filled with righteous indignation. He could have really made a big stink about this pregnancy and cast all the blame on Mary who had obviously had an affair with someone. I’m not sure he bought her story about an angel appearing to her and telling her that she would conceive by the Holy Spirit and give birth to a son and that she would name him Jesus. This Jesus would be great and will be called the Son of the Most High, he will be called God’s son, and the Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. Joseph is probably thinking Mary is secretly in love with someone else, probably closer to her age, so he should end this thing quietly so they can both go their separate ways. But an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said; Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. At this point in the story the Jewish listener was probably as skeptical as Joseph, but Matthew backs it up with another prophecy from Isaiah. Matthew says that all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled: Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son. And they will call him, Emmanuel, meaning God with us, quoting Isaiah 7: 14. Joseph wakes and did just as the angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife as the angel verified everything Mary had told him. We are told they didn’t have sexual relations until she gave birth to a son and Joseph called him Jesus in accordance with what the angel told him. This set the foundation for all that Jesus would later do in fulfilling additional prophecies.
For non-Christians the belief of a virgin birth seems kind of out there and they wonder why it’s so important to Christians. First, Jesus Christ is God’s son and had to be free from the sinful nature passed on to all other human beings by Adam. And, because Jesus was born of a woman, he was a human being, but as the Son of God, Jesus was born without any trace of human sin. Jesus is both fully human and fully divine and is what connects us to God. Because he lived as a man, we know that he fully understands our experiences and struggles as is explained to us by the writer of Hebrews who tells us in Chapter 4, verse 15 that we have a high priest who can sympathize with our weaknesses as he was tempted in every way that we were, except he didn’t sin. And, because he is God, he has the power and authority to deliver us from sin. We can tell Jesus all our thoughts, feelings, and needs. He has been where we are now, and he has the ability to help. The infinite, unlimited God took on the limitations of humanity so he could live and die for the salvation of all who would believe in him.
Matthew wanted his readers to know that it was a message from God given through an angel of the Lord to Mary and Joseph that the child would be called Jesus, rather than some family name or Joseph, Jr. The Jewish listener knew that the name Jesus means “the Lord saves.” It was a message to them that Jesus came to earth to save them and us because we can’t save ourselves from sin and its consequences. No matter how good we are, we can’t eliminate the sinful nature in all of us. Only Jesus can do that. But Jesus just didn’t come to help people save themselves; he came to be our savior to save us from the power and penalty of sin so we can live a life in his service.
Furthermore, Matthew wanted his Jewish listeners to know that Jesus fulfilled the prophecy of Isaiah by being called Immanuel, God with us. Jesus was God in the flesh and thus God was literally among us, “with us.” And through the Holy Spirit who helps us connect the dots, Christ is present today in the life of every believer enabling us to go with God out into the world with the confidence that God is with us and in control.
Please pray with me.
O come all you faithful and joyful followers of Jesus Christ in the triumphant procession to Bethlehem as we behold the one born the king of angels. Rejoice that he is the true God of the true God and the light from the light eternal. Rejoice that he is the Son of the Father begotten, not created. Sing choirs of angels, sing in exultation, glory to God, all glory in the highest. O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord. Amen.