Gospel reading from Matthew 1: 18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
As we read Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus almost all the emphasis is on Joseph, there is the fact that he had not had intercourse with Mary, there is the appearance of the angel to him, but the heart of this is that the child must take a certain name Jesus – “God saves”.
Matthew then points us to a passage from Isaiah 7, where we find another name given, though not one that Jesus used himself – Emmanuel – “God with us”. Both these names are full of meaning and importance.
It took the early church several centuries to develop its theology of Incarnation, of Trinity, and to sift what it believed from the various other views, some of which made Jesus a great human being but not God, or even a human who was adopted by God, others which said Jesus was fully God, but not really human, almost a God in disguise. For Jewish people how could their core faith in one God accept that Jesus was truly God?
Here in this narrative from Matthew we see the beginnings of Trinitarian understanding, with Jesus, the Holy Spirit and God; we see a simple expression of the Incarnation – God with us; we see a narrative way to say this child is both God and human.
In today’s world these two names – Jesus and Emmanuel – are very relevant. The world of Jesus was the world of Herod, and life was not secure. There are modern Herods and our lives feel more vulnerable now than they have for many years. Incarnation says God is with us in this real world, not in some fantasy place. Emmanuel! And when we see damage and destruction, the impact of individual sin, systemic failings and injustices, war, national greed and selfishness, how much do we need to know that God is the Rescuer / Saviour. As St John puts it – God so loved the world that he gave his only Son that whosoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. John’s gospel is almost certainly written a bit later and here we see John deepening the theological insights.
Our danger is that we have heard the stories, especially a composite story of Matthew and Luke, such that we lose the depth; let us allow Matthew to tell his story, and hear the words of the angel, and reflect on the words of the prophet and know that this is God’s plan and God’s purpose.
Revd Peter Reiss