+ A sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Advent (Year A) at Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Bellevue, WA on December 22, 2019 +
Text: Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25
Well I hope you’re ready.
I hope your ways are prepared, your hearts have made sufficient room, and all your presents have been wrapped (mine haven’t).
Because after weeks of waiting and preparation, and just days before the finish line, our lectionary has apparently decided that it’s Christmas now.
Alleluia! Christ is born!
Ok, maybe not quite, but on this fourth and final Sunday of Advent, we do hear Matthew’s version of the Christmas story.
But unlike the familiar story we know from Luke’s gospel, Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth could blow right past you if you don’t pay attention.
Rather than featuring Mary and Joseph’s arduous journey to Bethlehem, rather than choirs of angels scaring shepherds in the fields, rather than giving really any details at all, Matthew dedicates a mere verse and a half to the birth of Jesus.
“Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way” and “[Joseph] had no marital relations with [Mary] until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.”
That would make for the shortest Christmas pageant ever!
And while we will hear the beloved story from Luke’s gospel on Tuesday when we celebrate Christmas Eve, Matthew’s version just seems…anticlimactic.
Now, one of the reasons that we have four separate gospels in our Bible is that each author offers us a different perspective with different priorities. And these priorities are especially apparent in how the books begin.
John’s gospel starts with a beautiful and poetic passage, which we will hear next Sunday, that connects Jesus to the eternal nature of God and Christ’s role in the creation of the cosmos.
Luke focuses on Jesus’ fulfillment of prophecies and promises as well as the political context in which he was born with wonderful songs and spectacular scenes.
Mark barely has a beginning at all which demonstrates his characteristic urgency to tell the good news without delay.
But for Matthew, whose gospel will be our focus for the next year, one of the key elements is who Jesus is.
Literally the first verses of Matthew are a genealogy, a list of Jesus’ ancestors from Abraham to Joseph.
He links him with the greatest patriarchs and matriarchs of the people, with heroes and…less heroic figures, and with the greatest king of Israel, David.
Matthew gives a family tree of brave and noble people, scandalous and prophetic people, ordinary and even deeply flawed people.
So maybe it makes sense that Matthew doesn’t seem super interested in the spectacle of Jesus’ birth because he is so focused on Jesus’ identity.
And the identity of this little child is central to this story we heard today.
We hear about Joseph, an ordinary day laborer and yet a direct descendant of King David, who is engaged to a woman named Mary.
During their engagement, Joseph finds out that his fiancée is pregnant with someone else’s baby—a scandal to be sure.
I can’t imagine the hurt and anguish Joseph felt when he heard the news.
He faces a tough choice with no good options: he could publicly shame Mary, which could lead to her execution as prescribed by the law; or he could quietly divorce her, which could leave Mary and her baby to beg for money on the streets or worse.
And just when he’s resolved to choose what must be the better of two bad options, God intervenes.
An angel comes in a dream to confirm Mary’s story that the child is of the Holy Spirit, that God is the father.
But more than that, Joseph still has a role in the story, that he should still take Mary as his wife and accept the child as his son.
He should risk the shame and scandal to make this seemingly illegitimate child born of his seemingly unfaithful wife as his true son and heir.
And somehow, Joseph trusts this dream, trusts God’s message to him.
The child is born and he names him Jesus. And Matthew is the only gospel writer to make it clear that Joseph named Jesus, which may not seem significant to us, but to the original audience would signify Joseph’s adoption of Jesus, that he had declared this baby his true and legitimate son.
It’s so important in Matthew so he can show that Jesus is truly the Son of David, the new king that is to come, and also truly the Son of God, who will be called Emmanuel.
Even the names given to this child are important: Jesus, or in Hebrew, Yeshua, which means “God saves” and connects him with Joshua, the great leader of the Israelites who took over after Moses’ death and led his people into the Promised Land.
Matthew reminds his listeners that this royal baby, this Messiah, this savior, this new Joshua and new David, will lead his people into the new Kingdom of Heaven that is being promised to them.
That this new king will save his people from all oppression and sin.
And Emmanuel, which means “God is with us” and reminds the people that their God has not abandoned them but is standing with them in the most literal way possible.
That God has become incarnate among them in the birth of this little baby who will grow up and lead the people.
That God will personally lead the people.
And this incarnation, this birth of the Messiah, can only be fully known through the actions of these perfectly ordinary and even flawed people: through Mary, and, yes, through Joseph.
Because while I would never want to lessen Mary’s role and her willingness to be part of this miraculous birth, Matthew reminds us Joseph’s actions were also crucial in protecting Mary and her baby from shame and ridicule or worse.
That Joseph’s role is crucial in helping us know the fullness of Jesus’ identity as Son of David and Son of God.
For Matthew, it is so critical that we know right away that this child is different, this child heralds a new beginning, this child is going to change things.
This is a descendant of David, the promised root that would sprout from the stump of Jesse who would liberate his people and establish a new kingdom more glorious than previously known.
This is a divine leader who is the Son of God, who will remove the bearers that separate the people from their God because he will literally embody God, and God will be with them.
This is the Messiah they had longed for, that we long for still, who will at last make all things right.
And sure, on this Fourth Sunday of Advent, Matthew’s description of Jesus’ birth may seem premature, but he is reminding us who this child is for whom we are waiting, who this savior is for whom we are longing, who this Christ is whose presence among us grounds us.
He helps us recognize the one for whom we are waiting and what his advent means for us.
And for the Apostle Paul, Christ’s identity is the very basis of his gospel.
In the introduction to his letter to the church in Rome, which was our second reading today, Paul writes how this Jesus is the one who has been foretold, the Son of David and the Son of God who has come with power to save his people.
And what I think is especially interesting about this reading is how Paul bases his own identity in Christ.
This is Paul’s first introduction to the Roman church—he’s never met them before.
So he begins his letter by telling them who he is and the very first words are “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle.” A servant of Christ who has been called to proclaim God’s good news to the nations.
Now, I don’t know about you, but when I introduce myself to someone, even when I was first introduced to this church here in Bellevue, I don’t think I have ever identified myself as “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle.”
And yet, that is exactly what the Apostle has invited us to do.
As he writes to the Romans, we have been called “to be saints,” “to belong to Jesus Christ” “through whom we have received grace and apostleship.”
We have been called to root our identity in Jesus, into the one who is the Son of David and will usher in a new kingdom, into the one who is the Son of God and will bring salvation to all peoples.
To take hold of Christ and make his life and ministry the basis of our lives.
And no matter our genealogy, no matter our scandalous past, no matter how ordinary or flawed we may feel, to claim that God has given us a new identity: beloved child, chosen servants, Christ-bearers.
It’s an identity that God proclaimed to the world through the waters of our baptism.
An identity that was solidified within us when God named us, when God adopted us, when we were declared true and legitimate children of God, when we were clothed with Christ and made heirs of God’s Kingdom.
And with this new identity we, like St. Paul, have been made apostles, entrusted as bearers of God’s good news for all peoples and the whole creation.
We, like Mary and Joseph, have been given a crucial role in making known God’s incarnation in our midst and proclaiming the hope that means for our world.
We are called to use our new identity to show the world all that God has done and is doing, spreading and expanding the Kingdom of Heaven through word and deed until all people know the fullness of God’s love that is for them.
So perhaps this Advent season through which we have journeyed these past four weeks is less about counting down the days until Christmas, less about waiting for the baby Jesus to be born again in our midst and more of a revealing of the identity of the one who was born that night so long ago, the one for whom we are waiting, the one in whom we root our identity.
Perhaps this is a time for us to renew our own identities as beloved children of God and prepare ourselves for our roles as apostles of the gospel, bearers of the good news of God’s incarnation amongst us.
Because we know that Christ’s advent is not just for us, not just for the people in this room, but, as we will hear on Tuesday, this is good news of great joy for all people.
Christ has come for all humanity and the whole creation.
And as each of the epistle readings during this Advent season have reminded us, we cannot prepare the way of our Lord’s coming unless we are engaging with our neighbors, caring for their wellbeing, proclaiming God’s love in word and deed.
And who is this child?
Who is this Jesus for whom we are waiting?
Why is his identity so important for us to know?
At the end of worship today we will sing the great and ancient Advent hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” a song that is traditionally sung during the course of the final seven days before Christmas.
Each verse reminds us of one piece of the identity of Christ drawn from the prophets and the gospels, explaining how we can know our Messiah.
O Come, Wisdom—the Divine Word of God made flesh and through whom the cosmos was created.
O Come, Lord—giver of the Law whose righteousness and faithfulness know no bounds.
O Come, Branch of Jesse—restorer of King David’s dynasty and perfect ruler of all God’s people.
O Come, Key of David—liberator of the house of Israel who frees all captives living under oppression.
O Come, Morning Star—bringer of hope and new beginnings to the world and enlightener of those who are mired in gloom.
O Come, King of Nations—our sovereign whose Kingdom spans the whole world and whose reign is love, justice, and peace for all people.
O Come, Emmanuel—God who is with us and who stands with us and who empowers us to be God’s apostles spreading the gospel throughout the world.