Matthew 1:18-25

This text is used for the Lectionary Year A on December 22, 2013.

Sometime the greatest challenge for the preacher is not the mysterious text, but the familiar one.  We confidently approach familiar texts presuming to know what they say, and we find it difficult to really listen to them.  We present them to congregations who yawn when they see the text printed in the order of worship because they, too, assume that they know these passages.  Matthew 1:18-25 is such a text for preaching.

The initial challenge of this text is to allow it to stand on its own.  We easily conflate the story of Joseph’s encounter with the angelic messenger and Luke’s account of Gabriel’s visit to Mary (Luke 1:26-38).  However, allowing Matthew’s account to stand on its own first would be a valuable discipline.  Matthew does not have a footnote that says “for more information, see Luke 1:26-38.  He says, “The birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way . . .” (Matthew 1:19, NRSV).  He simply states as a fact that Mary was “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”  He does not explain how she knew that.

Matthew and Luke share some notable similarities in their accounts of the annunciation of Jesus’ birth, however.  Both accounts involve an angelic messenger.  Both emphasize that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus’ conception.  Both highlight the creative role of the Holy Spirit in this miraculous event.  Both underscore that Mary and Joseph were engaged to be married when the conception occurred.  Both declare that Jesus will be the descendent of David.  And both tell of the child’s name being given by an angel.

The accounts differ in significant ways, however.  Matthew focuses on Joseph, while Luke attends to Mary’s experience.  An unnamed angel addresses Joseph in a dream; Mary receives a visit from the angel named Gabriel.  Gabriel assures Mary that the holy child will be called “the Son of God,” while Matthew cites scripture stating that he will be “Emmanuel,” meaning “God with us.”  Luke emphasizes Jesus’ coming reign over the house of David and Matthew underscores Jesus’ mission to “save his people from their sins.”  Matthew refers to Isaiah’s prophecy, which is typical of his story-telling, but Luke only alludes to Old Testament kingdom promises such as 2 Samuel 7.

Although both accounts stress the virginal conception of Jesus, Matthew drives the point home.  The event occurred “before they came together (lit.),” that is before Joseph and Mary were married and lived together.  Mary was “found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”  The angel announces to Joseph in a dream that the child was conceived “from the Holy Spirit.”  Matthew cites Isaiah 7:14 announcing that a “virgin” (parthenos) would conceive and bear the Emmanuel child.  Then once more he affirms that Joseph “had no relations with her until she had borne a son.”  Almost every verse in the passage touches on this theme.

Even as Luke leads his reader to see Mary alongside the Old Testament figure of Hannah (1 Samuel 1-2), Matthew draws a parallel between Joseph, Mary’s husband, and his namesake, Joseph the patriarch (Genesis 37-50).  Like Old Testament Joseph, Matthew’s Joseph is a dreamer of dreams (Matthew 1:20, 2:13, 19, 22).  Matthew often relies on such parallels to root the story of Jesus deeply in the stories of ancient Israel.  He desires to make it clear that the story of Jesus Christ is continuous with the story of Israel through the centuries.  The fact that he opens his narrative with a genealogy attests to this.

This story assumes that the reader is familiar with certain Jewish social and religious customs surrounding marriage.  The engagement of the couple involved a one-year waiting period after the marriage was contracted in order to demonstrate the purity of the bride.  This engagement required a formal act to dissolve it.  Joseph, discovering his fiancé to be pregnant, could have subjected her to “public disgrace” as an adulteress (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).  Being a “righteous man” he must have believed it was necessary to end the relationship.  Out of love or mercy, however, he planned to do so quietly.

The story introduces one of Matthew’s common devices, an explicit quotation of the Old Testament preceded by an introductory formula:  “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet.”  These quotations connect Jesus’ story with Israel, both interpreting his story in light of Israel’s, and reinterpreting Israel’s in light of Jesus.  In this case he not only cites Isaiah 7:14, but he includes phrases from that text in the narration of the episode: “with child,” “bear a son,” “call his name.”

So how might a preacher approach this familiar text in order to develop a conversation between the text and the congregation?  One could follow a doctrinal trajectory, exploring the meaning and significance of the church’s ancient confession that Jesus Christ was “conceived by the Holy Spirit” and “born of the virgin Mary.”  Or the preacher might consider a character sermon on the person of Joseph, portrayed here as righteous, compassionate, sensitive to the voice of God, obedient, and faithful.  Third, it would be possible to focus simply on the “names” of Jesus in this passage, “Jesus” and “Emmanuel.”  What does it mean for him to save us from our sins? To be “God with us?” A fourth possibility would be a history of salvation sermon rooting the story of Jesus’ birth in its Old Testament soil – the birth narratives of the Old Testament, the genealogies, the stories of Joseph in Genesis, and the quotation of Isaiah 7:14 in its original context and its application to Jesus.  The contemporary church needs to be reminded occasionally that we are part of a larger story as well.  Even a familiar text can become fresh to us if we can learn to listen to it in a new way.  Perhaps one of these doors might open up this well-worn Christmas episode in a fresh way to your congregation.


R. Robert Creech
Hubert H. & Gladys S. Raborn Professor of Pastoral Leadership
George W. Truett Theological Seminary,
Baylor University, Waco, Texas


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