Sunday, December 14, 2008

Just Another Ordinary Day

Matthew 1:18-25
18 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. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us." 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

Many of us have heard the Christmas story multiple times. We hear it again and again, and may even tune out when listening to it because we figure we know all about it. But maybe, just maybe, there are things in this story that we have overlooked because of our familiarity with it.
We see that Joseph and Mary were not married, but that she was pregnant. It has long been held by the majority of Christianity that this was a miraculous event by God. Yet, what about conception isn't miraculous? That a human being starts out microscopically small and grows and develops inside its mother is pretty miraculous, in my thinking. From before the mother even knows its presence to feeling the first movement to birth, is all a miracle. And getting pregnant is not always easy—anyone who has suffered infertility knows that. So having the right conditions present and the particular DNA used to create a unique human being is, in my mind, nothing short of a miracle from God.

People in Jesus' time and before believed God was involved in conception too. Look at what Eve says when she gives birth for the first time—"I have produced a man with the help of the Lord" (Genesis 4:1). When Sarah is told that she is going to have a son, she laughs, because she knows how old she and Abraham both are. God's response is to say "Why did Sarah laugh, and say, 'Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?' Is anything too wonderful for the Lord." And Hannah, who was barren for many years, poured out her soul to God, vowing to dedicate her son to Him if He should so bless her with one (1 Samuel 1:11-15). And Mary's own cousin, Elizabeth, also getting old, conceived a child and believed that it is "what the Lord has done for [her]" (Luke 1:25).

So it really is not a big surprise that the child inside of Mary is from God, is it?

But, you might say, that's too ordinary. It takes away the specialness of it. But does it really? By understanding that God is involved in the "ordinary" things of life, it opens us up to His presence and His love. If we can learn to see God's hand in the ordinary things, it is difficult to ignore His presence, guidance, direction, love. It helps us to focus on Him with more frequency. To thank Him when the rain helps crops grow, to talk to Him when we're feeling a little sad, or a little lonely, or to ask for His protection each time we drive in our cars.

Another ordinary part of this passage is Jesus' name.

Nope; you're wrong on that one, you might say. Jesus is most definitely not an ordinary name. I have never heard of anyone other than Jesus named Jesus. But that is us hearing his name in English, as translated from it written as the Greek Iesus, as translated from his actual Hebrew name, Yehoshua, which, if we translated directly from Hebrew to English would be Joshua. As the angel tells Joseph, the baby will be named this because he will save his people from their sins. And that's what the name in Hebrew means—God is salvation.

Now, names can be very important. How many books are there out there of baby names, and how many parents have a difficult time picking out just the right name for their child? The meaning of names is a theme we see in different parts of the Bible, too. In 1 Samuel 25:25, we see Abigail, who would later become David's wife, tell David not to take Nabal seriously "for as his name is, so is he." Nabal means fool, and Nabal acted foolish. And in the book of Ruth, we have two men die whose names mean "sickness" and "vanishing" and a woman whose name means "sweetness" changes her name to mean "bitter" when she feels that God has dealt bitterly with her.

When we understand that Jesus means Joshua, it draws our attention to another Joshua. We meet this other Joshua in the book of Exodus, where he defeats Amalek in battle. Later, in the book of Numbers, he is one of the two spies sent to scout out the land the Israelites are coming into, and finally, after Moses' death, he is the one to lead the people into the promised land after they have been saved from slavery in Egypt.

This Joshua leads people from slavery, from wandering in the desert and being uncertain of the future, into their own land. As his name suggests, God saves them from that way of life and gives them a new way of life.
And the angel tells Joseph that this baby will also be named God is salvation, because he will save his people from their sins. Too often, we think this means that Jesus will save us from going to hell. But look carefully at the text. It says he will save people from their sins. It doesn't say he will provide an easy out for people; it doesn't say that he will magically make everything all right. Joseph may not have really understood what the angel meant either.
The writer of the gospel says that this "took place to fulfill 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.'" (Matthew 1:22-23).
The prophet to which the author is referring is the prophet Isaiah, and you can find what the author of Matthew's gospel is quoting in chapter 7. In this section, Isaiah is talking to King Ahaz. Ahaz is a king in a long, long line of kings. Most of these kings were evil and did what they wanted and not what God wanted, and Ahaz was no exception. We are told that "He did not do what was right in the sight of the Lord his God, as his ancestor David had done, but he walked in the way of the kings of Israel" (2 Kings 16:2-3). In this section of Isaiah, God is telling Ahaz to ask him for a sign, and Ahaz declines. He claims he doesn't want to test God, but what it looks like is that he just doesn't want to hear what God has to say to him. So God tells him that "the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel." (Isaiah 7:9). To Ahaz, this was a sign that was going to be fairly imminent, and especially within his lifetime. After all, how could it be a sign to him if he wouldn't see it?
It is thought that this sign that Ahaz received was the birth of his son, Hezekiah. Hezekiah was not like his father or the other kings. We are told that He did what was right in the sight of the LORD just as his ancestor David had done. 4 He removed the high places, broke down the pillars, and cut down the sacred pole. He broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made, for until those days the people of Israel had made offerings to it; it was called Nehushtan. 5 He trusted in the LORD the God of Israel; so that there was no one like him among all the kings of Judah after him, or among those who were before him. 6 For he held fast to the LORD; he did not depart from following him but kept the commandments that the LORD commanded Moses (2 Kings 18:3-6). Though Hezekiah was not named Immanuel, He certainly brought God back to the people, so that God could be with them.
And Jesus was not named Emmanuel either. But what we have here in these verses is the author of this gospel showing us that God will be present with us in Jesus. The baby named after the leader Joshua is also likened to the king who brought God back to the people. You could say that Hezekiah also saved people from their sins. He put a stop to idol worship and brought back following the commandments of the Lord.
It is these things that we are to think of when we read this Christmas passage. Sure, we can use a big theological word like incarnation, but unless we really explore the passage itself, that word gives little meaning to our understanding of what is happening here.
So again, what do we have here? We have an ordinary-named baby born in an ordinary way, to ordinary people. And yet, God's presence abounds. In Jesus, he will show people a new way of living, a way of living that gets rid of sin, a way of living that brings God into all aspects of our lives. We have a man who will give up everything to bring God to the world. A man like Hezekiah who will not walk in the ways of anyone but God. A man like Joshua who will lead people into the promised land of God's way of life. A man who can save people from living a selfish and sinful life and help them turn to living a new way; God's way.
So what do we do with this knowledge? Do we continue living like the kings of Israel, disregarding God? Do we continue wandering in our own deserts of uncertainty? Or do we put all of that behind us, and walk in the way Jesus shows us, the way that he has given us in order to save us from our sins? I think we know the answer to those questions. And as Christmas approaches, let us continually be aware of God's presence and saving power in all aspects of our ordinary lives, every ordinary day.