Matthew 1:18-24

Christmas is such a lovely time and it brings back memories of childhood, of cribs, of Christmas stories; of carols and all the wonderful pictures we see today on Christmas cards. That is good because it reminds us that in the midst of this troubled world God has come to us. He comes in peace and joy and great beauty. We must never forget the beauty of Christ which changes the world we live in.

Yet there is a problem. We can get so familiar with the story that we go on hearing the same old truths we heard in childhood and don't hear what the story is saying to us now. One way of discovering new things about a Gospel passage is to look for the problems. So I want to look at four problems in today's gospel which I think can lead us to a deeper understanding of what the Story of Christ's birth is about.

The first problem is one of scandal. Mary is pregnant. Mary says no one is responsible. Well we've heard that before. Joseph says he is not responsible and he is going to break off the engagement. Mary is in a dangerous position since the law said that a woman who had had sex outside marriage should be stoned. Some societies don't mind girls getting pregnant but a small rural village community like Nazareth probably would. Mary would be in disgrace with her family and all their friends. Is this really a good start to Jesus' life? He is the Son of God, the most holy, the most pure, the most righteous being there is. How can his Son be mixed up in this scandal? His birth should be without fault, without unpleasant rumours, without stories of a girl sleeping around, or a man jumping the gun. That is not how it happens. Jesus' very conception creates scandal, confusion and unpleasantness. His life will do the same. That is a warning to us. The coming of the Son of God into the world should be a wonderful event bringing peace, joy and love to everyone. Yet it doesn't. Matthew goes on in his Gospel to show us just the opposite. Jesus is constantly involved in arguments with the Pharisees, the Sadducees, the Jewish people and even his own family. In the end he is crucified. As we enjoy the beauty and the promise of Christmas we must keep in mind how the story actually turns out. There is real tragedy waiting just round the corner.

The second problem turns on a single word. "Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly." The word I want to look at is 'righteous'. The old King James Version describes him here as a 'just' man and the Jerusalem Bible says he is an 'upright' man.  'Righteous, just, upright' none of those sound very good for Mary. A just man would want the law to take its course. He might want to have Mary stoned. A righteous man would want to make it clear that he was not responsible for Mary's pregnancy. He would send her away in disgrace and make it public that he was not the father of her child. Joseph does neither of these things. He thinks he cannot now marry Mary but he wants to spare her disgrace by separating himself from her as quietly as possible. He is merciful and that is exactly what just, or righteous means here. God is just; God is righteous. He created a law to prove it. Actually he administers that law with mercy. He keeps forgiving people who break the law. He keeps trying to call his people back to following him. He should by now have destroyed the Jewish people for their disobedience. Instead he sends them his own son. Joseph is just, in the same way that God is just. He shows mercy. When the angel tells him not to worry about this scandal and to go ahead and marry Mary he does exactly that and takes good care of her son. Throughout this Gospel we are going to see that this dispute goes on. Must people keep the law strictly, as the Pharisees and the Sadducees say; or must they show mercy first, as Jesus says? We already know the answer to that.

My third problem comes in the verse "you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins." What does it mean "to save his people from their sins"? It can mean quite a lot of things: for the Jews in the time of Jesus it could mean two things. It could mean that they would be saved from the result of their sins. One result of their sins was that God had abandoned them to the Romans, who ruled them brutally. Perhaps God had decided they had suffered enough and had now sent his Messiah to set them free from the Romans. More likely, saving them from their sins meant creating a society in which people repented of their sins and lived in peace and harmony with one another. That is probably what John the Baptist had in mind. That is what the Sermon on the Mount seems to have been aimed at. The Jewish Law itself had that aim. If we keep the laws of God and don't sin against each other we will live happy lives and society will be a good place to be. Here we see the Kingdom of heaven come down to earth. Yet for us Christians there is another possibility and that is to do with eternal life. As long as we are bound up with sin we cannot enter eternal life with God. Jesus makes it clear that this is the life God wants for us; not just a good life on earth but a life of real joy with him in heaven. We can't have that unless we are somehow delivered from our sin.

That brings me to the fourth problem: how will this happen? How will Jesus do it? I think we are told that too. The Son of God is given two names in this passage: The first name is Jesus, which means Saviour. It is the Hebrew name Joshua and Joshua was the great leader who led the Jewish people into the promised land. The second name is Emmanuel, which means God with us. God is with us and that is precisely how he will save us. He has come down to earth, taken on human flesh and will live alongside his people until they crucify him. Then, through that crucifixion, he will destroy the power of death and open a way for us to walk with him into the presence of God. God is with us means that we are not alone. Our story doesn't come to an end when we die. Death for all creatures is an end of life, a blank wall, a full stop. Those of us who accept Jesus find that we continue to walk right through this wall, beyond the full stop. For us the story goes on until we find ourselves in the presence of God who loves us just as he loves his own son, Jesus.

In a few days I must go and see a friend of mine who is dying of cancer. She wants to tell me how exciting she finds this. Yes, it has its horrible side. Yes she is sad to be leaving lots of nice people behind. However, she is excited about what comes next. There is a whole new life waiting for her just around the corner. That is one of the many results of this Christmas event when a child was born, called Jesus. He became a scandal, shocking people to realise that God cared about them, not about the law. He taught us that being righteous means being merciful and forgiving, just as his father is. He tells us to get rid of the sin which traps us in the worst part of life.He shows the way through death into a glorious new life with God. That is the best kind of Christmas present there can be!

Nicholas Stebbing CR