A Sermon preached at St Martin-in-the-Fields on December 18, 2022 by Revd Dr Sam Wells
Reading for address: Matthew 1: 18-25
One lesson life has taught me is that about 98% of people feel intellectually inadequate, and when asked to talk knowledgeably about something of which they don’t have direct personal experience, are quickly overcome by imposter syndrome. Life has also taught me to be a bit suspicious of the other 2%. After all, just because they can talk confidently on apparently any subject that doesn’t make them right, any more than being prepared to take some or all their clothes off in public might make them especially beautiful.
Just as I was beginning studying for a PhD, I sat next to a very fervent Christian at a wedding reception. The good thing about a wedding reception is you get quite a long time to have a conversation with a stranger. The bad thing about a wedding reception is that if the first exchange of questions makes you think you wouldn’t be looking for a long conversation with this particular stranger, you can find yourself imprisoned for a couple of hours. In this case my neighbour asked me, besides being a priest, what I was involved in. I said, ‘I’m doing a PhD in theology.’ ‘Oh,’ he replied, ‘I don’t bother with theology. The Bible’s always been enough for me.’
There’s few things more deflating than to run into a self-assured lack of curiosity, mixed with an air of superiority and condescension, all dressed up in the language of being a simple creature, free from the self-imposed complexities that beleaguer others. I can’t deny I wondered for a moment if doing a PhD in theology was a waste of time. But 30 years later, I realise the response I might have done well to give to that affectedly humble smugness dressed up as piety. I should have talked to him about today’s gospel reading from the back end of Matthew chapter 1.
Why? Because what I want to show this morning is how this passage opens up pretty much every door in the conventional theological textbook. It’s a whole manual of doctrine on its own. Let’s walk through these few verses and see the entire theological panorama come to life.
Straightaway we have a fascinating word. Birth isn’t a notable word in English, until you realise the Greek word it’s translating is genesis. This is a huge theological claim. Matthew’s saying the conception and birth of Jesus are a more significant moment than the creation described in the book of Genesis. He’s saying, this is the real beginning, for which the creation of the universe was just preparation. We’re used to thinking of the Big Bang and the cosmology that outlines the first few seconds at the start of the universe. And probably most of us have wondered at what feels like the miracle of conception and the growth of a baby in its mother’s womb and the agonising yet fabulous process of being born. Matthew’s saying the birth of this particular baby isn’t just one of myriad consequences of the original Big Bang. On the contrary, the conception and birth of this particular baby is the single event around which every other event in the universe clusters. That’s mind-blowing; and yet we’re only five words into this passage.
After starting with creation, the second big theological theme we move to is Israel. We’re quickly in the company of two Jews, Mary and Joseph, seeking to live faithful lives according to the covenant God made with Moses. The significance of Israel in theology is that almost from the very beginning our understanding of God is one of the essence of eternity being eager to be involved in the ordinariness of human affairs – in this case, the traditions of betrothal and marriage. Interestingly the Old Testament also begins with creation and Israel, the call of Abraham to be the father of God’s people coming only a few chapters after the two portrayals of the creation of all things. Matthew’s emphasising that you can’t talk about God without talking about God’s chosen people, the children of Abraham, and without talking about very earthy and ordinary human relationships in which the life of God is embedded.
Only when we’ve located ourselves in such a way do we get the first reference to God. We’re still in the same opening verse, and we’ve covered a lot of territory: now we stumble upon the Holy Spirit. This tells us two things at the same time. First, there’s something beyond our experience and beyond our existence that’s above, beyond, outside or within that existence. I call it essence – that which lasts forever, in contrast to existence, which lasts a limited time. How that essence relates to existence in general terms is a mystery, although we assume essence was responsible for creation. But this is the point – the Bible isn’t much interested in God in general terms. The Bible’s interested in God in relational terms – a God who’s invested in Abraham, Moses, David and Elijah; in Sarah, Deborah, Ruth and Esther. And the discovery that’s veiled in the Old Testament, yet clear in the New, is that essence is relational within itself – it’s inherently made up of communicative encounter between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Any relation we have to God is a joining in the relation already taking place within God. God is relationship. The Holy Spirit is the name for the way God extends relationship to us, by making Christ present to us, and how God turns that relationship into abundant life, here and everywhere.
But let’s not get carried away with God. This is a very human story. We trust the Bible to tell us about God because it’s so acute at telling us about humanity. Joseph’s plunged into a moral, social and relational crisis. Mary’s pregnant and he’s not the father. His duties as a faithful Jew mean he should publicly humiliate her. His dignity as a child of God mean he has no desire to do so. Here we land in our fourth aspect of theology, after creation, Israel, and God. That aspect is ethics. Ethics is about how we live in the light of God’s grace. Joseph’s depicted as a man torn between justice and mercy. That’s territory in which ethics often dwells. It turns out the one to blame is the Holy Spirit, and the Holy Spirit’s merciful action blows apart our notion of justice. As so often.
Then we get the appearance of an angel – which is how this passage portrays the irruption of God’s essence into our existence. It sets up the experience of a dream as a liminal space between God’s reality and ours. And the two significant aspects of theology that arise here are providence and vocation. Providence is a theological theme many people struggle with. It’s about how God’s purpose is being worked out as year succeeds to year. People struggle with it because it’s hard to see how God’s purpose can possibly be worked out through holocaust or tsunami. People also feel nauseated when an individual or nation arrogantly assumes the mantle of the bearer of God’s destiny. But the Bible’s full of moments like this when God’s purpose is visible despite adverse circumstances. Likewise vocation. Vocation is our discovery of the unique part we are called to play in God’s story. Joseph literally overnight goes from a bewildered critic or silent victim of God’s mysterious ways to a crucial agent in advancing God’s story. We do the same. ‘Do not be afraid,’ says the angel. ‘Do not be afraid,’ says the Holy Spirit to us today, when we’re called to take up our part in that story.
We’ve seen six great theological themes at work; but we’re only half-way there. The child’s name is Jesus. This introduces two more dimensions of theology. One is the notion of the kingdom, or realm, of God. Jesus is the Greek form of the Hebrew name Joshua, and Joshua was the one who took possession of the Promised Land. As we transition from Judaism to Christianity, we change from an understanding of blessing based on the land to a notion of grace based on the coming-alive of all those in exile – those oppressed in body, mind or spirit, those suppressed by foreign invader or sinister prejudice or unrestrained cruelty. These are ways we perceive God’s future now and live today the life God prepares for us to share forever. In the naming of Jesus we also discover the reality of sin. Sin is everything that prevents us fully being with God, ourselves, one another and the creation. Jesus is the full and utter relationship of God that overcomes all these obstacles, whether made by ourselves or others, arising from painful memory or wilful disregard. Hence here we have an insight into the theme of salvation.
The way the angel persuades Joseph in his dream is to quote a line from Isaiah. Here we find the notion of revelation. Many theological textbooks begin with the doctrine of revelation, because they find it impossible to explain issues like authority, narrative and divinity without some idea that particular discoveries and experiences are blessed and honoured by a community. But Matthew has no abstract idea of revelation. He just plunges straight in with it, portraying Jesus within the context of what God has long prepared and always done. Within the notion of revelation is the doctrine of scripture, and we can see at work here Mathew’s confidence that, even with only the Old Testament to play with, the ways of God have already been disclosed such that identifying the unique and overwhelming significance of Jesus is not difficult.
Then to the greatest theological theme of all, that of incarnation. The angel announces Emmanuel, and quickly explains that means ‘God with us.’ These three words sum up everything theology has to tell us, and invite us into all the mysteries that theology has in store for us. It’s Matthew’s gospel in three words. It describes the wonder of Jesus – fully human, fully God – the call for our response, to be fully with God, ourselves, one another and the creation, and the embracing inclusivity of the us God chooses to be with. It also gives us eschatology, the promise of how things will be beyond now and into forever: that too is summed up in those three words, God with us. That’s all we need to know about revelation and all we need to anticipate about heaven.
But there’s two final verses, and one last doctrine to articulate. Joseph goes ahead and he and Mary live according to God’s call, making room for Jesus and responding to the implications of Jesus for their lives. That’s what we call church. Maybe church didn’t begin at Pentecost; maybe it began here, when the difference Christ makes began to be felt, understood, and responded to.
So here’s pretty much the whole of theology in eight verses: creation, Israel, Trinity, Holy Spirit, ethics, providence, vocation, God’s realm, sin, salvation, revelation, incarnation, the last things, and church. Theology is simply attending to the work of the Holy Spirit in scripture and elsewhere and discerning what that means for who God is and how we should be. I wish my conversation partner at that wedding 30 years ago had realised that the Bible is not like a packed lunch or first aid kit tucked away to get you through all eventualities, but an invitation to explore every aspect of what it means for God to be with us. And I hope he experienced the wonder of making that exploration together, with others committed to find, listen to and share that truth and put that truth to work. That’s the gift of what we’re doing right now: that’s the wonder of church.