Do you, like me, enjoy a good biography, reading about other people’s lives? Maybe you will have a copy of ‘Me Elton John’ in your Christmas stocking; the recently published autobiography of the famous singer and musician. Or perhaps you prefer to watch a documentary on television that charts a person’s life story. People are fascinated by the lives of well-known people and particularly keen to find out what life was like for them before they became famous. We are interested in where they were born, their upbringing and how they became household names.
The bible contains four biographies of Jesus; the gospels as they are known. Others were written, but these four were regarded from the earliest times in the church as the most authentic and accurate accounts of his earthly life. What often frustrates us is the lack of information they give about Jesus’ upbringing and early life. In fact, only Matthew and Luke have anything to say about the circumstances of his birth. Luke alone contains one incident between Jesus birth and the beginning of his public ministry, his visit to the temple when he was about twelve years old. I guess that if offered as biographies today in Waterstones or Smiths, sales would not be great, yet, as part of the bible, they remain a best seller.
What we need to remember is that these are ancient writings, composed in an age when putting a document together was time consuming and expensive. Pen and paper had not yet been invented let alone computer publishing programmes. The materials used were papyrus or animal skin, ink derived from plants and a simple pen made from a plant stem or feather. With books still being in the future, documents were produced on scrolls. The writing was on one side of long sheet which was then rolled on to two poles so that with difficulty, you could find your place and begin reading. For practical reasons, scrolls could not be too long. Writers needed to be careful and selective recording only what was most important. When we used to take photographs on a camera with film of just 12 or 24 exposures, we thought carefully about what we would take. Now we can take hundreds of shots on our phones without a thought. The gospel writers were worked with a limited media. They selected carefully, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, what future generations like us needed to know.
So, in the gospels, we have a little about Jesus’ birth, because it’s important. What happened for the intervening thirty or so years was not considered as significant as the activities and teachings of the two or so years of ministry. The events leading to Jesus’ death and the crucifixion itself are recorded in great detail as are the circumstances of the first Easter Day although we need Luke’s part two: The Acts of the Apostles and Paul’s letters to make more sense of it. The gospel writers, each in their own way and each for a different readership record the most important and significant parts of the Jesus story. We need to take that on board and accept that by God’s grace, we are given what we need to know about Jesus. We should not get frustrated by what we don’t know or try to fill in the blanks with material about Jesus which is not in the gospels, a mistake the church is apt to make.
With all that in mind, we come to the gospel reading for today. It is Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. It’s much shorter than the one in Luke which we will use in the lessons and carol service this evening. There’s no mention of the angel appearing to Mary, of her visit to her cousin Elizabeth. Matthew does not tell us about the census, the journey to Bethlehem and there being no room at the inn. Neither does he say anything of the shepherds.
Rather, Matthew tells the story from Joseph’s perspective. Joseph suddenly finds that the women to whom he is engaged is expecting a child. Joseph was a good Jew. Matthew describes him as ‘righteous’. Following strict Jewish custom of the day, he would have had no sexual intercourse with her before they were married. When he first heard the news, he could only have imagined that Mary had been ‘playing away’. He would have felt for his own reputation and evidently for hers too. He decides the only course of action is to end the engagement quietly. At that point, the angel appears to Joseph in a dream telling him what Matthew has already told his readers, that the child has been conceived by the Holy Spirit. Joseph is told by the angel to go ahead and marry Mary and to call the child, Jesus, ‘for he will save his people from their sins.’ (Matthew 1.21)
Clearly, Matthew believed that it was important to include this note about Jesus’s birth in his biography. Although the world we live in struggles with the idea of messages from angels and of Mary being pregnant by the Holy Spirit; giving birth as a virgin, we should not hastily dismiss it because both Matthew and Luke believed it to be important to understanding of the nature of Jesus. Matthew wants us to understand that this is no ordinary birth. Jesus is not just another human being even though he is fully human. Jesus’ birth does not happen because two human beings engage in sex. It happens because God wants to become fully human.
In our gospel today, Matthew goes on to quote words from Isaiah found in our old testament reading: ‘The virgin will be with be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel -which means ‘God with us,’’ (Matthew 1.23 after Isaiah 7.14) There is a problem with this quotation. In the original Hebrew of Isaiah, it speaks simply of a young woman rather than a virgin. Has Matthew stretched a point? The words in Isaiah relate to King Ahaz and his reluctance to ask for a sign from God. How can they now be made to speak about Jesus? I am no scholar to debate the finer points of this argument. What is clear is that Matthew uses the prophet to underline what he believes to be true about the birth of Jesus; that in a unique way, God is with us: ‘Immanuel’. The old sign which Ahaz was reluctant to accept is now available for you to accept.
And why does Matthew tell the story through Joseph’s eyes? We cannot be certain but maybe he spoke to people who had known Joseph as he was putting his gospel biography together. More probable is that Matthew want’s us to note that Jesus is born to Joseph and Mary as man and wife. In verse 20 of todays reading, he identifies Joseph as a son of David. Matthew wants us to be clear that humanly, Jesus is of King David’s line. He fulfils in spiritual terms all the hopes and aspirations of God’s people opening the kingdom of heaven to all believers. (Te Deum)
As we reflect on the biographies of Jesus, the gospels and especially how they speak of his birth, we are drawn back to the question of whether Jesus was born to a virgin or not. It is impossible to prove the case either way. But if we listen to the words of the gospels not just about Jesus’ birth, but also the highlights of his ministry, his death and resurrection, we have a choice. Either we go with the story they tell us, that in Jesus, the word of God becomes flesh. (John 1.14) or we believe that these gospels are less biographies and more fables; that is stories with a moral meaning. Do we accept that God enters our flesh, subverting usual laws of nature on occasions for his purposes of redeeming us or do we see Jesus as simply a human being like us with a special relationship to God? For me, I will go with the best biographies of all, those gospels in the bible, which talk of a God who in love mingles with our flesh, our world and in Christ gloriously redeems it.
Advent 4 22.12.2019