a sermon on Matthew 1:18-25
“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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”
You may be conscious of the fact that any number of persons over the last few years have suggested that I am actually a Muslim pretending to be a Christian, and there may be more who are saying that now after my sermon last Sunday.
Certainly you can find this suggestion in numerous blogs, in Twitter tweets, forum posts, YouTube comments, and other places where persons publish their thoughts anonymously. Few have made this suggestion to my face
I say ‘suggestion’ rather than ‘accusation’ because I don’t really take it as an insult (even though it is always intended as one). Having said that, it’s not true, and I thought it worth starting today with a quote from the Quran that illustrates one very clear point of difference between Christian and Islamic teaching:
Those who say, ‘God is the Messiah, son of Mary,’ have defied God. The Messiah himself said, ‘Children of Israel, worship God, my Lord and your Lord.’ If anyone associates others with God, God will forbid him from the Garden, and Hell will be his home. No one will help such evildoers..
Those people who say that God is the third of three are defying [the truth]: there is only One God. If they persist in what they are saying, a painful punishment will afflict those of them who persist. Why do they not turn to God and ask his forgiveness, when God is most forgiving, most merciful? The Messiah, son of Mary, was only a messenger; other messengers had come and gone before him; his mother was a virtuous woman; both ate food. See how clear We make these signs for them; see how deluded they are. (Quran 5:72-75)
This is probably the clearest point in the Quran where Mohammed expresses his opposition to the doctrine of the Trinity, and hence to the claim that Jesus is God.
There has been some disagreement over whether this passage from the Quran is really talking about the doctrine of the Trinity, yet it is generally recognised that Christianity and Islam do radically disagree when it comes to the identity of Jesus.
Does this mean that all Muslims believe that all Christians should therefore be punished for their idolatry or are, at least, that we all going to hell? No. Indeed, I remember well the only time I saw my friend Sheikh Mansour get heckled, it was when he was addressing a church group and another young Muslim stood up and shouted, “Why don’t you tell these Christians that they are all going to hell?” to which he replied, “Son, I used to believe that too when I was your age. Now sit down and try to behave yourself”, in response to which he did!
I don’t think I need to say any more about that, but I think it is important for us to understand where the Quran stands when it comes to the identity of Jesus, and it is even more important for us to understand, at this time of year especially, where the New Testament stands when it comes to the identity of Jesus, as I suspect that many Christians are closer to the Quran in their understanding of Jesus than they are to the Gospels, which claim that Jesus is God incarnate!
Of course we let these words roll of our tongues easily enough, as if we understand what we mean by them, but I do think that the idea of God coming to us in the flesh does require a bit of unpacking, and I can appreciate how from an Islamic perspective the whole concept can seem just a bit silly.
You may have picked up in the last verse of the passage from the Quran that I read, how it noted that both Jesus and His mother ate food, which might seem like an odd point on which to finish, and yet I think that this does pretty much touch at the heart of the issue. Jesus, like his mother, ate and drank. We know that God does not eat or drink. Therefore Jesus surely cannot be God.
We could take this further of course, as those who deny the incarnation do. Jesus not only ate and drank, we assume that he exercised all the normal human bodily functions – that he went to the toilet and was subject to bilious attacks if he ate bad food, and I suspect we may find it difficult to think of God in those terms.
More than that: Jesus not only ate and drank and exercised all the normal bodily functions, but more particularly He suffered and died, and we understandably find it difficult to envisage God suffering and dying. Surely God cannot suffer and surely God cannot die without ceasing to be God. How then can Jesus be God?
And yet when we read our passage this morning from Matthew’s gospel that is exactly the sort of thing we are being confronted with. God is with us in Jesus. God is arriving on the human scene in the flesh, and arriving in the normal human way, through the blood and pain of a normal human birth!
Matthew’s gospel tells the story from Joseph’s perspective of course – Joseph, who surely must be the least colourful character in the whole Christmas pageant. ‘He was a good man’ the gospel writer tells us, and that’s about all we ever hear about Joseph. Did this good man go on to be a good husband to Mary and a good father to Jesus? We can only guess.
The gospel writer does of course tell us about Joseph’s dream, in which an angel speaks to him and fills him in on the truth about Mary. But this divine encounter rates rather poorly alongside the angel Gabriel’s dramatic encounter with Mary. Many have been the great artists who have attempted to depict visually the amazing scene where Gabriel confronts Mary with the news about Jesus, and where Mary responds with those faithful words ‘Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord’. No one, as far as I know, has attempted to depict Joseph’s encounter, with Joseph sitting bolt upright in bed in the middle of the night, with an expression on his face of ‘what the…’
Of course many people nowadays find the virgin birth hard to believe – ‘Ah, they just made that up so that we would believe that Jesus was divine.’ It’s interesting though, but the early Church Fathers, when they used to refer people to story of the virgin birth, used to do so not to prove that Jesus was divine, but to prove that He was human!
In the first and second century world there was a predominantly Greek mindset governing most peoples’ thinking, and, without going into too much detail, noone there had much of a problem believing that Jesus was God. What they did have a problem with was in believing that Jesus could have really been human!
If you read some of the early Gnostic literature that came out of that period, you’ll see the person of Jesus depicted as someone who had very few human characteristics at all. According to Gnostic belief, Jesus didn’t sleep. He certainly didn’t really suffer or die, and, notably, he didn’t really eat or drink either. He just pretended to eat and drink so that nobody would get too frightened.
Now, at the risk of getting overly academic, let me ask you to put your philosophical and theological thinking caps on for a moment.
Those who deny the incarnation – that belief that Jesus was both genuinely God and also genuinely human – tend to fall into two camps. There are those who deny that Jesus was God, such as our Islamic friends (and also traditional Jews and any number of others) and there are those who deny that Jesus was human, which is the position of the Gnostics and their more modern counterparts (including Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses I think). Let me suggest to you though that behind both of these apparently opposing positions there is a common assumption, namely that God is something ‘out there’.
We know what human beings are, and so we begin our definition of God by reckoning that God must be someone or something that is totally different from what humans are. We are down here. God is out there. We are small and fragile. God is big and powerful. We are limited and mortal. God is immortal, invisible, and also omniscient, omnipotent and omnipresent. Hey, if you’re going to believe in God, you might as well believe in something impressive!
Now it seems to me that most people in history have done their religious thinking by starting with some preconceived definition of God somewhat along these lines. If you do that, then the question of Jesus becomes the question of ‘how do I possibly fit the person of Jesus into the predefined mould that I have already created for God?’ If I assume that I already know who God is, then the question of Jesus will be ‘how can Jesus be that God?’
But what if we turn the whole thing upside-down? What if instead of starting with our well-worked-out understanding of exactly who God is and what God is like, what if we started with Jesus and worked our way outwards from there? What if we start by saying ‘I probably know nothing about God except that Jesus is God.’ What if we went from there and then developed out understanding of God from Jesus outwards?
This is what the New Testament writers did I believe. This is what St Paul was doing when he spoke of Jesus as being ‘the visible image of our invisible God’. These believers started their thinking about God, not with some preconceived notion of God as had been handed on to them by their peers and by their culture, but they started their thinking about God with the conviction that Jesus was God.
Does God eat and drink? Well, yes, Jesus both ate and drank! Does God suffer and die? Yes. Jesus suffered and died. Was God born as a human baby to a human mother? Yes. “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…”
My point is this: if we start our thinking about God with our cultural definition of God as something out there, then we may well struggle with the whole notion of the incarnation and of the virgin birth. But if we develop our whole understanding of God around our understanding of Jesus, then we will find that our culturally defined concept of God will be replaced by something more Biblical – an understanding of a God who is not simply out there, but one who is out there and also in here and also over there and also and most especially over there where I don’t really feel like going. And we will discover that this God has flesh, and that you can shake God’s hand – not only that you could have shaken it 2000 odd years ago, but that through the presence of the Holy Spirit of God that you can shake God’s hand still!
When we truly understand the incarnation of God in Jesus we discover that God is not some distant spiritual entity who watches us from a safe spiritual distance, but is a fleshly person who has everything to do with this fleshly world in which we live. And that can be a little unnerving.
God is easier to deal with I think if we can keep Him at a distance. The God who is Jesus is a confrontational God, who expects us to get involved in this fleshly world just as much as He did. This God who will not keep His distance from us likewise expects us to break down the distance between us and our neighbours!
A mysterious, ethereal, cloud-of-unknowing-type God is much easier to deal with than this Word made flesh God whose arrival we happily celebrate each Christmas. Indeed, if Jesus is God then we probably know far too much about God – far more than we would like to know. To quote G.K. Chesterton:
“We may be able to debate over whether or not Jesus believed in fairies, but we can have no debate over whether or not he thought that rich people were in grave danger.”
And so when we read in the Women’s Weekly of some rich and famous superstar talking about their spiritual beliefs, we are not surprised to find that they make no mention of the incarnation of God in Jesus. Rather predictably they speak instead of some distant and mysterious spiritual entity that brings them comfort and peace. We do not expect them to believe in the all-too-straightforward and all-too confrontational God who is Jesus.
Sisters and brothers, what bring us together today is not the fact that we all believe in God. We believe in the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! Christians are not religious people who, like all religious persons, have spiritual beliefs. We are persons who worship the God who is Jesus Christ, and who devote ourselves to living out our lives in our flesh as creatively as God lived out God’s life in the flesh in Jesus.
And I mean no disrespect to my Islamic sisters and brothers who disagree with me about the identity of Jesus, and I would still like to maintain that I too, like them, believe in one God. But I believe too that this God also has a human name, and a human face, and I believe that this God was born to Mary in Bethlehem some 2000 odd years ago, and I believe that the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way… as it’s told in here (in Matthew 1). For I do not simply believe in God. I believe in Jesus!
Rev. David B. Smith
(The ‘Fighting Father’)
Parish priest, community worker,
Martial arts master, pro boxer, author, father of three
Fighting Father Dave
Get a free preview copy of Dave’s book, Sex, the Ring & the Eucharist when you sign up for his free newsletter at www.fatherdave.org