Sermon preached by The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman
Jesus’ Birth and the Echo of Moses
The gospel of Matthew is written from a mainly Jewish perspective
Not surprising then that it focuses on Joseph’s (male) side of the nativity story
In today’s gospel reading we see that the Lord appears to Joseph in a dream and tells him about what is happening with Mary and not to be afraid
But in so doing, Matthew is linking the nativity story back to the Old Testament, and not just the prophecy from Isaiah we have as the Old Testament reading today
When we read Matthew’s gospel we see that the first major discourse of Jesus is the one we know as the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 5
For Matthew this is the equivalent to the giving of the renewed law on the renewed Mt Sinai
For, in part, Matthew sees Jesus as the inauguration of the new and more radical law, by a new and more radical Moses
So it’s not surprising then that Matthew takes as his model for the birth narrative of Jesus the birth narratives and stories of Moses
At the beginning of the book of Exodus we read that the Israelites are in Egypt under Pharaoh who has just declared that all male babies should be killed (and female ones put into service)
In this regime, Moses is born, put in a basket in the river Nile, found by Pharaoh’s daughter and looked after until he grows up
What the bible doesn’t tell us, but a Jewish historian called Josephus, born just after Christ does, is that the decree to kill all the infants came from Pharaoh because one of his sages (wise men) warned him that there would be an Israelite born who would be a threat to Egypt and would be the saviour of Israel (Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 2.205-6)
The male infanticide edict was specifically decreed in order to kill the Moses-to-be as a result of the wise men, sages, speaking with Pharaoh (is this now sounding more familiar?) about the savoir of the Israelites
Josephus indicates that Moses’ parents, Amram and Jochebed know it will be their son who saves the Israelites, (Josephus, The Antiquities of the Jews, 2.210-216)
Another writer, Pseudo-Philo, indicates that it is Amram’s and Jochebed’s daughter Miriam who tells thm this as a result of a dream she has had where this is revealed to her. (Pseudo-Philo, Biblical Antiquities, 9.2-10). Her parents are wondering if they should have (any more) children given the current regime and they take Miriam’s dream as confirmation that they should.
Amram and Jochebed are this destined to become parents of an endangered child, in this case Moses
So let’s recap, we have in Matthew’s mind a parallel between
Herod, who is seen as the modern day Pharaoh, both of whom decree infantacide
Paternal hesitation about the birth in both Amram and Joseph with both sets of parents being responsible for an endangered child
A revelatory dream which confirms the way forward and commitment of the parents to the birth
(There are also parallels with Graeco-Roman stories regarding the divine conception of Octavius, son of Atia. (Seutonius, The lives of Caesar, The Deified Augustus, 94.4) which Matthew also diminishes in the light of the true virgin birth and immaculate conception)
So what’s going on, what point is Matthew trying to make, and what its relevance to us today
Matthew is emphasising that both Moses and Jesus have their parallels in history and in their births (i.e. the message of for Jesus is for those under the law). Both inaugurated a new way of life, a new understanding of how to be and how to relate to God
For Moses it was with the 10 commandments he received from God on Mount Sinai
But for the Jews that Matthew is addressing, he wants to underline that even from His birth, the new way of life Jesus brings is far more radical than the rule that Moses brought. It is the Holy Spirit Himself that has come upon Mary, it is an angel of the Lord who announces it to Joseph; and not only will Jesus fulfil the law of Moses, He will save the people from their sins, something Moses and the law was never able to do
It’s a radically new and different way of relating to God – it was no less than a new beginning. Moses had much to teach the Jews, but in the coming of Jesus the law that he represented was fulfilled and superseded – a new beginning
The Old Testament has much to teach us, but only if we view it through the lens of Christ. We’re not under the law but under grace as St Paul would say - It’s a new beginning for a relationship with God. And Matthew wanted to emphasise right from the start of his gospel that this was a message for the Jews and for all. It’s as if he was speaking to the Jews and saying ‘It’s new and it’s for you, not just someone else!’
Joseph came out from under the law and did not have Mary present herself to the Priest as the law would decree (Numbers 5 v 11 -31). It was no use Him thinking about the law in the way that he perhaps had in the past, this was different, this was new, and a new experience for him
Just as for the Jews that Matthew was writing for, it was no use just thinking about God the way that had come from a past understanding of God, what was dawning was something radically new for Jews and for Gentiles
How do we think of God? Is it still an understanding that comes from a past understanding of Him, perhaps an understanding that was passed on to us?
Is our view and understanding of God rather stale and static? Or has our understanding of God evolved and deepened as our faith develops and as we meet new challenges?
Sometimes as Christians we think we understand Christmas, it’s those out there (whoever they may be) that do not, and so we think the message of Christmas is not for us anymore, it’s for them
Is a sense that’s true – but Christmas, the time of new beginnings, is a time for us all to think about how we understand God and what it means for Him to come as ‘Emmanuel’, God-with-us, incarnate. It’s a message for you and me. Each Christmas God offers us a radical new beginning. How do we respond?
This Christmas, what will be our new beginning? Will we carry on in our current understanding of God – or like Joseph, will we let God speak to us this Christmas in a new way that moves us forward in our spiritual journey? What might He want to say to us? How might He want to challenge us?
What are the understandings and preconceptions of our faith, belief and spirituality He might want to challenge and develop this Christmas?
And like Joseph, if He does speak, will we listen?