What Does It Mean?

The text of the sermon, based on Matthew 1.18-25 with reference to Isaiah 7.10-16, preached with the people of St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, Spartanburg, SC, on the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 18, 2022.


Now the birth of the Messiah took place in this way...

I’m almost tempted to say, “We know what happened!” And then, sit down. That would make this one of the shortest sermons on record or, at least, in my 45-year history of preaching!

Yes, I’m tempted. For we know Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth. Even more, we know how babies are born. So, we know the way, whether spiritually or biologically (take your pick!), by which the birth of Jesus took place. I’m tempted simply to say that and be done. Almost!

For the point of Matthew’s story isn’t about the mechanics of Jesus’ birth. Nor is it about the logistics of who, where, when, and how; despite the evangelist’s details about Mary and Joseph, their betrothal, a cosmic intervention and spiritual impregnation, Joseph’s determination to divorce Mary, which prompted the angelic appearance in a dream with the declaration: “Not so fast, Joseph!”

The point of Matthew’s story is what the birth of Jesus means to us and for us. For if his birth doesn’t connect to this life, our human life, then, truly, we can say that we don’t know what happened. Therefore, we can ask…we should ask what does it matter?

Matthew summarizes the meaning with six words about the child Mary will bear, spoken to Joseph in a dream: “You are to name him Jesus.”

Jesus. From the Hebrew Yēšûa or Joshua, each literally meaning, declaratively, “Yahweh (God) helps” and prayerfully, “O God, help!” Even more, Jesus, the fulfillment of ancient Isaian prophecy, is Emmanuel, “God with us.”

For Matthew, the birth of Jesus is the sign that God’s help has come, entering earthly time and space. That God’s healing – from the Latin, salvus, which is the same root from which we derive the word, salvation – has taken flesh in human history to save us from our sinfulness. Our innate, often selfish self-interest. Jesus is born to die for our sins. To stretch out his arms upon the cross. To stand in the gap. To serve as the bridge across that chasm within us between the good that we desire, but, because of our fundamental, indelible egocentricity, cannot and often will not do.

This, for Matthew, is the meaning of this birth.

This, I believe, is the meaning of every birth. Every baby born is a sign of help, of hope for the healing of the human race. Every baby born is an incarnation of a new generation. And as a new generation, one that might learn – from the hard-won wisdom and the heartbreaking mistakes of the current and past generations – how to be more freely loving, more faithfully just, truly, more fully human as God created us to be.

This – help, hope, healing, salvation – is the meaning of the birth of Jesus and the meaning of every birth.

If this is true, then this is the meaning of our lives; particularly as church. Church, from the Latin, ecclesia or the Greek, ekklesia, meaning “a people called out.” Called out, away from the world and its values of profit over persons and power over principle. Called together to learn to live like Jesus. Called to be living, daily demonstrations for our children of what love and justice, unconditional benevolence and equity for all people at all times look like, are like. So that our children, as a new generation, might be and do love and justice far better than we.

Let us pray: O God, we gather this day awaiting with anticipation our annual commemoration of the birth of your Son, our Savior Jesus. By your Spirit enkindle our hearts with new hope that we, with strengthened hands, may continue to work for a world of your love and justice that your will be done on earth as it is in heaven; so that our children may have a greater chance to live lives of faithfulness without fear. In the Name of Jesus, we pray. Amen.

© 2022 PRA

#salvation #healing #themeaningofJesusbirth #thenatureandmeaningofchurch

Illustration: Joseph’s Dream (1790), Gaetano Gandolfi (1734-1802)

2 thoughts on “What Does It Mean?

  1. Incredible sermon Paul thank you!! It really pains me to know how badly we’ve screwed up ourselves in how we treat each other and how we have literally detracted our planet through our lack of care!!

    So my favorite part of the sermon is your point of how EVERY birth should give us hope because it’s a new opportunity for the new generation to do a much better job of taking care of and treating each other well AND caring for our planet!

    I’ve always had this feeling at baby showers (I don’t go to many) that while we are giving “stuff” to the parents for the baby, we instead should give hope and help as that child grows instead to ensure we instill the right things in them! It’s stunning how many grandparents I knew who are raising their grandkids because their parents are unfit in some way… it takes a village and that village can give us all hope (at least I hope so!)



  2. Loretta, your reflection concerning grandparents who raise their grandchildren, for “their parents are unfit in some ways”, rings a loud bell of awareness for me. For as I wrote and preached that thought, in the back of my mind (which I left unsaid), I had the image of children who are born into difficult circumstances (e.g., unfit parents, poverty, etc.). And, in my private conversation, I asked myself: “Paul, do you include these children as signs of hope and healing for the human race? Yes, yes, I do! For, it seems to me, either each child born is an opportunity for us to do better or it isn’t. And I, truly, believe it is! Therefore, for our children born into difficult circumstances, it is up to us, society, somehow, to strive harder, as the proverbial saying has it, to make a way out of no way.



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