“Good News For All The People”—Daily Reflections for Advent 2016
THE FOURTH DAY OF ADVENT, November 30th
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.” All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him ‘Emmanuel’ which means, ‘God is with us.’”
Rabbi Michael Greenberg, in his book Jews and Christians: Getting Our Stories Straight, says that as a Jew reading the Christmas story in Matthew he is struck by how God single-handedly, without any human assistance, saves His people. The Rabbi notes that he sees in Matthew no command from God: “If you do this, then I will save you.” Rather, the rabbi reminds us that the Christmas story is simply about how God saves us, without any help from us. Salvation is of the Lord!
In today’s Gospel story from Matthew “An angel of the Lord” appears to Joseph revealing God’s purpose to save. Sometimes in the Old Testament it is God Himself who manifests as “an angel of the Lord” (Judges 6:11-23; Zechariah 3:1-5). Here, the angel appears to Joseph, saluting him as “son of David…”. With this particular salutation, the angel is connecting Joseph with ancient prophecies about the Son of David, the Messiah, who single-handedly saves His people.
The angel reveals to Joseph that Mary’s child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and commands: “…for you are to name him Jesus”. The angel then supplies the reason for naming the child Jesus: “for he will save His people from their sins.” The name Jesus comes from the Hebrew Jeshua, the contracted form of Jehoshua, meaning, “Yahweh is salvation”, or “Yahweh saves”. “In the shorter form Jeshua the stress is on the verb; hence, he will certainly save.” (William Hendrikson, The Gospel of Matthew) It is this Child who certainly, sovereignly, single-handedly, saves His people from their sins.
The word translated “save” is very rich and can refer to being saved from physical danger (Matthew 8:25), disease (Matthew 9:21-22), and even death (Matthew 24:22). Yet, the New Testament most often uses this word to express being saved from the greatest threat to human well-being and happiness: sin.
The Greek word translated here as “sin” is the word hamartia, the word that Homer and other classical writers used for “missing the mark”, and “failure to reach a goal.” (New International Dictionary of the New Testament, ed. Colin Brown) A man shoots his arrow at a target and misses; that is hamartia for the Greeks. Greek dramatists used hamartia to signify the “fatal flaw”, the character defect that brings the downfall of the protagonist in a tragedy play. Hamartia brings us face-to-face with what sin is: to be so flawed as to miss the target of life, to miss what God created us to be.
To save someone is a radical word. You do not “save” someone who just needs some help. You “save” someone helpless to do anything to save himself. A person whose heart has stopped needs saving! A person lost at sea needs saving!
Religion says: “Do this, and God will save you.” God’s good news says: “Jesus saves us without any help on our side.” That is why we so delight in calling Him Jesus, our Savior. He does all the saving, for He is Jesus, “Yahweh saves”!
When Jesus was eight days old Mary and Joseph took Him to the Temple for both His official naming and to be circumcised. Simeon was an elderly man, “righteous and devout” whom the Holy Spirit guided to the Temple. When Simeon saw Jesus he took Him in his arms and praised God: “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples” (Luke 2:29-30). He knew that to see Jesus is to see God’s salvation for all the people! Salvation is of the Lord!
Thank you, Rabbi Greenberg, for getting the Christmas story straight!
- In your own words what is the significance of the name “Jesus”?
- What is the difference between saying that Jesus came to “save” us and Jesus came to “help” us?