Monday, January 24, 2011

The Lamb of God

Psalm 40.1-5
I couldn’t resist choosing these verses from today’s psalm because they reminded me of a hit movie that’s showing in cinemas just now. It’s called ‘127 Hours’ and it’s the true story of a rock climber, Aaron Ralston, who was trapped for 127 hours in Utah’s Blue John Canyon after he fell down a crevasse or giant crack in the rock. He certainly had to wait patiently because 127 hours is a mighty long time - about five days - and he listened for the sound of anyone passing who might come to his rescue, hoping to be pulled from his lonely prison until his feet could stand form on solid rock again. In the end he had to figure his own way out of his dilemma, but the experience changed his life and made him a happier and kind
er person.

Of course, we’re never alone when we’re in trouble. God is always with us, ready to listen to us amd give us a helping hand, and he asks us to trust him more and to celebrate his love for us.

Isaiah 49.1-7
The reading from the Prophet Isaiah reminds us that the coming of Jesus didn’t just matter to his mother and father, or his family and their friends and neighbours, it was important even to faraway nations. That’s why the wise men came to visit him. God chose him not just to rescue the people of Israel from trouble but to take his saving power to everyone on earth.

John 1.29-32 & 34

Picture: Hans Memling: John the Baptist and the Lamb of God (painted 1475)

Last summer we looked at Hans Memling’s painting of Jerusalem at Eastertime. This is another of his pictures, called John the Baptist and the Lamb of God. I think perhaps it’s meant to be a joke. John is shown holding a new born lamb, and very cute it is too. But in the Bible reading John says that Jesus is the lamb of God, and he doesn’t mean that Jesus is all woolly and cute, he means that Jesus is prepared to give up his own life to save other people - even people he doesn’t know - from suffering and disaster.

Aaron Ralston had to make a huge sacrifice to get out of trouble, but he did it to save his own life. Jesus made an even bigger sacrifice for the sake of other people. And he still hears our prayers and reaches out to us, to pull us up from the lonely pit of trouble and despair.

Being the covenant people

Deuteronomy 29.10-15
Romans 12.1-2
John 15.1-10

Deuteronomy chapter 29 is a reconstruction of what might have been. The writers of Deuteronomy want us to think that it is real history, that Moses actually stood in front of the people of Israel and made this speech, but actually that is most unlikely.

The Book of Deuteronomy, or its first draft at any rate, was miraculously discovered in the Temple in the reign of King Josiah. The credulous were persuaded that it had been mislaid there in the reign of King Solomon, and then forgotten by his worthless successors. Supposedly it had been brought to the new Temple by priests who had handed it down, from generation to generation, since the time of Moses himself. But, in fact, it was almost certainly a construct of a group of reformers active during Josiah’s own reign. Among other things, they wanted to reinforce the idea that Israel was a covenant people.

Interestingly, they had a very inclusive approach. In many religions men have a privileged place, and even today that’s true of orthodox Jewish religion, although not of more liberal interpretations of the faith. However, the writers of Deuteronomy make clear that the covenant is not just for the leaders, officers and elders, nor even for the men of Israel, it includes women, children and even foreigners who live in the land of Israel.

Nor does the covenant make any distinctions of class - the humblest slaves, who are forced to draw water and cut wood - can be part of the covenant too. To be a member of the covenant people is a privilege, but it’s not for the privileged few. It’s open ended - a circle which draws everyone in rather than shutting some people out.

Later, Judaism was to turn its back on this inclusive approach and become much more inward-looking, much more defensive. But the Deuteronomists are on a mission to build a new nation of believers and, for the time being, anyone can join.

Most strikingly of all, the covenant reaches out to embrace those who are not even born when Moses makes his speech. The Deuteronomists no doubt have in mind the people of their own day who were hearing these ideas for the very first time and learning that their previous understanding of the covenant had been incomplete. However, by implication, the passage also broadens out the reach of God’s covenant to include anyone since that time who has been willing to embrace the faith. For Christians, of course, it means that we are bold enough to include ourselves in the covenant people - not by virtue of our descent from Jewish ancestry, nor because we deserve it, but because Jesus has invited us into the circle.

People have often worried about making the covenant promise and many Methodists refuse to attend the covenant service at all. It’s intriguing then to read the Deuteronomists’ claim that even those members of the community who are absent when the promise is made are somehow, mysteriously, bound up in its claim over us.

What does it mean, then, to be part of the covenant people? Paul spells it out very succinctly in the opening verses of Romans chapter 12. It means offering ourselves as a living sacrifice to God by dedicating ourselves - body, mind and soul - to him. And it means separating ourselves from the prevailing culture in so far as it would hinder us from knowing and doing what which is good, acceptable to God and perfect.

It’s pretty challenging stuff, and the words of the covenant promise in the Methodist Service help to spell out its full implications. Interestingly, though, the covenant is not just about putting our faith in God or trusting our emotions to him. Somewhat uncharacteristically, Paul emphasises that entering into a covenant relationship with God is a rational thing for people to do. It’s not like joining a cult, where we’re asked to leave our common sense or our critical faculties behind. It’s about becoming more truly ourselves by renewing our minds as well as our feelings.

If Deuteronomy emphasises the open endedness of God’s covenant promise, John’s Gospel turns back to the idea of its exclusiveness. John is more inclined than the other Gospel writers to draw a circle with shuts some people out. This is because he was struggling to lead a church which was deeply divided between people who insisted on the importance of knowing the right things and people, like John himself, who had a lot to say themselves about knowledge but who understood that love is more important still. Claiming to know Jesus isn’t evidence of being in a covenant relationship with him, unless it changes the kind of person we are and puts us more in touch with God’s loving kindness.

So, in John’s community, bad disciples had to be cut out of the vine and got rid of and good disciples had to be pruned to make them even better and stronger. And the definition of whether or not a branch can stay, or needs to be cut out, is - of course - whether it is bearing fruit. The good disciple heeds Jesus’ commands and dwells in his love. The bad disciple does not.

This passage finds its way into the covenant service because of its promise that we can draw sustenance from Jesus himself. Entering the covenant may be a rational choice, as Paul described, but it’s not just about believing the right things and then trying to put them into practice. It’s also about being in a living relationship with Jesus - being grafted onto him like a vine stem being grafted onto a different root stock to make it grow stronger. Unless we allow ourselves to be united to Jesus, and to dwell in him, we shall not be able to bear the fruit of loving kindness that John sees is so essential to the spiritual life.

Tonight’s service is a reminder that, like the crowd of men, women and children, foreigners and slaves who gathered in the Temple to hear the Deteronomists unpack Moses’ ideas - supposedly uncovered for the first time in centuries - we too can become heirs of God’s covenant. And, by a rational decision to abide in Jesus we can also find the strength and the resources that we will need to live up to the challenge.

Sunday, January 02, 2011

Giotto’s Nativity and Adoration of the Shepherds

John 1.10-18

In the week before Christmas the BBC broadcast a modern version of The Nativity which attempted to retell the story with as much psychological realism as possible. So, for instance, viewers saw how Mary, and Joseph especially, struggled with their feelings.

But telling the story of Jesus with psychological realism is not a new idea. It has a long tradition going back seven hundred years to the time of the Italian artist Giotto di Bondone. This nativity scene was painted in a church in Padua in about 1305. Much imitated it is one of the first attempts at psychological realism in Christian art. And what a wonderful first attempt it is - a work of genius, in fact!

Whereas previously Mary and the Baby Jesus had been depicted facing outwards, or looking at their visitors, with beatific expressions fixed on their faces, Giotto dares to show them staring intently into one another’s eyes, bonding like any mother and newborn baby. Joseph, in contrast, is not looking on with quiet approval and safeguarding mother and child. He’s a middle aged man, perhaps even an elderly one, and he’s clearly exhausted. Slouched in the foreground, he has drifted off to sleep. Like the disciples in the Garden of Gethsemane on Maundy Thursday he is missing out on a crucial moment in Jesus’ life.

The donkey is staring intently at Jesus but it’s not quite so obvious what the ox is doing. Some observers think the ox has fixed it’s gaze on Jesus too, but to my way of thinking the ox wears a typically vacant expression, as if Giotto is saying, ‘It might understand what’s happening, or again it might not!’ And with the silly sheep, there’s no doubt at all. They’re looking this way and that, as if they have no idea whether it’s Christmas or Easter!

Notice that Joseph and Mary are quite smartly dressed. These aren’t impoverished travellers left with no where to rest their heads. Here we see a decidedly middle class couple. Mary is lying on a four poster bed covered with a richly embroidered quilt or throw! And a midwife or servant is supporting the baby for her. She doesn’t have to cradle him herself, although - tired though she is - she can’t resist reaching out to touch him.

Giotto is reminding us here that Jesus was born into quite a well-to-do family. His father was a craftsman and you can imagine what Joseph’s call-out charge would be if you found yourself in need of his help! Interestingly, instead of exaggerating the poverty of Jesus’ birth, Giotto perhaps exaggerates his family’s wealth.

If the setting is a stable, and the presence of the animals suggests that it is at least that part of the house where they are usually bedded down for the night, someone has gone to the trouble of carrying a very nice bed into it for Mary to lie on. The manger is just an accessory - somewhere conveniently soft and warm where Jesus can be laid down to sleep when he or his mother get tired.

Perhaps the shepherds are the biggest surprise of all. Their clothes are much more basic than those of Mary and Joseph, and that’s only to be expected because shepherding was a fairly basic job - something which younger sons had to do if they didn’t inherit any land. But, although the picture is sometimes called ‘The Adoration of the Shepherds’, the surprise is that they’re not actually looking at Jesus or adoring him at all. They’re still gazing at the angels, who are explaining to them what the tableau really means. Giotto’s message would seem to be that this may look like an ordinary birth, into a fairly average if rather prosperous family, but it’s shown to be extraordinary by the attendance of the angels.

One of the most puzzling things for the first Christians was that when God came into the world he had created, no one recognised him. Even his own chosen people, who had been prepared for his coming for centuries, did not welcome Jesus or appreciate who he really was. Giotto seems to be saying that the birth of Jesus was such a mundane event, and the behaviour of the holy family was so normal, that it’s no wonder it was hard to interpret.

And yet, says John, faith is the key that can unlock the true meaning of Christmas. To those who are willing to accept him, the dear Christ enters in and all the kindness and the truth of God then become available to us.

A Reminder of Our Recent Advent & Christmas

Psalm 147 vv 12-20

I couldn’t resist using the words of today’s psalm in our worship because they’re such a vivid reminder of the Advent and Christmas that we’ve just enjoyed. Although perhaps the word ‘enjoyed’ isn’t quite the right one!

At least in such an affluent city as Wakefield, Christmas is a time of blessing for children and young people. There are few households where parents can’t afford to save up for some nice Christmas presents, or where families don’t eat the finest food that they will share together all year long. But these are hard times, and our toy service and some of our Christmas collections remembered those for whom Christmas is a struggle.

However, as well as those warm memories of Christmas cheer, the psalm calls to mind our recent run of rather cheerless icy weather. Even in Palestine people know about snow covering the ground like a blanket of wool and frost covering everything like the layer of thick white ashes from a fire. Yet the Psalmist reminds us, too, that winter doesn’t last forever. Warm winds will blow again and the frozen streams will begin to flow.

Praising God for the gift of good food, for the beauty of cold weather and for the welcome spring thaw raises an awkward question. Why should we, in particular, gather here to praise God for these things when people of other faiths and non-believers enjoy them too? Why should we - above all the other people in Wakefield - be especially thankful? Why are they signs of God’s love for us?

Well, of course, they’re not. Jesus himself reminded us that rain and snow falls, and the sun shines, on good and bad alike. The weather, or ample harvests, are not a sign of God’s favour - or displeasure for that matter - to any one group of people.

The Psalmist doesn’t try to duck this issue. Instead he reminds us that - even if all the other good and bad things of life are shared with everyone - God’s people do have one very special gift to be thankful for. He has not given his Law to any other nation! In other words, they don’t have the same insights into God’s nature and loving kindness, nor the same assurance of his constant concern for them.

Our Gospel reading will declare that Christians have an even better gift than the Law of Moses. We have God’s living Word, who has shown us what God is like and revealed the full extent of God’s kindness and truth. That’s why we should shout praises to the Lord!

Saturday, January 01, 2011

The Most Dangerous & Exciting Gift Of All Time

Luke 2.8-20

How did you all keep yourselves from getting too excited on Christmas Eve? [1] Did you help to get the Christmas food ready? Or did you have it all to get ready yourself? That tends to be a good antidote to over excitement!

Or did you make some more Christmas decorations, like the ones we made in church the other week? Or did you go out for some brisk exercise to work off all your excess energy? That’s if you had any excess energy, of course!

Did you write a last minute letter to Father Christmas? It’s not always a good idea to leave it too late to write to Father Christmas, is it? But there’s never any harm in writing him a quick ‘thank you’ note to leave alongside the sherry and mince pie - or ginger beer and mince pie if you don’t want him having too much to drink while he’s driving his sleigh.

Of course, there are lots of other ways to stop yourself getting over excited on Christmas Eve - an early night with a good bedtime story to help you relax, or family carols round the Christmas tree, or watching a good film, those can all be a good way of getting ready for Christmas without getting too carried away.

But the shepherds got carried away, didn’t they? They just couldn’t keep the good news to themselves. First they hurried straight to Bethlehem to see what had happened, and then - when they found Jesus lying in the manger - they rushed out to tell everyone else, glorifying and praising God. So perhaps it’s all right to get carried away on Christmas Eve - so long as we’re getting carried away about the coming of Jesus!

The other day I saw a list of the most dangerous toys ever made. [2] Little soldiers and animals made of lead weren’t on the list, but perhaps they should have been. My father remembered getting some little lead soldiers when he was quite small, and sucking them to see what they tasted of, which couldn’t have been a good idea.

But nothing like as dangerous, nonetheless, as one of the most expensive Christmas presents from 1951, which was an atomic energy laboratory complete with four pieces of uranium and a little Geiger counter so that you could point the counter at the uranium and listen to the noise it made when it was close to something highly radioactive. Fortunately because it cost £50, most people were spared the risks associated with this particular gift.

The amazing Sky Dancer doll, which could be made to shoot into the air and descend on its own tiny wings, was much more affordable and caused 150 serious injuries to children before it was withdrawn from sale. One person had a rib broken when the Sky Dancer hit them in mid flight, another suffered facial lacerations and the most unfortunate victim was temporarily blinded - which wouldn’t be much fun on Christmas Day!

In 2007 four million sets of a toy called Aqua Dots, where you stuck tiny coloured beads together with a supposedly harmless glue, were sold nationwide in America before it was realised that an error in mixing the glue at the factory meant that anyone who inhaled too many fumes from the glue was likely to fall into a coma.

Finally, there were lawn darts - which sold for twenty years before it was decided that enough was enough. By then 6,000 injuries had been inflicted on passing humans and pets and two people had died after being transfixed by a stray dart.

But perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that gifts are sometimes dangerous. God’s gift of Jesus was a dangerous gift, for it wasn’t just the cosy gift of a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. It was also the far more prickly and difficult gift of a challenging teacher who was crucified for upsetting people in authority.

The gift of Jesus is wonderful because, the Bible tells us, it was one of those gifts where the giver is really giving part of themselves. It was a gift which revealed the depth of God’s love for us. But it’s still a dangerous gift, because it challenges us to leave behind everything else we value and follow Jesus ourselves. A gift, then, to handle with care!

[1] & [2] With Acknowledgement to the Yahoo News Service

Staying Awake to Call Upon the Lord

Isaiah 62.6-12
Titus 2.11-14
Luke 2.1-14

In our reading from Isaiah the Prophet urges his audience to stay awake and call upon the Lord God to come to their rescue. They are to take no rest, and to give God no rest either, from their ceaseless prayers. And all with the aim of hastening the day, which God has promised to bring about, when oppression will be ended, when those who toil will reap the reward of their labours instead of seeing it all accrued by invading armies, or bankers, or international financiers, and when the exiles will return home.

Once again - as elsewhere in Isaiah - we are promised that, if the people get the road ready for the Lord’s return, sending out the snow ploughs and diggers to clear the rock falls and ice sheets from the highway - then he will come to rescue his people, bringing the exiles with him.

So here we are, once again giving it up for God in the middle of the night, taking no rest from our prayers, waiting for the Lord’s return. And we do still need his help, don’t we? This is the time of year when we get those retrospectives of all the memorable events which have taken place - the earthquake in Haiti, the floods in Pakistan, the tsunami in Indonesia, the oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. There’s always so much bad news, and so little good news to set against it.

And yet the Letter to Titus offers us a quite different perspective from the prophecy of Isaiah. The write there is not looking forward to the Lord’s return. He’s celebrating something which is already here. He has fast forwarded from the middle of the night. For him it’s already morning. For, as he says, ‘The grace of God has already dawned upon the world with healing for all humankind.’

The outcome of this dawning is not quite what Isaiah expected. It’s not a new world where oppression and suffering have been banished. Instead, the grace of God has offered us a new way of being ourselves in the world. And the writer tells us that this new way of living requires discipline. It requires us to live a life marked by temperance, honest hard work and integrity - values which are quite at odds with the way Christmas tends to be celebrated now - for the writer is a bit of a party pooper. We have much to celebrate. God’s grace has dawned on us. And yet it’s still not time to break open the champagne. In fact, the dawn of God’s grace calls us not to relax but to work harder, to work alongside God to tackle the world’s problems head on.

And that’s because it is only the dawn of God’s grace. This is sunrise, not midday. Like the Prophet, we still have to look forward. This is still a time for hope. The happy fulfilment of God’s purposes, when the full splendour of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ will appear, lies in the future.

This is the only place where Jesus is called a great God. It sounds triumphalist. But what makes Jesus ‘great’ is his sacrifice - his self-offering - for us. So, in order to embrace his new dawn we have to commit ourselves to the same pattern of self-denial and commitment to God’s cause.

Finally, then, to the familiar words from Luke’s Gospel. The context is yet another attempt by politicians to sort out the problems of the world themselves, by taking a census to see what level of resources are required. But we know, of course, because we have been let into the secret by Luke, that the great emperor Augustus does not have the real solutions to the world’s problems, because political solutions are never quite what they seem. As they get to grips with one problem they have a nasty habit of creating a new one. Or else they never quite get to grips with the problem in the first place, and so it festers on, waiting for a new initiative. Or, worst of all, politicians are too impatient. They never give a remedy time to work before they start campaigning for an alternative.

Perhaps that’s why, in the Old Testament, God warned David against taking a census of his people. The real solutions to life’s problems lie less in strategic planning and more in winning over individual hearts and minds.

Like us, Jesus is a helpless cog in the political machine. Mary and Joseph have no choice but to play their part in Caesar’s plans. And so Jesus is born in Bethlehem, where only the shepherds witness the true significance of what is happening. Here - with the birth and death of Jesus - is the dawn of a radical new way of bringing about peace and good news on earth. Radical, but also gradual, as the writer of Titus has observed.

Actually, being a shepherd is a dying occupation in modern Bethlehem. Jewish settlements, over-grazing, the wall built by the Israeli army to separate Arab areas from Jewish ones, all these things have put paid to the shepherds’ traditional way of life. Only a few years ago a shepherd could set out from Bethlehem with a flock of three hundred sheep and lead them down to the Dead Sea and back again, looking for forage along the way. But now the angels would find themselves singing to empty fields.

So Bethlehem itself remains a microcosm of all that’s wrong in the world - the absence of peace and harmony - and a reminder of the call that we must accept from God, a personal commission to work for a fairer and more just world until the day finally comes when the full splendour of our great God and Saviour Jesus Christ will appear.

God With Us

Isaiah 7.10 - 16
Romans 1.1 - 7
Matthew 1.18 - 25

The people who compiled the lectionary clearly wanted to challenge the way we think about the Bible because the readings they selected for today contain a number of rather striking contradictions. How are we to choose between them as we try to get to the truth?

First, there’s Isaiah’s prophecy about a young woman - and notice it is a young woman, not a virgin - who is soon to give birth to a son and who will name him, Immanuel, which means ‘God with us’. Clearly this passage wasn’t intended to be about Jesus. It was intended to point to something that would happen very soon, within the Prophet’s own lifetime.

Ahaz, the king of Judah, had refused to ask God for a sign, and this had annoyed and disturbed Isaiah, who interpreted it as a lack of faith. I’m inclined to sympathise with Ahaz. If we don’t ask God for a sign then, of course, we won’t be disappointed if the sign doesn’t materialise or turns out to be difficult to interpret or ambiguous. It was Isaiah’s view, however, that if we’re truly faithful we should expect God to give us clear and unambiguous signs of how things will turn out.

Perhaps Ahaz had heard of the oracle at Delphi, which was famous for telling people their future, except that the oracles they received were notoriously ambiguous. For example, one general who consulted the oracle before a battle was told, ‘You will go. You will return not. In the battle you will perish." Some of his supporters immediately assumed that - in the immortal words of Private Fraser - he was ‘Doomed! Doomed!’ The general was not going to return home but would perish on the battlefield. But the general was a ‘glass half full’ kind of guy and saw things rather differently. He thought the oracle meant, ‘You will go. You will return. Not in the battle you will perish,’ which sounds a bit like Yoda from Star Wars and yet is a lot more encouraging.

I don’t know what happened to the general in the end. Either way the oracle came true, didn’t it? And perhaps that helps to explain some of Ahaz’s misgivings about asking for a sign. However, Ahaz had a Biblical precedent too, which he could point to in making the argument that it’s wrong to put God to the test by demanding signs. In verse 12 he alludes to some words from the Law of Moses which Jesus himself would later use, ‘Do not put the Lord your God to the test.’ However, Isaiah would have none of it and informed Ahaz that if he didn’t ask for a sign, then God would give him one anyway.

Immanuel, the young woman’s son, would be enjoying a rich diet by the time he reached the age when children are supposed be able to discern the difference between right and wrong - that is to say, by the time he celebrated his bar mitzvah at about the age of twelve. And this would happen because by then the enemies of the Kingdom of Judah would have been swept away. Their lands would be desolate and the troubles faced by the people of Judah would be at an end.

So what were those troubles? The two countries that Ahaz was accused of cringing before were Israel and Syria. They had formed an alliance against Judah in an effort to force Ahaz to join them in opposing the greedy and brutal Empire of Asyria. Isaiah’s view, however, was that they were playing power politics instead of putting their whole trust in God. And sure enough, in the twelfth year of Ahaz’s reign, the mighty empire of Assyria overran both Israel and Syria and utterly destroyed both kingdoms. Judah, however remained at peace with Assyria and enjoyed a further period of respite until the reign of Ahaz’s son.

Unlike Isaiah chapter 7, Romans chapter 1 is clearly about Jesus. Paul draws a clear distinction here between Jesus’ human origins, saying that he was descended from the family of King David, and his spiritual lineage which, Paul says, comes from the Holy Spirit. It was the resurrection, Paul thought, which demonstrated that Jesus was the Son of God, not his birth.

So both of the passages we’ve looked at contradict Matthew’s version of events. A careful reading of Isaiah chapter 7 refutes Matthew’s assertion that the Prophet had predicted the birth of a baby to a virgin mother. In any case, we’ve seen that Isaiah’s prophecy had already been fulfilled centuries before. And then, writing at about the same time as Matthew, Paul shows us that he had never even heard of the tradition that Jesus had a virgin birth. Instead, Paul thought that Joseph was Jesus’ father.

So what are we to make of Matthew’s account? Some people have seen it as a piece of pious fiction designed to show, in a very literal way, how Jesus could be God’s Son. And yet we’ve seen that Paul had no difficulty in calling Jesus ‘God’s Son’ anyway, although he didn’t know about the virgin birth.

Some people have also supposed that Matthew misinterpreted Isaiah’s prophecy because, in the Greek translation which he probably used, the word for ‘young woman’ can also mean ‘a virgin’. Did he perhaps imagine, therefore, that Isaiah was talking about a virgin birth as the unambiguous sign of the coming of Immanuel, ‘God with us’, when Isaiah was really talking about an ordinary birth?

But I don’t think it’s quite as clear-cut as that. Matthew had a very good grasp of Greek, so I suspect he knew perfectly well that Isaiah wasn’t necessarily prophesying about a virgin birth. And just because Paul didn’t know about the virgin birth doesn’t mean that it wasn’t a very ancient tradition.

What seems most likely is that Matthew had been handed down the story of the virgin birth from Jesus’ first followers - just as Luke was handed down the same story in a slightly different version. It must have seemed pretty incredible, even then. Already there were Jewish people who were trying to claim that Jesus’ birth had actually been illegitimate instead. In a lot of ways, therefore, it would have been easier for Matthew to follow Paul’s line, and say that Jesus was a true descendant of King David, because then Jesus would have had a stronger claim to the title of Messiah since the Bible says that the Messiah will be a descendant of David. But Matthew had been assured that Jesus’ mother was a virgin when he was born, and he could only make sense of this amazing claim by linking it - as best he could - to the prophecy of Isaiah.

Christians often say that we have to believe exactly what it says in the Bible. Yet on this occasion we’ve got a choice. We can believe what Paul says in the Bible, or what Matthew tells us. What they both agree about, however, is that Jesus is God’s Son and that this was attested by mighty and miraculous events. And they also agree that what this means for us today is that God is with us, that he is one of us, alongside us, sharing all our experiences, even our birth and our death. Whichever version of the story we choose to
believe it’s a truly startling claim and - as Paul says - it is gospel, ‘good news’.