Today, during the Gospel, we are faced with the temptation of tuning out, rolling our eyes and wondering why is it necessary that we listen to all these “begats” and strange names? Such a temptation fails to understand the richness of today’s Gospel (Matthew 1:1-25). There are wonderful stories behind each of these names and these wonderful stories each reveal something to us about Christ. There is so much here that I have been struggling all week just to narrow it down to something to preach about — if I were to try and chase everything down available to us, we would be here for hours.
Normally, I’d chase down the oddities in this list — the law requires that ancestry be traced through the male lineage, yet Matthew mentions five women. These women have a lot to tell us about Christ. Due to time restraints, however, I am merely going to ask that you chase these names yourself. Rather, today I am going to focus on two names — one from the Old Testament and one from the New — Manasseh and Joseph.
Manasseh was the son of the righteous King Hezekiah. According to both 2 Kings and 2 Chronicles he did what was evil in the sight of the Lord. He built altars and to pagan gods — even in the Temple — and worshipped idols. When Manasseh ignored the warnings of God, the Lord allowed him to be captured by the Assyrians and put in fetters. In this humbled state, Manasseh cried out to the Lord in repentance (which at its root means to turn around — turn towards God). In our rich Orthodox liturgical tradition we have Manasseh’s Prayer which we have as part of our Great Compline service. Using the same imagery that God used in His promise to Abraham about the number of offspring God would give him, Manasseh cries out (and we with him), “I have sinned above the number of the sands of the sea.”
Although Manasseh was returned to Judah and tore down all of the pagan altars, poles and idols that he had previously built, St. Paul tells us in today’s Epistle that Manasseh’s (albeit beautiful) repentance didn’t really gain him much:
And all these [faithful from the OT], though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us,that apart from us they should not be made perfect. — Hebrews 11:39-40
This promise — this “something better” — was found by Joseph. Note the eighteenth verse of the first chapter of Matthew:
Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child of the Holy Spirit.
This word “found” falls flat in the English translation. It doesn’t have any connotation of amazement. The Greek — εὑρέθη — does. It is the root for the English word “eureka!” In other words, “Eureka! Mary is with child by the Holy Spirit!” Thus, Joseph knows from the beginning the importance of this child. So much so that the devil (depicted in the icons of the Nativity) tries to tempt Joseph to disobey the Law — which calls for adulterers to be stoned — and put Mary away and divorce her.
Of course, he doesn’t because he heeds the words of the angel Gabriel:
Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit; she will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins. — Matthew 1:20-21
The name “Jesus” means “Saviour.” Note what the angel says that He will save us from: our sins — our separation from God. This is only something that God Himself can do. Thus, Joseph understood from the very beginning that the child Mary carried in her womb was God Himself.
God, whose flesh He took from the likes of Manessah. He embraces even those who do evil in the sight of the Lord. This is the “something better.” This is the fulfillment of the promises made by God to all those faithful throughout the OT — Emmanuel! God is with us!
What an honor it is to be a Christian. What a gift it is to worship a God who loves us so much that He was willing to do all these things for us. How awesome is that when we repent — when we turn towards God — we get the fullness of the promise that is Jesus Christ.
Today the Apolytikion tells us that “Great are the achievements of faith!” It goes on do demonstrate one of the many amazing things that happened in the OT through faith — the three holy youths in the furnace fire unharmed. We have more than they did.
Let us all, then, have the repentance of Manasseh and turn toward God. Then, let us all have Joseph’s “eureka” moment when we take to heart the reality of the gift that God has given us through Jesus Christ. Let us embrace the opportunity to give Him thanks and take advantage of all the Orthodox Church has to offer through Her worship services. Come and see and be amazed. Amen.