Christmas Story #1

DISCLAIMER: I believe sermons are meant to be heard. They are the word proclaimed in a live exchange between God and the preacher, and the preacher and God, and the preacher and the people, and the people and the preacher, and the people and God, and God and the people. Typically set in the context of worship and always following the reading of scripture, sermons are about listening and speaking and hearing and heeding. At the risk of stepping outside such boundaries, I share sermons here — where the reader will have to wade through a manuscript that was created to be spoken word. Even if you don’t know the sound of my voice, let yourself hear as you read. Let your mind see as you hear. Let your life be opened to whatever response you begin to hear within you.

May the Spirit Speak to you!

7 December 2014 – 2nd Sunday of Advent
Matthew 1:1-2:23 (included below)

Ordinarily the second Sunday of Advent finds us focusing on John the Baptist. The one crying out in the wilderness in his camel’s hair with his locusts dipped in wild honey. We hear him tell to get ready! Prepare for the coming of the One who will baptize you with the power of the Holy Spirit. Who will make you ready to live the kingdom of God each day! That’s what the second Sunday of Advent typically is about. And in year B of the lectionary, which we just entered last week, it’s always from the gospel of Mark. Which oddly enough is how Mark starts the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In his gospel, we don’t hear of angel annunciations or dreams to keep Mary. No shepherds or wise men or cattle a-lowing in the meager manger stall of Bethlehem. John the Baptist crying out in the wilderness to prepare for the way of the Lord is how the gospel of Mark begins; then jumps right into the full-grown Jesus showing up himself to get baptized by John.

Well, a little different Advent path calls this year. It seems the old story might speak to us anew if we approached it from another angle. O, I know that we have our nativity set up in full on the organ. All the beloved pieces already are there – the baby in the feed-trough, Mary and Joseph, the shepherd and wise men, and even a few beasts of the field. It’s all there mushed up together because that’s the way we know the story – all the components of it that we absolutely cherish. But for the next few weeks of this season, we’re going to do our best to pull them apart. See if we can’t hear a fresh message this go around if we listen to how each gospel uniquely tells of the story of Christ’s birth.

As I already said, we won’t have one from the gospel of Mark. We’ll hear from Matthew today and do our best to hold at bay the surprise of the young Mary when the angel comes to her. The trek to Bethlehem. And even the blessed details of that holy night of his birth. We’ll get to that in a few weeks. And even consider the very different way the gospel of John, with that pre-existent Word, tells how Christ came to be. But for now: Matthew. Let’s see if we can hear it as this writer told, so that maybe, just maybe our hearts and minds will be a bit more prepared to celebrate the most amazing gift of God-in-flesh, Emmanuel. Listen now for God’s word to us regarding the coming of Christ, our Lord, according to the unique telling in the gospel of Matthew. And know that this opening part is filled with a whole bunch of names – some of which may stand out to us immediately and some of which we may not know at all – some of which I may not even pronounce very well. Matthew’s first audience, being Jewish, of course would have recognized and known the story of each one. They would have noted the names that are missing and known the details of the women pointed out in this paternal genealogy which typically would list just the fathers; all of which make one wonder just what the writer of Matthew was up to. Listen:

“An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. 2 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3 and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4 and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5 and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6 and Jesse the father of King David. And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, 7 and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, 8 and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, 9 and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, 10 and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, 11 and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon. 12 And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, 13 and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, 14 and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, 15 and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, 16 and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah. 17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; and from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.” (Matthew 1:1-17).

Ok: just a note here. What an amazing genealogy! If we look back in the biblical records we’d see that it wasn’t quite as rounded out as the gospel writer tells it. But 14 to 14 to 14, or 42 generations from God first coming to father Abraham to God coming in the human clothes of Jesus, the Christ, is kinda cool. Each period is the perfect number 7 times two equaling 14. Many of us can’t trace our own ancestry back much more than 2 or 3 generations. But the writer of the gospel of Matthew wants us to know from the start that this Messiah, this son of David and of Abraham isn’t something new. God long has been working through this human family to arrive at the day when One would appear who would save his people. . . . It’s an impressive list to let us know right away that this One whose story is being told comes from a royal line. Still, there’s some women in there – and some men too – who were not necessarily the most upright. King David’s indiscretion with Bathsheba is mentioned here. As is the foreign woman Ruth who wiggled her way into the story. In fact, all four of the Old Testament women mentioned in this genealogy are foreigners. Righteous king Hezekiah is mentioned right alongside that menacing Manasseh who undid all the good, God-fearing stuff his father had re-started. Not keeping any of the family secrets in the closet here. Even Babylon is mentioned – which still had to sting in the mind of a Jewish listener. Or maybe it was a comforting reminder that like the kingdom of Babylon that fell, Rome – under whom they now were living – would pass away too. All of which is to say that God was breaking into a very human family – not seeking the perfect, spotless lineage by which to come to a hurting world. Rather, recognizing that we humans are far from perfect, which is why we need this baby in the first place. . . . And listen to how it took place, at least according to the gospel of Matthew:

18 “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, 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. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” (An act that engrafted Jesus into Joseph’s biological lineage.)

Indeed, it is Joseph who is the primary actor here – next to God, working through the Holy Spirit to bring this all to be. Right from the start we learn of dreams and prophesies. Five of each will be in the opening part of this gospel’s telling of the story. He’s beginning to set up this Messiah with Moses of old. That was the first time in Israel’s history that they really needed to know God was with them – when they were slaves in Egypt, wondering if they were of any value to anyone. A savior worked for their benefit then; One would be present again. Which they desperately needed. I don’t believe it was any coincidence that this new beginning was taking place at the time in which it was. The writer of Matthew knows his people’s need; for life had grown nearly intolerable with Rome’s configuration of governing. In fact, near the time of Jesus birth, whole villages were being ransacked at the hands of Rome. In 4 CE, Sepphoris – just four miles from Nazareth – was totally destroyed because the Jews were trying to free themselves from the latest kingdom that had conquered them. Jesus of this royal lineage is born, according to the gospel of Matthew, at a particular time and place, under the rule of a particularly harsh king. Listen:

“In the time of King Herod (Rome’s local leader), after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: 6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”

We might forget how paranoid this Herod is. He was Rome’s puppet who tried his whole life long to prove to the Jews that he really was one of them – though his lineage was not ethnically pure. He wasn’t born king of the Jews – and presumably he knew of the prophesied Messiah. The gospel of Matthew tells it right from the start that this God-in-flesh is going to be in conflict with the kings of this world. This One’s ways are different. Rome got to peace through victory. This One gets to peace through alternative measures – spelled with the letters l-o-v-e (Marcus J. Borg & John Dominic Crossan, The First Christmas, p. 81; Harper Collins e-books, 2007). Furthermore, this is the Ruler that wants us to know we are not alone; we are with God and God is with us – like a loving shepherd. Not just in terms of physical proximity but also in terms of together – like on one team. God is with us; on our side in this wild ride through the ways of this world. It’s going to be typical for the powers of this world to keep to their old tricks: scheming and scamming. Taking for themselves and turning from the real needs of their people. From the start, the gospel of Matthew sets Herod up as the quintessential example of the ways those who follow God will struggle against. Listen again:

7 “Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” (Wink, wink.) 9 When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. 13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” 14 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, (kinda like a reverse exodus) 15 and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” 16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. (Kinda like what had happened during the days of Moses’ birth.) 17 Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: 18 “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.” 19 When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, 20 “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” 21 Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. 22 But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee (about a 100 miles north of Jerusalem). 23 There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

What a contrast in response to this birth. In the midst of the story about a very threatened king, foreign seekers come from the East. Presumably those outside the Jewish family, they still sought Wisdom. They looked in wonder to the natural world – God’s ever-surrounding mouth-piece. Something must have been in them that knew worship. That knew awe. And whether or not they had the right language yet; they must have trusted that a grand Designer was behind it all. The ones from the East are open to the wisdom that surrounds us in creation each day so that they knew to pay attention to a brand new star that was doing something unlike anything they had seen before. They got themselves ready to encounter One worthy to receive their most precious gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. . . . Meanwhile, the current King of the Jews goes stark raving mad. Out of fear of what he might lose, he orders dead all the children around Bethlehem who were younger than two years. This cannot endear the Bethlehemites to him and his rule. But he gives no thought to that. And so continues the long line of violence – even to this very day against the city of Bethlehem; the violence continues which the baby in the manger came to stop. He will grow to show a totally different way of being. One that seems well-exemplified, according to the gospel of Matthew, in the earthly father Joseph. In that long genealogy, we hear of father after father in Joseph’s family – some of whom were great role models for him of how to be the most amazing dad. And wasn’t he?! It wasn’t even his biological son and look what Joseph does. First he believes – he trusts that God is up to something new in the woman he loves. Next, he pays attention to a classic way God gets into our hearts and our minds: he seeks to discern his dreams to know what God wants from him next. Then, more than once, he protects this precious gift given to his care. Such love! Such wisdom! What an amazing father! What a faithful servant of the Savior of the world!

And so the little one is born into this world, according to the unique telling of the gospel of Matthew. We’re given much to ponder about who this baby is who is named from the start the Messiah. We’re encouraged to pay attention too to the dreams God gives us in God’s continuing work to save this world. We’re warned these ways will not be like the ways undertaken for gain among so many in this world. We’re painted three distinct portraits of response to God’s great gift. And we’re left to wonder as we continue our trek to the celebration of his birth: just how might we live as a result of this new life.
May Christmas Story #1, the telling of the tale according to the gospel of Matthew, leave us a bit more prepared to rejoice!

In the name of the life-giving Father, the life-redeeming Son, and the life-sustaining Spirit, Amen.
© Copyright JMN – 2014 (All rights reserved.)

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