Today we find ourselves at the start of a new year on our calendars – so a happy and blessed New Year to you all.
What I would like to do today is introduce you to the Gospel of Matthew – which will serve us as our primary text in this new liturgical year (though we will certainly read from the whole bible, and the others gospels too).
You might be aware that there are four gospels featured in the New Testament; each faithfully tells the story of Jesus; but they are different. They have different emphases; a different audience in mind; and in some cases, different content. Each of these early communities had a mixture of both Jews who were familiar with the scriptures before following Jesus; and Gentile (non-Jewish) converts who in meeting Jesus were new to the whole thing. All four of the gospels present Jesus as one who transcends mixed company as the “church” started to form in a new community around his life, death and resurrection. Mark and Luke were the most culturally diverse, John was the most gentile – and Matthew (the gospel we will spend a lot of time with this year) was formed of primarily Jewish Christians. That Jewish distinctive in Matthew is important, but remember, like all Christians, they (like us) were not to keep to themselves but are sent into the wider world.
As you hear the stories of Jesus this year, bear in mind the Jewishness of Jesus and the continuity with the whole story of the people of Israel Matthew is telling. Gordon Lathrop, retired professor at The Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia wrote a book titled, “The Four Gospels on Sunday” (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2011). In the book, Lathrop asserts that the gospels are not just history lessons or universal doctrinal statements about Jesus, as much as they are sermons about Jesus to specific communities. In that light, we will explore the four opening scenes of Matthew’s gospel today.
Look for the following:
- The stories and the way they are told are particular to Matthew. We’ll investigate those particulars.
- Knowing that community’s strong Jewish roots called into a wider world offers a unique understanding of who Jesus was and is. As that story is told among us twenty centuries later when there is a growing tension in our culture between insiders, outsiders and belonging, and in a culture that is so dominated by division – Jesus speaks directly to us.
- Hearing the start of the story will help us understand the rest of it – particularly as it comes to authority, mission and God’s engagement with the world through this promised Christ.
Last – there is a catechetical aspect to this morning as we both hear and sing the story.
I hope we can engage Matthew’s story of Jesus openly along with these great Christmas carols, so that as Luther says of all of scripture, “we may gladly hear and learn it.” (Martin Luther, Small Catechism, explanation to the 3rd Commandment)
So let’s get to it.
CAROL: “ANGELS FROM THE REALMS OF GLORY” ELW #275
1 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)
Biblical scholar and former Bishop of Durham, NT Wright points out that a Genealogy is a puzzling way to start a story about Jesus. (NT Wright, The Gospel of Matthew for Everyone, Part 1. [Louisville;: WJK Press, 2002], 2.)
Yet this genealogy serves as the puzzling opener of Matthew’s gospel.
The claim in this genealogy is the One who has come is the True king. The True King is not Caesar. The True King is not Herod. The True King is not any pretender, usurper or opportunist. The True King is a King like David! Matthew is telling his listeners that Jesus comes as the New King David – but pay attention; he’s not like any king you’ve ever seen before.
Take notice of some of the players in this family tree:
Abraham, Isaac and Jacob – these Patriarchs represent “the whole people.” Jesus is linked to the entire Old Testament narrative; a story of both faithfulness and struggle. Keep in mind, at the time it would not have been common to name women in a family tree; but see who they are and the scandal of who Jesus is starts to come to light:
Both Tamar and Rahab were introduced in the narrative of the Old Testament as prostitutes. Ruth, the grandmother of David was a foreigner from Moab. Solomon (the wise king), David’s son, was conceived in adultery with Bathsheba. Mary is pregnant and at this point in the story the paternity of the child is unknown.
Consider your own family tree and you can probably start to imagine the cast of characters that makes up you! The message here is when Jesus enters history, he enters it fully.
Ask yourself, “Why would Matthew include this puzzle in his story?”
Daniel Harrington suggests, “The function of Matthew’s genealogy is to trace Jesus’ decent back to David and Abraham: The one whom Christians proclaim as Messiah can correctly be claimed to be the Son of David… and was born at an opportune time in Israel’s history. (Harrington, Sacra Pagina: The Gospel of Matthew. [Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1991], 31-32).
Jesus comes as a New King David, but he is no ordinary King. He will dine with the lowly, and befriend the unclean. He will stand up with a true authority of the scriptures behind him; but will preach mercy. He will die as an enemy of the state whose opponents will try in vain to humiliate and undermine everything he has accomplished. He enters into our humanity fully – even the colorful parts and people of our past. Jesus as the New King David comes to usher in a new kind of kingdom – not with standoff pretension or holiness, nor with power or violence but by a full embrace of who we are as his people he has come to save. As the only and true King he will do the unthinkable just when it looks like all is lost: he conquers death itself and sends his followers to lay claim to the whole world.
This genealogy proclaims: the revolution has begun.
CAROL: “ONCE IN DAVID’S ROYAL CITY” ELW#269
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. (Matthew 1:18-25)
Those who know the history of Israel will recognize the name of Joseph – as the Old Testament dreamer; who got into trouble with his brothers for his dreams. They sent him away in slaver y in Egypt. To make a long story short, through his dreams Joseph helped Pharaoh prepare for a coming famine; and not only helped, but reconciled with his brothers when they came looking for grain. It is a great story in Genesis worth reading.
This story of Joseph is intended to stimulate our Biblical imagination when we meet this dreamer. In a dream an angel tells him about the child who is about to come into the world. The King will come through Joseph (the dreamer) but in an amazing plot twist – Joseph is not the Father – Jesus will be adopted! The New Testament is loaded with adoption language, as you and I become children of God, thereby inheriting this Kingdom Jesus has come to establish. It is a reminder for us that the hope of our calling is not a matter of pedigree but a matter of promise. God does the impossible by being born into this world. The infinite takes on the finite, the divine takes on the ordinary, the holy takes on the desecrated and re-establishes what God intended all along – a relationship where there is no distance between God and us; or between us and others, but one humanity united in his presence here among us in flesh.
Joseph is told that the child will be the embodiment of God for the people (Emmanuel means – God is with us). In chapter 25 of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus teaches what, “God is with us” means – “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me” When? “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to the least of these in my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:35-40). The question Jesus keeps posing to us is, “Don’t you see that I am with you?”
His name will be Jesus; Yeshua; Joshua; recalling the one named Joshua who led the people into the Promised Land; who tore down the walls of Jericho; who proclaimed – “As for me and my house we will serve the Lord!” (Joshua 24:25). The Child will bear the liberator’s name; Joshua, Yeshua, Jesus, because he will tear down walls, and he will save the people. Jesus will break down the walls between us and save the people from their sins – which will transform everything. To follow this Jesus is to dream; not of what is but what can be, and to look for him in all the unexpected places.
Are you looking?
CAROL: “GOOD CHRISTIAN FRIENDS REJOICE” ELW#288
In the time of King Herod, 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.’”
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.” 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. (Matthew 2:1-12)
The next chapter of Matthew begins by introducing the political and social context into which Jesus is born; and it lays the groundwork for the Passion narrative that will follow.
Jesus’ entry into the world threatens the powers that be.
It is foreign astrologers from the far east, not the people (and the religious leaders in particular) who understand who this Jesus is, by following a cosmic sign – the star.
As much as I love these Wise Guys; think about what they represent: they are not biblical scholars or church goers – they are pagans or what we might call today “New Agers.”
Yet they know exactly who Jesus is – and bring gifts appropriate to someone who alone embodies Messiahship as prophet, priest and king.
Too often we believe we have all the answers, and the unforeseen consequence is that we cut off not only other people and the gifts they bring, but we also miss the opportunity to see God at work in our lives. The Magi, the Astrologers, the Wise Guys, show us that God can use anyone, and continues speaking to everyone – especially outsiders.
Using anyone is a real threat to any power structure.
What happens next should put our faith communities on notice to be sure, but Jesus’ being sought by those outside what we would expect also challenges our wider understandings of authority.
As the Wise Guys approach Herod for help as they follow the star, a question we should ask is: Who is really in charge here?
While Luke sets the backdrop to Christmas by telling of an empire wide census demanded by the Caesar, Matthew tells the story up close, introducing the listener to the King Herod. Herod was a Puppet King, propped up by the occupying Romans. When the Wise Guys arrive before Herod he tells them, “Go find out where he is so I too may worship him.” We quickly discover his motives. Herod is threatened, and seeks to wipe out this threat to his loose grip on power. We will soon see how far he is willing to go to keep it.
Angels deliver the Wise Guys back to their country outside of Herod’s plot. But the wheels are set in motion for the opposition and liberation to come.
Are you ready?
CAROL: “THE FIRST NOEL” ELW#300
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, 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,[i] 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.[j] 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. 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.” (Matthew 2:13-23)
On the Liturgical calendar, December 28 is remembered as “The Slaughter of the Innocents.” It is a reminder that Christmas is much more than a sweet Nativity scene.
Jesus comes to establish a kingdom that threatens everything – and there will be backlash. Unfortunately for the children of that little town of Bethlehem, it meant the killing of the children by the illegitimate King, Herod. Like so many tyrants before and after him; Herod believed he could keep his tight grip on power if he eliminated any possible threat to his rule. Thanks to the Wise Guys who told him of the babe in Bethlehem, he knew from where his threat would come.
Killing all the kids would kill the revolution before it began. But the New King David would not be thwarted so easily. An angel, again coming to Joseph the dreamer, warns him to flee with Mary and Jesus to Egypt. The Holy Family takes flight, becoming refugees in that foreign land. There they remain until Herod’s reign of terror is over. And then in another dream, Joseph is told they can go home, and resettle in Nazareth.
There are parallels to Moses’ origin story here. While enslaved in Egypt the Hebrew population grew and became a threat to Pharaoh, he decided to kill all the young children and reduce the population. Yet Moses was spared. His mother put him in a basket and floated him down the river to ironically be raised by Pharaoh’s daughter.
As an adult, Moses would lead the people out of Egypt to the Promised Land, and the metaphor established here by Matthew is that Jesus is not only the New and True King, he comes as the New Moses, who will bring all his people home.
The Sermon on the Mount, found in Matthew’s storytelling, places Jesus as the great teacher who comes not to establish new rules by saying “Thou shalt not” but brings the promise “Blessed are you…” Later on it will be on the mountaintop where Jesus is transformed (or transfigured) to stands with Moses and Elijah as the disciples try to figure out who this Jesus is. In each of the Gospels Jesus enters Jerusalem on Palm Sunday to begin his Passion, but it takes on a special emphasis in Matthew – he rides on a colt and a donkey – to liberate his people as their One True King. And while Jesus dies on the outskirts of town in the place of the skull; it is to the mountain where he calls his disciples after his resurrection to “Go into the world, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit,” reminding them again, “I am with you always.” (Matthew 28:19-20)
Matthew’s story of Jesus is rich in Israel’s history; steeped in metaphor; and loaded with symbols of the faith the people would have known and recognized. These many centuries later it is a little more difficult for us to see them, but not so much if we know where to look – to David, to Moses, to the Kingdom and the Exodus. But it is a missionary document too – showing us the world, the outsider, the refugee, the false powers of this world and the promise of God’s ongoing presence in our lives. Our ongoing challenge will be to move beyond what threatens us in this world, and trust God’s promise in this New Year, and in each day of our lives…
…the One True King has arrived!
CAROL: “WHAT CHILD IS THIS?” ELW#296