Christmas 1 • 1 Jan 2017

Isaiah 63:7-9
Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23

Rev. Chris Udy

I promise this will be my last mention
of “The First Christmas” -
which is the book we used
for our study groups
on the lead-up to Christmas,
and has been fairly exhaustively referred to
over the last few weeks.
In the book Marcus Borg
and John Dominic Crossan
look very closely
at the detail in the Christmas stories,
noting the similarities and differences in them,
and they try to understand
why Luke and Matthew wrote
these early chapters in their Gospels
as they did.
Borg and Crossan begin their study
by saying very clearly
that they read the Bible as people of faith -
they listen for the Word of the Lord
in the written text,
and the motivation for their writing
is to do what the angels do -
to present Jesus as God’s good news:
the one who shows us
what human life is meant to be,
and the one in whom God is uniquely present.

Matthew and Luke were doing the same thing.
They were writing to share good news:
they wanted the world to know
that in Jesus they had discovered
the fulfilment of hope
that the Hebrew Bible had promised
and the source of a new law and wisdom;
one whose influence and authority
would extend far beyond Israel
to change the world itself.

Matthew and Luke
both wanted their Gospels
to point to Jesus,
not only as the Messiah -
the liberating king of Israel -
but also as κύριος - ‘Lord’ –
the title often given to Caesar -
the ruler of the cosmos
and the saviour of the world.

So the very first sentences of their gospels
were crucial -
they had to set the scene,
they had to establish the expectation
that would then be revealed
when they came to write their account
of the adult life of Jesus -
and it’s important to understand
that their focus, their principal interest
was the adult life of Jesus.
They had volumes of information
about the adult Jesus -
books and notes and oral history;
stories and parables and sayings and sermons.
When it came time
to write about Jesus the man
Matthew would have Mark’s gospel
open in front of him.
He would also have another written document -
a source of sayings
that we now call ‘Q’ or ‘Quelle’ -
which means ‘source’ in German.
We know that Matthew had these two written resources
first, because in many places
Matthew quotes word-for-word
from Mark’s gospel;
second, because there are passages
that don’t appear in Mark
but where Matthew and Luke
are in word-for-word agreement -
so they had to come
from this other written source – Q.
And in addition to Mark’s gospel,
and this document ‘Q’,
Matthew also had unique stories and sayings
from his own community.
So when Matthew was ready
to write about Jesus being baptised by John,
and as he described the teachings of Jesus
and his work of healing and liberation,
he would have material a-plenty -
but Matthew’s problem -
and Luke’s also -
was that very little - almost nothing -
was known about the early life of Jesus.

Paul was the earliest Christian writer,
and his letters were copied and sent
to Churches everywhere -
but the only thing Paul says
about the origins of Jesus
is that Jesus was descended from David.
Mark’s no more help -
he starts his Gospel
with John the Baptist appearing
beside the Jordan river -
and by then Jesus was 30 years old.
Our fourth gospel writer, John,
writes a beautiful prologue
about Jesus as the Word of God,
and about him becoming flesh
and dwelling among us -
but the first detail John gives
about the life of Jesus
is also when Jesus was about 30,
where John the Baptist describes him
as the Lamb of God.

So - Matthew and Luke had a problem.
There were no baby photos -
no school report cards,
no agreed and authoritative stories
of the birth and childhood of Jesus.
What they had;
what all the New Testament writers agree on,
was that Jesus was born in Bethlehem;
that his mother was Mary,
and that Mary was engaged to Joseph.
They also agree that Jesus was born
when Herod the Great was king of Judea -
and that causes a few problems for us now,
because we know that Herod died
in the year 4BC -
and so, because of a mistake
made by a monk named Dionysius Exiguus
in the year 525,
Jesus was born BC - ‘Before Christ’ -
so that’s a little bit awkward.
The New Testament writers also agree
that Jesus, Mary and Joseph
lived in Nazareth -
but even there things get a little bit hazy.
In Luke’s Gospel,
in the version of the story we’re most familiar with,
Mary and Joseph travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem,
arrive without a booking
and end up in the stable -
but in Matthew’s story
Mary and Joseph are already living in Bethlehem,
and they have a house,
to which the wise men came
in their search for the king of the Jews.
As we read today,
it was only after Joseph, Mary and Jesus
had run away to Egypt,
fleeing King Herod’s jealousy,
that the family returned to Israel -
and it was then,
because Joseph was afraid
to go back to Bethlehem in Judea,
where the new ruler was King Herod’s son,
it was only then Joseph decided to move north,
into the district of Galilee,
and to the town of Nazareth.

Matthew and Luke had the barest of bones
from which to bring to life
these early years of Jesus -
so the stories they tell are very different -
and sometimes contradictory.
Sometimes, too, the details of their story
don’t quite fit with what we know
of the history and politics of Israel and Rome.
We know, for example,
that while King Herod died in 4BC,
Quirinius, who, according to Luke,
was governor of Syria when Jesus was born
didn’t become Governor until 6AD -
some 10 years after Herod died -
so the details don’t quite fit and gel -
but that’s not really the point:
what’s important for Matthew and for Luke
is not the historical detail,
but the person -
and the reason they tell stories
about the baby Jesus
is to help us see and understand
the significance of Jesus the man.

This year we’ll be reading Matthew’s story,
and it’s impossible to understand Matthew’s gospel -
Matthew’s good news -
until we see that Matthew has written his gospel
as a profound and beautiful parallel reflection
of the first five books of the Hebrew Bible.
Matthew’s gospel consists
of 5 discourses, 5 long sermons,
with parables and stories woven into them.
The first is the sermon on the mount -
the discourse on the Law;
next comes the Missionary discourse,
when the disciples are sent out on mission;
then come the parables,
then teaching about Christian community,
and finally what’s called the ‘Eschatological Discourse’ -
teaching about the last days
and about the fulfilment of God’s purpose.
Matthew structures his gospel
into those 5 discourses
for a very clear and specific reason:
he wants his readers to understand
that, just as the first 5 books of the Hebrew Bible
were called ‘Torah’ - or ‘the Law’ by Hebrew people,
so the teaching of Jesus
is ‘Torah’ for Christians.
And just as Moses was credited
with being the author of the Law for Hebrew people,
Jesus has given us a renewed law,
a fulfilled law,
a law that will lead his people - all his people,
not just to the promised land,
but to a renewed and fulfilled creation.

So when Matthew began to write his gospel -
before he used his other sources
to set out the renewed and fulfilled Torah of Jesus,
he wrote a prologue - an introduction -
and in his introduction he revealed Jesus
as the renewed and fulfilled Moses.
Just as there are 5 books in the Torah,
Matthew’s prologue has 5 scenes,
5 divine dreams for guidance,
and 5 quotations from the Hebrew Bible,
5 prophetic scriptural fulfilments.

Today we read the fourth scene in Matthew’s prologue.
After the conception and birth of Jesus in Bethlehem,
the setting for second scene moves to Jerusalem,
where the wise men meet King Herod
and ask him where
the new king of the Jews has been born.
In the third scene
we return to Bethlehem,
and the wise men present their gifts
to the infant king.
Then, as we read today,
in another dream,
Joseph is warned to run away to Egypt,
and it’s in this scene
that Jesus is most clearly revealed
as the successor to Moses.

For anyone with any Jewish heritage
the story of the birth of Moses
would be utterly familiar.
A wicked king who wanted to kill
Hebrew baby boys
would automatically remind them
of Pharaoh’s decree
that all the baby boys
born to Jewish families in Egypt should be killed.
Everyone knew that Moses was saved,
and grew up to write the Torah -
so now Matthew describes Jesus
as being saved from a wicked king
and being called from Egypt - just like Moses -
to teach and lead his people
into God’s renewal and fulfilment.

This year we’ll be reading Matthew’s gospel
and listening for God’s wisdom and authority
in the words and actions of Jesus.
For us his Jewish heritage and credentials
probably aren’t as significant
as they were for Matthew’s first readers -
and because we’re not expecting someone
to liberate us from an occupying army,
or take over political control,
or provide us with a different legal system to live by,
some of the things that Matthew writes
won’t be quite as obvious and urgent to us
as they were to Matthew’s first readers -
but like Matthew, and Luke,
and Mark, and John,
and Marcus Borg, and John Dominic Crossan,
and almost everyone else
who thinks and writes about Jesus,
we also have to decide who he is
and what he means for us.
For Matthew he is Moses, and David - the Messiah,
and we’ll see as the year moves on,
for Matthew he’s also the Lord - the true Emperor -
and he’s God - the heart and soul behind creation -
but when Matthew used those names and titles
he also understood
that none of them really captured
just who Jesus is.
Applying them to Jesus
meant that our understanding those words
would be completely transformed:
so now, when someone says Messiah,
almost everyone knows we’re talking about Jesus;
the only time we use the word ‘Lord’ is in prayer,
and whenever anyone talks about God -
in almost any context -
they need to explain where Jesus fits -
or doesn’t fit -
into their ideas.

Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
He was a baby, born to Mary,
who was engaged to Joseph.
Together, at some point after his birth,
we know they were living in Nazareth,
and it was from Nazareth that Jesus came
some 30 years later,
to begin a ministry and mission
that has utterly changed the world.
He was born in a tiny town
in a backwater of the Roman Empire,
but just 300 years later the Roman Emperor
would call himself a Christian.
Since then the wisdom and authority of Jesus
have been at the heart of western civilisation -
even when those
who have called themselves his disciples
were far too interested in exercising political power,
and those in political power
seem to have ignored almost all Jesus stood for.
Jesus is still influential in politics today -
most western politicians
are very keen to indicate
where they think they stand with Jesus –
even though their actions and policies
seem far removed from his teaching …
but what Jesus means to us,
and what titles and names we might use
to describe his influence on our lives,
and the way we might begin
to tell the story of his life
probably wouldn’t look too much
like those early chapters in Matthew.

So – Christmas is almost over …
I promise not to mention Borg and Crossan again –
until maybe Easter …
but let me leave you
with a question for 2017:
Who is Jesus Christ for you today?
How can you tell your family,
or your neighbour,
or maybe more significantly,
how you tell yourself
what the baby born in Bethlehem
means to you
and to the world you live in?