“Christmas according to Matthew”
The First Sunday of Advent (December 2, 2018)
Those of you who are liturgical purists out there might have gasped when you saw the sermon title, “Christmas according to Matthew.” “It’s not Christmas yet, Bart!” you might remind me. Yes, you are correct. And yes, there is something to be said for restraining the urge to jump to Christmas during Advent (it’s hard enough for do Advent well in the flurry of consumerism and because they’ve been playing Christmas music on the radio since the day after Halloween), but Advent is, at least in part, a season of preparation for the coming of the Messiah—both two millennia ago and at the end of time. So for the four Sundays of Advent we will explore the unique emphasis that each of the gospel writers puts on the coming of the Messiah, the Christ. Think of each of the four gospels as having its own “flavor” in presenting who Jesus was. We’ll follow the order of the gospels in the New Testament, beginning with Matthew.
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. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
“Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel,”
which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Madeleine L’Engle, the author of A Wrinkle in Time, wrote a poem entitled, “The Risk of Birth: An Advent Poem.” The first stanza reads:
This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late.
This is no time for a child to be born.
Each year as churches around the world rehearse the birth of Jesus, it seems they do so against the backdrop of calamity. Have you noticed that? There’s often a stark contrast between the Christmas story and the sort of world in which we live; the story shines a piercing light into the darkness. Leading up to Christmas you have Advent, which is the most honest season on the church calendar. By that I mean, Advent tells the truth about the kind of world we live in because it tells the truth about the darkness. The readings in the lectionary have an apocalyptic ring to them. The songs and prayers play with those themes of despair and hope, darkness and light. And, at least in the Northern Hemisphere, the days grow shorter and the nights grow longer; there is more darkness, which is also metaphorically true if you watch the news.
Just scanning the headlines… There is civil war and famine in Yemen (a conservative estimate of 85,000 children died this year alone). Agents of the Federal Government tear-gassed refugees. These refugees, these people seeking asylum are fleeing extreme poverty and violence, a mess that our society and our government has to some extent helped create. And locally, another person is dead, this time a deputy marshall, because of an angry, troubled person with a gun, a man with a gun. The list goes on…
And on top of that big-picture darkness is what many people here this morning struggle with: jobs that are stressful; loved ones who are ill or dying; being stretched beyond capacity with all that you have on your plate these days; a persistent, sustained dread over the state of things.
And yet, and yet… we tell the story again, the story of a baby born in a complicated set of circumstances. Mary is in trouble. Joseph is resolved, but perhaps heartbroken and confused and worried. Even in the midst of all this, Matthew tells us, being a righteous person, Joseph is still trying as hard as he can do to the right thing. Matthew writes a lot about that, by the way: righteousness. The just thing for Joseph to do would have been to break off his betrothal to Mary and cast her out (the just thing according to the law, that is). But he chooses to do so quietly so as to not risk public humiliation for either of them (he chooses a “above and beyond” kind of righteousness that includes mercy (Matthew is big on that, too). Joseph is ready to break it off, but then the dream and the angel and the divine command…
L’Engle’s second stanza:
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honour & truth were trampled by scorn-
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.
That was no time for a child to be born either.
The darkness in the world at the time of Jesus’ birth was no less profound. “The crushing grip of Rome” on Judah, a people who were under an imperial thumb once again in their history. Mary and Joseph lived in occupied territory. Galilee, where they lived, had not long before that seen rebellions and massacres. People were more or less enslaved to the imperial system. There was a chasm between the haves and the have-nots. Rome was working through a puppet ruler, a half-Jewish, tyrant of a man, Herod the Great (you may remember that in chapter after this, this Herod orders the slaughter of innocents).
Yet… in that dream the angel not only reassures Joseph that this complicated pregnancy is, in fact, a divinely orchestrated one, but that there is a greater purpose at work. Matthew, who is writing to a firmly Jewish group of early Christians, accesses their sacred memory by drawing from a story from the prophet Isaiah: “Look, the young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” Immanuel, which in Hebrew meant “God (is) with us.”That harkened back to the time of king Ahaz when Judah faced another foreign threat, when the northern Kingdom of Israel and the kingdom of Aram were prepared to storm Jerusalem. The sign of hope was that that a child would be born, likely Isaiah’s child, and that before he was able to know right from wrong, the invading kingdoms would be no more. All was not well after that, though; the Assyrians came later to siege Jerusalem and haul its residents into exile to Babylon and it is from there, even there in captivity, that Isaiah had the conviction to speak of Immanuel, “God (is) with us.”
It’s with that same conviction that Matthew, writing to a community of Jesus-followers who lived to see Jerusalem sacked and the temple destroyed yet again, dares to tell the story of Emmanuel, “God is with us.” That’s what Matthew aims to do, in fact, is to tell in his gospel the story of God’s power and presence come among us in a new way, of God among us in the Messiah in a way that we did not, could not expect. That with-ness bookends the whole gospel: it begins with Emmanuel and ends with Jesus commissioning his disciples: “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations… teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matthew 28)
The third and final stanza in L’Engle’s poem:
When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on the planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn-
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
When is the time for love to be born?
In each of those seasons—in Judah 2,000 years ago, in Babylon in the 8th Century 700 years before that, and in the here and now—the sign of Emmanuel, the signs that God is with us come in small packages. The signs are not gargantuan or dramatic or teflon; they are often small, undetectable, and even vulnerable. Like when a loved one holds a hand in a time of trouble. Or when a church opens its door to strangers from Central America, and when people sit down at table together and look people in the eye, human to human. When we can be humans together in the midst of infinitely dehumanizing systems.
In these small instances, when people embody God-with-us, then, to quote L’Engle, “Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.”
May it be so.