Last Wednesday, on Christmas Day, we celebrated the coming of God in Jesus Christ into this world. This is one of the great feasts of the Christian year and we longed for it during the season of Advent. As with all good things but especially with Christmas, we can’t wait till we have it, and open our presents a bit earlier, which sometimes means we run the risk of having had our Christmas joy before we reach Christmas day: we have heard the carols too often, seen too many Christmas stables, and have had way too much chicken, turkey, mulled wine, chocolate, mince pies and other delicious foods and drinks. It is not for nothing that Dry January, the month January without alcohol, has become more and more popular in recent years. Nonetheless, this feasting, that I always try to engage in as much as possible, is a great way to express our joy about Christmas, when we celebrate the unique event that God came into this world.
However, sometimes our extensive feasting leads to a situation in which the uniqueness of this event and its meaning move to the background. It is partly for this reason that some in the Church of England have decided to celebrate Christmas starting on December 25th, till the 2nd of February, when we celebrate Candlemas: The presentation of Jesus in the temple when he is forty days old. This means: you are a very good Anglican if you buy the Christmas products that are currently in the shops with huge discounts! And you can eat Christmas snacks till the 2nd of February! If that doesn’t get you through January and makes you love the liturgical year, I don’t know what can. But even more importantly: This also gives us more time, to try and grasp what God’s coming in this world means. This is also the meaning of Epiphany season that many other churches including this church observe, and I am sure that you can still have Christmas snacks during that as well. Today we will focus on Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus and try to understand more about God’s revelation in Jesus Christ.
The Context of the Gospel
Matthew starts his Gospel with a genealogy, a lists of Jesus’ ancestors, which is followed by our reading of today: eight brief verses about the conception and birth of Jesus. Then Matthew goes on to describe the visit of the wise men, the murder of the innocent children in Bethlehem, the flight to Egypt of Joseph, Mary and Jesus, and their return to Nazareth after Herod has died.
The Gospel reading of today tells us of Mary, who is found pregnant from the Holy Spirit, and Joseph who decides to leave her but who is told in a dream not to do so. Instead he is to marry her and become the earthly father of the child. Joseph is to name the child Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins. Joseph obeys and Jesus is born from Mary.
The Messiah according to the Scriptures
Today I want to reflect on one aspect of this story that forms and shapes Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus. It is striking how many references Matthew makes to the Old Testament. In the two opening chapters of Matthew, there are about 6 quotations from the Old Testament, and the genealogy emphasizes that Jesus is the descendant of Abraham and David. The birth of Jesus itself is embedded in the prophecy of Isaiah: A virgin shall conceive and bear a son and shall call him Immanuel: God with us. We, 21st century Christians may wonder why the Old Testament is so important for Matthew, and to be honest: I myself often tend to ignore the Old Testament, because it is sometimes difficult to relate to and has so many awkward stories.
But New Testament writers emphasize the relevance of the Old Testament. One of the most important examples of this is when in Luke’s Gospel the risen Jesus explains to two of his disciples on the road to Emmaus everything about himself in Moses and the prophets. (Luke 24:25-27) It is also repeated by Paul (1 Corinthians 15:3, Romans 1:2) and over and over again by the early church. This sentence ‘according to the Scriptures’ made its way into our creed, which you may note when we will confess our faith in a few minutes. But why is it relevant that Jesus is not only the one God-man, but that he is also the promised one, the Messiah, according to the Scriptures? I am going to suggest three reasons for this:
First, it shows us the identity of God.
It shows us a God who, as the Old Testament over and over repeats: cares for us with ‘steadfast love’, He is the faithful one, even when His people turn their back on Him. It shows us that God loves his people and that the promises He made through Moses and the prophets to His people, and indeed to us, can be relied upon, even though we may often feel like it takes so long. It took very long for the people of Israel: After the return from Babylon to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the temple it takes more than 400 years before God in Jesus Christ, the promised Messiah, returns to His temple.
The coming of Jesus in human history shows that God is not like other gods. While the Babylonian gods created human beings to do the heavy work for them, and the Greek and Roman gods were sitting on a mountain, the Gospel presents us a radically different approach: Jesus is not God on a cloud, or God on a mountain, but God with us.
Second, God works through a messy human history.
Matthew makes clear by his genealogy that when God chooses to become man in the human history of Israel, He adopts a messy human history that is full of pain and suffering. Starting from Abraham, the slavery in Egypt, the journey to the promised land, David’s monarchy that is full of failing kings, the dramatic deportation to Babylon, the return to the land, and more recently under the oppression of Greeks and Romans. There is a lot of suffering in this, which may be caused by their failing to obey God, but it still is suffering.
This is problematic, but at the same time tells us that the Gospel, and indeed God, does not ignore or avoid the difficult questions of pain and suffering, but comes in the midst of it. Jesus came and shared in a very real human history, and shared in the pain and suffering of human beings. To be clear: I am not trying to give an answer to why bad things happen, but to point out that the Old Testament has a long tradition of people struggling with bad things happening, and Matthew includes that in the story of Jesus.
Third, God works in, through and with messy people.
In the church we often focus on the saints, the great heroes of the faith as examples to encourage us. This is a very good thing and I myself find their example often inspiring. But sometimes, and especially when you are someone that is new in the church, we can be intimidated by the saints and the heroes, or by the people around us that seem to know everything. Then there is one final thing that Matthew tells us: These ancestors of Jesus are often of very mixed reputation, and especially the heroes, like Judah, David and Solomon, are involved in stories that emphasize that they are very human and failing people. Sometimes it may be encouraging to read their stories, and to know that Jesus does not avoid failing people, but embraces them and works in, through and with them. Part of our Christian life is to realise (to our frustration) that we are much more similar to these failing people than we like.
These are uncomfortable conclusions: Because we often prefer God to be on a cloud or a mountain: to be the strong and mighty God and our saints to be perfect examples of Christian love. But the meaning of Christmas and the core of Christianity is that God became a man like us to be with us, in a history of sinners and surrounded by sinners, to restore them and us to what human beings were meant to be. And the answer for what that means can be found in today’s New Testament Lesson.
Paul tells us here that because God became man in Jesus Christ, we can become children of God through adoption, and can call God Abba Father. Paul uses Abba, the Aramaic word for father, to a Greek-speaking audience, and some commentators think this is early Christian liturgical use of the way Jesus in his earthly life addressed God. It signifies that we, adopted as children of God, may address Him in the same intimate way as Jesus did. It also suggests that it reflects Jesus relationship with his Father rather than our own relationship with our earthly father.
So what does it mean that God became man in Jesus Christ, and did so according to the Scriptures? It tells us the story of a God who cares for the people He has made and keeps them in His steadfast love, no matter how often they turn their back on him. It also tells us the story of God with us: God becoming man, in a messy human history, full of flawed people, and who uses this messy history, and these flawed people to reveal himself.
It is the amazing story of the living God who longs for us, and who now invites us to His table, to be fed by the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ. To become through Him what we are intended to be: sons and daughters of the God we can call Abba, Father.