The Drama of Christmas
In our day there is a cultural and social battle over the meaning of Christmas. The battle has extended from the schoolyard to the courtyard. However, the battle over Christmas has not only impacted schools and public places. The struggle over the meaning of Christmas has impacted the church.
However, the struggle to understand the significance and meaning of Christmas is not a new one. It was a struggle between the writers of the New Testament, as they each approached the Incarnation with their own impressions.
Mark doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus. It is almost as if Jesus simply appeared on the face of the earth.
Luke’s gospel is where we usually like to spend the holiday season. Luke’s gospel is full of angels, and angelic choirs. Luke speaks of "Peace on earth and good will toward men." Luke pictures, for us, peaceful shepherds from the peaceful fields on a peaceful night visiting the Prince of Peace.
John speaks metaphorically of the birth of Christ. He talks about Jesus being the Word of God. He tells us that Jesus came and set up camp among us and has shown his light to mankind.
Matthew has none of those pictures. There are no angelic choirs, no pronouncements of peace, no saving light. Matthew presents what Fred Craddock calls "the hard side of Christmas." But in a world that is getting increasing smaller and tremendously more urban, its message may be more relevant to us than the others for Matthew has a Christmas message for the city.
Matthew provides the birth narrative of Jesus in five dramatic scenes. These five scenes present the gospel message for the city.
1) A Tour of The Graveyard - 1:1-17
Matthew begins the story of Christmas with a tour of the graveyard.
A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ the son of David, the son of Abraham: Abraham was the father of Isaac,
Isaac the father of Jacob,
Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers,
Judah the father of Perez and Zerah, whose mother was Tamar,
Perez the father of Hezron,
Hezron the father of Ram,
Ram the father of Amminadab,
Amminadab the father of Nahshon,
Nahshon the father of Salmon,
Salmon the father of Boaz, whose mother was Rahab,
Boaz the father of Obed, whose mother was Ruth,
Oved the father of Jesse,
And Jesse the father of King David.
David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife,
Now, I can understand if your heart was not stirred by these few verses of scripture. I know that genealogical tables are not usually electric with homiletical gems. However, in these verses, most of which do read something like a phone directory, we have the theological stage set for all the rest of Matthew’s gospel.
The first thing that we notice during our graveyard tour is that Matthew is only showing us select stones. He, being not at all concerned about the thoroughness of his genealogical record, leaves gaps of up to several generations in his list. All this makes it even more special that, in the opening paragraph of our cemetery tour, Matthew takes us to four very ancient graves in the oldest sections of Israel’s burial ground.
Later in this chapter Matthew goes on to tell the story of how the virgin Mary became Jesus’ mother - a rather scandalous story. Four women, all included in the genealogy, are what Ray Bakke calls the "grandmothers of Christmas past." Both Matthew and I insist they are part of the Christmas story.
Moviemakers would give these stories an R rating. Let’s review them briefly.
Tamar; Genesis 38
(a deceptive foreign woman)
In the midst of the Joseph story, the author flashes back to reveal another side of the miraculous providence in the Joseph story. Tamar married the first two sons of Judah and outlived them both. She was denied marriage to the third son, thus breaking local Levirite marriage laws, and she was returned to her village. (As the father of two sons, I can understand Judah’s reluctance to have her "devour" all three of his boys!)
Sometime later, she decided to intervene in Judah’s life. She dressed as a prostitute and had a sexual affair with him. He could not pay her, so he left his ancient "credit card" (his signature ring with its cord and his walking stick). Later Judah heard Tamar was pregnant and ordered she be executed. When asked who the father was, she produced the "credit card," and Judah’s hypocrisy was exposed. Tamar had twins, one of whom is an ancestor of Jesus.
Rahab; Joshua 2:1-24; 6:22-25
(a foreign prostitute who demonstrates faith)
Rahab ran a hotel in Jericho. We gain insight into what type of hotel this was from James 2:25, which uses the word porne to describe Rahab. It was an urban place where lights are low and you don’t use your real name, if anyone asks your name, making it an obvious place for spies to go and hide.
When the Jericho Gestapo entered Rahab’s hotel, she hid the spies, then lied to the police and put them on a false trail. Then she told the spies of her faith in the God of Israel. She heard of the exodus and the miracles. It was obviously her faith that saved her. Nothing else could, right?
(a foreigner who God ties to His historic purposes)
Ruth’s story begins with a family, Naomi, along with her husband and two sons (whose names mean "weak" and "sickly") migrating to Moab because of a famine in Israel. The two sons marry, but soon Naomi’s husband and the two sons die. When Naomi decides to return to Israel, Ruth refuses to leave her, and returns to hostile territory.
While Ruth is never called a sinner, her culture and family tree come from Sodom. Ruth was a Moabite, the child of Lot. Lot’s daughters, afraid that they would never marry, after the escape from Sodom, got Lot drunk one night and had a sexual affair with him. Moab was one of the children from that affair. Moab was, also, one of the neighbors of Israel that continually oppressed God’s people during the period of the Judges.
Yet, despite her background, there is an Old Testament book named after her. And in the closing words her importance to God’s purposes are felt. "So Boaz took Ruth and she became his wife. Then he went to her, and the Lord enabled her to conceive, and she gave birth to a son … And they named him Obed. He was the father of Jesse, the father of David."
Bathsheba; 2 Samuel 11:1-12:25
(a foreigner who in a twisted conspiracy becomes part of God’s plan)
The genealogy doesn’t even give us her name. It simply says that she "had been Uriah’s wife."
With Israel’s middle management off at war in modern Amman, Jordan, David was clearly bored. It had been some time since he had written a song, played a harp or killed a giant. So, after playing the "Peeping Tom", he got sexually involved with a beautiful neighbor. This neighbor’s husband happened to be David’s best soldier, Uriah. Sometime later, she sent him word back at the palace: "I’m pregnant."
David initiated a plan to "take care of" this problem. First he wrote to General Joab and ordered him to send Uriah home for some R&R. If Uriah slept with his wife, perhaps he (and others) wouldn’t suspect that the child wasn’t his. But it didn’t work. Uriah, a noble soldier, refused to indulge his own pleasure while his brothers were at war.
Plan two involved a state dinner with lots of drinking. Perhaps under the influence Uriah would go home. But again it didn’t work.
In desperation, David moved to plan three. As commander-in-chief, he directed his field general to fight all the way up to the wall with Uriah at the point, then retreat quickly. This was a risky, even foolish maneuver, because all the enemy needed to do was drop rocks on the heads of those close to the wall, and they were as good as dead. It worked. Uriah never knew. David married the publicly grieved widow in a state marriage. His "ratings" doubtless went up in the polls. But a prophet exposed David’s sin. The baby died soon after birth.
Their second child was Solomon.
Now the question remains: Why are these four women in the opening paragraph of our New Testament in Matthew’s "Good News"?
Jerome in the fourth century suggested that all four women were sinners and that Jesus came into the world to save women like them. The problem with this interpretation is that all the men in the text were also terrible sinners. There must be a further word.
In a tongue-in-cheek fashion, Raymond Brown offers another idea. Perhaps Matthew provides pastoral care for Mary by bringing together all the scandalous birth stories as a kind of historical support group, because Mary was having a very difficult time explaining where her own baby came from. So "Mary, you are not alone" is the message.
Martin Luther was the first who noticed (in print) that all four women were foreigners. Two were Canaanites (Tamar and Rahab), Ruth was Moabite; Bathsheba was presumably Hittite. These texts are about missions! Stephen Neill, long-time missionary in India and mission historian, wrote a helpful book called The Interpretation of the New Testament 1861-1961, in which he amplifies Luther’s view that these women represent Matthew’s global mission concern. Neill suggest there is an international parenthesis around Matthew’s Gospel. Chapter 28 tells the disciples to go into all the world, preach the gospel and disciple all peoples. But Matthew 1 helps us remember who "the world’s peoples" were at that time. They included Canaanites, Moabites, Hittites and Jews, among others.
The inclusion of these women in the genealogy of Matthew
gives a multi-ethnic aspect to the gospel.
Matthew is making an important theological statement about Jesus. On the human side Jesus was very human. He choreographed into his own earthly body all the most theologically sinful bloodlines in the Middle East. In a very real sense, this opening paragraph smashes racism. Jesus was the mixed-racial Savior of the world. When Jesus died for the sins of the world, all the sins of every racial group in our city are included.
Look down the row to your right. Now look down the row to your left. Look in front of you and behind you. What do you see? These differences in color and feature are the Christmas message from the graveyard.
2) The Virgin Birth - 1:18-25
"Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins." (1:20b-21)
Why the emphasis on the virgin origin of Jesus, and why the emphasis on the name? The reason is that the human race could not produce its own Savior.
We are tempted to seek out other Saviors. We, as a society, have convinced ourselves that we can save our world through a variety of means. We are told that salvation will come through raised levels of education or economy, through participation in the electorate or the preservation of the environment, through racial, economic, and gender equality or through the efforts of everyone else. The problem is that we are not any closer to saving ourselves than we have ever been (It seems the more we trust in our own ability to save ourselves, the worse things get.).
The lesson we learn from Matthew:
Without the virgin birth there is no Savior.
The human race could not produce its own Savior.
That is a lesson that the next characters in our story had come to know.
3) The Visit By the Babylonian Worship Team - 2:1-12
Matthew introduces a Babylonian worship team into the Christmas story. These men are often referred to as "The Three Kings". They are also called magi.
They are also called "The Three Wisemen." I got an e-mail recently that asked, "What if it were three wise-women?" The answer was: "It wouldn’t have taken them two years to get to Bethlehem because they would have stopped and asked for directions. They would have cleaned up afterwards, and prepared some meals for the family."
What these men were was a group of stargazing astrologers who recognized that God was doing something different in their lifetime. They searched for the newborn king because they had come to pay him tribute.
The text says that they had come from the east. Tradition says that the men were from Babylon, present day Iran and Iraq.
Babylon was considered the most vile empire in the Old Testament, next to Assyria. Babylon was a perpetrator of violent and destruction. Babylon had been responsible for the destruction of Jerusalem and the demolition of the temple. Everyone with any skills, wealth or power was taken as a political prisoner to Babylon. Only the poorest and helpless were left to fend for themselves. The Babylonian empire was ultimately destroyed by the Persians, however, because it had set itself up as God.
The character of Babylon is apparent in its description, in Revelation, as the demonic kingdom, which sets itself up against God. Babylon is pictured as "the harlot", which seduces the world into sin.
The Babylonian worship team brings back the international flavor of Christmas, but it also gives us something else.
The Babylonian worship team makes
the Christmas story a reconciliation story.
Picture this: The people, who single-handedly, decimated the Jewish nation, were a global influence for moral decay, and had set themselves up as God, are the first group to send a worship team at Christmas. Something happened to restore the broken relationship between God and these people, who were so far away from Him. It was Christmas!
That is what reconciliation is, taking people in a broken relationship and bringing them back together.
What that tells me is this: "No matter how far away you believe you are from God, a restored relationship with God is as near as the Christ of Christmas."
4) The International Migrancy of Jesus - 2:13-14
"When [the Babylonian worship team] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. "Get up," he said, "take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him." So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt …" (2:13-14)
Jesus was Asian born,
and became an African refugee.
Did you, again, hear the international flavor of the Christmas story? Christ was born on the continent where 1/2 of all births occur each year. But he became a refugee on the continent that has created, because of revolution and tribal conflict, the most refugees in this century. Indeed we have an international story.
However, that is not all that we can learn from these two verses. The greatest lesson we can glean from these two verses is this:
He understands our suffering.
We are not alone. Jesus has already been there before us. He understands the trouble we are in.
Contrary to what some believe, Jesus doesn’t dwell in some ivory tower palace where all is peace and light. When he came to earth, persecution set him on the run at the moment of his birth.
Some of you are in the throws of persecution. It comes from your family, or from your coworkers, who don’t understand. They ridicule you and "they say all kinds of evil against you."
But know you are not alone. Jesus has been there before. He understands what you are going through.
5) The Herodian Holocaust - 2:16-18
"When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. The what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more." (2:16-18)
Before Jesus could die for the world,
the children died for Jesus.
Rachel became a characterization of the remnant of God during the Babylonian captivity. When Israel had essentially given up hope, God comforts her, "Rachel, they didn’t kill them all. Look, there are some left, and they are coming back to rebuild the city. Here they come Rachel."
"They didn’t get them all Rachel, One made it safely to Egypt. He’ll be safe their. Herod didn’t get Him Rachel.
"Rachel, wait! That’s not the end. Something is happening in the tomb. Look, Rachel, they did kill him, but he has defeated death. Rachel, there is still one left.
"Rachel, they have left the city. The city lies in ruins. There is violence everywhere Rachel. It seems there are no longer any moral boundaries. Nation is rising against nation. So many people are lonely and isolated.
"But what is that Rachel. Look, there they are Rachel. They are coming back. They are returning to the city."
And Matthew says, "I have walked with him. I have talked with him through the lanes of Galilee. I have seen life’s chains chained, and chains broken. It is Christmas. God has come right into the midst of our tumult and shouting. And His name is Emmanuel.
God is with us. It is a miracle. It is an incarnation. It is divine empathy. It is my hurt in the heart of God. It is God coming down and pitching His tent with me, by my side, so I can feel and know His presence. In the darkest hours of my pilgrimage I can be sustained in hope.
Emmanuel. It structures the book of Matthew because we walk and talk with God among us. And then we close with the farewell address of the King, when he say, "Go into all the world and preach the gospel everywhere you go, baptize them in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Teach them to observe all things that I have left with you, and commanded. And, lo, …"
"Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel."
And, lo, [Emmanuel] I will be with you always." At your side, as you are spent, as you bow in quiet loneliness, as you feel forgotten and forsaken, "I am with you." When your home is coming apart, when someone whom you love has a terminal disease or sickness, "I am with you." I am always with you."
It is time for the Church to move once again with force in the city. It is time we return, and Christmas has given us a message for the city.