The Rev. Dr. C. Steven Teague, Rector
Fourth Sunday of Advent
Close your eyes. I warn you, don’t fall asleep! Imagine you’re walking into the church for the children’s Christmas Pageant. You hear this year’s pageant will be different. “How dare they change anything,” you think, “Jesus just better be born in King James English tonight.” After the opening carol, a teenager comes out and announces: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.” No – that’s wrong. It begins: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.” Everybody knows that.
According to tonight’s pageant, the first Christmas was nearly a bust. Joseph’s learned Mary’s pregnant, but not with his child, a scandal. Joseph decides to call off the marriage, but not publicize why and humiliate Mary. After all, he’s a decent man.
A light comes up, revealing an angel stands who by a bed where the manger normally sits. The angel taps a child asleep on the bed on the shoulder, “Don’t be afraid.” When an angel tells you not to fear, you probably should. The angel tells Joseph God’s plan. Joseph rubs his eyes – and says he’ll do just that. Then “mini” Joseph runs stage right yelling – “Mary, we’re back on. Don’t return the gifts.” The light dims, and the reader says the child’s been born. That’s it – no angels, manger, shepherds, and no cattle lowing. This pageant’s a dud. It’s spicy and racy, maybe but it’s not the real story. The real story is that Matthew and Luke are the only two gospels stories of Jesus’ birth. They serve as preludes or overtures pointing to this child and who he truly is. Both give us important clues. Each sees the same event differently, and has something different to tell us. We’ve become comfortably familiar with Luke’s version, and may forget Matthew contributes more than the magi’s journey to the crèche. So before you fold up your program, and go home grumpy, let’s see what Matthew says between his lines.
In Matthew Joseph overshadows Mary. He gets an angel visit, not her. He’s asked to trust God’s plan, not Mary. Matthew wants us to know Joseph has an important role in this story.
Next, let’s name the elephant in the crèche – the Virgin Birth. First, it’s not a virgin birth, but a virgin conception. At the time of Jesus’ birth, Augustus Caesar was considered to be a messiah type, too, a king anointed by his god. Jesus is another king – but entirely different from other kings. Matthew hints with the virgin birth piece that he’s superior to the emperor. His coming to be is more miraculous. Jews who followed Jesus agreed. However, let’s not get sidetracked with biology. What’s at stake here is destiny; not how Jesus gets here, but who this child is and what his life means. The virgin birth alerts us that God is uniquely present in this child, fulfilling ancient promises of sending a messiah. For Matthew what we believe about Jesus is far more crucial than what we believe about his momma and his birth. In fact, the early Christians took the claim of a virgin birth to signify the human nature of Jesus, not the divine. Matthew is saying in a poetic fashion that God is uniquely and differently present in this child, incarnate – fleshy.
Another hint – the angel calls Joseph, “Son of David.” Joseph knows he is, but we don’t. Israel is told the Messiah would be in the line of David. Joseph adopts Jesus into the House of David. And Jesus is even born in David’s hometown. Interesting – since Joseph participates, Jesus officially now connects into David line. He can be messiah.
But this Messiah is unlike David. Jesus’ name means, “God saves.” Joseph names him as he says he will, “Jesus.” Jesus is a nickname for Joshua, like Moses’ brother, another hint. The Jews hearing Matthew will associate Jesus with the Exodus. Jesus is a like new Moses, saving us from the wilderness of sin, conflicted egos, failures, even death. In Jesus God frees us from anything that separates us from God. Now we can receive the God who comes in Jesus.
And then there’s the quote from Isaiah that points us right to God’s coming. In the days of Isaiah’s prophecy, a child already in the hopper will be born and named Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Immanuel is a sign to a war-ravaged Israel that God hasn’t forgotten them. Jesus is like a new and different Immanuel. This one comes for all people, and he will establish God’s peace. But God’s peace with us is different than the peace the Jews expect. For them the Messiah will use the sword to defeat enemies and establish peace – like Rome has done. Unexpectedly God comes in Jesus to save us and to be with us, forgive our sin, love us and teach us to love each other, even our enemies – not wage war and violence against anyone. That’s the saving Jesus does. God didn’t just come to hang out with us because we’re so wonderful and fun to be with – we can be quite the contrary. God comes with a mission – to transform us and make us into a people who will establish the peace of the Lord. He’s come to be with us – but then we must ask are we with him?
Christ is with us all along, not just at Christmas. In him God’s plan is to have us bear his life in ours. We are made into signs of divine presence for this world. As Jesus loves all – sinners and enemies, emperors and Wall Street bankers, we are to do likewise. He might nudge some to go feed the hungry, not just bring cans to church. We might help the homeless find shelter in the winter. We might visit prisoners, help them earn GED’s and learn job skills. If he’s “Immanuel,” God is with us to stop prejudice – racism, sexism, and all other demeaning –isms that diminish the dignity of every human being. If we’re with God we might be called to help children who’ve lost their dreams dream again. If we’re with God, He’ll take us into unexpected places, in unconventional ways, to the most unlikely people. That’s what Christmas means. So be careful if you commit yourself to being with Jesus. He wants you with him, and when you are, he’ll change you.
For Matthew Christmas is more than a pageant, angels winging over flocks by night, and shepherds abiding in fields. He story may not make an exciting pageant. But he says something we need to hear. Christmas is God coming to be with us in Jesus; and we invite Christ to come and abide with us and in us, as the carol says. We worship a new king, God’s messiah who bears Christmas gifts of divine love and never failing love. Christmas is a crisis. We must decide. Who will we choose to rule our lives – God or Caesar?
There you have it. That’s Matthew’s story and he’s sticking to it. So, Merry Christmas, from Matthew.