Notes for a sermon preached on the 16th November 2008 (am)
Over the years I have been to hundreds of nativity plays, and I have to say that everyone of them does a better job of it than this one. Everytime I read Matthew’s Christmas story I wonder at all the tricks he’s missed. Look at all the thing’s he’s missing:
· No discussion of Mary’s cousin Elizabeth’s pregnancy and the birth of John the Baptist
· No discussion between Gabriel and Mary – no magnificat
· No Census
· No trip to Bethlehem on a donkey
· No no room in inn
· No manger
· No shepherds and angels on the hillside
Hopeless! What’s left for the nursery children to do in their play? There’s nothing left for the mothers to cry over and the dads to laugh about. In fact, if you read it really carefully, he does the Christmas story in one verse: ‘25But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.’
But that’s to miss the point. Matthew is not really all that concerned with the story of how Jesus was born – he’s got other objectives in mind…
And that’s what our series which Noel started last week is about. Christmas is the only time we get to look at the stories usually, and the catch with that is that we cram the stories into the space of a few weeks, combining bits from John and Luke and Matthew until we get something that ressembles the school nativity, but to be honest, doesn’t really bear much resemblance to the story that the Gospel writers themselves wanted to tell, that which was important to them. Matthew’s Christmas story is different to Luke’s, which in turn is very different to John’s. We’re looking at the Gospel of John in the evening – PLUG EVENING SERVICE – and so what we’re going to do the next few weeks is look at first the Christmas story according to Matthew and then according to Luke, taking time to hear what the actual Gospel writers had to say as individuals, hearing the real story – not the amalgam that we’ve turned it into.
So what’s Matthew’s point? What’s he trying to say? In many ways, this is a Christmas story with a contemporary ring to it. I don’t think they had Heat magazine when Jesus was born, or the News of the World, but if they did, maybe they’d read something like this in the days following Jesus’ death….
SCANDAL – CLAIMS OF CULT FIGURE DISCREDITED
Our reporter on the field can exclusively reveal the shocking news that the so called Messiah, Jesus of Nazareth, not only died an humiliating death on the Roman gallows, but also had no claim to David’s line. It transpires that his mother, Mary, had been playing around even whilst engaged! Incredulous disciples have been stunned by this talk of illegitimacy whilst his opponents are delighted.
It would seem that Matthew isn’t really all that interested with the events around Jesus’ birth. He’s more interested in a scandal.
There’s nothing like a scandal to undermine the reputation and standing of a leader. Thing of Nixon and Watergate, Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky and the numerous allegations surrounding The Conservative party in the 80s and sleaze.
A scandal doesn’t even have to be founded in truth for it to have a disastrous effect. Just a hint of wrongdoing can be enough to get the gossipmongers going, distracting everyone from what is really important. A single innuendo can be enough to topple a public figure from influence and authority.
Gossip is nothing new, and the love of scandal has always been around. What is it that the writer of the Proverbs has to say in the Old Testament:
The words of a gossip are like choice morsels; they go down to the inmost parts.
The perverse stir up dissension, and gossips separate close friends.
This is why James writes sternly about how Christians should keep a tight rein on their tongues.
At the time of Matthew writing his Gospel, there was a scandal brewing. There was a rumour doing the rounds that Jesus was illegitimate. The rumour was that Mary had slept around, that Joseph wasn’t Jesus’ dad. This was bad news.
It was bad news because it gave him a bad reputation.
It was bad news because it undermined the moral authority of his teaching – or so it was thought.
But most of all it was bad news because it totally undermined Jesus’ claims.
Jesus’ central claim was that he was the Messiah, the Christ, God’s Chosen One. The Old Testament looked forward to a time when the Messiah would come and restore God’s Kingdom, put things right for God’s People. This Messiah was to be an heir to the Kingdom of David – the great King of the Old Testament – and an heir to the promises made by God to Abraham – that his descendents would make a vast nation through whom all people would be blessed. This is why Matthew starts off his Gospel with the genealogy. He is putting forward the claim that Jesus is of Abraham and Davids’ lines. BUT if Jesus was shown to be illegitimate, then his claims came crashing down around him. He might be a great teacher and miracle worker – but God’s Chosen One he most certainly was not!
Matthew makes no attempt to dodge the issue. He doesn’t pretend its not there – through Joseph he admits it. Joseph, he says, was engaged to be married to Mary, and yet while they were betrothed, she became pregnant.
First things first, Matthew makes it clear that Joseph and Mary hadn’t got impatient and decided not to wait until they were married before making love – he makes that clear by saying that this happened ‘before they came together’.
But that doesn’t really help does it. It still leaves that awkward question hanging in the air. If the child isn’t his, whose is it?
It is no surprise that as far as Joseph is concerned, that is it. Relationship is over. Mary is clearly a loose woman. Her feelings for him are clearly not as strong as he would have expected or hoped. I have to say, he is shown to be a man of great humility though and gentleness. Whilst many of us would kick up a fuss and storm out, letting everyone know what had happened (at least they do on Eastenders), Joseph decides to finish it quietly.
This still leaves things hanging awkwardly. Perhaps Mary might get away without the public humiliation from a great bust up – but it still leaves her a single Mum with an illegitimate child. Jesus’ claims are still left in tatters. The scandal still stands.
I want to go back to the genealogy for a moment. Noel did a great job last week of opening it up for us. But as he alluded last week, there is more in it than just claiming that Jesus is descended from Abraham and David. There are these four women.
· We have Tamar – who dressed up as a Temple Prostitute to trick her father-in-law Jacob into having sex with her.
· Then there’s Rahab – the prostitute in Jericho who the spies Joshua sent out to check out the land ‘visited’.
· Next there’s Ruth, who wasn’t beyond seducing Boaz – the innuendos make it clear that there was more here than being friendly – in order to make him take her and Naomi in and look after them when they were destitute.
· Finally there is Bathsheba, here simply called Uriah’s wife, who David fell in lust with and whose husband he had killed so that he could have her for his own.
At first glance this is a real rogues gallery! And then you add Mary who appears to have had an affair with someone ending up pregnant whilst engaged to the wonderful Joseph! I’ve never intentionally watched the TV programme ‘Loose Women’, but if you wanted a new panel for a show with that name, you couldn’t get much better than this!
If you were a campaign manager for someone on the election trail, you would want to cover these people up wouldn’t you, not boast about them! But Matthew is a wily character. He knows exactly what he is doing.
Each of these four stories is on the face of it a scandal – just like that of Mary – and yet the Jews in Matthew’s time had come to see these women as great heroes. Through Tamar’s actions, Jacob’s line was continued, leading to David. Through Rahab, the spies were protected, and the conquest of the Promised Land made successful, and so on. In each case, their deeds turned out for the good of God’s people. All sorts of legends and traditions grew up around each woman, and apparently another factor these stories have in common at the time of Matthew’s writing is that they see God’s Spirit being on these woman and at work through them.
Through putting these four ladies in the genealogy, before turning to Mary, Matthew is making a point. Don’t judge Mary as being scandalous – through her deeds, whatever they might seem like – good is coming for the People of God. To make the claim complete, he says that just as he was at work in these four women, the Holy Spirit is at work in Mary too – the child is not illegitimate, it was conceived through the Spirit!
How does Matthew know this – because an Angel told Joseph. Joseph had to become Jesus’ Father in order for Jesus to have a rightful claim to be seen as the Heir to David’s Throne and to the Promises given to Abraham.
Of course, this child is no mere son, but Immanuel, God with Us, and Jesus, The Lord Saves.
Is it a scandal?
Yes, but not the one that Matthew was defending against. The scandal is that God’s Son has been born, the Messiah, and yet so few will be celebrating his coming this year, but instead are distracted by the story that isn’t there and the traditions that have buried it. The scandal is that we get so wrapped up with the how he came, that we forget why he came. Now that’s a scandal!