Nativity Lectures 2021 (3rd and final)

Trouble from day one

The arrival of Mary’s baby is not reported in Matthew’s gospel in the usual fashion.  The closest we get to the actual birth is Luke’s chapter six. Trouble and tensions are right out in the open, from the unexpected pregnancy to what follows the birth, and they show up in the reception of the king throughout his short life. The words of the late John Lewis, US Congressman, about the necessity of good trouble are apt. That message transcends age, gender and ethnicity, and it unites humanity in the struggle for something that makes the essential steps towards making the kingdom of God felt in this age. It is an understatement to say that Yeshua had a troubled life.

While they were there [in Bethlehem], the days were completed for her to give birth.  And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

Luke 2:6-7

Matthew gives us his view of the critical events leading up to the baby’s delivery (18-25), then he passes to the visit of the magi.  The gospels were not written for storytelling sake.  Each evangelist presents a package as his personal assignment by the Holy Spirit and the evangelist’s experience dictate.  Matthew’s interest is not childbirth per se, but God’s arrival among men as their Saviour, king, and God.

The projection of the king

“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying,”

Matthew 2:1, NASB

The arrival is both delightfully surprising and exceedingly troubling. Remember the unexpected pregnancy, the couple’s anxiety, and the massive prospect of the people’s sins meeting their match in the life and death of a single person, and free of charge to the sinner.

The people’s salvation is from sin, not from Roman imperial power. It is not salvation from the passages of human life, and it is not a cyclical remembrance of them. This baby is destined to be a king who saves his people from the futility that has clung to humanity. We must think then of “his people” as all humans, in line with Abraham’s function as the father of innumerable descendants, and with Isaiah’s “Look to me, all you ends of the earth” (45:22), and Moses’ “Praise him all you Gentiles with his people (Deuteronomy 32:43). Matthew is projecting the king who troubles earthly kings (Matthew 2:1-3) and will subject them to his rule in due time. In the meantime, he has no answer to the questions of kings and heads of state. His kingdom is not of this order.

I-max picture

No brush with disappointment, no fear of disgrace, no inappropriate pride can dull the joy of knowing what Mary and Joseph came to know.  Despite raging storm of power-hungry men, careless and crooked leaders with their conspiratorial counsel against the Lord’s anointed, we know that God is with us. Despite our countless troubles, our own stumbles and falls, we know that sins are now remittable with a heavenly and permanent remedy. To stay close to Matthew’s agenda, we can put a cap on the birth story with our humility to accept that help of salvation from sins, unless,of course, we have no idea what a sin is.

Nativity Lectures 2021 [1]

The just and the innocent meet

This year’s lectures come from Matthew’s gospel and will focus attention on the behaviours of a just man and an innocent girl, two avenues of divine intervention, and the projection of the Saviour-king. I have decided to avoid the customary storytelling priority of combining the different narratives into one.

Virgin found pregnant

“Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew 1:18, NASB

The birth story here begins with an engagement gone crazy.  There is no midwife or prenatal care,  only the slightest hint of a dating life shows up here.  If you are looking for medical inspiration or a seasonal devotional boost, Matthew’s gospel is not the place.  You will especially not find a blow by blow of Mary’s or Joseph’s life and their relationships with their families, The nativity story in Matthew’s gospel begins with  a depressing disappointment and a severe challenge to a man in love.

No legal advice in sight

In a crisis of this sort a person living under the Sinai Covenant looks for an honourable answer to the question “What shall I do?” The other more particular question that presented itself was “How shall I end this”?  A man and a woman engaged to be married in Judea do not walk away in the dark of night.  An engagement has the same dignity and legal status as a marriage.  This is why Joseph thought of Mary and the public fallout that would certainly follow an official “putting away”.  Matthew uses the term apoluo, used also of divorce in Matthew 5:31, 19:3, 7, 8, 9)  He wanted to do just that: end the engagement secretly. The Sinai Covenant has no inroads here, but the prophets do.

Familiar Birth stories

The narrative of the birth of Jesus might be expected to have the issues of conception, a wedding, the preparations for his birth, insights into the wisdom of the ways of dealing with pregnancy over some portion of the nine months of gestation  It ought to have some something about the onset of fatherhood, something about labour, the delivery, the baby’s weight and stature.  Not this one.

Go on, marry your intended

Provocations, thoughtfulness,  and resolve emerge, and the answer comes in a dream, not from a scribal interpretation of the Law. The relief for both the just man and  the innocent virgin is beyond imagination.

Provocations, thoughtfulness, and justice without divorce emerge

GOD is with the just and the innocent.  The just, like the innocent and innocent, rely on their personal connection with Israel’s God.  Here are the signs that the people of New Testament times  may have had no benefit of a prophet, priest, or king advising them.  These two, Mary and Joseph,  are not face to face with God like Moses  and Joshua, but they face their life’s challenges with all the power of heaven

But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream

Matthew 1:20

 The dream comes after Joseph decides what to do, and after having thought about how to do it.  The term rendered considered signifies putting energy in (enthumeo).

A just man responding to a provocation of this kind by conceiving a wish is remarkable indeed.  The natural course is to seek to deal with the perpetrators: discover how the “damage” to one family plan occurred, assign blame, and punish the offenders.  Joseph, Matthew tells us, sets up his priorities around his love for Mary.  Perhaps in some worlds a righteous man rushes to judgment, carried by his rage and hurt.  Perhaps in other worlds, a righteous man only needs a couple of witness to mount a convincing case.  In other world a righteous man might go with what his eyes have seen; a virgin girl pregnant  A righteous might be satisfied with only a woman’s confession that she has missed a period.  A righteous man has the option of not throwing the book at alleged wrongdoing.  The just person in Jesus’ birth story is a man who decides secretly divorce his fiancee.  We dare to imagine that God cannot do the same!

The instruction package begins with ” do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife”, then it explains why the pregnancy has happened the way it has, without a male contributing to the conception.  Then the angel hands Joseph the most amazing announcement in family life, of the kind that an informed Israelite would be aware of and excited to be a part of.  Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, and Mary’s own cousin Elizabeth were barren until God changed their direction in life. Mary’s conception was a result of the Holy Spirit action, not infidelity.  It is quite certain that the husbands of these barren women were not exercised as Joseph was. 

More reason to marry than most could find

A descendant of David does not spend many days without being reminded of his relationship to the house that built the temple, and to whom an eternal throne was promised.  The grandeur of the Jewish tradition most certainly includes the remission of sins.  The temple and the tabernacle were designed to house God’s name and offer people access to the systems for the remission of sin and the restitution of any imbalance caused by human behaviour.  The news that Mary’s baby was the result of God’s Spirit and the revelation that the child was destined to save his people from their sins more than satisfied Joseph.  She will give birth and you will name the child.

“She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:20-21, NASB

Instructed by a dream

From Matthew’s account we gather the assurance that where law and sacrifice – the grounds and processes of the levitical system – might have resulted in anguish, disappointment, and even death, God is with the innocent woman and he is with the just.  God plants his intervention direction into Joseph’s dreams, distinctly apart from the political and religious status quo.

(20) But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit. (21) “She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:20-21, NASB

This change of direction is a preview of Christ’s mission. Matthew is making the gospel his axis without polemic.  His narrative shows that grace was at work in glorious and mysterious ways.  God is with the couple, and yet the narrative is not without written authority.

Nativity Lectures 2021 (2)

Divine Intervention

Holy places, holy days and ordinary day-to-day items populate the Bible story. In fact, the people of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth would probably like to be remembered as occupied with their custody of holy things. Although time was a sacred and familiar thing that is familiar to all the people, neither the hour, day, month or year appear in Matthew’s narrative. The alignment of Israel’s annual feasts with the great acts of God and the events of Jesus’ life and mission (Passover, Pentecost, Unleavened Bread, Tabernacles, and Harvest) seems incomplete when his coming into the world to be the saviour of the world has no counterpart to his departure on Passover or (Matthew 26:2, 17, 18, 19). A birthday was not on Matthew’s agenda. The writer brings us instead to the child’s holy pedigree, and the certainty of what the couple was experiencing. Who would have thought that the incredible story being told by Matthew about Mary and Joseph could have, perhaps at least, a prophetic framework?

The unprecedented holy child

“The conception is holy” must certainly mean that the operations were beyond the normal, beyond what we can expect. If the Child who has been conceived in Mary is of the Holy Spirit, then the mother and her husband are in grand company. It is no secret that childbirth is well-documented as straying away from the normal. The pregnancies of well-known women after what seemed like infertility are witness: among them are Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Samson’s mother, Hannah, and Elizabeth. Miracle babies are famous, but “holy child” suggests an entirely new horizon. Of course, all the miracle babies are special and unique, but this is the first time that the mother-to-be has never had sexual relations, and the expectant parents receive instruction about the child’s name. The fingerprint of grace and justice – targeted – at Mary – is unprecedented with the prospect of people’s sins being remitted apart from the animal sacrifice procedures, because a Davidide was not going to be serving as a priest in the system Mary and Joseph knew.

NAME THAT MALE-CHILD SALVATION

Joseph and Mary knew the baby was going to be male. They knew that the baby was going to have a name that tells what his function in the world would be.  Joseph could not feel the usual pride of having an heir as do Israelite men with an interest in the continuation of their name. Every male wants a male heir, even though inheritance of property and prestige was not restricted to males (See Numbers 36 for the innovation of women’s inheritance rights). Abraham obviously felt that pride when Isaac was born: he had an heir. This was not Joseph’s experience. His genes had nothing to do with this yet unborn baby called salvation, but it makes sense that “taking the pregnant betrothed Mary to be his wife” demonstrated Joseph’s opportunity to take up and put on one of the most complex instances of the paternal mantle. Furthermore, Scripture calls the couple “his parents” (Luke 2). Joseph’s parental role appears in that anxious moment when Yeshua, at age twelve, talks to Mary and Joseph about the temple as his father’s house” (Luke 2:49). Yeshua is to be pictured “in submission to” his parents.

“She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

Matthew 1:21

The facts as they occur, along with the dream instructions, give the couple confidence, but there is more on that score. At some point, Mary and Joseph are fully aware that a new era was dawning from her contact with John the Baptist’s mother Elizabeth. More reason to be thrilled at their distinction as caretakers of God’s anointed Saviour of his people from their sins comes from the prophetic legacy. Here was more evidence on which to proceed with caring for the child.

Still we have no birth story. Matthew reports the marriage of Yeshua’s mother as Joseph complies with the angel’s instructions in the dream, telling us  “Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife,” (Matthew 1:18-24, NASB)

The certainty of the events

Yeshua’s birth comes in a prophetic envelope. There are the already-mentioned women who had children after it was established that they were infertile, but all these developments are part of the fulfilment of predictions. Matthew presents two from Isaiah, (A) virgins have babies and B) a baby named “GOD-WITH-US”. Predictions have a way of outlasting the people who first hear it, and prophetic intervention is not always welcome. Take the experience of Moses, Jeremiah, Micah, Ezekiel, and John the Baptist, who all knew what it means not to receive the respect of their countrymen (Matthew 13:53, Mark 6:4, John 4:44).

22) Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: (  23) “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” 

Matthew 1:22-23

John the Baptist’s parents ran into questions about naming their child off the beaten trail. Naming a child “Salvation” and accepting his presence as God’s presence breaks new ground, the very ground that will lead to Golgotha, death, and resurrection. “A created being” cannot be God, was the rebuttal of the leaders of Judaism at the time. A man cannot be even “son of God”, and God cannot be the father of one human being, and a man cannot be the salvation of people. Israel’s ancient redemption is said to be paid for by the giving up of Egypt, Saba and Ethiopia. But the disciples of Yeshua would come to know that redemption is connected with the giving of a life (Colossians 1:14, Galatians 3:13).

Christmas and Reckoning with Yahweh’s ways

Far from the shopping and presents, far from the bustle of neighbours, far from the tinsel, evergreen trees, and family dinners, Christ was born in an unlikely place, practically not welcome. Our reflection on the Christ-child, whether daily or at this season, brings us to consider what treasures could there possibly be for us in the strange ways and unusual events that surround the grand event. There are those who might perhaps ask why is there a day, without biblical foundation, celebrated as the birthday of the king of kings. There are three days in the year when Israelites used to gather in Jeruslaem to celebrate various acts of Yahweh. It cannot be an accursed thing if the rulers of our nations have enacted laws creating three statutory holidays, each connected to the acts of Christ. Good Friday and Easter Monday can be related to the Gospel or to the Biblical Passover (which is an eight-day festival by the way), and Christmas day, although having roots in the annual solstice, bears the Lord’s name. If at all one deems it an unclean thing one might recall that contact with unclean people and food in exile was an essential part of Israel’s correction. When ways are logged one will find that human ways and God’s part. When he zigs, we zag. When he is busy up opening doors we slam them shut. The Christ-child concerns will be seen to accentuate the difference between God’s ways and ours, and a healthy and beneficial relationship with the newborn king will revolve around the preparation, the light, the correction.

THE WAY OF PREPARATION

And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, Luke. 1:76

As it is written in Isaiah the prophet, “Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way, Mark. 1:2

The preparation of which John speaks begins with repentance, a change of mind, so that the things of Christ will come into focus and not be drowned out by the things from one’s tradition.

THE WAY OF DAYLIGHT

Compared to the work and the person of Christ the previous messages and arrangements are a dark night.  He eclipses the lights of Israelite history as handily as pardon and grace outshine the condemnation of the Law

knowing (a) we have been stumbling on our journey and (b) injuring one another on an ill-advised warpath a change had to come and the visit in tender mercy meets the need.

[because of the tender mercy of our God, whereby the sunrise shall visit us from on high Luke. 1:78] to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke. 1:79

THE WAY OF PEACE

Peace has been elusive even when it was the common interest we could not avoid.  The king’s messenger had the assignment to create a living connection to peace and not merely intangible atonement such as one gets from animal sacrifice. Violence and oppression have lingered in the air since the first homicide. They have accompanied all the crises in the Israelite experience. When given the resources humans have taken peace away from their neighbours and their own communities.

to guide our feet into the way of peace.” Luke. 1:79b

THE WAY OF CORRECTION

Correction was necessary since someone had been messing with Yahweh’s ways. Christ lumps his predecessors into a bag of robbery. Every human being, leaders and followers, is involved in robbing Christ of the glory due him.

For this is he who was spoken of by the prophet Isaiah when he said, “The voice of one crying in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord; make his paths straight.’”

Matthew 3:3

A confession that “We have been going down wrong roads” is in order, if people know anything about God’s call to holiness and human nature.

The entire generation in which John and Yeshua lived was characterized as crooked and perverse. Our generation is not less crooked and perverse. It is more so. Coming to the manger is secondary to coming to the cross. We can fill up the joy of living by accepting the coming of the Saviour into the world and by coming to the cross. Both movements are treasured by people in the modern era and this could not be said of the times of Christ’s arrival and crucifixion.

We Prepare Yahweh’s Ways by renouncing the crooked and perverse things we have inherited and embraced.

The Cult of the Cross and the Living Truth

The spectacle of an innocent man being dragged off to die at the hands of the guilty cannot be repeated and we cannot recited ot often enough, even though as we start sending greetings about the Babe of Bethlehem the last thing on our minds may very well be the cross and the way it opened up for humanity.

A lot of cute things can be said and sung about Merry Christmas and Feliz Navidad in addition to the substantial recognition of the profound ring of fire that attended the birth of Christ. A lot of tables and appetites will be dedicated to the thrills of the season and even the serious moments of reflection can become a self-centered satisfaction of acquiring a ticket to heaven or even miraculous power.

The public life of the light from Nazareth is brief – a mere 3 years, yet it is the choice of Galilee that informs us most accurately about the contrasts between the darkness and the great light.  Take a look at an old man’s witness if there are lingering doubts that Christ brought a refreshing and effective way to relate to God. 

A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of thy people Israel.

Luke 2:32

To lighten the Gentiles was never a Jewish goal.   The barriers thrown up to make Gentiles 2nd class (or worse) followers of Moses are too numerous to mention.  A Saviour, even one born of David’s lineage, could not possibly be from (be a resident or have grown up) in Nazareth.

Thousands of gallons of the blood of bulls and goats after the atonement services began there is no sign that there is any lighting up for a Gentile. God has not asked Gentiles to be anything but light. It is our heritage to stand with the cult that remembers the cross as the smoking gun of Christmas.

Babes in managers do not save the world, neither do scribes of the law, or fundamental followers of Moses and the patriarchs.