It sounds like Matthew is getting into the status game. He is establishing Jesus credentials at the beginning of the Christmas story. Matthew's Christmas story takes the whole two chapters at the beginning of his gospel, not just today's short reading. It begins with the genealogy of Jesus the Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham. And Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and so it goes on. Just the sort of thing you do when you really want to establish the credentials of somebody important. Jesus is pure Israelite; a son of Abraham and a son of David.
The problem is that Matthew includes women in the genealogy of Jesus! That just wasn't done! I guess if there had been a spectacularly successful queen like Elizabeth I of England in Jesus' family you might have put her in.
But these women are different; all four of them.
First of all there is Tamar.
Tamar disguised herself as a prostitute to get pregnant by her father in law Judah!It sounds pretty steamy, but she was in the right because Judah was not doing what God required of him. All the same, you wouldn't boast about that in your family tree.
As well as Tamer there is Rahab, also a prostitute, and a Gentile. She lived in the city of Jericho and gave shelter to the Israelite spies before Israel attacked the city.
Then there is Ruth who was also a Gentile. We know this story and love it; how she was loyal to Naomi and came back to Israel, and almost certain poverty and discrimination. But if you read carefully, it's clear that she snuck into the threshing shed at night and seduced Boaz! Lots of congregations would not think well of Ruth.
And there is Bathsheba; the wife of Uriah. David had him killed so he could have his way with Bathsheba; another suspect woman. We can be sure some folk thought she was the problem, not David!
.... and there is Mary. Pregnant out of marriage. Also not good.
There were nasty rumours about Jesus' less than perfect background during the time of the early church. So Matthew is heading them off at the pass by reminding people how these other ancestors of Jesus were less than perfect and yet were a part of God's plans for Israel.
But he is doing much much more. He is saying Jesus is one of us. Jesus is not some perfect hero too pure and distant for us to ever measure up to. He is one of us, right down to the skeletons in his closet. He is a person like us.
That's the first thing about Matthew's Christmas. Jesus is one of us.
The second thing is that this is all part of God's plan. God causes the birth. God comes to Joseph in dreams and directs him and warns him. God warns the wise men away from Herod. And there is a chorus all through the story: "All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet."
That's the second thing about Matthew's Christmas. God has planned this and is bringing it to pass. Jesus is from God. Emmanuel means "God with us."
There is a third thing about the Christmas story from Matthew.
It's grim. No angels singing. No cute little shepherd boys in tea towels. No adoring lambsies gathered around a sweet and clean manger. All that stuff comes from Luke and St. Francis of Assisi and children's stories on Christmas day. We are a long way from Matthew's Christmas in Australia. (The image is from Martin Sharp Australian b.1942)
A star— probably a comet; a loose cannon in the sky; unpredictable; its own master, Gwyn called it the other day— has risen at Jesus' birth. The universe knows.
Wise men from the East have seen the sign. Even those who are far off have understood that God has begun to act; it's like the rumours when the children arrive in Narnia: "Aslan is on the move!"
And Herod knows. Herod is worried. There is no way Herod will worship Jesus. Herod sees a competitor and seeks to rub him out. There are no historical records of the massacre at Bethlehem, but it is perhaps the truest part of the story! Many of the powers-that-be do not want the gift of God; they want to rule earth, and will do whatever it takes to stay in power.
God is having nothing of it. Jesus is taken out of harm's way... for a time... until it is his time to die.
That is the third thing about Matthew's Christmas. Jesus has a mission and it will be done.
Some of my friends are in deep mourning this Christmas after a sudden death in their family. The appalling situation in Syria drags on. The reports from South Sudan and the Central African Republic grow worse. Here in Australia the government is mounting a wholesale attack of human rights, further privileging the rich, victimising the poor; the closing of Holden's factory will be liberation for its workers, the Prime Minister said!
Where is the joy of Christmas in all this?
I am drawn to a painting by Luc Olivier Merson. It's called the Flight into Egypt.
It's dark. Joseph and Mary are exhausted and completely alone in a foreign place; vulnerable.
Perhaps Mary was feeding the child, but she has fallen asleep.
She sits between the paws of a Sphinx, and the child is awake, peaceful, and happy.
In ancient mythology the sphinx was a fearsome ferocious beast; a power; we could think of it as a White Pointer of the Desert! In Egypt though, the Sphinx was benevolent and used to guard temples.
Merson has seen the gospel. He has seen Matthew's Christmas.
Yes, the smaller powers, the politicians, disease, death— all these are against God, against God's Messiah, and against us. We suffer.
But the great powers? They know. They see the Christ for who he is. He will not fail. Not only is he one of us, but the universe is on his side!
Understand this about Christmas, says Matthew. Beneath all the froth and trivia, and beyond the pain and tragedy, the way of God will be done. The petty powers have no power in the end. Messiah has come. It will be done.
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!
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