In such a child as this...
Olia is two months past her expected birth date, but was born much earlier. We met for the first time a few nights ago, and I was inspected by calm dark eyes which felt far older and more knowing than I expected. She sat up straight in her sister's arms like an icon Christ child. In such a child as Olia, all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell. (Col 1:19)
In such a child as this...
Think for a moment or two about your recollection of the Christmas story...
We tend to blend the Christmas story from Luke and the Christmas story from Matthew into the one story. There is some sense to this: they both speak of a child born at God's command— a child conceived by the Holy Spirit, a child who is descended from David. Each gospel tells of the birth of the Messiah.
But they are also two quite different stories. I think we tend to read the story from Luke, which is one of the gospel readings set by the Lectionary for today and tomorrow, and we import a bit from Matthew; mostly just the story of the three Magi at the manger. And this means that on Christmas cards, and in much popular art,
• Jesus is born at night because of the story of the shepherds,
• it's serene like the Carol Silent Night,
• the animals are gathered around the manger, (that detail got its big boost from St Francis' nativity scenes over a thousand years later)
• and the three Magi or Wise Men, arrive on their camels. (Actually Matthew doesn't say three, and he says nothing about camels.)
The thing about Luke's story is that it portrays the power of God over all that is happening in the world. Caesar has called a census of all the world— something Jewish people often understood to be a kind of idolatry— and all Caesar achieves is that he gets the Messiah to Bethlehem just in time to be born as scripture had foretold; God is in control.
But when we read Matthew on his own, we enter the stark and often terrible world in which his people lived.
So tonight we are going to hear the story of Jesus' birth and then what happens after that, according to Matthew. Let's listen to Matthew 1:18 – 2:18
18 Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet:
23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel’,
which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
2In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, 2asking, ‘Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.’ 3When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; 4and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah* was to be born. 5They told him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 “And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.” ’
7 Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.’ 9When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. 11On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. 12And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
13 Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’ 14Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, 15and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I have called my son.’
16 When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. 17Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah:
18 ‘A voice was heard in Ramah,
wailing and loud lamentation,
Rachel weeping for her children;
she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.’
Jesus is born into a world where if you were pregnant by someone other than your husband you had a good chance of being stoned to death.
Jesus is born into a world where the army could come over the hill on the whim of a puppet king and massacre all the children of the district. (For those who are picking up the similarities in the Gospel of Matthew between Jesus and Moses, here's another one: in Matthew's Christmas story, all the boy children are being killed, just as in Moses' time.)
Jesus is born into a world where you flee for your life from the tyrant in power, and cross the desert or the sea, to an uncertain future, possibly to be imprisoned.
This is our world. We imprison refugees. Once, when I said in a Christmas sermon that if Jesus' family had fled to Australia we'd have put them in prison, I was heckled from the congregation, two people walked out, and over morning tea someone told me— and not very gently— that Prime Minister Howard was doing a very good thing. That was a long time ago, and we've only become more cruel and less honest since then.
Jesus was born into a world that was on edge. What would happen next? Later in Matthew, Jesus tells us what would happen next:
Wars and rumours of wars... nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places: 8all this is but the beginning of the birth pangs... false prophets... [an] increase of lawlessness, [and] the love of many will grow cold (from Matthew 24:6-12)
He was born into our world... where we are all on edge about fires, and climate, and wondering how much worse it can get, while the politicians are fiddling with other things while the nation burns, and scolding us for talking about climate change.
In our world, and in this child, "all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell." Paul says that in Colossians 1. It's why Matthew's story calls Jesus Emmanuel, which means God with us. It's why he is called Jesus, which means God saves.
He is born into our terror, our trauma, our misery, our fear. And he lives in it. What Matthew, and Luke, will show us as the year proceeds is that he goes even further. He goes to Jerusalem. He dies the worst of deaths.
This is the Messiah. This is the one who will save Israel. He will save us from our sins, Matthew says. That means he will break down the wall between God and us. Not by taking us up to heaven, but by being with us, by being God-with-us even in the worst things us suffer.
He's the one with the dodgy family tree, full of failed people like us, often people who make us look pretty good, actually. He loves them all. He loves us.
One of the carols says of Bethlehem, and of Jesus, the hopes and fears of all the years are born in thee tonight. When we folk who live in Matthew's world seek to pray, we could do worse than look at a small child and let our hearts be filled with love and hope. We could adore the child, knowing that such a flow of love shows the best of our humanity, that it heals us, and that we are indeed people made by God.
But when we look at our world into which the child Jesus is born, I think the Gospel of Matthew has a second word for us. We— we who are old— can be the child. We can be the one who is tiny, vulnerable, and terribly afraid. And to this we can add the despair which comes from being an adult who knows just how bad it can get, and who has found we are as fearful, and as immobilised, as a small, terrified... child. We can pour out our hearts to him in small words and short sentences which carry large fears: Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.
And he will, for he has been here. He is here. This is his place. He has been born into our world. He will not leave us alone. Amen.
Andrew Prior (Christmas Eve 2019)
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!