Looking in to the Warrumbungles from the southwest, 2011

It's like being in paradise...

This is a Advent 4 cum Christmas sermon written for Adelaide, in South Australia, 2019. This morning at 6am it was 95F,  (35C) a whisker under 108F at mid morning, and heading for 116. A major blaze is developing near Cuddly Creek as I write, and the NSW fires, so far, have "a total perimeter of 19,235 kilometres. That’s the equivalent distance of Sydney to Perth four times over." And the Prime Minister has finally realised that it was not a good time to take Christmas off on an overseas holiday. 

In 1990's Adelaide a mother duck used to nest in the fountain outside Police Headquarters in the middle of the city. Each year she would walk the ducklings down to the River Torrens, along the busiest street in the city centre, and across six major roads. It was a small media phenomenon accompanied by TV cameras and a police escort.  There is also a Victorian joke in the text, but the sermon is serious.

It's like being in paradise...

If you've been in the Botanic Gardens, you'll know what a beautiful place it is— walled off from the heat and the noise of the city, lush, shaded, every kind of plant. It's beautiful, and feels like... a safe place.

People have understood for a long time that if we were close to God, if God were with us, then the whole of life would be like that garden; it would be paradise; we would literally live in Paradise. That's why we have the story of Paradise, the story of Garden of Eden where God walked with Eve and Adam in the cool of the day. Paradise... is the Latin1 word used for the garden in the Greek translation of the Old Testament the people of Jesus and Matthew's time used.

The problem for us— and we've known this for a long time, too— is this thing we call sin. Sin is not some list of moral wrongs which varies according to where we live. My friend Ann, from North Carolina, married a man with family in the Barossa Valley. She said, "I can't help noticing that in North Carolina it's a sin to drink, but it's fine to smoke. In the Barossa churches, it's a sin to smoke, but wine is fine." Sin is something much deeper than that.

Sin is that much deeper thing about us which means we are separated from God. It's not that God leaves us alone or deserts us, but that something about us— so deep we wonder if it's in our genes! — means we have walled ourselves off from God; we've fallen dreadfully short of what we know we could be, and we can never get there. We are outside the garden. Life is hot, hopeless, and full of violence and fear. The idea that God is with us seems not so much untrue as completely ridiculous!

So what if you met a man who made you feel that when you were with him... you were somehow in the very presence of God, a man who made life — with all its pain, and despite all its pain — what if you met a man who made it feel like you were in the Garden again? What if when you were with him, and he left you and a friend sitting by the lake while he ordered fresh sandwiches and rosé at the kiosk, and you turned to your friend and said, "When we are with this man, it is as if God is with us!" You might even, on reflection, realise that all that sin, all that cheap nasty bitter stuff inside ourselves... that betrays our separation from God, had somehow been quelled; that you were free of it when you were with him. You might even say "He has saved us from our sins."

This is the story of Christmas. The man's name is Jesus... which means: God saves, or salvation. And he is called Emmanuel... which means God is with us.  And people the people around him were saying he was the Messiah (the one we call the Christ— it's not a surname, it's a title.) The Messiah was the great leader the people of Israel longed for. He was the one who would bring the nation back to God, and who would make it truly a land of milk and honey. He was the one who would make the nation the real "Garden State", if you like.

The problem in telling this story is that, in real life, he was a nobody— apparently. He came from what we might unkindly call "redneck country," and there were stories floating around about his birth family. Something about his mother being pregnant to someone other than his father. You see, there are always some people who don’t want the Messiah, who don’t want justice and peace and love... because... actually, they think they're doing OK as it is, and if the Messiah were to come, things might not suit them quite so well. Our sinfulness blinds us to the goodness of God for which we long.

Matthew decides to write down the story of Jesus, and like the good son of Abraham that he was, he begins with a genealogy. This is the stuff at the very beginning of the gospel which we skip over — I mean, how boring can you get: An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, 4and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, 5and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, 6and Jesse the father of King David...

It has the sort of names in it that make you hope your name is not on the bible reading roster for the day! ... and we are only a third of the way through.

But to be a son of Abraham and a son of David meant that Jesus, whether or not he was from Davoren Park— Jesus was of the right line to be the Messiah. In fact, there's a little joke in the list... because one of the titles people also gave the Messiah was... Son of David.

And there's more. When I began reading the text during the Bible study this week, I said

 Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, 3and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar—

and John interrupted me:

"Who was Tamar? That's a woman!"

... which was exactly what Matthew wanted him to do. Because women... didn't make it into genealogies, as a rule. Women were like the tiny baby, a week or two old, at the huge family reunion us Priors had a few years ago. That baby didn't get the certificate for the youngest descendant, because they were not, quote: a direct descendant, but were descended through their mother. Their surname wasn't Prior, and...  she...  was a girl.

What's more, there are four women listed in Jesus' family tree, as well as his Mother, Mary. Tamar, the mother of Perez, had an interesting pregnancy, to say the least. (Ask me over morning tea.) I've been in churches where she would not have been welcome. But in Israel, she was regarded as one of the heroes of the faith, and... she was a part of the great King David's family tree. Then there's Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. All women, all in the family tree, all Gentiles or married to a Gentile, and all with a sexual history that "nice" people don’t want in their family... and all heroes in the faith.

And that brings us to Jesus, and all the rumours about him, and his birth...

Let's hear the lectionary reading:

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.

So Mary was pregnant before she was living with Joseph. They weren't actually engaged in the way we understand being engaged. She was betrothed; she'd probably been chosen as Joseph's wife when she was eight or ten years old. To be pregnant to someone who was not your betrothed was much more serious then than it is now. She could have been stoned, perhaps even by her own brothers, because of the shame she had brought upon her family.

In planning to divorce her quietly, Joseph was quite possibly giving her... her life... in a situation where few folk would have blamed him for throwing the first stone.

In the way he tells the story of Jesus' birth, Matthew was saying to all those who wanted to say that Jesus could not be the Messiah because Joseph was not his father, and because he came from also-ran peasants not much better than Gentiles, "Why not? Look at Tamar. Look at Rahab. And Ruth. And Bathsheba, the mother of King Solomon."

And then he does something else. He says that God said, that this person, this Jesus, is conceived from the Holy Spirit. He is born at God's command. He is a sign, like the child in Isaiah so long ago, who was born as a sign that the nation would be saved.

There are a couple of cultural things going on here that we can miss, if we are not careful. The first thing is that Matthew is inviting people to remember the last time there was a child called Emmanuel— that child in Isaiah. That would be the time when the King who would not believe God would save the nation, and who was given the sign of a child called Emmanuel as a consequence— that king came to a very sad end. What Matthew is saying is, "Be very careful before you dismiss this woman on the basis of her pregnancy; people who don't listen to the signs from God generally don't do so well in life!"

And... the person in this story who was visited by an angel carrying God's message— in a dream... just happens to be called... Joseph. And it's this man Joseph who will, in the next chapter, flee to Egypt to save his son Jesus, where... eventually he will have another dream from God and Jesus will be brought home the Promised Land.   If you are Jewish you immediately think of the other Joseph in the Old Testament, who is, by the way, also in the family tree of Jesus! (Judah and his brothers...)

Now all that doesn't sound very convincing to us— in fact, we scoff at it as a way to argue something has come from God, and the whole genealogy - family line thing doesn’t sound very plausible either...

but remember the mother duck who used to walk her chicks down from Police HQ to the Torrens each year? What if there had been a series of plaques at the edge of Elder Park on the way to the Oval— one for each AFL team... a little green spot where she'd stop for a rest. And what if some reporter had noticed that each year the mother duck stopped for a rest at that spot, and that for the last three years, she'd sat on the plaque of the team that won the next Premiership? Every sports reporter in the county would be lining up to watch the march of the mother duck!

Jesus' folk would be horrified by this. They'd call it divining the spirits, and they'd laugh at us, and pity us for our naiveté, but it's the same kind of thing as the Matthew stories: a captivating and convincing cultural sign.

What Matthew is saying in this story is that:
he really is the one who saves us from our sins, and
he really is the one who means God is with us.
Pay attention.

There's one more thing to say.  Australians think Christmas is... The Day. The baby is the thing... sweet and in the manger. That's if they think of him at all.  But Matthew is saying,

"No, today— Christmas—  is just a beginning. It begins here. Walk with him to Jerusalem. Understand that Easter is not about hot cross buns and chocolate eggs, and a holiday. Easter is about living with the one called "God with us" and learning what it means to be saved from our sins And learning, and finding— experiencing, in fact, that we have begun the journey back to the garden. If we won't go with him, if we won't follow him by living like him, we won't see any of this; it'll just be story. We'll be blind to God with us. Do we want to bet our lives on where a mother duck gets tired, or two flies walking up a wall, or having a nice house and a good airconditioner... or do we want to know God with us?"

Will we trust Matthew's witness that this is the one who saves us from our sins, and this is the one who means God is with us? May God bless you this Christmas. 


Andrew Prior (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!

1. I've edited this to clarify my original text about Paradise being Latin for Garden. The following comes from the Online Etymology Dictionary

late 12c., "Garden of Eden," from Old French paradis "paradise, Garden of Eden" (11c.), from Late Latin paradisus, from Greek paradeisos "park, paradise, Garden of Eden," from an Iranian source similar to Avestan pairidaeza "enclosure, park" (Modern Persian and Arabic firdaus "garden, paradise"), compound of pairi- "around" (from PIE root *per- (1) "forward," hence "in front of, near, against, around") + diz "to make, to form (a wall)."

The first element is cognate [ generically similar] with Greek peri "around, about" (see per), the second is from PIE root *dheigh- "to form, build."

The Greek word, originally used for an orchard or hunting park in Persia, was used in Septuagint to mean "Garden of Eden," and in New Testament translations of Luke xxiii.43 to mean "heaven" (a sense attested in English from c. 1200). Meaning "place like or compared to Paradise" is from c. 1300.

As my colleague Tom points out, a Latin speaker referring to a common or garden variety garden (not sorry) would simply say: hortus. (AP)

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