Sunday, December 25, 2016

A Symbolic Christmas

A Symbolic Christmas
Matthew 2:1-18
            The Bible is full of symbolism.  It’s also full of symbolic language, but that’s not the same thing.  The Book of Psalms frequently uses symbolic (poetic) language, creating images that arouse our emotions and engage our imaginations. 
Symbols are things that represent other things.  Christmas cards provide good examples.  We see a crèche and think of the baby Jesus, “asleep on the hay.”  We see an odd-shaped star and think of the wise men. 
Our Scripture for today is primarily the story of the wise men, so it is more appropriate for Epiphany than for Christmas.  We’ll most likely revisit it during Epiphany to talk about the magi, but today let’s concentrate on the other major figure in the story—Herod.
If this story was set as an old-fashioned melodrama, whenever Herod came onstage the audience would boo.  He might respond by sneering or making some threatening gesture.  This is not to make light of his wicked deeds, but to create a symbolic picture.
Herod himself is a symbol.  He stands for everything evil in this story.  In the same way that the serpent represents evil in the story of Adam and Eve, Herod is the evil figure in the Christmas story.  Everyone else we meet is good.  Joseph is “just.”  Mary is virtuous.  Zechariah and Elizabeth are “righteous before the Lord.”  The shepherds are honest workmen, doing their job, taking care of the sheep.  The wise men are likely priests of a monotheistic Middle Eastern religion.  Only Herod stands out as evil.  He becomes the symbol for wickedness.
There is no doubt that he earned his title.  He was not a Jew by birth.  His family was from Edom, an area of the Middle East which is mentioned several times in the Hebrew Scriptures.  His father converted to Judaism, so Herod was raised as a Jew, but he lacked the credentials to sit on the throne of David.  He was appointed king by Rome.  Therefore, he could rule as long as he kept the peace and pleased his Roman masters.
Like Rome itself, Herod kept the peace by force rather than by caring for his subjects.  He has been described as being both depressive and paranoiac.  His actions bear this out.  He was especially nervous when it came to possible successors.  He executed anyone he felt was a threat, including his sons.  If you worried Herod your days were numbered.
Although claiming to be a Jew, he lived a lavish lifestyle unencumbered by obedience to Jewish law.  He ran afoul of the Jewish leaders, especially the Pharisees, whose slavish devotion to the law later earned them Jesus’ most damning criticism.  Still, everyone had to be cautious of complaining too loudly or too much.
It is Herod’s behavior in today’s Scripture that earns him his place as the evil entity in the Christmas story.  He tells the wise men to report back to him when they have found the child.  Although Matthew doesn’t tell us this, it should be obvious that Herod’s intent is to eliminate a rival.  When his plans are thwarted by the wise men’s dream-warning, he retaliates by slaying all the babies in the Bethlehem region.  This “slaughter of the innocents” is pure wickedness.

From the beginning evil has always been present in creation.  We don’t know why, or how, but we know evil exists.  Herod is one of a long line of evil persons in the march of history.  He wasn’t the first, and won’t be the last.  We have not seen the end of evil.  That will not occur until Jesus Christ returns.  Until then, we have to acknowledge the presence of Herod-like figures in our midst, and limit their effectiveness by doing everything we can to bring God’s kingdom to fruition.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Different Audiences, Different Stories

Different Audiences, Different Stories
Matthew 1:18-25, Luke 1:26-38
            Growing up, I heard the story of Jesus’ birth every Christmas morning.  Mom, Dad and I would sit around the tree while Dad read Luke 2:1-21.  Then, with those words as a framework, we would share our gifts with each other.  Dad always paused before reading verse 16, and said, “And here’s the verse that, no matter how you say it out loud, it doesn’t sound right.”  Then he would read, “And [the shepherds] went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.”  Pretty crowded manger.
            Matthew doesn’t really describe the birth scene.  He says (2:1), “Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king…” and launches into the story of the wise men and Herod.
            What I find interesting about the birth story happens before the actual event.  Matthew gives us important information about Joseph; Luke tells us more about Mary.  Why the different approaches?  The answer lies in the title of this piece: “Different Audiences, Different Stories.”
            Matthew’s gospel was written for a Jewish audience.  They would have been concerned with Jesus’ ancestry, especially his connection to David.  If he were to be accepted as King by Jewish converts to Christianity, his credentials would have to be impeccable.  He would have to be shown to have descended from David in an uninterrupted line.  The Jewish people already had one illegitimate king—Herod—and weren’t about to replace him, even in a spiritual way, with another king whose lineage was suspect. 
            So Matthew begins by listing Jesus’ ancestors, stating that Jesus was descended from David through Solomon.  Connecting Jesus’ earthly father, Joseph, to the Davidic line was essential.  Remember, while Joseph had no part in the conception (Matthew’s gospel makes that clear in v. 25), he was Jesus’ legal father, so his lineage was Jesus’ lineage as well.
            Luke was writing for a Gentile audience.  As far as we can tell, Luke was a Greek, a physician, and possibly a valued household slave.  He addresses both his volumes (the Lukan gospel and the Book of Acts) to a person with a Greek name:  Theophilus (God-lover).  This could have been an actual person, or a generic title representing all Greeks who loved the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition.
            What did Luke want to get across to his audience?  Jesus’ Jewishness was not a priority for him.  He gives us his version of Jesus’ genealogy much later, when he begins his account of Jesus’ ministry.  Jesus’ Jewish credentials would have been less important to Luke and his audience than the miraculous aspects of the birth story.  The angel Gabriel pays Mary a visit and tells her that she will have a child whose Father is God.  She will be impregnated by the Holy Spirit in some way that none of us can understand—nor is it important that we do.  Enough that God chose to work a miracle through this young woman.
            Luke also tells us about the visitation by the shepherds.  How did they find out about the birth?  More angels: first, one telling them about the newborn baby, then “a multitude of the heavenly host” singing gloriously in praise of the Messiah.  Luke includes other miraculous events tied to the birth of John the Baptist, but that’s another story for another time.

            So…here we have two accounts for two different audiences, Matthew emphasizing Joseph for his Jewish converts, Luke emphasizing Mary for those coming to Christianity from a pagan background.  Contradictory? No!  Complimentary.  Jesus is the Messiah for the whole world, and his story holds truth and relevance for all people.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

Who Is Correct?

Who Is Correct?
Matthew 1:1-17, Luke 3:23-38
            There are those who claim that every word in the Bible is true—no questions, no exceptions.  At the other end of the spectrum are those who claim that nothing in the Bible is true.  Most people fall somewhere in the middle.  At the heart of this controversy is an important question, the one that Pilate asked Jesus:  What is truth? 
            In today’s climate of distorted truths, half-truths/half-lies, and out-and-out lies this question might seem to have little if any relevance, but it most certainly does.  For one thing there are different kinds of truth.  I know this answer will not be received well in some quarters, but hear me out. 
There are mathematical truths, such as 1+1=2.  In our arithmetic system this is considered true.  If you have one apple, and someone gives you another apple, you will have two apples. 
There are factual truths.  J.S. Bach was born in 1685 and died in 1750. 
There are natural truths.  In our world, the law of gravity prevails.  If you throw something in the air, it will come down.
            In this light, the Bible cannot be said to be completely true.  Science and other historical documents have proved that portions of the Bible are not true in this way
But there are other kinds of truths—for example, spiritual truths.  In this regard, the Bible can be said to be completely true.  The one great truth of the Bible is that it is a record of how God interacts with humanity.  At heart, the message of the Bible is this:  God created the cosmos and everything in it.  God cares for God’s creation and loves God’s creatures.  God sent Jesus Christ to earth to provide reconciliation between God and humankind.  If we are reconciled to God, we will inherit the kingdom of God.
            Back to factual truth.  There are two versions of Jesus Christ’s genealogy in the New Testament.  The first is in Matthew’s Gospel, the second is in Luke’s.  Matthew begins his gospel with his version of Jesus’ lineage.  Luke waits until he describes the beginning of Jesus’ ministry to list his ancestors.  This is not the only difference.
            Matthew lists 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus.  Luke gives us many more—in fact, Luke goes all the way back to Adam (to God, actually).  Matthew names five women:  Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba, and Mary.  Luke mentions no women at all.  Matthew says Jesus was descended from David through Solomon.  Luke says his Davidic ancestor was Nathan.  There are other places where the genealogies don’t match up, but these are the most prominent ones, except that Matthew begins with Abraham and works forward.  Luke begins with Jesus and works backward—personal preference, I’m sure, and not something that affects the internal organization of the lists.
            So—which one is correct?  Or is neither correct?  The one thing we know for certain is that they can’t both be correct; at least not so far as factual correctness is concerned.
            At this point I should mention that some people question why we trace Jesus’ ancestry through Joseph.  Jesus was, after all, God’s Son.  Joseph had nothing to do with his conception. 
            By Jewish custom, if a man claimed a child as his, that was the end of the discussion.  By this custom, Joseph was Jesus’ legal father.
            We know genealogies were very important in Jewish families, which is why the two gospel writers who relate the story of Jesus’ birth also give us his ancestry.  We also know that Luke gives us a more accurate listing of the line of kings from David to the Babylonian exile.  Finally, we know (because he tells us) that Luke’s gospel is—insofar as it was possible at the time—a research document.  He assures Theophilus—and his other readers—that before he wrote he spoke to many people who had intimate knowledge of Jesus’ life.
            So—what is the answer to our question?  Quite likely there are factual errors in both lists, but that’s not the important point.  What’s important is that each one tells us spiritual truths, truths about Jesus which will help us understand who he is and what his background is.  Jesus was a legitimate, legal descendant of David through his earthly father, Joseph.  He was a son of the Torah and a child of Abraham.   He had every right to call himself King of the Jews—far more right than Herod, who was neither a descendant of David nor a Jew.  Jesus was indeed King of kings through his ancestry, and Lord of lords through his Father. 

What more truth do we need?

Sunday, December 4, 2016

Bookending Jesus

Bookending Jesus
Matthew 2:2-7:29
            We love to think of Jesus as a baby.  In addition to the love we naturally have for children, the birth story is so miraculous that we glory in the whole Christmas experience.  I am concerned that we spend too much time on the gift-giving part of Christmas—Black Friday has almost become a holiday in itself—but that’s one of the cultural aspects that would be difficult to overcome.  It would be so countercultural not to make a big deal about gift giving that we would be labeled Scrooges if we didn’t participate. 
            But we love all the Christ things about Christmas as well:  the carols, the beautiful worship services, the manger scenes in homes and churches.  It’s the whole experience of this special baby, born in this special way that stirs our hearts with love and joy.
            We love the Jesus of Holy Week also—the entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, the crucifixion, the resurrection.  Remembering Christ’s death on the cross and his rising again—which gives us hope for our own resurrection—is equally joyful for us.  Yes, the bookends of Jesus’ life are important, for we recognize the connection between the two events and understand their significance.
            All this is well and good, but not enough.  As momentous as the birth, death and resurrection of Jesus are, they are only part of the story.  I think Jesus himself, if he were here might say, “Wait!  You’ve missed a really important part!”
            One of my seminary professors said that if the only significant events in the Jesus story were his death and resurrection, God could have dropped Jesus from heaven onto the cross.  There must have been a reason for the 33 years between his birth and his death.  There had to be a purpose to those years—and there was.
            If you checked out the Scripture passage before you started reading this you noticed two things.  First, it’s very long—three whole chapters to be exact.  Do I expect you to read the whole three chapters?  Yes, I do!
            Second, the perceptive reader will recognize this passage as the Sermon on the Mount.  It’s Jesus’ message in a nutshell.  If you read it carefully, and digest it, you’ll understand its significance to Jesus’ ministry. 
            I remember reading a story about a young African man who became a Christian.  His pastor suggested he study the Sermon on the Mount.  Some time later the young man came back and told the pastor he’d memorized the whole passage.  When the pastor asked him how he had managed such an overwhelming task, the young man said, “It was easy.  I just went out and did what it said a little bit at a time and memorized it that way.”
            Easy, he said.  Memorized by doing, he said.  How many of us can say we’ve memorized three whole chapters of Scripture—any three?  I can’t, and surely not these three.  Yet this young man had not only committed them to memory, he had committed them to action—a much more significant accomplishment.
            If you read carefully through the Sermon on the Mount, and then read any (preferably all) of the gospels, you will find that not only is this a summation of Jesus’ teaching, but also the way he conducted his life.  Everything he said here he lived out in his ministry.  In the Sermon on the Mount he talked the talk.  In his life he walked the walk.  Jesus’ life was not just a matter of saying the right thing, but of doing the right thing.  He lived what he taught.

            Let’s not forget the bookends of Jesus’ life, but let’s not forget the middle either, for it is here that we learn how we must live.