Lectionary sermon for Advent 4a 22 December 2013 on Matthew 1:18-25

Lectionary sermon for Advent 4a 22 December 2013 on Matthew 1:18-25

Making Sense of Christmas

The profound influence of Christianity in the shaping of belief systems over the last two millennia has made it inevitable that Jesus’ coming should have been celebrated in such a wide variety of ways.   Some of these have been bizarre in the extreme.

The recent efforts of an Australian barrister, David Richards to decorate his house with enough Christmas lights to reclaim the world record he had previously had to surrender to a New York couple was impressive if only because his display of a sea of half a million twinkling lights held in place with an estimated 47 km of string has at least made his Canberra home a tourist curiosity.   This comparatively new custom of festooning houses with a sea of Christmas lights is now sometimes seen as such an essential part of the preparations for Christmas that there have been instances where neighbors have been known to pressurize newcomers in certain suburban areas to decorate their houses to conform .  Whether or not such light displays are helpful to the Christian message or in any way relate to what the gospel writers are attempting to convey is a moot point.

On the other hand we probably all feel at least slightly possessive of whatever personal customs and formula understandings of Christmas are a part of our traditions – sometimes to the extent we will actively resist any attempts to improve our understanding.   For example Christmas tableaux and Christmas card illustrations typically place the manger in a stable, surround the scene with animals, and if wise men are called for, of course there must be three.   Even the standard Christmas tree, again with absolutely no justification from the Bible, is now considered almost obligatory in many family homes.  The fact that the gospels fail to confirm such detail does not stop the false memory becoming a key part of our tradition.

In some ways getting anything like a clear picture of exactly what happened that first Christmas is thwarted by the gospel writers themselves.   The authors of the gospels were almost certainly handicapped by having little access to eyewitness accounts, and writing years after the events would have made it very difficult to sort out how much was hearsay and how much was accurate.   The mismatch in detail between Luke and Matthew on such matters are probably largely due to the varying sources they were obliged to work with.   The earliest gospel, that of Mark, leaves out the birth stories altogether, while John prefers to use a poetic – almost cosmic approach.

Both Matthew and Luke seem more intent on describing what happened, but since their accounts include inescapable contradictions even to the extent of providing different genealogies – this should make us suspect that they are each telling their version of the story to highlight different understandings as to what the birth meant.

There are also problems in trying to reconcile birth details with other measures of reality.  A massacre of children may seem in character from what we know of Herod, yet it does seem strange that contemporary historians of the time who noted many other details of his reign should have missed such a dramatic event.  Similarly the nearest census which gives us a date for the birth apparently did not happen while Herod was still alive.   For modern scholars who try to reconcile modern understandings of conception and birth with the Bible accounts, Virgin birth seems to them to be highly implausible.  Certainly a good number of followers of traditional forms of Christianity are still apparently committed to the Virgin birth story, yet a growing number of religious leaders are now talking of symbolic rather than literal meaning. Nevertheless it should be stressed that the ancient creeds are firmly in place and somewhat to the bewilderment of those familiar with the scientific explanations for conception, whole branches of the Christian church hold to what many critics say is out-dated superstition.

If nothing else this is a good reminder that knowledge in religion is always more than current state of the art science, and that tradition, poetry and a sense of wonder and mystery overlay and shape our realities.

When it comes to Matthew and Luke on the topic of the Virgin birth, rather than laughing at the gospel writers for their apparent naivety, it is also worth reminding ourselves, that to those in that age who had no way of knowing any different, not only was Virgin birth a plausible happening for special people, there were even written histories of the day confirming that it had happened in a number of other instances.

Some histories of the time claimed virgin birth for both Caesar Augustus and Alexander the Great, both of whom were assumed to have the god, Jupiter as progenitor.  We might also note in passing that both of them as well as a number of the Greek Kings had been also described with the title of Saviour of the World. We also know that there was an additional reason why Matthew would favour the notion of Mary being a Virgin.   Matthew – clearly a Greek scholar, would have as his text of Isaiah the then two hundred year old Greek translation  which had changed the original Hebrew which said Almah meaning young girl to the Greek word Parthenos meaning Virgin. We have no way of knowing in this instance if Matthew was treating this as symbolism to show that Jesus was special and at least the equivalent of Caesar Augustus or whether he was genuinely unaware that the original Hebrew quotation gave a rather more prosaic meaning.

When a group of modern scholars were tasked with coming up with a more exact translation it so happens that they decided to correct the Isaiah quotation in Matthew and turn the Virgin back to young girl.   When their final offering of what they called the Revised Standard Version was circulated in 1951 and 1952, it horrified traditional Church folk and both the Catholics and the Anglicans insisted that the offending phrase be changed back to Virgin, and once again a revision took place.    One Baptist minister took a rather more direct and dramatic course of action by incinerating the RSV with a blow torch in front of his Sunday congregation.  (We might note in passing that this spectacular act did not have quite the desired effect in that members of his congregation were reportedly so intrigued that they promptly went out and bought their own copies to see what the fuss was all about).

It is not my place to challenge the findings of the translators or arbitrate on the protests of the critics of the translation.    While I am quite happy to admit a personal view that Mary was unlikely to have been a Virgin in a literal sense, my only concern is that we have the grace to listen to one another before leaping to judgment.   However, if instead of focusing on the so called facts that that draw the fire of the critics with apparent contradictions and historical puzzles, if instead, we were to look at the symbolism we suddenly start to notice points we might otherwise miss.  While we can delight in stumbling across weaknesses in the Bible records ultimately it is not what Luke or Matthew makes of Jesus and his coming that will matter, it is what we ourselves might notice that will set the stage for our reactions to Christmas.

For example if we were to notice that Matthew is entering the male dominated traditional exclusive Jewish belief by setting out a genealogy for Jesus which, counter to custom, includes not only four female names, but also some known to be gentiles, we might start realizing we are faced with a Jesus who is not the exclusive preserve of Judaism.   If we notice the extreme respect Matthew attributes to Mary’s status, he is underlining an attitude which Jesus will later make an essential part of his teaching. We might echo this respect by according her the status of Virgin, but if not, we still have to come up with an alternative to show we respect the female role?  When it comes to Joseph, Matthew shows a man who is prepared to put compassion for his betrothed wife ahead of the rather brutal and unforgiving laws in Deuteronomy.  Is this the same compassion that will guide our attitudes to those whom society would judge?

Matthew, despite his violent and harsh setting for his story of the coming child amid righteous rigid laws, facing the cruelty of a brutal ruler and having a humble and uncertain start in life, manages to inject just enough mystery and magic into his story line to remind us that Jesus is about to start a life in which true value will be found.  To argue over which of his statements of mystery are justified by translation is to miss his purpose.

And yes, this Christmas no doubt there has been tinsel, and supermarket jingles…. and twinkling lights in the night.   But above all we might remember that the show of Christmas is not where the real relevance lies.  Certainly it is a birth we will celebrate but the child of promise will not stay as a child.   The reality we face in the coming weeks and months ahead calls for a child who will grow up to an adult Jesus, just as we too will need to take the starting principles he offers and find what it will mean to have them live in the complexities and even the dangers of our adult lives.

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4 Responses to Lectionary sermon for Advent 4a 22 December 2013 on Matthew 1:18-25

  1. Sarah B says:

    What are your thoughts of the prophecy in Genesis 3:15 about the seed of a woman? The Bible clearly marks genealogies by the father except in the case of Jesus. Who then would be the father of Jesus? Also, how would a simple human man be able to die as propitiation for the sins of mankind?

  2. peddiebill says:

    Please understand the following is just what I happen to think at this stage of my uncertain walk in faith and although I know plenty of Christians who would agree with me, it is clear that many traditionalists and fundamentalists would not accept my view.
    For someone steeped in science, quite apart from common-sense biology, my preference is for a human father, for three reasons. First I honestly believe that the only need for the Virgin part is the mistranslation of the Isaiah prophecy. If any prophecy is to be taken seriously I think the actual prophecy – in this case in Hebrew, counts for more than a faulty translation into Greek, no matter how well intentioned the editorial change might have been. Second, the “seed of a woman” is how other births were referred to in those times so I don’t think this necessarily means a Virgin Birth. As it happens it is only Christians who see the Genesis quote as referring to the Messiah. The Jewish commentaries interpret it differently. If it did mean Virgin birth of a Messiah why not simply say so. Third, the human father is the only way to make sense of the genealogies in Luke and Matthew. Why have a descent line through Joseph if he were just a spectator? If the genealogy is not actually through Joseph and including David, then other prophecies are also wrong.
    You ask how a simple man could die in propitiation for the sins of mankind. I know this is familiar religious jargon which sounds good until you hear someone try to explain it, but since I don’t know how God as Jesus could somehow fix up our sins either, I don’t even know how to answer that bit (though perhaps another reader might help). eg I guess you believe that Muslims are part of mankind – so in what way did Jesus die in propitiation for their sins? While the discussion about Mary having to be a Virgin is interesting, I actually think the more urgent question is why so many continue to live as if Jesus never came and never taught? Saying that their sins are taken care of by Jesus’ sacrifice might have meaning if it means as potential, but I hardly think Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin for example were acting as if they were redeemed.
    This is not to say I think your questions are unreasonable. They help me think and to make people think honestly for themselves instead of being told what to think by others is the intention of this website. Thanks for dropping by.
    (As it happens I would also be interested in your reactions to my Christ the King sermon from a few weeks back where I look at another standard set of beliefs)

    • Sarah B says:

      I will take a look at your other sermon for sure. I’m not retired like you so it may take me a bit longer ;). I actually have 3 little ones (4, 2, 7 months) and it is a hand full. I love learning though, so it is important to me as well to “hash out” these important topics. I want to list a few things for you to look into concerning the virgin birth. I feel like it may be in vain because you are such an intelligent man, but just take the following into consideration:
      *The virgin birth isn’t only in Isaiah, it is also in Matthew and Luke as you know. So we would need to throw out those two gospels from the Bible. If they have this wrong then I really don’t care to read anything else they have to say.
      * Almah is the word used 7 times to refer to a young woman/maiden. In all seven accounts the girl is an unmarried woman. There isn’t a reference that implies a young woman/maiden to be anything but a virgin (when the word “Almah” was used).
      * The virgin birth was to be a sign. How would it have been a sign for all if Jesus was conceived of a young woman and a young man? I mean that happens every day. So why would that be supernatural, worth noting, or a sign? Why would Joseph be ready to put Mary away? The kid wasn’t his and had an angel not appeared to him I believe he would have left her to fend for herself. But this still proves the kid wasn’t his! So you would not only have to believe Mary wasn’t a virgin. You would have to believe she was a whore who got pregnant by some random dude who wasn’t Joseph.
      * As far as the genealogy is concerned Matthew’s account was of Josephs lineage while Luke’s was Mary’s. Jesus was legally adopted by Joseph making his legal lineage one of the Davidic line, but also naturally through Mary via Mary (daughter of Bathsheba and Nathan).
      * Look up Jechonias in the lineage listed by Matthews account (Josephs genealogy). His line was accursed according to Jeremiah 22:30. None of his 7 sons sat on the throne. So a son of his (and thus of Joseph) couldn’t have been the true Messiah. BUT because Jesus was “begat” of the Holy Spirit through Mary he was not only a natural descendant of David, but of royal lineage (thus the ability to take the throne) because of his legal adoption by Joseph (lineage of David as well, and of regal line, but accursed). I got this little bit from the Evidence for Christ book. It was interesting but I wanted to look into it a little more…

      So, why a virgin birth? Because sin entered the world through Adam. The curse of Adam would have been on Jesus. But Jesus led a sinless life as we know thanks to 1 Peter 1:19, 1 Peter 2:22, 1 John 3:5, 2 Corinthians 5:21, etc..

      How can he be a propitiation for all sin, the sin of mankind, because he was the perfect lamb. The perfect/sinless sacrifice. He had no blemish and therefor satisfied God’s wrath. God is Holy and can not see sin, so we needed the blood of Jesus (a perfect sacrifice unlike that of the animal sacrifices that only atoned for one sin). A man would not be without blemish because we are born into the curse of Adam–we will sin.

      Is your question why do Christians go on acting as if Jesus never came? I don’t believe Stalin or Hitler ever claimed to be followers of Christ, but as we know not all who claim to know God will enter the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 7:21). I do not understand how some Christians can claim the grace of God in yet keep sinning without repentance ever. I would question their salvation if I didn’t see “fruits” (Luke 6:43). Paul does address this in Romans 6. Do I believe Christ died for all people, yes. I realize that Calvinist believe Christ died for only the elect, but I believe He died for all. This does not mean that all are saved however. I believe you have to call on the name of God to be saved. You have to repent and believe as the gospels teach. So would Mormons go to Heaven? No, I don’t believe so. Jesus said in John 14:6, “6 Jesus answered, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me,” and we know that Mormons don’t believe in Jesus as Savior. They see him as a prophet….

      So, that is how I believe Jesus can die as a propitiation of sin, but it relies heavily on the virgin birth.. I also believe a parallel picture of Christ saving mankind is seen as Abraham draws up the knife to murder Isaac and God provides a sacrifice. Anyway, that is a little side note, but it shows how God would provide a sacrifice that would suffice.

  3. peddiebill says:

    You have said “The virgin birth isn’t only in Isaiah, it is also in Matthew and Luke as you know.”
    Surely the point is that the original form of Isaiah was in Hebrew and we know it did not say Virgin – because it used the word for young unmarried girl. Since both Matthew and Luke were using the mistranslation, because they were using the Greek version of Isaiah they used that same mistranslation when they quoted Isaiah. Doesn’t what Isaiah actually have said count for more than what some translator wanted him to say. Since these are the only three places where we “know” Mary was a Virgin, I would have thought there is at least a question.
    Then you say: “So we would need to throw out those two gospels from the Bible. If they have this wrong then I really don’t care to read anything else they have to say”. This to me is very worrying.
    The gospels do contain contradictions – just read my post on “Shaping God” …after all presumably the gospel writers were human and therefore capable of making mistakes – but surely you find value in what they teach. Look at those other contradictions and tell me what you think.
    You say:” As far as the genealogy is concerned Matthew’s account was of Josephs lineage while Luke’s was Mary’s”. (Eh?) You may be right in other places but are you sure you are not quoting someone else who didn’t check. For example in the Bible versions I have of the Luke genealogy starting at Ch 3 verse 23 from the book of Luke they all say: ……the son of Joseph etc. What is more the list is clearly not the same as the equivalent list in Matthew where the reverse order should match. These may be contradictions but to me they are minor contradictions and I certainly wouldn’t discard the gospels on that account!!
    Please don’t hear me saying that you cannot continue to believe in Mary as a Virgin. Many clearly do, I just happen to have chosen on the basis of my understanding not to agree. However rather more serious is our difference about Mormons. You say that none of them go to heaven. I say that is not ours to call. We are all born into different faith settings After all Jesus did not always condemn the heretics like the Samaritans in his day – and in fact told stories to show that the fruits of their actions were what we should look at rather than their labels. Nor would I personally be comfortable with your rejection of Mary on the grounds that she might well have previously been less than perfect in her behaviour. Surely you only need to look at the stories of the saints in history to see that even the worst has the potential to turn their life around. Paul started as a persecutor of Christians! I prefer to follow Jesus’ teaching like ” Not all who call me Lord, Lord will enter the kingdom of heaven” and his direction to “judge not lest you yourselves be judged.” You of course may decide to do otherwise and presumably you would accept that we are all at different stages of our faith journey.

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