FIRST SUNDAY OF CHRISTMAS
PRAYER OF THE DAY: O Lord God, you know that we cannot place our trust in our own powers. As you protected the infant Jesus, so defend us and all the needy from harm and adversity, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
Just last week John the Evangelist delivered to us a lyrical recitation of God’s Word becoming flesh. This week Matthew the Evangelist delivers a narrative portrayal of precisely what that means. We get a close look at what John was talking about when he told us that “he came to his own people and his own would not receive him.” God is staking everything on a baby born into a world where life is cheap, where pity must not cloud decisions made for the sake of national security, where there is no truly safe place. That is the Christmas Story in a nutshell.
As the beneficiary of white male privilege, I didn’t grow up reading the Christmas Story in that way. I have been pretty thoroughly brainwashed by images of a safe, dray and cozy little manger with clean hay, gentle animals and well-washed shepherds. The manger I grew up with was not a rude and forbidding place at all. It was a comfortable suite warmed by the light of the star overhead and sheltered by angels. All was calm, all was bright. Nothing was scary.
It is precisely because I don’t experience the world as a dangerous place that I have to struggle against the heresy of progressivism. My people lament that, for the first time since the great depression, the current generation of American young people cannot expect to live better than their parents. Such a complaint could only come from among the privileged, those of us who grew up believing that the world is becoming a progressively better place; that every year is supposed to bring a raise and a bonus; that each newly manufactured i-phone will be better than the last. I don’t see the world from the perspective of those who, on their best day, see nothing in their future but bare survival.
Of course, I understand in a cerebral sort of way that I could easily die any given day of the week on New Jersey Route 4 as I make my way down to the church. I know there is a possibility that I might have a brain aneurism waiting to blow at any second. A few close brushes with near catastrophe on the road have given me brief glimpses into the existence people in Aleppo know as everyday life. Most of the time, however, I am blissfully unaware of my fragileness, my extreme vulnerability. Most of the time, I am not consciously living as though I were at risk. Most of the time, my comfortable position of privilege blinds me to my own vulnerability and hardens me toward those who know it all too well.
That’s a problem because the Messiah lives and breathes among the vulnerable. He was, after all, a child born to a homeless couple in a stable. He was a child of political refugees fleeing across the border into Egypt from the sword of a hostile government. Jesus was a child born into a people living under military occupation. He was sentenced to death and executed as a criminal. Among the oppressed, among the vulnerable, among the least of the human family-this is where the Word becomes flesh. For this reason, he is frequently invisible to those of us who know only privilege. His proclamation of good news to the poor fills us with dread rather than hope because we can see no further than what we stand to lose if he is right. For those of us whose lives are sheltered in privilege that is maintained at the expense of the rest of the world, the Christmas Story-the real one-kind of stinks.
Or does it? What if the privileged life we fear losing is not worth the efforts we are making to save it? What if the cost of protecting what we have with gated communities, locked doors, advanced alarm systems and elaborate surveillance protocols is robbing us blind? What if the fear of losing our stuff exceeds and spoils whatever enjoyment we get out of having it? What if you really could have Christ be at the center of your Christmas because you were no longer under the pressure to buy the latest gifts, put on the most elaborate feast and figure out how you will pay for it all when it’s over? What if we finally discovered that the only thing we really have to lose is our bondage to a materialistic and self-centered existence that is choking the last vestige of humanity out of us? What if we learned to see in the face of the poor, not the eyes of envy staring greedily at all we have, but the invitation of Jesus to care for him as generously as he cares for us?
The good news of Christmas for those of us who live in privilege is that, as mean, fearful and insensitive as we have become, the Messiah has come for us as well. Even now he is living on our streets, in refugee camps throughout the world, in our prisons and in our shelters. He is here. Emmanuel. God with us. May the Christmas narratives give us eyes to see him and hearts to embrace him.
Here’s a poem by Denise Levertov about the Word becoming flesh.
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart:
not to a flower, not to a dolphin,
to no innocent form
but to this creature vainly sure
it and no other is god-like, God
(out of compassion for our ugly
failure to evolve) entrusts,
as guest, as brother,
Denise Levertov (1923–1997) never received a formal education. Nevertheless, she created a highly regarded body of poetry that earned her recognition as one of America’s most respected poets. Her father, Paul Philip Levertov, was a Russian Jew who converted to Christianity and subsequently moved to England where he became an Anglican minister. Levertov grew up in a household surrounded by books and people talking about them in many languages. During World War II, Levertov pursued nurse’s training and spent three years as a civilian nurse at several hospitals in London. Levertov came to the United States in 1948, after marrying American writer Mitchell Goodman. During the 1960s Levertov became a staunch critic of the Vietnam war, a topic addressed in many of her poems of that era. Levertov died of lymphoma at the age of seventy-four. You can read more about Denise Levertov and sample more of her poetry at the Poetry Foundation Website.
This passage is the opening section of a psalm of intercession, the complete text of which is Isaiah 63:7-64:12. The entire psalm should be read in order to get the context of the verses making up our lesson. These verses constitute the beginning of a historical prologue that runs to verse 9. They recall Israel’s deliverance from Egypt and God’s leadership throughout her long journey to Canaan. Verses 10-19 acknowledge that, in contrast to God’s faithfulness to Israel, Israel has been less than faithful to her God. Indeed, “We have become like those over whom thou hast never ruled, like those who are not called by thy name.” vs. 19. The psalmist/prophet nevertheless appeals to God’s mercy and steadfast faithfulness to the covenant promises, confident that this God’s longsuffering love for his people remains even now. “Yet, O Lord, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou the potter; we are the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O Lord, and remember not iniquity forever. Behold, consider, we are all they people.” Isaiah 64:8. Israel always understood what is expressed in the New Testament letter of James: “Mercy triumphs over judgment.” James 2:13. Therefore, Israel could be as insistent that God comply with his covenant promises as she was candid about her own covenant failures. God remains faithful even when his people are not.
This wonderful psalm comes to us from the third section of Isaiah composed by a prophet speaking to the Jews in Palestine following their return from Babylonian exile in the latter half of the 6th Century. They were resettling themselves in the land and seeking to rebuild their lives and their ruined city under extremely difficult conditions. The prayer makes clear to these people that their own unfaithfulness is largely responsible for the difficult plight in which they now find themselves. Nevertheless, they must also understand that while God punishes Israel’s unfaithfulness, he does not abandon Israel or cease to be faithful to his own covenant obligations. Therefore, Israel may indeed pray for and expect God to be merciful and lead her through these difficult days as God has always done for his chosen people. The bleak circumstances should therefore not blind the people of God to the promise of a future wrought in yet further acts of salvation.
This psalm is one of a group that begins and ends with an expression of praise: Hallelujah or “Praise YAHWEH.” (Psalms 146-150) It is beautifully structured. The injunctions to praise begin with the heavens, the angels, the sun, moon and starts descending to the earth and its creatures. The forces of nature, geographical features (mountains and hills) and plant life all are called to join in the choir of praise to God. All people from mighty kings, to slave girls to small children are drawn into this cosmic hymn of praise to the Creator. Finally, the call to praise is directed to “the people of Israel who are near to him.” The perfect symmetry of this psalm is further illustrated by its final focus on this one particular people who, though at the narrowest end of the spectrum, are nonetheless “near” to the almighty Creator God.
This psalm is pure praise. It seeks nothing from God. It is not offered up in thanksgiving for any particular act of goodness or salvation on God’s part. The psalmist praises God because that is what creatures, all creatures, even “inanimate” creatures do. It is what we are created for according the Westminster Shorter Catechism. The longer I live, the more I am convinced that this might well be so and that perhaps a major source of our misery stems from our failure to understand it. The universe was spoken into existence by God and so its very existence is an act of praise. Praise is therefore nothing other than going with the grain of the universe. It is recognizing that joy is found only as we learn to sing our little piece in tune with the rest of the choir. Only then does our voice amount to anything worth listening to. If we were not so terribly absorbed in pursuing whatever it is we think will make us happy and accomplishing what we believe to be important and establishing our own legacy, we might not mind so much that we are after all “grass that withers and flowers that fade.”
Psalm 148 is included in the song of praise sung by the three young men thrown into the fiery furnace by King Nebuchadnezzar in the 3rd Chapter of Daniel. Don’t look for it in your Bible, though. It is found only in the Greek translation of the Hebrew Scriptures (known as the Septuagint) and is omitted by most English translations that rely mainly on the Hebrew texts. It may also interest you Lutherans to know that this Apocryphal song is included in its entirety at page 120 of The Lutheran Hymnal, the official hymn book of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod from 1940 to the late 1970s.
It is difficult to date this psalm. Most scholars view it as a post-exilic psalm composed for worship in the Jerusalem temple rebuilt following the return from exile that began in 538 B.C.E. That does not preclude, however, the possibility that the author was working from the text or oral tradition of a much older tradition from the period of the Judean monarchy.
For my take on Hebrews, see my post of December 25, 2016. You might also want to take a look at the summary article of Craig R. Koester, Professor of New Testament at Luther Seminary on Enterthebible.org. Suffice to say that I believe the author of this letter is striving to demonstrate to a Christian audience traumatized by the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem how Jesus now fulfills the mediation function of the temple cult and its priesthood. This trauma was shared by the rest of the Jewish community (from which followers of Jesus were at this point inseparable). For what ultimately became modern Judaism, the Torah (in the broadest sense of the word) became the mediating agent of God’s redemptive presence. Worship in the Synagogue therefore revolved around the learning, study and application of Torah to the life of the community. For disciples of Jesus, Jesus himself was the mediator. He animated his resurrected Body, the church with his life giving Spirit made present through the church’s preaching and communal (Eucharistic) meals.
Here the author of Hebrews points out that Jesus fulfills his priestly office through offering himself in his full humanity. The sacrificial language permeating the letter can be off putting if we adopt the medieval notion that God needs a blood sacrifice in order to forgive our sins. This understanding (or misunderstanding) is common and underlies the theory of “substitutionary atonement,” namely, the belief that Jesus’ crucifixion was God’s act of justified punishment for human sin absorbed by Jesus so that we can avoid it. That is not how sacrifice was understood in the Hebrew Scriptures. Sacrifices were more often than not offered in thanksgiving. Moreover, even when offered to atone for sin, they were not seen as “payment.” Rather, they afforded the worshiper an opportunity to share in a holy a meal where reconciliation and forgiveness could be experienced and celebrated. In the one instance where sin is transferred to a sacrificial animal (Day of Atonement), the animal is not killed, but sent out into the wilderness. Leviticus 16:1-22. Clearly, God does not need to kill anyone in order to forgive us.
Rightly understood, the language of sacrifice makes good sense. The death of Jesus was a sacrifice in the sense that loving another person deeply always involves a sacrifice of self for the wellbeing of the loved one. That is particularly so where the loved one is deeply involved in self-destructive behavior and resistant to your efforts to help him or her. Parents who walk with their children through the dark valley of addiction know better than anyone else how deeply painful love can be and how much must sometimes be sacrificed. So also it cost God dearly to love a world in rebellion against him. When God embraced us with human arms we crucified him. Notwithstanding, God continues to love the world through Jesus’ resurrected (though wounded and broken) Body. Such is the sacrifice that is Jesus.
As throughout his entire gospel, Matthew gives us a panoply of direct references, allusions and echoes of the Hebrew Scriptures. The instances in both last week’s reading and this Sunday’s lesson in which Joseph is warned and guided by dreams remind us of another Joseph whose dreams ultimately led him to Egypt. See Genesis 37-50. Of course, the parallel between Moses’ escape from the Egyptian Pharaoh’s genocidal policies toward the Hebrew slaves and Jesus’ escape from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents is also hard to miss. Jesus’ time spent in Egypt parallels Israel’s painful sojourn in that land of bondage and his return to Palestine shadows Israel’s Exodus from Egypt and return to the land promised to Abraham and Sarah.
Matthew cites Jeremiah 31:15:
A voice is heard in Ramah,
lamentation and bitter weeping.
Rachel is weeping for her children;
she refuses to be comforted for her children,
because they are no more.
Jeremiah is speaking here about the ten tribes forming the Northern Kingdom of Israel that fell to Assyria in about 721 B.C.E. Much of the population was carried into exile and so the land, personified by Rachel-mother of the northern “Joseph” tribes-weeps for her exiled children. The brutality of Herod, the so called “King of the Jews,” is contrasted with that of the hated Assyrian Empire. It should be noted that Herod was not a Jew and there were few Jews who would have recognized him as their legitimate king. He was, in fact, an Edomite. Edom, you may recall from prior posts, sided with the Babylonians and took part in their sack of Jerusalem in 587 B.C.E. Moreover, he was appointed King of Judea by the Jews’ hated Roman overlords. Though he sought to win the affection of his Jewish subjects through building a temple in Jerusalem that surpassed even Solomon’s, Herod was still hated by all but those in the highest echelons of power who benefited from his corrupt reign.
I believe that Matthew is consciously juxtaposing Herod, “King of the Jews” to Jesus who will also receive this title, though only as a cruel jest. The king who hangs onto his throne by means of dealing death is contrasted with the king who raises the dead. The king who rules through violence is contrasted with the king who renounces violence. The king who by desperate and despicable acts of cruelty seeks to hang onto his life is contrasted with the king who pours out his life for the people he loves. We are asked to decide which king really reigns. God’s verdict is expressed in Jesus’ resurrection. Herod is still dead. Jesus lives. That says it all.
Most scholars question the historicity of this account of the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem. They point out that Herod died in 4 B.C.E.-before Jesus is supposed to have been born. The birth date historically assigned to Jesus is mostly arbitrary, however. We cannot say with any certainty precisely when Jesus was born and a four year discrepancy is hardly conclusive. Although there is no other historical record of this terrible event, that too is not necessarily dispositive. Herod was well known for his paranoia and brutality. The appearance of an astronomical phenomenon accompanied by rumors that the descendent to arise from the City of David foretold by the scriptures had been born would surely be sufficient to trouble this tyrant who in his later years became increasingly paranoid and fearful of losing his throne. Herod’s cruel and inhuman command to murder all infants two years and under would hardly have been out of character for a man capable of killing his wife of many years and his own children. In a period during which the Roman Empire was still smarting from civil war, repressing revolutionary uprisings and seeking to crush banditry, it would hardly be surprising that a tragedy of only local significance should fail to find its way into these blood soaked annals of history. That said, it is also clear that Matthew employs this event as a literary device designed to illuminate the person and work of Jesus through parallels with Hebrew scriptural people and events. Thus, we ought not to obsess over whether and to what extent the slaughter of the innocents correlates with any particular historically verifiable event.