The Fourth Sunday of Advent/A Meditation by Matt Matthews
The nativity story according to Matthew’s gospel spends very little time at the Manger. Our epic tells have shown us the breadth and drama of the story, and notice how little time we spend kneeling in manger-hay.
In five scenes, Matthew gives us a picture of the intrigue before and the after that world-changing, lovely birth. If we were going to pitch the nativity as a soap opera, Matthew’s version of the story is the one we’d use.
Scene 1.) First we have Joseph. Matthew gives us the only real glimpse into the heart of Joseph. He discovers that Mary is pregnant and because he is righteous, thoughtful, and good, he makes plans to break up with her. She obviously is into another guy. After all, she’s pregnant. Rather than make a scene, he’ll break up with her quietly. There’s no need for drama. He’ll slip out of the scene under the radar.
Here—as with every verse of scriputure—we can learn something. Joseph’s reasoning makes sense. Joseph’s plan is pretty good. Joseph’s read of the situation seems accurate. And yet—and yet he has read the situation all wrong. We sometimes do exactly the same. We read the situation all wrong. Sometimes our God-given intuition is wildly inaccurate. Because Joseph doesn’t see the bigger picture, his reasoning is off. His plan is bad. Left up to his own devices, this story could end badly.
Thank God for sleep and for dreams and for the occasional restless night. God can use such nights to tune our vision, to wake us up to what’s important, to help us see what we’ve been missing all along.
Angels and visions come to the characters in this story FIVE times. This is the first instance: The angel comes to Joseph in sleep and sets him straight. Mary hasn’t been fooling around. Quite the opposite: God has especially chosen her. Her. His betrothed. And Joseph isn’t a third wheel; he’s an essential, vital part of the story. Mary and Jesus will need Joseph. Like all families, they’re going to need each other.
There’s a million lessons here, but here’s one: When we get a glimpse into how we fit into God’s story, we are given an opportunity to adjust our plans. That’s what Joseph does. He adjusts his plans in order to accommodate God’s holier, bigger, better plan.
Scene 2.) Matthew is the only gospel writer who tells us about the wise men. They see the star and make inquiries. They go to Herod for directions. Surely Herod—the respected ruler of the province—would have his finger on the pulse of culture and religion. He’d know about the coming of the Messiah, and he’d be glad, of course, of the possibility that the messiah had finally come. We know Herod is a bad guy, but the wise men don’t.
Allow me a digression: The Byrd Theatre is Richmond is an old Movie-House-Style theater. Every year they show the classic movie The Sound of Music. Every time the baroness appears on the screen everyone in the theater hisses. The baroness is pretty. She supposedly is bringing happiness to the children’s widower father. What’s wrong with that? Everything about their relationship seems perfect. Except it’s not perfect, and we know it. She doesn’t like the children. She’s not good for the Captain. She doesn’t like to sing. She’s planning to send the kids away to a boarding school. She’s getting in the way with the truer love between the Captain and Maria. The baroness is bad news and every time she appears on the screen at the Byrd Theater the audience hisses and boos.
That’s what we want to do when Herod appears. The wise men think he’s fine. He’s not. They trust him. We don’t. They are interested in a relationship with Herod. We know better.
Jesus already has the deck stacked against him. Herod is out to get him. Great and grave efforts are being made to keep this good news under a basket. And the wise men don’t know that Jesus needs NOT their gifts of gold, frankenscence, and myrrh. Jesus needs their protection.
The wise men find the manger, and share their gifts. We are reminded that we have gifts to bring to the least of these, to the lowly, to those unfortunate at birth. We have gifts to give.
Wise men still seek Jesus. Small men still seek to extinguish the light of God’s love.
Scene 3.) The story speeds up. As the wise men have been warned in a dream to go home another way, thus avoiding Herod, Joseph is, likewise, warned to take Jesus and Mary and flee to Egypt. They make yet another refugee family running for their life. We like thinking of Jesus all meek and mild in the manger. And that’s fine. But like all babies, Jesus is growing up. And we don’t like the idea of Jesus and his family needing to take shelter in tent cities on the way across the border to the safety of Egypt. I hear people say all of the time, “Leave the politics out of religion.”
Tell that to Mary, and Joseph, and Jesus. The world’s most famous refugees.
Scene 4.) Herod (boo hiss) has hatched a plan. If he can’t find Jesus (to pay him homage, then to slit his throat), then he’ll have all the male children Jesus’ age killed. Killed. Murdered.
I, for one, would like to think such heinousness doesn’t exist any more. But just like the problem of refugees that hasn’t gone away, examples of terrible cruelty still exist. Think of Hitler and the Jews, and the blacks, and the gays, and the cripples. Think of the back-and-forth slaughter of Tutsis and Hutus in Rwanda in 1959, 1972, 1994. Think of poison gas in Alleppo in 2016.
Mary and Joseph and Jesus would like to leave out the politics—and the murder of the gospel story.
We are now miles away from the warm, tender manger. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus are on the run. Their lives are at risk.
And this is the Messiah sent to save the world. LORD, have mercy.
Scene 5.) God sends an angel to Joseph in a dream to let him know that the coast is clear. The holy family can leave Egypt and head back home. Because Herod’s son is now in power, Joseph decides to take residence in Nazareth—some distance away from the powers that be.
The world so in need of a savior remains ready to slay that savior. And the story that is so sweet in Luke’s gospel and so theologically rich in John’s gospel is wrought with danger in Matthew’s gospel.
Matthew’s gospel paints the world as a place that reads like today’s headlines. It is into this world that Jesus was born—meek and mild, sweet little Jesus-boy. In Matthew’s gospel we are reminded of the wrong that the love of Christ is meant to make right. This is the world in which we live. This is the world we are invited to love.
Let us take our neighbor by the hand to the manger. Like the wise men, let us make our way to see the place where love was born.
And may God’s love kindle a flame.
I was born and raised in the sight of water in Hampton, Virginia. I was baptized and nurtured in the Presbyterian church. There was never a time when weekly worship attendance, the giving of ...