In nomine Jesu!
"What is God doing now?" That's the question the Evangelists Matthew, Luke and John wrestle with as they each tell their story of Jesus' birth. By this time next week,
we will have heard from each of them: Matthew, today; Luke, next Saturday and John, next Sunday. Each tells a slightly different story. Each shapes his or her story according to his or her context: the when, where and to whom each writes.
We're most familiar with Luke's story β the one we'll hear on Christmas Eve; the "stuff" of every Christmas pageant, with angels and shepherds, cows and sheep; at least one donkey and one irritable innkeeper (not in the text) and a "firstborn child wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger;" all occurring in the days of Caesar Augustus when Quirinius was governor of Syria. In Luke's nativity story, Jesus is repeatedly called "Savior" and "Lord" and "Son of God," the same titles used to describe Imperial Caesar, but with polar opposite meanings. In Luke's telling, the tactics of Jesus' kingdom is the
proclamation of "good news to the poor, release to the captives, the recovery of sight to the blind, freedom to the oppressed," the exact opposite of Caesar's tactics. Luke composes his Gospel in Greece or even Rome, far away from what once was Judea; 50 to 60 years after Jesus' crucifixion; 80 to 85 years after Jesus' birth. Luke writes to people whose lives are shaped by the domination system of Rome's empire. Luke writes to give his readers a different narrative to direct and govern their lives.
John writes even later, probably in Asia Minor, our modern-day Turkey. John's purpose is to show a similarly oppressed audience that Jesus β the Word made flesh β is, always has been, and always will be God's narrative about our living and so in simple yet soaring rhetoric John tell us that "in the beginning was the Word" and that in Jesus that "Word became flesh and dwells among us full of grace and truth" inviting his readers to shape their lives according to that narrative -- as opposed to allowing their existence to be shaped by an Emperor whose words and decrees are filled with deceit, deception and unremitting lies.
Matthew's audience is different. He writes from
Syria, maybe even from what today is long-suffering Aleppo. His context then is not much different from theirs now. Given that level of destruction, we can understand the question, "What is God doing?" Matthew writes to a predominantly Jewish audience; an audience that has been longing for the coming of a new Messiah from the royal bloodline of king David; a messiah who will give them back their lands, revive their nation, release them from foreign (i.e., Roman) oppression, restore their Temple, purify God's priesthood and in so doing give them back their national and personal identity, their pride, and their reason to be.
But when Matthew writes his Gospel, there is no Temple, there is no priesthood, Jewish lands have been confiscated and the Jewish nation has been subsumed into the Roman province of Syria and is no more. What is God doing? They pleaded. How can God revive and restore them when what they were is no more. What is God doing? Is this the end of their story? Of the narrative that has shaped their lives, formed their ethics, molded their identity? The story of childless Sarah and Abraham, of Moses and the
Red Sea; Mount Sinai and the Promised Land; of mighty David and wise Solomon; exile in Babylon and God-led return; of a rebuilt Temple and Herod's unmatched Temple? Are they now no people? Is their new story the Roman imperial story; the story of a domination system that reduces them to nothing? This is the context in which Matthew writes his Gospel.
Matthew needs to make his story of Jesus a continuation of their previous story. He needs to give his hearers an alternative narrative to the Roman narrative, one in which they are currently living. Given their reality, he can't speak to them of restoration, renewal or revival and so Matthew tells the story of Jesus' birth β the story we heard today β by making an audacious claim. You can't catch it in any English translation, including the one you heard today. So I'm offering you a new one. See if you catch the significant difference.
When the Gospel was proclaimed today, we heard these words, "Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged..." I think Matthew
wants us to hear that THIS way: "This is the Genesis of the messiahship of Jesus. When his mother Mary had been engaged..."
You see, Matthew doesn't use the most common word for "birth" when he writes that sentence. He uses the word "genesis," and I think he uses that word deliberately. He wants his hearers to see Jesus' birth as the beginning of a whole new creation from nothing, which is what God needs to do with the nothing that is left after the Romans finished with first Century Judaism. A new beginning. God starting all over again with a new nephesh hayyah β living being β a new Abraham, a new Moses, a new David, a new messianic kingdom inaugurated in the birth of Jesus. No shepherds; no angels; no cows, donkeys or manger. Merely a new creation, begun in Jesus' birth, sealed by Jesus' crucifixion, enacted by Jesus' resurrection, born again and again and again in you and you and you. That's the narrative, that's the story we shape our life around. That's our story, the one that shapes our ethics and gives us identity, purpose and hope.
In all of this I hope you notice that the "facts,"
the details, where it happened and the cast of characters is not important to the evangelists. Just the story. Only the simple truth of Emmanuel β God with us.
According to most contemporary social analysts, we are now living in a "post-fact" context. After two centuries of the scientific method that equates verifiable fact with "truth," "the public" has severed the cord between fact and truth. What takes its place? The narrative; the story line; the story we use to organize and shape our lives, give parameters to our ethics and "creatively" β or not so creatively "shape life in the city."
As in the days of Matthew, Luke and John, there are at least two narratives competing to shape life in our nation, community and city. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John give us one narrative and they're not too worried about providing us with verifiable facts. We call theirs "the Gospel" β in which, as we heard last week "the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them." We hear their story in a currently dominant context
that proclaims that the blind, the lame, the sick, the poor and the otherwise disenfranchised and marginalized might as well be the dead because we have no place for them. Our daily task as God's people is to decide which among these narratives will shape our behavior and our life.
We gather at this table to tell one another and hear one another and be nourished with one another by Jesus' story; by God's ongoing narrative; by the Word become flesh. In this way we are able to believe that Jesus' story is our story and that story β we call it the Gospel β is meant to shape our life so that we can "creatively shape life in this city" that is our world; shape it all around one simple truth, which we hope to recognize each and every day. The truth of Emmanuel. The truth that God is with us. Today. Tomorrow. Every day. That's what God is doing. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.
Amandus J. Derr
Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Saint Matthew 1:18-25