Advent IV, 2016
Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey by the time he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the child knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land before whose two kings you are in dread will be deserted.”
The Book of Isaiah 7:10-16, NRSV
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20 But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” 24 When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25 but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.
Gospel According to Matthew 1:18-25, NRSV
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way….
The birth narratives in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are among the most well known, best loved, frequently enacted and honored stories in the entire Christian Testament. They are also the least trusted by scholars as authentic. Although for years they have been summarily dismissed by the academic community as mere myth, they have always been the most accessible part of the Jesus story for the vast majority of Christians. Every year we flock to Bethlehem to await with joyous expectancy the birth of our new hope. Some of us follow on to Nazareth and Capernaum and Jericho. Fewer follow into the solitude of the Galilean hills and on to Jerusalem. And to Calvary….almost none. Each stage of the journey becomes more and more difficult. Each stage of Jesus’ mission casts a new uneasy shadow on our light of joyous expectancy; the light that is lit right here in Advent. But when that beautiful baby is born to a couple of ordinary, yet extraordinarily willing country folk in the bucolic burg of Bethlehem….we are all right there!
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way….
As many of you know, the two birth narratives in our canon are astonishingly different; different in tone, in perspective, in their vision of who Jesus is and will be, and different in their location of power. Luke’s account is told from the perspective of Mary. It is the story of the nativity, the humble birth of a humble baby born in a mere manger, and heralded by mere shepherds. Matthew’s account is told from the perspective of Joseph. And it is the story of the epiphany, the brilliant promise of the incarnation to a world oppressed by a misguided power structure. If Luke’s markers are shepherds and a manger, Matthew’s markers are Herod and a star. Luke’s story is a commentary on how Jesus will gather the margins of the world to the center. Matthew’s story is a commentary on how Jesus will turn the power structures of the world on their heads. Two very different visions.
And yet they are interdependent; gathering the margins to the center and upending the power structures that not only permit but engender and encourage injustice, especially at the margins. It’s a both/and, these perspectives from Luke and Matthew. And so we often conflate these two very political New Creation birth narratives into one “Charlie Brown Christmas story.”
Despite the mythical/mystical grounding of the Gospel stories, the historical framework that underlies the birth of Jesus is less contested. The history of how the people of God got from this morning’s reading in Isaiah, to the birth of Immanuel from the Virgin Mary (which seems to have been foretold in this morning’s reading from Isaiah), to this celebration of Advent IV in the year 2016 has some familiar reoccurrences.
(The blue type is historical background which can be skipped if history is not your deal!)
This morning’s passage from the seventh chapter of Isaiah was likely written in the 8th century before the common era. At least a hundred years before the exile when the Temple of God was destroyed by the Babylonians and the people of God were cast out from their homeland to live in the land of the aggressors for roughly half a century. They were a people in despair. Until Cyrus, the King of Persia, conquered the Babylonians and restored the people of God to their home in Judea. They were a grateful people restored, albeit under a foreign rule; and for the next almost 400 years.
Until 160 years before the birth of Jesus when an uprising of Jewish rebels, later known as the Maccabees1, took control of Judea, and specifically Jerusalem. They reasserted Jewish rule in the region, and purified and rededicated the Temple, which was, not incidentally, the first Chanukah.2
And the Jewish Maccabees ruled relatively copacetically for about 100 years. Until roughly 63 years before the birth of Jesus when the marriage between Temple and State imploded. The Maccabbees succumbed to a sort of family feud. For reasons too complex to discuss here, the Monarchy (represented by the Pharisees) found themselves at mortal odds with the High Priests (represented by the Sadducees). We hear a lot about this family feud throughout the Gospels. But here are the roots. Sixty years before the birth of Jesus.
Anyway, a Roman general named Pompeus intervened in the Maccabean civil war and Israel effectively became a client state of the Roman Empire.
In the year 37 before the birth of Jesus, Herod the Great was installed as the King of Israel; the homeland of the Jewish people of God. Which is why the Roman Senate called him the “King of the Jews.”
But Herod the Great was….actually not so great, especially to his opponents and to those dangerous Jewish rabble rousers who threatened the stability of the kingdom. The later works of Josephus describe Herod’s rule as tyrannical and despotic. He was pompous and arrogant and very thin skinned. He brutally repressed his dissenters, amassing a huge secret police and using them to spy on his opposition. He prohibited all protests of any kind, and arrested (or worse) anyone who dared to oppose him.
He also had a passion for building magnificent classical edifices….edificis? It has been said that “epic” was his genre of choice. And he spent ridiculous sums of money on these monuments to his personal prowess, such as the Temple Mount which bears his mark to this day as and is known as the…..Western Wall. Herod the Great ruled with an opulent iron fist.
Until four years before Jesus was born when Herod the Great died. And his youngest son, Herod Antipas (an dee pas), stepped into his father’s shoes. He became the King Herod of Jesus Christ Superstardom, the surrogate ruler of Galilee answering to the Emperor of Rome, Caesar Augustus. And although he was known as “King Herod,” he was never officially awarded that title. Like his father before him, Herod Antipas had ambitious and paranoid tendencies.3 This “King of the Jews” reigned from four years before the birth of Jesus until six years after his death……and resurrection.
Which brings us to the Incarnation; the precipice of the common era. Herod Antipas was newly in power. The realm was in a volatile state, especially regarding relations between Romans and Jews. And Mary and Joseph were two seemingly insignificant bystanders with no semblance of power or standing in the political, economic or social spheres of the Roman Empire. They were simply subjects of the realm, and poor, un-influential ones at that. They were not activists. They were not rebels. They were not political players of any sort. And I think it is safe to assume that they did not see themselves as agents in the upending of the power structures of the world or the gathering of people from the margins to the center any more than they saw themselves as the subjects of beloved canticles and prayers that would be lifted in worship around the world, every Advent for the next two thousand years.
Until they each received a visit from an Angel of the Lord.
The birth of our New Creation is not only told in two of our canonical Gospels, it is also told in several non-canonical gospels.4 All of these accounts, canonical and non-canonical, has a few common elements. They all relate the birth of the baby Jesus. They all agree that Mary and Joseph were his earthly parents. They all agree that Mary was chaste and Joseph was old. And they all rely on the critical appearance of “an angel of the Lord” to both comfort and convince our wholly human heroines.
Last year, in Luke’s Gospel, we heard how the Angel of the Lord came to Mary. This year we just heard how the Angel comes to Joseph: Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him….
The Angel of the Lord is the only common element besides Jesus and Joseph and Mary in both the canonical and the primary non-canonical birth narratives. Now, angels are pretty prominently featured in both the Hebrew Scriptures and the Christian Testament alike. They appear well over 200 times in our Holy Scripture. But a so-called “Angel of the Lord” is much more rare. This exact phrase appears only 11 times in the New Testament; 7 are in the Gospels; and 5 of those are in the birth narratives of Jesus. The 6th is in the birth narrative of John the Baptist. And the 7th is at the very end of Matthew when an Angel of the Lord rolls back the stone on Jesus’ empty tomb, ushering in his life everlasting. In the Gospels, an Angel of the Lord appears almost exclusively to announce and facilitate a miraculously conceived new life.
And it is hard to see how the birth of Jesus could have been orchestrated without an Angel of the Lord. Could Mary or Joseph have agreed to God’s preposterous plan without the steadfast assurance of an Angel of the Lord to walk with them? Who else could have superseded the power of peer pressure and social norms, or mere common sense and reason? As the writer Madelyn L’engle wrote of Advent:
Behold the irrational season
When love burns bright and wild
Had Mary been filled with reason There’d have been no room for the child.
An Angel of the Lord always trumps human expectations. But this is the job of an Angel of the Lord, to render our human sense of reason and propriety moot in the face of divine wisdom. And so it is hard to imagine that our ordinary Mary and our average Joe would or could have been such willing and able agents of God’s work in this world without a visit from such an Angel. As Mary and Joseph can attest, when our human expectation has been stretched to its very outer limit, only an Angel of the Lord can intervene and resize the realm.
And Lord knows this realm of ours could use some resizing. Like the realm in which Mary and Joseph lived we may be headed for another Herod-like era. For our own ruler-elect seems to have similar tendencies: authoritarian, thin skinned, and with a misplaced sense of his public purpose. According to his Twitter feed, he seems much more concerned about his portrayal on Saturday Night Live and receiving a bad restaurant review than about the civilian executions taking place in Aleppo or the reports of tampering with the United States electoral process. And it is more than slightly Herodian for a president-elect of a free nation to suggest jail time (or worse) for flag-burners and his own personal opponents alike (“lock her up!”). And it is alarming that the chief servant of the people, as our president is intended to be, has appointed a foreclosure king to head the Treasury, a science denier to head the EPA, an opponent of public education to head the Department of Education, an apparent racist to be the Attorney General….and the list just never seems to end. It begs the question, which people are being served? And finally, we are about to install a head of state who thus far has refused to separate his private interests from the common-wealth, which is almost sure to place the interests of the nation he serves behind the inheritance he will leave to his children and his own personal global estate.
My friends, these are trying times. But no more trying than they were on the advent of the birth of the New Creation. And let us be heartened that no one but an Angel of the Lord saw that new life, that New Creation, coming. And yet it came. It came through simple, ordinary people who were not unlike….us. Sometimes there is seemingly no hope until hope is miraculously born.
And so I am almost certain that soon and very soon, we will not just be called, but also empowered to change this world in ways that we cannot even yet conceive. And somewhere between our incredulity and our fear around what we will be asked to do, and our consent to do it …an Angel of the Lord will appear and tap us on the shoulder, settle in the pit of our upset stomach, and descend upon our palpable angst in such a way that the wholly unimaginable will suddenly, immediately, instantly and without explanation become not only possible, but imperative. It will be the Angel of the Lord that will open our hearts and minds to the possibilities for us and our world; possibilities that only God can now envision.
But let us beware. When that moment comes, that moment that puts us outside of our…selves, it will shatter our expectations for our lives and our fortunes and our future. It will ask us to rise to heights that we may neither choose nor want to reach. It may seek to transform us into people we may neither be able to imagine nor even want to be. And I am guessing at that moment, like Mary and Joseph and the shepherds on the hill, we will be sore afraid.
Until, from the rubble of our fallen expectations, from the depth of our fear at facing whatever is asked of us by a God – who seems to have a wildly inflated sense of our capacity to change – just then, an Angel of the Lord will appear to us and deliver this crystal-clear message. A message that will carry us through every step of the work that lies ahead. And it will be the same message that was delivered to Mary and to Joseph. And the message is:
- You are not alone.
- You are not in charge.
- You are not insignificant.
And we will not be able to help but hear, as did Mary and Joseph, that we have been chosen especially, particularly, specifically by our Creator to bear our part of God’s dream; to bear our etching of God’s image in and through our own flesh; to rejoice in the unspeakably rich new life that awaits nothing more than our consent. And we have nothing to fear.
Just ask Linus. Blogger Jason Soroski, an evangelical pastor, recently made a wonderful observation about the Charlie Brown Christmas special.5 We all remember it. Right? Near the end, in answer to Charlie Brown’s frustrated question: Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?! Linus calmly assures his friend that he knows. And he steps onto the stage, lowers the lights, and begins to quote Luke’s Gospel, verbatim: And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field keeping watch over their flocks. And lo, an Angel of the Lord came upon them. And the glory of the Lord shone upon them. And they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them…. and here is Soroski’s wonderful observation: right before he quotes the Angel of the Lord, Linus, who never ever unhands his precious blanket, flings it on the floor as he emphatically continues quoting the Angel who frees us to follow. As Linus unhands his blanket he declares: Fear not! It is the one and only time that Linus drops his security blanket. At the very moment when he quotes the Angel of the Lord saying fear not!
Linus dropped his security blanket the way I imagine Mary and Joseph dropped theirs. And so the birth of Jesus took place in this way. It could not have taken place in any other way. Fear not, we will not be asked to do this work alone or unattended. This terrifying news that we are personally to be the bearers of God in a world that does not seem to be ready to bear God, is the joyous expectancy that dances within and among us this and every Advent season. This is what we await. Our own agency as God’ bearers. And so the Gospel reads: Now the birth of God took place in this way….
Ah. Did you hear it? Matthew does not start this story with the word “now” for nothing. Now! the birth of God took place in this way….
And so, fear not dear friends, let us drop our own blankets because like it or not, we are on that way!
1 Also known as the Hasmoneans. From the family of Mattathias
2 According to tradition as recorded in the Talmud, at the time of the rededication, there was very little oil left that had not been defiled by the Greeks. Oil was needed for the menorah (candelabrum) in the Temple, which was supposed to burn throughout the night every night. There was only enough oil to burn for one day, yet miraculously, it burned for eight days. An eight day festival was declared to commemorate this miracle. Note that the holiday commemorates the miracle of the oil, not the military victory: Jews do not glorify war. From: http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/Judaism/holiday7.html
4 The Infancy Gospels of James and Thomas, the Infancy Gospel of pseudo- Matthew, and the Latin Infancy Gospel to name a few.
© December 2016, The Rev’d. Gretchen Sanders Grimshaw