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Love Reigns

Sermon - 12/23/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Matthew 1:18-25

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. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All 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.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.


We heard the gospel of Matthew shared with us earlier in the service [see above].  I want to share another birth story that tells the birth of Jesus a little bit differently.  And it's not in the gospel of Matthew, and it's not in the gospel of Luke.  But it is in the New Testament.  So I'll plant that as a teaser and see if anyone can come up with it.

We hear the Christmas stories so many times, it's a lot like Easter -- it's a story we're so familiar with, we think we know it all.  Pastor's always struggle with how do I present this story in a new and a fresh way.  So I thought I would try and do that today.

In our Tuesday evening class (that we just completed), we've been looking at The First Christmas, a new book written by Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg.  A number of the folk who attended that class said that reading that book and taking that study did give them a new perspective, a fresh look at this very familiar story.

And one of the keys to that fresh perspective was to look at how the Christmas Story was seen not only by the Jews (looking for the Messiah on the throne of Jerusalem), but also by the Romans (who had found a savior on the throne of Rome).  Viewed from that less familiar perspective, we gain some new insights.

So here is one of those new insights that I gained from that study, that gives me a new way of seeing these very familiar texts.  One way to illustrate it comes not from the stories we know so well in the gospel of Matthew or the gospel of Luke, but the 3rd birth story.  Anyone have an idea?

The twelfth chapter of the book of Revelation [verses 1-6]:

A great portent appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars. 2She was pregnant and was crying out in birth pangs, in the agony of giving birth. 3Then another portent appeared in heaven: a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems on his heads. 4His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven and threw them to the earth. Then the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, so that he might devour her child as soon as it was born. 5And she gave birth to a son, a male child, who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron. But her child was snatched away and taken to God and to his throne; 6and the woman fled into the wilderness, where she has a place prepared by God, so that there she can be nourished for one thousand two hundred and sixty days.

Huh.  A little different birth story, isn't it?  One you don't typically see portrayed on Hallmark greeting cards J.

What do we do with this story?  Revelation has always been a challenge for us to understand and interpret.  I had a conversation with a philosophy major at the University of Oregon this week, who shared with me his theory that Revelation is actually the work of anti-Christ.  Now that explains a lot (!).  His rationale is that the message of Revelation, with all of the gore and violence and destruction, is the opposite of the message of Jesus.  And thus he sees Revelation as sort of a biblical Trojan Horse, undermining the message of Jesus from within scripture.  I told him he could make a name for himself if he would get that idea published in some scholarly journal.  Of course, he'd have to go into the federal witness protection program J.  Or be burned at the stake for making such a heretical suggestion.

And I mention that not because I think his idea has any merit -- intriguing as it may be -- I doubt if it would survive scholarly critique.  I mention it just to illustrate how problematic Revelation is.  If you want to read more on that topic, I did a series of sermons back in April and May of 2004 that you can find on our web site.

For now, I would just like to note that it should be obviously clear just from reading this birth story in the 12th chapter that you cannot take this literally.  The pregnant woman is symbolic, as is that multi-headed beast.  And just as clear, though not as obvious for many, is that Revelation was not meant to be read as prediction about future events.  Rather, it is a creative, metaphorical story depicting the cosmic struggle between good and evil.  And the more specific way in which that struggle gets played out, in the last half of the first century, in the struggle between Christians and the Roman Empire that was engaged in some persecution of that Christian community.

And so the the birth of Jesus is told as part of that larger story.  Full of symbols and metaphors.  The mother of Jesus is portrayed not as the virgin Mary but rather as Israel with a crown of 12 stars, that alludes to the 12 tribes of Israel.  The Roman Empire is portrayed as this evil multi-headed beast, the dragon, just waiting for the child to be born, that it might devour him.

Now, regardless of any attempt to kill the baby Jesus by Herod or any other, the point is not that someone was out to get Jesus the moment he was born, but rather that Jesus was destined to clash with the powers of the world, represented by that dragon.

All of that is terribly clear as history revealed, not as future predicted.  Once you see the meaning of the metaphors in John's Revelation, a meaning which is unmistakable if you know a little bit about Greek and Roman mythology, which unfortunately we typically do not.  In which the dragon-like serpent god Python tried to kill the newborn god Apollo.  Apollo is the patron god of Rome and the claimed divine father of Caesar Augustus (under whom Jesus is born).  Caesar proclaimed, therefore, as "Son of God" on Roman coinage, and statues, and throughout the Roman Empire.  And, that child, Apollo, is saved by Zeus.  Just as in Revelation, the sought-after child grows up to slay the beast, Python, in that mythological story.

No first-century reader of Revelation could miss the point, the allusion, the comparison that would be obvious.  Rome, represented by the dragon-slayer Apollo in mythology, has become the new dragon.  And Jesus the new Apollo.  Roles are reversed.

To get a better sense, then, of how such a story would sound to your average Roman citizen in the late 1st century, imagine a presidential candidate telling a story on national T.V. about his or her childhood.  In which she or he says "When I was a young child, I chopped down a cherry tree.  And my father came to me and asked me who chopped down the cherry tree.  And I said -- my opponent!  No, actually, I said 'I cannot tell a lie', I chopped down the cherry tree".

How would we understand that story?  That this candidate is trying to impress us with his or her honesty and truthfulness?  That wouldn't be the point of the story, would it?  The point of the story is that this candidate is trying to present him or herself as the new George Washington.  The one who has come to lead a new birthing of our nation.

Now imagine that candidate telling the story is of Middle Eastern birth.  And from a different religion -- a Muslim.  How would we respond?

You see, that is how this story in Revelation would sound to those Romans of the 1st century.  The divine Son of God, Lord and Savior of the world is not Caesar as we have been told all of our lives, but a foreigner, from a different religion.  Do you think they're going to buy this?

That's the story, at least part of it, told in Revelation.  So bold, so big, so grandiose it could only be told with symbols and supernatural beings and a cosmic struggle.

Much in the same way, the stories were told about the gods of Rome and Greece and Egypt.  The birth stories in Matthew and Luke do the exact same thing.  They make the same point, only they bring the stories down to earth so that they're stories that we can relate to and understand and comprehend.  Stories about how that spiritual, divine world became flesh and dwelt among us.

But the meaning, the real truth behind and beyond the story is the same -- not only is Jesus the Christ, he is the real King of the Jews, not Herod.  He is the true Son of God, Lord and Savior, not Caesar.  And that point is so important that all other historical details are subservient to it.  And thus the many differences in the stories in Matthew and Luke, even a few discrepancies, all of those details are there for a reason.  Intentionally included by the authors to add not just a little 'color' to the story, but to add to our meaning and understanding of what this birth means to us.

For instance, Matthew alone tells us that Joseph intended to divorce Mary when he learned that she was pregnant.  Now why does he include that detail?  Obviously, he could tell the story without it -- because Luke does.  So why does he include that detail?

It turns out there is a story in the Midrash (that's Jewish commentary on the Torah, the first 5 books of the Bible) about the parents of Moses getting divorced in order to avoid having a child.  Why?  Because the Pharaoh had conspired to kill the male children born to the Hebrews because of the threat they had become.  And so they're going to separate and avoid that risk of a child born to them who would only be killed by Pharaoh.  An angel appears to them and tells them to go ahead an reunite, to have a child by the usual way, for God will be with that child.

Do you see the resemblance?  Thus by including this little detail about Joseph intending to divorce Mary, Jewish readers (at least) would immediately make the connection that Mary and Joseph are like the parents of Moses. And therefore their child would be like Moses.  And indeed, throughout the story that Matthew tells us, there are various allusions to that story of Moses so that we will see Jesus not only as the new King, but also as the new Moses.

This is what Borg and Crossan call a "surplus of meaning" found in the birth narratives.  Meaning that takes us far beyond the historical events as told by the gospel writers. 

Now, we can get that point, we can get the meaning of the birth stories.  Borg and Crossan say that if you get that meaning of those stories, you get the meaning of the gospels.  We can get it, but if we continue to live our lives after Christmas no differently than before, what have we gained?  And that's the even deeper point of these stories.  To change our lives.  To go home, as do the Magi in the next chapter of Matthew's gospel, by a different way

So just what does that 'way' look like?  What does a changed life look like?

Matthew gives us some very important clues just in the way that he tells the story.  Take the genealogy, for instance.  When was the last time you read the genealogy of Jesus?  The first thing Matthew does is he gives us this genealogy.  I have heard of preachers that will devote an entire sermon to the genealogy of Jesus, but I've never met one.  And I've not been so brave or foolish to attempt that.  But I'll just point out one little interesting detail of that genealogy.

Matthew names 5 women.  40 fathers, but only 5 mothers.  Not quite sure how that works out, but somehow it does.  Why mention just these 5?  Well, all five have remarkable stories which border on the scandalous.  Tamar disguises herself as a prostitute and hooks up with her father-in-law, Judah, because he has not fulfilled the law and married her off to one of his younger sons after her husband dies (according to tradition, if your husband dies, then any brothers are obliged to take you into their family so that you will not be destitute and so that you can provide for the continuation of the family line).  Judah fails to do that, so she has to trick him, and thus she conceives and bears children of Judah, her father-in-law.  Not exactly what we would call traditional family values J.

Rahab is a prostitute in Jericho, who hides Israelite spies in her home, and who is also a Gentile.  She is one of those mothers named in the genealogy of Jesus.

Ruth, a very familiar story, also a Gentile, seduces who soon-to-be husband when the relatives of her deceased husband fail to fulfill their obligations to take her into their family.

And then Bathsheba.  Again, a familiar story, David sees her baby, conspires to have her husband murdered so he can take her as his wife, she becomes the mother of Solomon.

Thus when we get to Mary, the fact that she is a pregnant teenage virgin seems minor in comparison to these other 4 women J.  These are the types of relatives most families try to conceal in their family tree.  And Matthew shines a spotlight on them.

What does their inclusion in this genealogy, as ancestors of Jesus, suggest to you?

In the case of Mary, the law stipulated that a pregnant woman betrothed to someone else should be stoned to death.  And before Joseph knows anything about the circumstances of the conception he vows to divorce her quietly so she can go on and live her life.  What does his intent of benevolence toward Mary suggest to you?

And lastly, in chapter 2, as you know that first people to pay homage to Jesus are the Magi -- foreigners.  Followers not just of a star, but of a different religion.  What does that suggest to you?

Again, I say these are not minor details casually included by Matthew to make the story more interesting.  They are there for a reason.

So here's my point, and I think it's Matthew's too:  the reign of this infant-to-be King will not be like any others.  Not Herod's, not Caesar's.  Or even those Magi from the East.  This King is destined to break down the barriers between people.  Between Jew and Gentile.  He will make racial boundaries meaningless and national boundaries unnecessary.  This King will challenge traditional family values and redefine what it means to be a child of God or a member of the family of God.  He will save people from, not condemn them for, their sins.  He will seek out what is good for each individual.  Destined for execution himself, he will spare others of the death penalty.  He will seek equality for men and women, Jew and Gentile, slave and free. 

This is, Matthew tells us, what Immanuel -- "God with us" -- looks like.

This is the kingdom of God where love reigns for once, and for all. 

The birth of Jesus changes our world, and for those who choose to follow him, it changes us.


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