Author: Craddock, Fred
Date published: December 14, 2010
Sunday, December 19
WHEN THE LECTIONARY tells me I can skip a few verses. I am not suspicious. I don'l ask what secret is being kept from me or what doctrine is being protected. Very likely the omitted material is totally boring, or too bloody, or repeated elsewhere, or judged to offer no nourishment to faith hungering for bread. Most likely the decision to omit was a practical one: in a three-year cycle there is not enough time to ponder every verse in the Bible. It's only this and nothing more. G am not suspicious.
But I am curious. Ts someone protecting me from my Bible? Not i\ welcome thought. Is something being forbidden, like the one tree in the Garden of Eden? I am in no condition to proceed Io 1:18 until I take a peek at 1:1-17. 1 know it's lhe fourth Sunday of Advent and Bethlehem is only a short walk away, but this is important. What's in Matthew 1:1-17?
A genealogy! I should have known. President Eisenhower once said that as a boy in a religious home, he was instructed to read the entire Bible, but, he said, "I was permitted to skip the begets." Good enough for me.
I did, however, notice something unusual about verse one. It is an introduction not to the genealogy but to the whole of the Gospel of Matthew. Matthew ):1 could be translated: "A Book of Genesis of Jesus Christ, Son of David. Son of Abraham." It is the writer's title for the book the church calls the Gospel of Matthew. The writer almost repeats the title at verse 18: "And the genesis of Jesus Christ took place in this way." In other words, the story we are about to read joins creation (genesis) and history (genealogy) to the person Jesus Christ. The story we are about to read is huge! And when we read, we are pondering the activity of God, which is to say we are in Advent.
Since Matthew could assume a reader with little need for explanations, we may want to remind ourselves of a few details about the story. First of all, this Joseph recalls another Joseph, also a dreamer and an interpreter of dreams (Gen, 37:40-41). Second, the name Jesus is a variation of Joshua, the successor to Moses, as Jesus will be in Matthew's portrayal of him.
Finally, it's helpful to note that the reader of Matthew 1:18-25 has valuable information before the characters in the story do. For example, the reader knows that Mary is with child in verse 38; Joseph does not know until verse 20. This difference makes his behavior all the more remarkable. When he decides to protect Mary from humiliation and punishment (Deut. 22:23-27). he does so contrary ?? the law. and he does so because he is just (righteous). Matthew's Jesus will give repeated instruction in this justice thai exceeds justice.
Yet these insights do not alter the announcement as announcement: "The genesis of Jesus Christ took place in this way." Suddenly we are launched into the season of Advent, which puts before us the twin mysteries of our faith: the mystery of the God who comes to us and the mystery of our longing for God to come. If there is a third mystery, it is the tenacity of our faith which refuses to give up hope. Some do give up hope and demand that faith become sight. They stand on street corners shouting "Lo, here" and "Lo, there." But we do not follow. Why not? Is it because it is easier to believe thai a messiah will come than to believe that a messiah has come? Is it because the overwhelming powers of greed and injustice argue persuasively that God has not and will not come? I do not know.
What I do know is that every year for four weeks we wait. Ours is not a passive waiting; we wonder as we wait. We wait in the heavy joy of repentance, which cleanses us to be ready to receive the One Who Comes. We renew baptismal vows. We encourage one another in order to be a community of fresh expectancy. And we pray, "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" and "Come, O Long Expected Jesus." At times we fuss at God: "How long, O Lord? How long will you tarry?" Our generation is impatient. Advent lasts loo long. Nasty notes are passed to the choirmaster: "We don't know these Advent songs. Why don't we sing some carols? Everybody is already having Christmas except the church." The preacher is urged to dip into Luke at least one Sunday early; a few angels and a shepherd or two would surely get us out of this dark wailing room.
We are like the student who responded to Robert Frost at a poetry reading. Frost sometimes read his poetry to university audiences. On one such occasion he closed his reading with (he familiar line "promises to keep and miles ?? go before I sleep." A hand shot up.
"You spoke of promises to keep. What promises?"
Frost replied, "If I had wanted you to know, I would have told you."
When we're tired of waiting for the promise to be revealed, Matthew is good for us. He chides us. "If you think four weeks is a long wait, join me on page one of the Book of Genesis of Jesus Christ and we will journey through 42 generations, at the end of which we will meet 'Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born.'" Think of Matthew 1:18-25 as a birth announcement; it is brief- and all the words are the author's, with neither Joseph nor Mary having speaking parts.
Reflection on the lectionary
Sunday, December 26
TODAY IS DECEMBER 20. it is still Christmas and it will be until January 6. My mother did not think so. On the evening oļ December 25 she tossed the tree, put away the decorations, fed the family the leftovers and announced it was 365 days until Christmas. For her the Depression stole Christmas, widening the gulf between those who have and those who do not.
Today is Christmas, and so is tomorrow and tomorrow for 12 days. We need every day of it to reflect on what God has done among us. "Emmanuel," says Matthew. "God is with us." Judging by the careful attention he gives to it, Matthew must have loved this season. Our text is but a slice of the story, but 2:13-23 is pregnant with remembrances of Israel's past: the saga of Joseph the dreamer in Egypt, the violent pharaoh. the rescue of the infant Moses, the lament of mother Rachel, the exodus from Egypt and the arrival of the holy family in the promised land. The narrative is carefully framed in three sections, each concluding with a quotation of scripture (verses 15, 17-18, 23), but the passage is doubly enriched by allusions to and echoes of Israel's history and hope. A refrain, "the child and his mother" (repeated four times after verse 11), holds the narrative together, makes it easy to remember and repeat, and moves the reader with the image of faithful Joseph keeping the family safe by his obethence to the will of God. Almost incidentally, Matthew is able to answer the persistent question: how could one born in Bethlehem of Judea become Jesus of Nazareth in Galilee?
The entirety of Matthew 2:13-23 is set in motion by the event of 2:1-12, the coming of wise men from the east to Jerusalem. This event is told in the manner of an antieslablishment story, a peasant-versus-king story, a story protesting abuses by the powerful against the powerless. These stories can be found in every culture. Early American colonists, smarting under the heel of King George III, delighted in reciting, "Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall; Humpty Dumpty had a great fall. All the king's horses and all the king's men could not put Humpty Dumpty together again." One can imagine camel drivers around an evening fire enjoying their hatred of Herod.
Matthew's story begins almost humorously: magi come to Herod's city asking the way to the newborn king. You do not ask the king, "Where's the king?" The city is in turmoil; Herod's throne is in question. But Matthew's point is clear: there are two kings; there are two kingdoms, one of violence. one of peace. Violence has its sword drawn against peace, but at every turn, Herod's attempt to destroy Jesus is thwarted by the will of God revealed to and carried out by Joseph. There is no reason to believe that the death of Herod will end the chase. After Herod comes Herod Archelaus, after Herod Archelaus comes another Herod, and another and another. The reader of Matthew will want, therefore, to follow the theme of two kings, two kingdoms to the end of the story.
In fact, we might well take a little time to observe the unfolding of the drama that began at Christmas. The pattern is set: Jesus the King of Peace retreats before Herod the King of Violence. At first, the decision is Joseph's: from Judea to Egypt, then from Egypt to Judea, and finally from Judea to Nazareth in Galilee.
When the narrative continues, Jesus is an adult: what happens to the pattern of threat and retreat now that Jesus is ready to announce the coming of God's kingdom? The old threat reappears: Herod Antipas arrests John the Baptist. In the Jordan Valley, Jesus hears of John's arrest and retreats to Galilee. He moves his home from Nazareth to Capernaum and makes teaching and healing tours. Success is interrupted by a conspiracy to kill him. Jesus retreats, asking the crowd not to reveal his whereabouts. John is executed, and Jesus retreats alone in a boat to a deserted place. Soon comes a verbal clash with a delegation from Jerusalem. Again Jesus retreats, this time to the north, near Tyre and Sidon. He returns to Israel only tobe interrogated by leaders of the religious establishment. He withdraws again, but begins to tell his disciples he must go to Jerusalem. Perhaps now he will draw a line in the sand: no more retreat.
Al his arrest one of his disciples resorts to violence. Jesus says no: If 1 wanted, God would send 12 legions of angels to fight for me. He could have, but he didn't. Maybe at Golgotha he will call down divine power and destroy his enemies. He could have, but he didn't.
There is no power like the power of restraint, and there is no restraint like the restraint of love.
The anillar is Fred Craddock. who is professor emeritus of preaching and New Testament in flic Ctnuller School of Theology a! Emory University in Allanta.