by John Williams
Isaiah 63: 7-9
Matthew 2: 13-23
If at Christmas we look into the manger and see only the historical Jesus, a baby born in a far-off place over 2000 years ago, then we have missed the point of Christmas. We have the choice of staying there or moving on to experience the wonder of being the children of a loving God who lives within us now.
We are not celebrating a birth over 2000 years ago. We are celebrating a loving God who is with us now and will lead us into the new in 2014.
If we DARE believe all this beyond the comfortable Christmas of a baby in the manger of straw, we will find Christmas to be disturbing, challenging and life changing. For I believe we are called in the scriptures to follow a Jesus who was about turning things around, in our lives, our nation and our planet. Matthew is saying in our reading today that Jesus is God’s chosen agent of liberation, just as Moses was.
Let me see if I can unpack that for us now.
The busy crush of Christmas…the shopping, the crowds, the hot cars in parking lots, the tired feet, the busy round of functions, huge family gatherings, the pressure of it all… we all have just been through it!
This hectic pace and pressure to make it all happen can so easily crowd out the PROFOUND nature of that first Christmas.
And even should our thoughts play around the events of Jesus’ birth, they can find it hard to step behind the stage props to consider the meaning of it all…
- The actors have become so predictable
- The plot wearyingly familiar
- The scene all too comfortable
But even when we do stop to consider the “babe in the straw” …what do we see…
It’s easy to worship a baby in a manager…everybody loves a baby.
How do we move on beyond that “babe in the straw”?
What do you see…“Dare we take seriously the Christian Christmas?” –
- This baby at Bethlehem, this scandal of a God/man.
- Is the story of the baby God possible?
- No it can’t be. .. But at least he was a good man and he did give us some useful rules to live by… that’s a reasonable position.
- HOWEVER, the Christian position calls us to accept with Mary that this child is the Son of God.
- God, the creator of the universe now made man.
3. DARE WE BELIEVE THIS?
Yet…these are the claims we must each confront if we want to move on beyond “a baby lying in manager of straw,” to take up a response to the out-stretched arms of a loving God.
But can we easily move on?
No…It would perhaps make more sense to walk on by and leave it all as a quaint, even charming myth that underpinned the Christian era which has now passed on.
Certainly this is a defendable stance.. a way to move on…just move on leave these claims behind and get on with life….who wants to be a child of God …anyhow!
With the writings of CS Lewis…it is interesting to see that he finds Christmas a challenge to his faith.
In his book “The Problem of Pain” he writes:
“There was a man born among Jews who claimed to be, the son of, or to be ‘one with’, the Something which is at once the awful haunter of nature and the giver of moral laws. The claim is so shocking…that only two views of the man are possible. Either He (Jesus) is a raving lunatic of an unusually abominable type, or else He was and is, precisely what he said.”
When we gaze at a nativity scene, I would like us just to pause and say; “Who was that baby there?
When we look at the crib, can we take up the belief that:
“The word became flesh and dwelt among us full of grace and truth and we beheld his glory as God the father” (John 1:14)
Because if we can say JESUS, SON OF GOD there is no statement in the creed, that should EVER bother us again.
Personally, I find Christmas …the greatest test of my faith.
For me the acceptance of the resurrection pales in to insignificance compared to the incredible happening, which we celebrate at Christmas.
4. DARE WE “MOVE-ON”… and leave behind the baby in the straw manager.
IF we can leave behind the baby and go into the 2014,knowing that the light of the world is not in the straw manger but within us, this has huge implications for each of us.
We can assert that:
- He has become one with us, worked with hands, tripped on dusty roads and shared our fortune. Nothing that is of earth, good or true is foreign to him. Henceforth nothing human is foreign to God.
- The incarnation at Christmas put an end to any dichotomy between God and man.
- God has not forsaken the creation and within it the human condition but is committed to it and has destined that it be without blemish and full of love and truth.
- Christians cannot retreat to supernaturalism, which spurns the earth and ignores human responsibility for the sake of a place in a heaven to come.
God in our world means we follow his old commands
- “Act justly, love kindness and walk humbly with your God.” (Micah 6:8)
- “Let justice roll on like a river, And righteousness like an ever-flowing stream” (Amos 5:24)
The birth of Jesus means that God is not only in our world and calls us to seek his justice in our world — but it goes further as told in the Matthew 2:13-24 story this morning…because if we do dare to move on beyond the babe in straw this story has important insights into what this decision may mean for us.
5. IS IT HISTORY OR MEANING THAT MATTERS TO OUR LIVING?
But to get these insights Nathan Nettleton has an important message for us.
Nathan says “people get really hung up about the literal truth of these stories sometimes and then miss the whole point of them because they are too busy arguing about it. It makes no difference at all to the content of Christian faith whether Jesus actually went to Egypt when he was a baby or not. It makes no more difference than whether Jesus had brown eyes or green eyes. I don’t care whether it was a historical fact or not and neither did Matthew when he wrote it.
The birth stories are not told because they are historically accurate.
They are told because of what they mean.
And what they contribute to our understanding of Jesus and who he was.
The actual historical details are largely irrelevant; Mark and John have no Christmas stories at all and we don’t consider them sub-standard accounts because of this omission.
They just didn’t need those stories to make their treatise of faith so they didn’t use them. Luke didn’t need the stories of the wise men or the escape to Egypt or the killing of the infants so he didn’t use them; he used a story about shepherds and angels instead; a story that Matthew doesn’t use.
If we had to worry only about whether they were accurate accounts of history or not, I could tell you that Jesus and his parents went to Egypt when he was a baby and that a nasty king killed a lot of babies and then we could all go home and believe it fervently and it wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference to any of our lives.
But what we are actually seeking to hear this morning is what Matthew was meaning when he told these stories in his particular way and even more importantly, how his message translates for us now”
6. WHAT IS MATTHEW TRYING TO TELL US ABOUT JESUS
Remember Matthew was writing for Jewish people.
Egypt had, and still has, a central defining place in Jewish self-understanding. To the Jewish mind, Egypt evoked images of slavery, of oppression, of captivity, of displacement and dispossession. And the coming out of Egypt was, to the Jewish mind, the birth of the nation, the great liberation, the defining event of God’s decisive action for his chosen people, bringing them out of captivity and leading them to a new hope, a new future, a promised land.
Remember Matthew was writing for Jewish people.
And this story taps straight into the most treasured and self-defining stories in Hebrew folklore. Every Jewish family recited and partially enacted the stories of the escape from Egypt every year at Passover. It was more familiar to them than the Christmas stories are to us. Every Hebrew kid grew up on stories of Moses floating in the bulrushes to avoid the slaughter of the infants, and of the grown Moses coming out of hiding after the death of the Pharaoh who had sought to kill him. Matthew’s readers and listeners were not going to miss his blatant cross-referencing to these stories of the central figure in the great liberation of God’s people.
Perhaps this is He! All the signs are there! The one like Moses! The chosen one of Yahweh! The promised Messiah of God! The one who will bring freedom to the prisoners and liberty to the captives! The one who will burst us free from the shackles of oppression and lead us to a new hope and a new future, a promised land!
Jesus, Matthew is saying, is God’s chosen agent of liberation, just as Moses was.
This act of liberation is not a one-off event that can be completed in one place in one lifetime. This act of liberation may have begun with the baby in Bethlehem, but it is to be continued by all those who would bear the name of Christ in every place where there is suffering, distress, injustice, poverty, despair and oppression.
The baby who fled repression in Bethlehem and died confronting it in Jerusalem, lived and died and is with us always so that we can be liberated from the brokenness that is within us and be healed so that we can confront the brokenness in the world outside us and bring freedom to a suffering world.
That is the message of Christmas.
7. SO HOW DO WE “MOVE-ON”?
It tells of a God of Love who became one with us.
- Suffering with us, struggling with us, fleeing with us, hiding with us, hurting with us.
- Confronting sin with us, overcoming hatred with us, achieving freedom with us, living with us, loving with us, celebrating with us.
- He came as a servant king. God was vulnerable in Jesus, yet ultimately victorious.
- God came, and is with us now, in ways that can help us most… space for God to reveal, live and travel with us in new and unexpected ways.
- As we have been learning in Advent it is about …as Matthew suggests in his story…it’s about BUILDING A BETTER WORLD.
As Australians we face many issues that need to be reformed, to be changed, turned around, and even turned upside down. It means that to follow Jesus as God’s chosen agent of liberation we will be prepared to confront oppression and injustice and press for reform.
- For me one of the issues today is seeking ways to live within the capacity of the life-support systems of our planet. How do we move from fossil fuels to power our civilization? The capital investment in the fossil fuel is so huge while the capital, power of the fossil fuel industries and their self-interest argue against renewable energy. It will be a huge re-think to move investment away from fossil fuels. But in the main we must. It seems strange that we often hear that our future lies in continuing to export huge amounts of fossil fuels…really!!
- How do we build a society that is just and fair in the opportunities and wealth distribution. Is reform in our economy only to be borne by lower wages while no burden of change is to be carried by the wealthy and powerful?
- How do we act justly towards the poverty and dysfunction in our Indigenous and poor-white and ethnic communities?
- How do we act justly towards our refugees…the list could go on…
But I see in our Matthew story an expectation that Jesus leads us, if he is more than a babe in a crib filled with straw, to seek justice and liberation from oppression in our nation, our community and within ourselves.
The truth is God is with us and Matthew sees our loving God in Jesus as a liberator and He lives within us …as Brooke lead us on Tuesday evening to hear that he lives within us…let’s watch and listen…
As we do…find a word, a phrase, an image or a moment that you can hold on to and affirm in your own way and let God sit with you as you prepare to:
- to leave behind the baby in the straw manger and go into 2014 knowing that the light of the world is not in the crib but within you.
- And therefore go forwards with much hope.
29 December 2013
Acknowledgement to Nathan Nettleton for use of material from The Refugee Liberator
A sermon on Matthew 2: 13-23 by Nathan Nettleton, 27 December 1992