Saturday, December 20, 2014

Matthew 1:17-25 The First Christmas

Monday (v. 17)  'Wrong or Just Different?'
17 So all the generations from Abraham to David are fourteen generations; from David to the deportation to Babylon, fourteen generations; and from the deportation to Babylon to the Messiah, fourteen generations.

'The book of the genealogy of Jesus...' (v. 1)

Well, not exactly. The count is wrong (v. 17). Names are missing. Generations are too long. It doesn't match up with Luke's genealogy. And Matthew's list seems to establish Joseph as the biological father of Jesus. In other words, in the very first chapter of Matthew's gospel we are presented with a host of questions about the accuracy of his account, questions that Bible scholars have never been able to answer definitively.

So, if chapter one is questionable, why should we accept anything else that follows as factual? If we don't have the 'facts' about Jesus from the gospels, how can we come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah? Should we therefore toss Matthew's gospel because verses 1-17 of chapter one just doesn't 'compute'?

Perhaps, though, these may be the wrong questions to ask. Should we really assume that we can ever fully understand the thinking used by this author to establish his faith in Jesus nearly two millennia ago? Should it even matter to us why this genealogy seemed to be foundational to Matthew's 'reason for his faith'? Or should we be 'inspired' simply by the fact that he had faith in Jesus, whatever his reasons? Must the many reasons for 'his' faith be, in their entirety, 'my' reasons for faith? Must each and every reason for first century faith be forever uniform with all people, throughout all generations? Was the 'tipping point' for faith in Jesus based on the same 'fact' for each and every first century believers? Shouldn't each person be only concerned with their own, personal 'reasons for faith', not with what led others to faith? Were the many teachings of Matthew intended to be used in an inductive approach that would bring folks to belief in Jesus as the Messiah or were they presented for those who had already established their belief in God and would be reading this gospel more deductively?

Whatever Matthew's thinking might have been for his particular belief in and rendering of the genealogy of Jesus, it does not have to form the foundation for my faith. We may never understand why he wrote it the way he did or why it may have buoyed his particular faith in Christ. The point is that there are many stories in the four gospels that don't, by themselves, bolster my faith in Christ, though they do for others. Yet, when the gospels are taken as a whole, along with our own individual 21st century spiritual experiences, each one of us must determine for ourselves what will be our own unique set of reasons for or against faith.

Now I've said all that just to say this, I don't believe that the scriptures should be received as valuable only if I can establish that they are without error in all respects. The authors of scripture were not God's pen, rather - in my opinion - they were his penmen. They wrote from their personal experiences, each person being themselves an undeniable 'work in progress'. They chose stories and notions that had helped establish their faith, without demanding that anyone else come to faith in Jesus as the Messiah based on exactly all the same reasons underlying their own choices to believe. In other words, what we read in the gospels is an account of what inspired 'their' faith, not necessarily what must inspire 'our' faith. We simply read their stories of faith and they will either create faith within us, strengthen our faith, or not move us to faith. Either way, what we end up with, hopefully, is our own, unique story of faith. God is not on trial in this or any other gospel account. Nor is the individual author.  Whether all that Matthew wrote is factually accurate or not, it represents his belief at the time he wrote his gospel. The one who is on trial, so to speak, is the one who is currently reading Matthew's gospel. Whatever their conviction, will they act on it?

If I took all that I believe and created a 'gospel according to Bill', what would be included? Which stories from the gospels would I exclude - stories that just don't 'work' for me? Which stories from my own life would I feel compelled to add? Would there be some stories that would inspire faith in others, yet would there also be stories that just didn't resonate spiritually with anyone but 'me'? Frankly, I would, as in both Mark and John's gospels, not include a genealogy. I don't believe we have sufficiently accurate information to establish the genealogy of Jesus in a manner that appeals to modern western intellect. But, that's just my thinking.

Whether everyone would understand all that has led me to faith or not, my accounts would be what God has used in 'my' life to inspire 'my' faith. Thus, Matthew's genealogy, however he reasoned it, inspired his faith in Jesus as the long awaited, promised Messiah. If the questions raised in his genealogy bother you, set it aside and simply read on. There is much more to his gospel than chapter 1, verses 1 -17. Don't permit the fact that we cannot understand Matthew's choice to include a seemingly questionable genealogy - to modern readers - to be quickly labeled as a manipulative lie, undermining any appreciation for all that follows. We simply don't - and won't ever - have all the genealogical facts regarding Jesus.

Yet there is one fact we do have. Jesus actually existed. Now for the rest of his story, as understood by Matthew.

Tuesday (v. 18, 19) 'Growing Gray'
18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when His mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit. 19 And Joseph her husband, being a righteous man and not wanting to disgrace her, planned to send her away secretly. 

It is very human to believe that all things that happen in life can be explained. If something is explainable, then it can be predictable. If it is predictable, then it may ultimately be controllable. We feel most secure in a world where all things are explainable, predictable, and controllable. That's human.

In our search for security in a world that otherwise presents as chaotic, we construct rigid, dichotomously conceived categories into which we insist that all observations and experiences must 'fit'. Everything is either this or that, right or wrong, good or bad, positive or negative, requiring a yes or no. Whatever is not easily explainable, we label it 'mysterious' and move it from our 'natural' box and into our 'supernatural' box.

There is, of course, much that we have shunted into the realm of the supernatural, that actually belongs in the 'natural'. If we would cease imagining our world in mere black and white terms, we would see that there actually is a whole lot of 'gray'. Our 'natural' world is far more complex and nuanced than we often prefer to imagine. This fact ruffles our religious feathers because it places comfort and security interminably just out of the reach of human grasp.

In Joseph's case, Mary was undeniably pregnant. No one could have possibly imagined a 'supernatural' explanation. They could only understand pregnancy as either right or wrong. It was either a legitimate pregnancy or an illegitimate pregnancy. There couldn't, of course, be any 'gray' area in this regard. Pregnancy entirely fell only into the 'natural' category. In Joseph's mind, the seemingly chaste young Mary had either been sinfully promiscuous or had been raped by an evil man. Whichever the case, and it really didn't matter in his culture, she was 'spoiled goods' and he had to dismiss her. Her pregnancy was not his doing and his mind could never imagine that God Himself was the agent of her conception, the 'father' of her child-to-be'.

Joseph knew that the Jews would judge him as either a keeper of Jewish law or as a law breaker, based on how he handled the obviously pregnant Mary. As is often the case, when we think only in black and white terms, we are forced to make a difficult choice. He loved the Law and he loved Mary. The best solution he could come up with was to divorce her as quietly as possible so that she wouldn't have to face undue public humiliation. He was a good man at heart and he must have truly loved Mary. He chose to send her away to have her child. That was as much 'gray' thinking as his brain was able to muster up. He couldn't imagine another possibility.

Wherever compassion exists, the realm of 'gray' begins to grow. God respected Joseph's attempt to color just outside the lines, not as an willful act of rebellion, but out of love both for God and man. That which had seemed easily explainable to human minds, really belonged in the realm of the inexplicable - the supernatural. Joseph, along with every other Nazarene, hadn't considered a divine explanation.           

Wednesday (v. 20) 'Deal With It'
20 But when he had considered this, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife; for the Child who has been conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.

Perhaps there will come a time, though I sincerely doubt it, when there will be no more mysteries, when there is nothing left that can't be scientifically explained in every minute detail. Between now and then there will be much that we cannot understand. There will be things that defy logic, that just don't fit nicely into our current understanding of the universe. There will be many new discoveries that will require us to readjust - if not entirely change - our thinking, as was the 20th century discovery of what is now known as quantum physics.

Religion should be a constant reminder of these truths - that there is much that we don't understand in the universe and that we will often have to step forward by faith. Belief in an infinitely wise, eternal God, should form the basis for a religion that joyfully anticipates new understandings of the universe. Sadly, though, religion is often used as a tool to shut down thinking, insisting upon faith in our 'faith'. Rather than being a portal into the infinite, religion is often a trap door through which we fall into the stagnancy of ancient, finite human conceptions. Religion has become complicit in the human need for the predictable and and control, rather than the unscripted imaginable.

In this particular story 'an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream' - not to confirm his current worldview or even his religious beliefs. Rather, the angel of the Lord opened his mind to things that were far beyond what anyone had ever imagined (Eph. 3:20). This, then, becomes the real clarion call of useful religion. It is not about what men 'have' thought, but about being fascinated with the possibilities that exceed anything that has ever been envisioned by man.

As long as Joseph was faithful to his interpretation of the Law, he remained conflicted. He found it difficult to be openly compassionate. By choosing to live by the Law, he chose to live in fear. Law necessarily creates fear. Yet the angel told Joseph to 'not be afraid.' If he remained faithful to the Law, faithful only to what mankind was familiar with, he could not be faithful to God. In his dream the angel commanded him to step away from what was rational to human experience and anathema to religious teaching. The angel, as we might say in our 21st century, 'blew up' the small box out of which Joseph was thinking.

But why did God choose to unravel centuries of religious thinking with someone like Joseph? Why hadn't God vividly and persistently appeared either in person, vision, or dreams to every one of the religious leaders of Israel first, making it so much easier for Joseph? The ways of God are not our ways (Is. 55), which is again a reminder to all people of faith that we should always have an open mind.

Joseph proved that he was a man of spiritual integrity in that he chose to believe in the God of his religion, rather than in religion. He chose the Person over the 'thing'. It is the antithesis of 'faith' to value that which is completely understood. Faith assumes confidence in that which exceed all that is explainable (Heb 11:1). Faith in a religious teaching, a 'thing', is not 'faith'. Trusting the Person who confronts you in a dream and calls you to act against what is known both in science and in religious tradition, is true 'faith'. Believing that the actual 'Father' of the One who was growing in the womb of Mary was God Himself, was an incredible act of faith. Joseph, though, didn't merely 'believe' something different. He acted on his belief. He trusted in the One who spoke to him and went forward to 'take Mary as his wife'. True faith is belief plus trust. Joseph had that kind of 'faith'.

Thursday (v. 21) 'Not Your Average Kid'
21 She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.”

Regardless of what the OT scriptures have or have not said about the birth of the Messiah, the angel that appeared in Joseph's dream made it clear. Mary conceived as an act of the Spirit, not due to an intimate encounter with any human male. The child within her womb was God's Son, thus God claimed the privilege to name his only 'begotten' son.

From this moment forward, Joseph knew that Jesus was 'not going to be the average kind of kid.' Something extraordinary had happened. God had supernaturally intervened in human history in a manner He had never done before. The conception of Jesus cemented the idea that God and man would work together for the salvation of man. Both the word of God and the Word of God were of human and divine origin. To imagine either to be otherwise is to have missed the divine point. Salvation requires a collaboration between heaven and earth. Grace from God must join hands with the will of man to both receive and to live within it.

There are several truths implicit in this text. First, God can and does intervene in human history. Second, God's interventions often circumvent known laws of nature, which is why they are called 'supernatural'. Third, the nature of man, apart from God, is 'wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked'. Fourth, God values the human race, despite its self-destructiveness, and chooses to do for us what is clearly impossible for us to do for ourselves. Fifth, God saves man from man through the life of His God-man.

Friday (v. 22, 23) 'Out of Context?'
22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.”

The author of this gospel account reported that an angel from heaven had appeared to Joseph in a dream which explained the truth of 'how' Mary had become pregnant. On what basis, though, should we believe this story? Should we accept it simply because Matthew reported it as true, that every word of scripture is directly from God and therefore must be accurate? Or, must it be considered as a fact because it came from Joseph - who was reportedly a very honest and righteous man?

Matthew posits that we should believe what Joseph reported because of an OT prophecy - as quoted above. If Joseph's testimony is not accepted as factual, then even if there is a clear OT prophecy stating that the Messiah would be born of a virgin, we have no reason to believe that Mary was the chosen one. So, on what basis should we believe that Joseph's testimony was true and that it therefore establishes Jesus as the anticipated Messiah of prophecy?

Was Joseph's dream simply a pleasing scenario that emerged from his obvious conflict over Mary's pregnancy? Did Joseph believe it was a message from God because it helped him deny the fact that he and Mary had 'come together' before their actual marriage or that she had been with another man - whether by choice or otherwise? Or, was Joseph's dream an invention of some well-meaning later disciples of Jesus in order to establish their out-of-context interpretation of the prophecy in Isaiah? Or, on the other hand, had the actual dream of Joseph been quickly accepted as true 'because of' the prophecy in Isaiah?

The scriptures command us to find two or more witnesses to establish something as truth. The dream of Joseph, whether revealed by Joseph or created by others later on, was insufficient proof by itself without a collaborating witness. How, then, could Joseph have provided a second witness to a dream that he had singularly experienced alone while asleep? The angel hadn't spoken to anyone else, also through a dream, to confirm Joseph's dream. So, the only other 'witness' had to be scripture itself, if the dream of Joseph is to be accepted as 'fact'.

The troubling thing about this 'second witness' from Isaiah 7:14, a problem that has been noted for centuries, is that in context it is not actually referring to the birth of the Messiah. Yet, as far back as the first century this text had been connected with the birth of Jesus in order to confirm that He was the God who became flesh.

True, if we read further on in Isaiah 9:6,7 we are given a prophecy of a child who would become the King. Yet even that prophecy spoke of a person who would reign without end, whereas the three year public ministry of Jesus ended at his crucifixion and we are now two millennia beyond that time without a kingdom of peace ruled 'from then on', from the 'throne of David', as Isaiah promised.

Additionally, the phrase, 'God with us' - Immanuel - may have been taken from Isaiah 8:10 where it was translated as 'God is with us', a promise that God will always be with his people no matter what others do, rather than that God would become one of us. It was a wonderful promise, but where does scripture actually connect the dots that 'Immanuel' would be the 'name' of the Messiah, or that he would actually be God in human flesh? Right, it comes from conflating Isaiah 7:14, 8:10, and 9:6,7, without regard to their contexts. So, again, which came first? Was the dream of Joseph accepted as true because of the prophecy in Isaiah or was the out-of-context interpretation of the prophecy in Isaiah accepted as valid because of Joseph's dream? In other words, is the Christian belief that Jesus was the Messiah of bible prophecy, born of a virgin, simply an unsubstantiated fable? If so, why would anyone have wanted to create this story?

I've said all that to say this, those who had witnessed the life, teachings, and work of Jesus during his public ministry realized that he was no ordinary man. After his crucifixion the same disciples then became eye witnesses to his resurrection. It is the personal testimony of a multitude of people that confirms without doubt that Jesus was the Messiah - whether or not he was born to a virgin by the Spirit. Having known Jesus personally and having witnessed his resurrection, the Spirit may well have later revealed the truth about His birth. Certainly the Spirit could use the scriptures any way he chose to, not to create truth, but to support that which was already obviously the truth. In other words, Jesus isn't the Messiah because he was born to a virgin, but because of his life and death - his ministry, crucifixion, resurrection, and ascension. The advent story doesn't 'make' the story, but simply adds plausible truth to His story, in a manner consistent with the miracle of his whole life. The incarnation of Jesus isn't so hard to believe once we have accepted the rest of his life as truth. With God, all things are possible. Even the incarnation.

The texts from Isaiah may have been taken 'out of their original context', yet they nicely 'fit' the context of Jesus' life.

Saturday (v. 24, 25) 'I Had A Dream'
24 And Joseph awoke from his sleep and did as the angel of the Lord commanded him, and took Mary as his wife, 25 but kept her a virgin until she gave birth to a Son; and he called His name Jesus.

It would be foolish to believe that all dreams are actually conversations with the divine which require an immediate response upon waking. Joseph, though, believed that this particular dream was not an ordinary dream. He awoke with a clear reason for changing his decision, no matter what anyone else thought about it. That was faith.

Why did God send an angel to speak face-to-face with some people (Lk 1:11, 27), yet to Joseph the angel only appeared to him in dreams (see also Mt. 2:13)? Would an actual face-to-face appearance have been too much for Joseph to handle? Was Joseph more apt to believe in dreams than were other folks? Or, were other folks more inclined to believe Joseph if he said he heard from God in a dream rather than if he said an angel appeared to him as he was building a house down the street?

Joseph not only took Mary as his wife, rather than having sent her away quietly, but he refrained from intimacy with her until her child was born. She remained a virgin who had conceived without a man, until after the birth of her male child, which - still in the 21st century - reads like an oxymoron.

In Christian belief, several mind-challenging, supernatural events and insights had occurred in the first century. First, that God had chosen to intervene in human history in the form of a human being. Second, that God not only chose to 'appear' as a human - as angels often had - he chose to become fully human. Third, that God chose to enter the world through the womb of a woman rather than to 'arrive' as a fully ground adult male. Fourth, that Jesus was not only the Son of God in human flesh, but that there was simultaneously the Father God in heaven, as well as a being known as the God the Spirit. God is 'one', yet God is three. Another divinely inspired oxymoron. Certainly God delights in encouraging mankind to color outside the lines.

Joseph was on to something that would not only change his life, but change the world, yet he never lived to see it. He was faithful in the role to which God had called him, trusting that God had a plan that exceeded all that he could imagine.

This was the first Christmas.