Saturday, December 28, 2013
A Matthew style Christmas story. . .
Last week my family enjoyed the Amy Grant and Vince Gill Christmas at the Schermerhorn. In the midst of the music, the Christmas story from Luke 2 was recited. Nearly everyone in the audience was mouthing the familiar words of Quirinius and the census, no room at the inn, angels singing, shepherds visiting... We know the details of Luke’s story so well, we can repeat the story whether we are religious or not. But if all we had was Matthew's Christmas story we might be a bit disappointed. Instead he has a bride-groom disappointed to find his bridge with child, ready to ditch the wedding and quietly dispose of her. The angels in this story do no singing. Instead they convince Joseph that God's promise is now kept, the gift of a Savior who will save His people from their sin.
In comparison to Luke's Christmas story, Matthew's seems less a dream and more like a nightmare. Matthew has no angels singing "Gloria in Excelsis Deo" but instead they are dispatched by God to warn Joseph to stay put. In place of lofty talk of glory, these angels speak of sin and a people captive to that sin so that they need a Savior to set them free. Instead of inviting angels who speak to shepherds, they warn Joseph of a tyrant whose rage will threaten the child. Then they steal from the holy family any chance to name the Child and instead tell them what this Child will be named and how He will live up to that name.
We like the sweet story of Luke but I wonder if Matthew is not the more relevant words a world in darkness and death need to hear. In Luke it might be easy to miss the point for all the details, especially if that is all you hear, but Matthew insists upon spoiling the fantasy with a heavy dose of reality, with talk of disappointment and doubt, sin and death.
Matthew's hope lies hidden in the disappointment of a man about to take a woman as his bride, a son to be born not as the glory of his earthly Father but the Son of God in flesh and blood. Matthew makes it clear that this Christ comes not to receive the adoration of His people but to suffer in their place for sin, to die their death of sin, and to rise to offer hope to a dying and broken world.
Matthew's hope lies hidden in the prophetic Word which writes history like a script for the saving purpose of God's will. The many and various ways of God's speaking not come to a head in the flesh and blood of His Son, born of a Virgin. The plan of salvation written before time began now unfolds within time and history, location and place, to keep the promise and deliver His people once for all by His once for all death.
Matthew's hope lies hidden in a Savior who is born to die and whose death will fully and finally end sin's curse and release His people from their captivity. Matthew's hope is dirty and messy, born of real doubt and fear, disappointment and despair. Matthew's hope pierces the night not with the joyous sound of birth but with a baby's cry that foreshadows the wounds He wears for a wounded people, the suffering He endures to save the suffering, and the sigh of death with which death is swallowed up once and for all.
Which one do we need to hear? You can memorize all the wonderful details of Luke’s story but if you miss why this Child was born and what He has come to do, you have nothing left worth remembering. The Emmanuel is not the Son of God come to visit but the God who stands with His sinful and dying people, to wear their mortal clothing and pay their debt, so that they might be set free through forgiveness to live the new lives of His promise.
The Church is like Matthew’s Gospel at Christmastime. The Church is the real presence of the suffering Christ in the world, drawing attention to the reason we call Him Emmanuel and the purpose for which He was born. We are not here to offer a fantasy get away or a great escape from the harsh reality of our lives lived under the shadow of sin and its death. No, we are here to speak still of the God who is in our midst, hidden in our suffering, sorrows, and tears. The God who is with us and whose grace refuses to give up quickly upon the goal of redeeming us and His whole lost world. So God continues to call us to repentance and faith, to hear the story over and over that we might find in it the surprise of Him who is come for me, for my sins, and for my death.
Here in Word and Sacrament the same Word of the Lord spoken by Luke is present, delivering the promise of the ages in the flesh and blood of Christ, the voice that lifts the heavy weight of our sins, and the life that death cannot overcome. It is this Christchild that we come to meet in the manger and no other will suffice. Give me Jesus or nothing at all.
Here we come with angels singing and warning at the same time, with the Good News of God that is always set in the midst of the bad news of sin, suffering, pain, and death. Here we come the broken to be made whole and the dying to be given life and the sinner seeking righteousness and all of these are found in the wood of the manger, the shape of the cross, the mystery of the empty tomb. It is in this story that we wonder as we wander, pondering by faith in the heart what our ears have heard and learning with stumbling voice to sing the joy that is born for us.
Here is Emmanuel. Here is God with us. Here is salvation full and free. Here is the prophet's promise kept. Here is life. Come and believe, come and repent, come and rejoice!