Bethlehem? Why? How?
2007-12-23 by Alan Meyers
Taking a somewhat different (and very prickly, for the Sunday after Christmas) approach from the one in my other posts:
Those who read carefully Matthew 2:13-23, and the whole Nativity story in Matthew, and compare the story to the one in Luke, should be perplexed, maybe. Both Matthew and Luke agree that Jesus was born in Bethlehem but that he then grew up in Nazareth, a town a long way from his birthplace. However, they offer two conflicting explanations of how this came to be.
The story we all think of is the one in Luke, which says that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth, but had to make the long trip south to Bethlehem because of the census decreed by Augustus Caesar, and that it happened that Mary had her baby while they were there (Luke 2:1-7). They of course presumably returned home to Nazareth afterward.
But the Gospel of Matthew says something entirely different. It makes no mention of a census. It simply reports that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, leaving us to assume (if we have not read Luke!) that he was born there because that is where Mary his mother and her husband Joseph lived. Later, according to Matthew, when the threat from Herod comes, Joseph flees with his little family to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). When it comes time to return from Egypt to "the land of Israel," Joseph decides not to go back to Judea, because Judea is now being ruled by Herod's son Archelaus, a worse tyrant even than his father was (Matthew 2:22). Judea?? Why would Joseph even consider going to Judea upon returning home from Egypt, if he and Mary hail from Nazareth? Nazareth is in Galilee, not Judea. The answer, of course, is that Judea is where Bethlehem is, and, in Matthew's version of the story, Joseph and Mary's home was in Bethlehem, not in Nazareth. According to Matthew, they MOVE TO Nazareth only because it is in Galilee and therefore not in the terrible Archelaus's jurisdiction, although, we are told, this settling in Nazareth also fulfills a prophecy (Matthew 2:22-23). (Check the map if you doubt me on any of this. J)
What is going on here? What is going on is that the writers of both Gospels, Matthew and Luke, believe (along with all Christians) that Jesus is the Messiah. And according to a popular interpretation of Old Testament prophecy, Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, appropriately, since Bethlehem was the hometown of King David, whose descendent Messiah was expected to be (Matthew 2:4-6). To tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem is for the Gospel writers above all a way of telling us that Jesus is Messiah. Of course he grew up in Nazareth; everyone knows he is not "Jesus of Bethlehem" but "Jesus of Nazareth." But some sort of story is needed to account for why he was born in Bethlehem (he MUST have been born there, the Gospel writers thought, being Messiah). So, each of them comes up with a story. The problem is, they are different stories. (I told you this would be prickly.)
I am not trying simply to attack the historical reliability of the Gospels, though I do think that on this point it is questionable. The point I wish to make is that we often get it backwards: we think that SINCE Jesus was born in Bethlehem and has all these other marvelous signs and wonders attending his birth (angels! shepherds! the Star! wise men!), he just MUST be Messiah, right? How could he not be?
We think that Jesus's Messiahship is an inference from all these signs in the Nativity stories. But this, as I say, is backwards. Jesus was found to be Messiah FIRST, by people who experienced his saving power in their lives long AFTER his birth, people whom he healed and forgave during his ministry, people who knew personally the salvation accomplished in his cross and resurrection. These people probably had never even heard the stories about the manger and the shepherds and the Star and all that. They simply knew by personal experience that Jesus was their Savior. A Jewish expectation was that this Savior would be called "Messiah," and, thus, Jesus was, for them, without any doubt the Messiah. NOW THEN: since Jesus IS Messiah, whatever things go along with being Messiah must be his. If one of these things is being born in Bethlehem, then he must have been born in Bethlehem. But, see: he is not said to be Messiah because he was known to have been born in Bethlehem; he is said to have been born in Bethlehem because he is known to be Messiah. There is a BIG difference!!!
Have the people we preach to experienced Jesus as Messiah in their own lives? Has he been born IN THEM, truly? If so, it does not matter much who gets it right, Matthew or Luke, as to how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem, or even whether he actually was, historically, born in Bethlehem.
I would love to know if anybody (besides me) will use any of this in their December 30 sermons or teaching!
2007-12-23 by Alan Meyers
I didn't introduce myself in my first post. I am Alan Meyers, a Professor of Religion at Lindenwood University in St. Charles, Missouri. I am also Parish Associate at Oak Hill Presbyterian Church in St. Louis, Missouri. Parish Associate positions are for ministers like me, whose primary ministry is not in a parish, but who want to stay connected to ministry in a congregation and are invited by a local church to assist its pastor in some areas of the church's work. I enjoy preaching and have written a number of "Theological Themes" sections for Lectionary Homiletics. This is my first time as guest blogger here.
Two profound mysteries confront each other in the readings for December 30. One is the mystery of evil that Herod represents. The other, infinitely deeper mystery, is the mystery of the Incarnation.
"It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them," Isaiah 63:9 reminds us. Though the prophet is thinking of "the gracious deeds of the Lord, the praiseworthy acts of the LORD" (Isaiah 63:7) toward Israel in the Old Testament, these words take on new meaning at Christmas, the celebration of the Incarnation. In Jesus Christ, no messenger or angel but God's very self has come in person to fight our battle. In Christ God shares our human condition fully, coming all the way into our world. In him our human condition is transformed. He is the redemption of the world and its remaking into the Kingdom of God.
"It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings… Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death… Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested" (Hebrews 2:10, 14-15, 18). Though Jesus escaped the fate of the murdered innocents of Bethlehem (Matthew 2:13-18), in a larger sense he did not escape, but shares the fate of all who suffer, whether innocent or guilty. His cross is the center of the suffering of the whole world, and the beginning of its overcoming by divine love. We need to remember at Christmas that baby Jesus did not remain baby Jesus, but grew into the man who proclaimed the reign of God and demonstrated it in deeds of power, who took on the sin of the world on the cross, and who rose from the dead as God's victory over all that opposes love.
The evil that Herod represents is not the last word. Jesus is. Those who celebrate Christmas in the truest way, that is, those who believe in Jesus and promise to follow him, must follow him in opposing all that he opposes, in fighting injustice and cruelty. And they must befriend all whom he befriends and whom the Herods of this world oppress. The other day our local op-ed page carried a letter from the director of a pregnancy resource center that helps women who have decided to keep their babies but who then find it hard to find housing and other resources to support them in their decision. The letter was a plea for help for such women, and it ended with a striking sentence: "Pregnant women tell us they don't want to hear Jesus being screamed at them; they want to see Jesus working through us." The Christmas miracle of the Incarnation continues wherever Jesus is present in his followers to help and to heal and to share his love with the world.
I think I will have one more post to make about these readings.
Sermon for Advent 4 on Isaiah 7
2007-12-21 by David Howell
Alan Meyers is already bringing us some thoughts for the First Sunday after Christmas.
David von Schlichten has a sermon for Advent 4 on Isaiah 7 in the Sermon Feedback Cafe. He also has a sermon for Christmas Eve.
Please give him some feedback. Go to HOMEPAGE and to Share It! and click Submit Your Own.
Dark Thoughts at Christmas
2007-12-20 by Alan Meyers
I don't preach regularly, but on December 30 I have agreed to supply the pulpit at the congregation of which I am a part. By an entire coincidence, I have also agreed to be guest blogger here for that Sunday. This seems providential: the appointed readings seem so difficult that I'm glad to be required to get started early on thinking about them!
Heavy thoughts to throw into the midst of a congregation's Christmas festivities! Next Sunday presents a happier prospect, as we celebrate the Epiphany, with its beautiful though so-familiar story of the mysterious visitors from far away who come to pay homage to the newborn Christ in Bethlehem. But this Sunday's Gospel begins after the visitors have already gone, and tells a dark and terrible tale. "Herod the king, in his raging, charged he hath this day, his men of might, in his own sight, all young children to slay…" (Coventry Carol). Having learned from the Magi that "the king of the Jews" has been born, but having been denied information from those same Magi about exactly where the infant king may be found, Herod resorts to killing every child in the vicinity of Bethlehem who might possibly be his tiny rival for the throne (Matt. 2:16).
The baby Jesus is saved from Herod's fury by divine intervention (Matt. 2:13-15). God's plan of salvation will not be ended this way. But how many other children die? These innocents whom Herod slaughters are like so many others who suffer when great things are afoot, when the rulers of this world make their plans and carry them out with violence, heedless of collateral damage. They are indeed innocent, they know nothing of why this happens to them, but they pay the price of others' rage or fear or pride or greed or lust or foolishness.
This Sunday's Gospel makes me think of the children killed in war. It makes me think of children denied proper health care because of misplaced priorities in the richest nation in the world. It makes me think of the children of drug use and those who are victims of all kinds of abuse by adults. It makes me think not only of children, but of all who are caught up through no fault of their own in the evil of this world.
Wow! I'm going to post this. This is the downside of my thinking about these readings. Tomorrow I will try to see the light that Christmas shines in the darkness, even Herod's darkness.
2007-12-19 by David Howell
The Festival of Homiletics already has a tremendous line-up of speakers and musicians this year. We are delighted to announce that Jearlyn Steele will be joining us for vocals! You have heard Jearlyn if you listen to Prairie Home Companion. What a voice!
I am so excited that I am going over to the Sermon Feedback Cafe and exhange some high-fives with Dave, Tom, Shannon, Rick, Dee Dee and all the regulars. Order me up a Spiced Latte and a turkey on rye with some fancy, exotic, imported mustard.
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