27 January 2020
I heard an interview with Richard Dawkins, the author of “The God Delusion” on the radio the other day. It was clear that he thinks we exist in a vacuum. Faith is dangerous he says, and his examples of destructive faith were correct, but what he didn’t seem to understand is that we all have faith in something or someone.. There is something we use as our measure of how we live , what drives us, even if we do not recognise it.
Whom or what we serve, or please or worship affects everything we do and say. To take an extreme example, if you are addicted to drugs, that will drive your life. It will overrun anything else you care about, it will cause you to hurt those whom you love most and at the end will destroy your life.
Many of the things that drive us are good things in themselves but we lose perspective. Money is useful and can be used well, but if the pursuit of wealth is our supreme driver, it will destroy us. It is not by accident Charles Dickens’ unpleasant character, Ebenezer Scrooge, from “A Christmas Carol”, is challenged at Christmas and changes his allegiance from money to seeing the worth of the people around him.
In the stories of Jesus’ birth, we throw together wise men and shepherds and a non existent donkey with gay abandon. [and even that expression has changed its meaning] but in doing so, we risk missing some of the thrust of their message about the identity of this child and to whom we give our allegiance .
Its the gospels of Matthew and Luke that tell the birth stories. Their versions are significantly different and even non compatible for facts, but they are not there to do history. Matthew has the wise men, Luke the shepherds but each has its own integrity. The stories are targeted to different audiences and there are references to their own times.
There is rich treasure when we listen seriously to their differences, for these stories are true in a way that is deeper and more significant than reducing them to being provable or not in the historical sense. How does one express who Jesus is, where is God among us, with us?.
Light shining in the darkness is in all the stories of Jesus’ birth. The star of Matthew's Gospel, shines in the night sky and leads the Gentile wise ones to the place of Jesus' birth. In Luke there are shining angels lighting up the night skies with more wattage than a hundred sports fields. God is present.
The gospel of John tells about the light coming into the world.and the darkness cannot put it out. That is deep, and whatever darkness we are in there is hope flickering, shining. but it cannot be put out by the darkness.
Lets look at that list of begats in Matthew and Luke which are different. Why? Both Matthew and Luke trace the whakapapa of Jesus -- to King David and beyond. Matthew takes goes back to Abraham, the father of Israel; Luke takes it back to Adam, the father of the human race. From David forward, Solomon and the kings of Judah are the ancestors of Jesus in Matthew; in Luke, the lineage goes through the prophet Nathan, not King Solomon. Of course all these can be right but why are different lists recorded?
When we look carefully, we find that the central themes of each birth story reflect the themes of the Gospel of which they are a part. For example, for Matthew, Jesus is "the king of the Jews," and so his ancestry is traced through the kings of Judah. For Luke, Jesus is a Spirit -- anointed social prophet, and so his ancestry includes prophets.
Conflict between two lordships runs through the birth stories. Matthew goes local, there is a Jewish setting here. The conflict is between rival claims to be "king of the Jews." Herod the Great saw himself as the king of the Jews, and was the reigning king. But in Matthew, Jesus is "the King of the Jews." There is subtle political comment, by portraying Herod as acting like Pharaoh , [remember the story of the baby Moses hidden in the bulrushes,] in killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem, Matthew reflects Israel's exodus story of the conflict between the lordship of Pharaoh and the lordship of God. We find that Jesus, not the Herods and Pharaohs of this world, is the true King and Lord.
Luke goes global, here the conflict is between the lordship of the Roman Caesar, and the lordship of Christ. Luke signals this view most clearly in the words spoken by the angel to the shepherds and in the chorus sung by the heavenly host:
“I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah the Lord
Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours.”
In fact Luke’s birth story can’t be understood clearly without knowing something about Augustus Caesar - ruler at that time.
Much of this language was also used about Caesar, the emperor of Rome. In an inscription from 9 C.E. found in Asia Minor, Caesar is spoken of as "our God" and as a "saviour" who brought "peace" throughout the earth, and whose birth was "good news" to the world. In other texts, he is also spoken of as divine and as descended from a divine/human conception, something not thought of as unusual for prominent figures at that time.. By echoing language used about the Roman emperor, Luke affirms that Jesus, not Caesar, is the Good News, the true Saviour and Son of God who brings peace. The language of Roman sovereignty and domination has been transformed when it encounters Christ, into the language of peace.
The birth stories affirm that Jesus is the true lord. Implicitly, they leave us with a question: where are you going to see your lord? In the power and wealth of Herod and Caesar, of kingship and empire? Or in this Galilean Jewish peasant who saw things very differently? Where are you going to see the decisive manifestation of God? In the power systems of the world? Or in Jesus who was executed by those systems?
Jesus’ lordship has both personal and political dimensions. We are in bondage to many things, and the lordship of Christ is the path of personal freedom, for in following Christ we are freed to love God, our neighbour and ourselves and serve others.. Politically, the lordship of Christ challenges systems of domination in the name of God's passion for justice.
The important questions from the birth stories are still there for us, "Is Jesus the light of the world? Is he the true Lord? Is what happened in him 'of God'?"
Answering these questions lays claim to our whole lives. We are brought to the child in the manger and invited to kneel there. We find that there are strangers from the east beside us, wise enough to look in a little cottage for a king, with all the knowledge of the times able to follow a star to find God.
We find that God is with us and is accessible as a tiny baby, Gods own self, as vulnerable as we are, is with us in our humanity.
Jesus, God with us, waiting for us to recognise God in our own lives, here and now, even in our own families as we gather today and to give him our trust.
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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