Check out Julie Clawson’s most recent post on the advent of God. Good stuff from Julie as usual. Well, what would you do if you were lighting candles before a service or filling the communion cups with juice and an angel just showed up? Have we not all learned the script, the play, by heart, yet by its very scripted-ness, have we not written out the visits for which we claim to be preparing?
Julie is right about Luke. His Zechariah story is all about God showing up where our stories say to expect God but where we really do not. In a way, what almost happened to Zachariah did happened to most of Israel in that generation. Just forty years later ramparts were thrown up and their nation was thrown down because they missed the hour of the visit from God for which most of them claimed to be intently watching.
Matthew has a different advent message. Writing as he is to Messianic Jews a half a generation or so before Luke, during the hard times which preceded Jerusalem’s fall, his advent is more ironic, much darker and more dangerous than Luke’s. It is a message for just before an end-time.
Put yourself in the story for a bit. Imagine you are a Jew who has confessed Jesus is the Christ, the long-awaited meshiah melech, the anointed king of Israel. The very idea of a crucified messiah sets your non-Christian neighbors, even your own family, on edge. “How,” they used to scream, “is a dead messiah going to drive the Romans back to the Adriatic Sea!?! Huh!?! How is a shamed, tortured, brutalized, humiliated, dead messiah going to rule a great resurrected people forever!?!”
But they have long since stopped arguing with you. In fact, they no-longer speak with you, look at you or relate to you in any way.
Today you see your own daughter on the road and again, you foolishly call out to her, plead with her to acknowledge you, to give you a smile or that furtive wink of hers to let you know that though she cannot acknowledge someone who has been declared a heretic, she still cares about you. Nothing. She stolidly looks right through you. She goes about her business as though you were dead.
You have been long since thrown out of your home synagogue, you cannot ply your trade with any except the small handful of Christians in your district. They, like you, have become very poor; they, like you, are hard-pressed.
And for the thousandth time you think to yourself, ‘It would be so easy. All I would have to do is go back to the synagogue, come through the door, look at the crowd and say, “I am back! I now know you are right and I am so sorry. Jeshua of Nazareth, he was not the messiah. He was not the Son of Heaven for whom we all wait in hope.” And it would be over, just like that. I would be welcomed back into the fold, among my own dear people, just like that.’
For the thousandth time you try to put the thought out of your mind even as you acknowledge that what once sounded impossible to you has, in fact, become more acceptable to you every day with every reminder of all you have given up to follow this Jesus. ‘And just exactly where is Jesus?’ you ask. ‘Where are the signs of his coming? Where is the promised demonstration of power on the earth, the rescue of his people which would prove to anyone who cared to look that Jeshua Meshiah had indeed appeared before Heaven and been given the everlasting kingdom, both in heaven and on the earth? If Jesus of Nazareth was indeed the messiah ought his prophecies be proved to be true by now? Isn’t that what Moses taught: reject any prohet whose prophecies do not prove true? He has not rescued his people in all these years! So was Jesus a false prophet after all? Maybe I am going through all this for nothing.
‘Blasphemous thoughts, or are they? Perhaps I have been shunned and persecuted because Heaven is angry at me for deserting him for Jesus.’
You arrive at your destination, the small Messianic Synagogue on the outskirts of the next village where all the Christians of the district meet. You are soon caught up in the buzz, the big news: a reader has arrived with a copy of Matthew’s new scroll and she is prepared to read it to the entire assembly house tonight! You have heard the reading of Matthew’s earlier work, which some have called, The Sayings of Jesus of Nazareth, but this new work is said to be more than a book of proverbs and parables. You have heard bits and pieces of the story of Jesus for twenty years but it is said this new book sets many of the stories in the larger context of Jesus’ teaching.
At the appropriate time in the service, the reader, a middle-aged Jewish rabbi named Mary, gets up to read. There is a great stir of excitement, some discomfort, and anticipation. Everyone is excited about the words they will hear. Yet, there is still some consternation among this assembly over the new business of female rabbis – the very term is an oxymoron – yet this woman is received better than most because it is said she and her family knew the Lord Jeshua very well and that she had taken training, had “sat at the feet” of the Lord himself, however briefly and that Jesus had confirmed her calling, saying that it “would not be taken away from her.” And of course everyone, even you, anticipates that good will come from the hearing of this Word from the Lord through his apostle.
What? A birth story in which a bunch of unbelieving, unwashed Gentiles from somewhere out by Persia who engage in the abominable practice of star-gazing acknowledge messiah? They are the only ones who gift and honor the young king? But the people who say they hope for messiah are too frightened to show up at his birth, even though their scholars know from the old texts where he will be born; they tell the Gentile delegation but they do not go to the king themselves?! And before the officials of your people can respond, the child and his parents must flee into Egypt because it is safer for them there than it is in the land of promise! And when the officials do finally respond, it is by killing all the male children in the town under the age of two!
Look! This is so crazy; so upside down! The safe place is Egypt and the Egyptian thing, killing male babies, straight from the pages of Exodus, goes on in the suburbs of Jerusalem by order of the authorities of your people. And then the young family, financed as they are by pagan, Gentile gold, return from Egypt to the land of promise, but they must avoid messiah’s capital and go instead down to the dirty, Gentile-infested trade town of Nazareth because it is not safe for the descendant of David to reside anywhere near the City of David, the holy city and its environs.
The thought begins to form in your brain as irony piles on irony; “Are you sure you want to return to fellowship with those who have opposed King Jesus since he was born?”
The charge of your people is that you Nazarenes have sold themselves out to unwashed Gentiles whom you admit, in some places, to your assemblies. Yet, Matthew’s point is that it was the Gentiles who gave gifts, who responded faithfully, who provided hospitality while it was your own people, Jeshua’s own people, who feared to come and worship him, who slaughtered the innocent, who were too dangerous to live anywhere near. In line after line of the story you can hear the Lord Jesus speaking to you: ‘Are you sure you want to go back to that people, the very people who rejected me from the moment I was born?’
Matthew’s dark and ironic nativity has to be cleaned up quite a bit before it can be fit into a 3-B Nativity pageant with its beards, bathrobes and bed sheets. It has to be domesticated, stripped of its dark but powerful, last-ditch message to nearly broken communities of faith. No wonder we also often miss the advent of the king, reading it as we do today.
Comments? I’ll give this the rest of the week…