The Passover Lamb

(Exodus 12:1-14; Luke 2:1-20)

When Caesar Augustus ordered a census be taken throughout the Roman Empire, all he wanted was information for the tax rolls.  The idea that his census would be remembered for something else entirely would have been completely inconceivable to him.  And yet, so it was, because Rome allowed the Jews to conduct the census according to their own traditions.  That meant registering everyone not by their current address, but by their clans and tribes, in the family’s hometown, in the place of their ancestors.
So it was that one descendant of the great King David, a carpenter from the little town of Nazareth up in the hills of Galilee, traveled one spring down to the home of his ancestors, the town of Bethlehem, in the hill country of Judea.  And yes, I did say spring, and we’ll get to that in a few minutes.  With him on the journey was a very pregnant young woman.  Matthew 1 tells us that they were already married at this point, but the marriage was unconsummated; Luke’s point in 2:5 is probably not that they were still only engaged, but rather that Mary was still a virgin.  Nowadays, we’d tell her she was far too pregnant to travel, but they didn’t think that way back then, so there she was.
It’s unfortunate for us, but there are a number of traditions which have grown up around this story which skew our understanding of it.  In the first place, we tend to imagine Mary going into labor on the back of the donkey as they approach Bethlehem, and giving birth that same night; that’s not what Luke says.  It wasn’t long after their arrival that she gave birth, but there were at least a couple days in between.
A more significant problem is with the traditional translation “there was no room for them in the inn.”  You see, there’s a word in the Greek for “inn”; Luke uses it in the parable of the Good Samaritan.  That’s not the word here.  This word is kataluma, which Luke uses in chapter 22 for the “upper room”—the guest room—where Jesus and his disciples celebrate the Passover.  That’s a much more natural interpretation of the word here.  For one thing, it would be odd for Luke to use kataluma to refer to an inn when he knew a better word for that.  For another, Bethlehem probably didn’t have any inns.  It was a small town near a major city, and inns really weren’t all that common.  Mostly, when people traveled, they stayed with relatives, or friends, or relatives of friends.
The same was true of Joseph and Mary, but we miss that because we see Jesus laid in a feed trough and we think “barn.”  Villagers in that time and place didn’t keep their animals in barns, because they didn’t have barns.  When the weather required the animals to be kept indoors at night, they stayed in the house.  You can see from the diagram on the screen that the typical house had one big living room, with the main level for the family and a lower level for the animals.  It wasn’t a big drop, just a few steps.  The mangers for the animals were cut into the floor of the main level, right near the edge.
For some houses, that was all there was.  Some, however, had a second room attached, with its own entrance.  That was the kataluma, the guest room.  When Joseph got to Bethlehem, he would have been looking to stay with relatives, as would all the other members of the clan who were coming into Bethlehem to be registered; naturally, he went to those in the family who had guest rooms in their homes.  Despite Mary’s advanced pregnancy, however, no one made space for them in any of the guest rooms.  After all, their story was scandalous, and the family did not approve.  Still, they couldn’t turn out a pregnant relative either, so someone in the clan let Mary and Joseph stay in their home—but apart from the rest of the family.
That sounds bad, but a manger set into the floor, filled with clean straw, was a safe, sturdy bed for a newborn.  It’s not what you would have expected for the Son of God, but for exactly that reason, it was a sign of God’s grace.  Jesus wasn’t just born for the rich and influential, like the Persian wise men who would be the second outside witnesses to his birth.  He was also born for people like the shepherds, who got to see him first.  Shep­herds filled a critical role in the economy in Israel, but increasingly, their only role in Jewish society was at the bottom.  They would never have been allowed into the guest room of a respectable house—but in the lowest part of the house, where the animals stayed, they belonged.  Jesus was born where they too would be welcome.
That matters, because the presence of the shepherds in this story is a sign to us.  We tend not to see it, because we’ve gotten too close—our familiarity gets in the way—but it’s still there; the shepherds show us how big this story really is.  I’ve already men­tioned one way in which that’s true:  Jesus is God with us—all of us.  You can see that in the angel’s words to the shepherds.  He tells them to look for a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger, but he doesn’t say, “This is how you’ll know it’s the right baby”; he says, “This will be a sign to you.”  In other words, there’s a message here.  God has come to Earth, love has come to his people, and he came to a place where anyone could come, so that right from the first moment he was God with all of us, everyone.
There’s another part to that message, however, which the shepherds probably didn’t get.  You see, this was Bethlehem, where the Temple flocks grazed; and the fact that the sheep were out in the fields at night rather than in their sheepfolds back in town indicates that it was lambing season, in the spring of the year.  The firstborn lambs would be wrapped in strips of cloth to protect them and keep them still, then taken into the Tower of the Flock and laid in a basin carved out of a piece of limestone, which was called “the manger.”  Here they were examined to see if they were without blemish or defect.

These were the lambs for the Passover; and on that same night, wrapped in strips of cloth and laid in a stone manger just as they were, God’s promised Messiah was born.  The lambs were for the remembrance of God’s great deliverance of his people from slavery in Egypt; the Passover was the beginning of the Exodus.  Jesus had come to lead the people of God on a new Exodus, an even greater deliverance from an even greater slavery—not from any mere political power, be it Egypt or Rome, but from the power of sin and death.  It’s entirely fitting that Jesus’ birth was heralded by the cosmic sign of a great star blazing in the night, because it was a cosmic event.  This was the Creator of all things becoming a creature, the Author of the whole story writing himself in as a character; this was the God above time breaking in to history, and the world would never be the same.

No Easy Answer

(Isaiah 9:1-7Isaiah 53:1-12Matthew 2:1-18)

Have you ever wondered why Jesus was born at night?  We sing about it in any number of our carols—“Silent Night,” that we’ll be singing later; “O Little Town of Bethlehem”; “Away in a Manger”; and of course, the various references to the shepherds watching their flocks by night.  Above Bethlehem’s “deep and dreamless sleep,” “the stars in the sky looked down where he lay”—where, if you believe the carols, he lay sleeping peacefully next to his mother, then woke up without crying.  Because that’s what newborns do, right?  But in any case, we have this mental picture—still, quiet night; sweet hay, contented animals; quiet, happy baby, radiant mother; and the stars shining serenely down on this beautiful scene—have you ever asked why?  Jesus could have been born at 3 in the afternoon or 10 in the morning, after all; why was he born at night?

You might say it was so the star could shine, and be seen, from the moment of his birth.  I’m sure that’s part of it, but there’s more going on here.  I think what we have here is a parable brought to life.  Jesus wasn’t born when the world was bright and sunny; he was born in the darkest part of the night, when there was little light by which to see.  He was born at the time when the rhythms and energy of human life are lowest, when we are most vulnerable—physically, emotionally, spiritually—when it’s hardest to think clearly, and easiest to make mistakes.  I don’t think that’s just a physical fact—I think it’s a metaphor, and one to which we need to pay close attention.

This isn’t just me, either.  We celebrate Christmas in late December, but Jesus wasn’t born in December.  Despite carols like “In the Bleak Midwinter” and “Lo! How a Rose E’er Blooming” with their images of “snow on snow on snow” “amid the cold of winter,” he was actually born in the spring.  That’s why the sheep were out on the hills at night, rather than asleep in their sheepfolds:  it was lambing season.  Any other time of the year, the shepherds would have been back in town for the night.  But the early church chose to celebrate the birth of Christ in late December anyway, for two reasons.

The practical reason is that celebrating this day in the spring would have put it right on top of Easter, which would just be impossible to deal with.  More importantly, though, they wanted the symbolism of celebrating the birth of Christ during the darkest part of the year, the time when the night is longest and coldest.  The early church set Christmas just past the longest night of the year in order to emphasize the Light of the World coming in the world’s deepest darkness.

For us, Christmas has gotten to the point that NBC’s medical editor can complain on-camera that Christmas is great but “religion is what mucks the whole thing up.”  For the early church, it was very different.  It wasn’t safe to be Christian in the Roman Empire until Constantine won the civil wars of the early 300s, and for decades to come the church remembered the times of persecution.  They were grateful to have a ruler who worshiped Christ, but they didn’t assume it; they didn’t assume that the government would protect them, that they would be respected for their faith, that life would be generally comfortable and safe.  Like the majority of people throughout human history, their mental image of rulers was much closer to King Herod than President Washington.

The one bad thing about separating out Christmas and Easter, as the church chose to do, is that it encourages us to treat them as two separate things; and they aren’t.  They are the same story at different ends, addressed to the same reality:  the terrible, crushing power of human sin, the unsolvable problem of evil permeating us and our world, and God’s unimaginable final answer.  We sentimentalize Christmas, but the early church didn’t, and the gospels don’t.  Matthew doesn’t invoke Isaiah 9 here, but the New Testament does elsewhere, for the great promises of verses 6-7; and look at the context of those promises.  They’re addressed to “her who was in anguish,” to “the people who walked in darkness,” who “lived in the land of the shadow of death,” a land devastated by war and crushed under the burden of the oppressor.

When Jesus came, he came under the rule of Herod the Great—a man who had taken power in Jerusalem in a bloody three-year civil war against his nephew, and who maintained the peace through unhesitating brutality; he was a man so paranoid that he would execute several members of his family for supposed plots against him—including even his own wife.  Under his successors, Jesus’ life would end in blood, the innocent dying for the guilty; Matthew makes clear that Jesus’ life began in much the same way, with the murder of the innocent to serve the fear and ambition of those in power.

And the world took no notice.  Herod killed so many, after all; Bethlehem was a small town, there couldn’t have been more than 18-20 boys two and under.  They weren’t important, their families weren’t powerful—to the Romans, who valued people for what they could do, they just didn’t matter.  The most terrible thing about the slaughter Herod ordered is that outside of Bethlehem, nobody cared.

There is no easy answer to our evil.  Human power won’t stop it; whether you’re talking peaceful political change or violent revolution, the unscrupulous always have the advantage, and will tend to rise to the top.  Human institutions won’t stop it; there is no constitution so perfectly written that it cannot be destroyed in the end by those who would subvert it to their own purposes.  Human cultures won’t stop it; just watch the way our own is going.  We still react with horror and anguish to the atrocity in Connecticut—but many immediately begin trying to use that horror and anguish to serve their own agendas; and in the meantime, more and more voices argue that children aren’t that important, and neither are the elderly, because they can’t do anything for us.  In the normal course of history, those who have no power are sacrificed to serve the purposes of those who do.  Our world is dark, and there is no easy answer for the darkness.

And so God gave us no easy answer.  He didn’t give us a better flashlight and tell us to find our own way out; he didn’t tell us to just try harder, be nicer, or like ourselves better.  He didn’t even just tell us to love one another.  He didn’t leave the burden on our shoulders at all; he took that burden, and he gave us himself.  He knew our death; he knew the evil that we do, for he experienced it in his own flesh.  He bore our griefs and carried our sorrows—he was pierced for our sins, and crushed for all our wrongdoing—he took the punishment for all our evil thoughts and actions, and freely made himself the sacrifice for our deep guilt.  He took our wounds, so that we might be healed.

In doing this, he canceled the power of sin over us; in rising from the dead, he broke the power of death; and by this, he set an end to them and all their works.  A voice is heard in Ramah—a voice is heard in Newtown—a voice is heard in Auschwitz—a voice is heard in Bethlehem—a voice echoes down the halls of our history of grief:  Rachel weeping for her children, weeping for all of us, because they are no more.  And then, in response, comes another voice, promised by Jeremiah:  “Do not weep.  There is hope for your future; your children will come home.”  All the works of evil will be undone; as Sam Gamgee put it, everything sad will come untrue.  The baby born in Bethlehem among the Temple’s sacrificial lambs is the Man of Sorrows who died to give us life is the risen Lord who is coming again to take his children home.  All shall be made new, and all shall be well, and all shall be made right:  because he has already done it. 

The Sign of the Manger

(Isaiah 9:1-7; Luke 2:1-21)

There’s a pastoral couple out in New Jersey in my home denomination, the Reformed Church, Seth and Stephanie Kaper-Dale, who Sara and I knew at Hope. Before they went to seminary, they spent a year working with an RCA-supported orphanage in Guayaquil, Ecuador. Some years ago, Seth wrote a piece about the birth of Jesus, and in the course of the article, he told this story from the orphanage:

A few months into our time there we started taking the kids from the orphanage on field trips into the wealthy parts of the city . . . One day we took a group of kids to a new shopping mall—malls are the rage in the rich sector of Ecuador. When we arrived at the mall by bus we jumped off, and our child companions looked with amazement at the building before them.

“You mean, you’re going to take us in there? We can’t go in there.” Only one boy spoke, but it was clearly the opinion of all the orphans.

“Of course you can go in,” I said. “This is a public shopping center. You are just as entitled to walk around in there as anyone else.”

The kids shrugged their shoulders, and with the permission they needed, they ran off ahead of us to the front door—where armed guards promptly stopped them. Only when the guards saw us, and saw that we were with these kids, were they even allowed to enter the shopping center. Inside, I began noticing shopkeepers and shoppers giving nasty looks to the beautiful children with us. Apparently, the rich could see the impoverished reality of these children, as if their poverty were a visible garment.

There was no place for them in the mall that day.

In society’s eyes, they were unworthy; and just so were Mary and Joseph. We hear the traditional translation that says there was no room for them in the inn, and we tend to project our own experience into it and assume that the inns were all full. The thing is, though, Bethlehem probably didn’t have an inn—only the big cities did; Bethlehem was too small, and too close to Jerusalem. Also, the word Luke uses here isn’t the normal word for “inn”—he uses that one in the parable of the Good Samaritan; rather, it’s a word meaning “guest room”—the same one he uses for the upper room in which Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper. Which fits, because in that day and age, people didn’t travel all that much, and when they did, they usually stayed with friends and relatives. Given that Joseph was going back to the home of his ancestors, where he would have relatives—distant cousins, perhaps, but family is family—the normal plan would have been to stay in the guest room in one of their homes.

So there’s more going on here than we usually realize. Which shouldn’t surprise us. Stop and think about it—put yourself in the shoes of Mary’s father or mother: your teenage daughter, who’s engaged to a good man, turns up pregnant (disgracing your house, incidentally), and when you ask her who got her pregnant, she says, “God did!” Do you believe her? No, you probably don’t—and judging from the fact that the gospels never mention them, neither did they. In fact, nobody did, unless angels had given them reason to do so. Elizabeth believed her, being herself miraculously pregnant, but Joseph didn’t, until he had his own angelic visitation. As far as the world was concerned, here was a teenage girl who had fooled around, gotten pregnant, and had now concocted this ridiculous story to try to excuse herself; she had brought great shame on herself, Joseph, and both their families, which was no small matter.

This, I think, is one reason Mary went to visit Elizabeth and stayed three months: it got her away from her parents and their disapproval. When she did go back to them, she doesn’t seem to have stayed very long, since Matthew tells us that after Joseph had his dream, he took Mary into his home; it isn’t certain, but it sure looks like her parents kicked her out of the house for getting pregnant, shaming the family, and then lying about it (and perhaps committing blasphemy in the process). The only person Mary had who was both willing and able to care for her was Joseph.

That’s probably why she went with him to Bethlehem. Legally, she didn’t have to; she was neither a taxpayer nor eligible to serve in the Roman army, and thus didn’t need to be registered. As far along as she was in her pregnancy, traveling to Bethlehem wasn’t the best of ideas—better to stay home, if she could. So why did she make the trip? Because she had no place else to go. Her parents had rejected her, Elizabeth had a baby, and she had no other option.

And then, in Bethlehem, she found the same rejection. You would think the extended family should have made room, however crowded things were, for a woman in the last stages of pregnancy—but they refused. They couldn’t quite bring themselves to turn Joseph and Mary out, but they were completely unwilling to show any real hospitality to anyone who had brought such shame on them. They finally allowed Joseph and Mary a grudging spot in the house of one of the family, but not in the upper room, with the honored guests—and not in the part of the main room where the family lived—but only in the lowest part of the house, with the animals, where their dishonor would be plain.

In other words, there was no room for Joseph and Mary in that guest room because their family refused to make room; it was less that there wasn’t room on the floor, and more that there wasn’t room in their hearts. Joseph and Mary had dishonored the family; let them be treated with dishonor. No respectable bed for such a woman, or for her illegitimate child, the fruit of her shame. And so the mother of God was given a place with the sheep and the cow, and the Lord of the Universe was laid in a feed trough dug out of the floor; the Messiah came home to his own people, and his own family rejected him, because he didn’t come on their terms.

And yet, even in this we see the grace of God. Isaiah says, “To us a child is born, to us a son is given,” and that the child’s name was to be Immanuel, “God with us,” and God meant all of us—look whom he invited to the birth. Shepherds filled a critical role in the economy in Israel, but increasingly, their only role in Jewish society was at the bottom; yet they were the first outside witnesses to the birth of the Son of God. Would they have been welcome in the guest room of a respectable house? No; but in the lowest part of the house, where the animals stayed, they belonged. If there was no place for the shepherds in polite society, and if they were to be welcome at Jesus’ birth, there couldn’t be a place for him in polite society, either.

This, I believe, is why the angel tells the shepherds, “This will be a sign for you.” It’s not just about telling them how to find the right baby—there’s a message here. God has come to Earth, love has come to his people, and he came to a place where anyone could come, so that right from the beginning he was God with all of us—no exceptions, no ifs, ands, or buts, end of sentence.

Which is both comforting and discomfiting. On the one hand, it means that I am welcome, you are welcome, to come to him. Nothing that any of us are or have been or have done will make Jesus turn away from us; we cannot be so unworthy as to outweigh his love for us. At the same time, though, it means that he doesn’t cater to our comfort zone, either, nor does he reject those whom we reject. We can’t say to Jesus, “I’ll come to you, but first you have to get away from the animals and move someplace more comfortable—I don’t like the smell, and there’s no place to sit down.” We can’t say, “I’ll come, but only if you get rid of those shepherds. I don’t like being around people like that, and I certainly don’t want to be seen with them.” Jesus came to those who he knew would reject him, and he calls us to follow him shepherds, stable reek and all.

The One for Whom We Wait

(Isaiah 9:1-7; Matthew 2:1-12)

Blue homespun and the bend of my breast
keep warm this small hot naked star
fallen to my arms. (Rest . . .
you who have had so far to come.)
Now nearness satisfies
the body of God sweetly. Quiet he lies
whose vigor hurled a universe. He sleeps
whose eyelids have not closed before.
His breath (so slight it seems
no breath at all) once ruffled the dark deeps
to sprout a world. Charmed by doves’ voices,
the whisper of straw, he dreams,
hearing no music from his other spheres.
Breath, mouth, ears, eyes
he is curtailed who overflowed all skies,
all years. Older than eternity, now he
is new. Now native to earth as I am, nailed
to my poor planet, caught
that I might be free, blind in my womb
to know my darkness ended,
brought to this birth for me to be new-born,
and for him to see me mended
I must see him torn.

Luci Shaw’s poem “Mary’s Song,” which Barbara read for us, captures something of the unimaginable step the Son of God took when he became a man. For nine months, Mary bore God in her body; and now he is born, a baby seemingly like any other in Bethlehem that night. Psalm 121:4 declares, “He who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep”—but now he does, nestled in his mother’s arms. The eternal Word of God is now wordless, capable only of an infant’s coos and cries; the omnipotent one by whom all things came to be is now impotent, dependent on his mother and father for his every need. And why? The thoughts Luci puts in Mary’s mouth capture it perfectly: “caught that I might be free, blind in my womb to know my darkness ended, brought to this birth for me to be new-born.”

From the point when Adam and Eve fell into sin, dragging all creation with them into death and decay, the world waited for a savior; but the savior God sent wasn’t any savior we would ever have expected. This was no king to forge a mighty empire, nor a great general to slay his enemies on the field of battle. Indeed, he was a man of no power in society at all, and when the powers that be dragged him into court, he neither raised a hand to stop them nor said a word in his own defense. He was born powerless, laid to sleep in a bed of harsh straw, he lived the powerless life of a penniless itinerant, and he died powerless, murdered by the authorities with little more than formal attention to due process. In short, he did not come demanding admittance, forcing salvation on all in his path; rather, in a kind of spiritual judo, the Savior of the world came quietly, in humble state, asking to be let in. He did not, and does not, knock the door down; he chooses instead just to knock.

We need to remember that, as we—quite rightly—emphasize the sovereignty of God, that our salvation is his work, that even faith comes to us as his gift; we need to remember that when he saves us, he doesn’t simply overpower us, dominate us, overawe us into cowed obedience. He doesn’t do it by shattering our wills, but by transforming them. He loves us, he cares for us, he heals us, he draws us to himself, and he sets us free, breaking the hold of sin on our lives, taking our old life and giving us his own in exchange, placing his heart and his Spirit within us, so that we are able and joyful to welcome him in gratitude for all he has done for us.

But that raises the question: who is it we’re called to welcome? First of all, we’re called to welcome the child who has been born for us, which is simply to love him; and that’s more than just warm feelings. One thing I’ve learned from having children, they take over your life. They go right to the top of the list of priorities, because they need so much from us; caring for them and raising them takes so much time, energy, thought and attention that they affect every single thing we do. In their vulnerability and need for our love, they open our hearts in a way that nothing else can. I think that’s one reason God sent Jesus as a baby, born like any of us, so that we would see that he wants our love, and that he intentionally left himself vulnerable to us—even to the point of allowing us to crucify him. A child has been born for us.

But what a child! Unplanned pregnancy, single mother—yes, she was engaged, but she wasn’t yet married, and that pregnancy could have cost her everything; and though her fiancé stuck with her, they were still second-class people living in an occupied country, very likely poor, vulnerable to the occupying army. This baby Jesus was the definition of a problem pregnancy, and once he was born he was the least of the least. This is the child who has been born for us, a child it would be far too easy to write off as unimportant and inconvenient (which is fitting, in a way, for the leaders of his people found the adult Jesus equally inconvenient); and in his name and by his example, these are the children he calls us to welcome today. There shouldn’t be any unwanted children, any neglected children, or any children undefended in the face of abuse, not if the church is doing its job, for we are called to welcome and care for them in the name of the child who was born to us in that neglected place so long ago; for that child says to us, “Just as you did it for one of the least of these, you did it for me.”

We don’t worship a God who came to earth as one of the beautiful people, or who demanded the nicest home in Israel for his Son’s birth; in fact, we worship a God who deliberately chose to be born among the animals so that the shepherds would be just as welcome as the magi. We don’t worship a God who sides with the rich and powerful, but one who commands them to care for the powerless. We worship a God who could have come to earth and claimed everything because he made it, but who didn’t even reserve himself a shack in which to sleep. We worship a God who came to earth to identify himself with the poor, the powerless, the outcast, and the oppressed, who died in part because of that, and who calls us to do the same.

Second, we are called to welcome the king who has come to us. The child is not ours to command, we are his to command; he is ours not to lead but to follow. This is both a blessing and a warning, because Isaiah tells us he comes to bring justice for our unjust world; this is why he is the Prince of Peace, for true peace is founded on justice, on being in line with the perfect will of our just and holy God. This is a blessing for those who truly desire justice, even as we fight the injustice in our own hearts, because it’s a promise that at the last, our hearts will be refined until they shine like pure silver, and we will be vindicated. To those who do not seek justice, to those who treat others unjustly, it’s a warning that the time to profit from injustice is brief, for perfect justice will be done in the end; the pleasures of sin may be sweet in the mouth for a moment, but its consequences are bitter in the stomach, and permanent.

To welcome the child is to love him; to welcome the king is to obey him; and in John 14:15, Jesus showed us that these come to the same point when he said, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” We are called to obey him out of love, because he is our God and he knows what is best for us; which means in part that out of love for him, we must trust him enough to believe that he knows what is best for us. Obedience born of love is a radical thing, unlike anything else, because there are no limits. Obedience to law goes only so far—its commands reach a certain point and then stop; obedience to love may require anything of us. Love may call us to fulfill our dreams, or to give them up; love may direct us to set aside our strongest desires; love may summon us to trade in our entire life for a life we would not have chosen. Such is, after all, the story of Abraham. But God knew what he was doing, and Abraham was richly blessed for his obedience; and through him, God changed the world.

As we stand tonight before the infant-king in the straw, let us welcome him with our whole heart and our whole life. Now native to earth as we are, nailed to our poor planet, caught that we might be free, brought to this birth for us to be new-born, he has given us his life that we might live; he has given everything, no strings attached. Let us do the same.

Mary: A Scandalous Mother

(Isaiah 53:1-3; Matthew 1:16-25, Luke 2:1-7)

If you’ve been here during the last four weeks, you know that we’ve been going through Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus in the first chapter of his gospel, looking at the stories of the women he mentions. Though modern Americans usually consider it dull and boring, there are a couple very interesting things about this genealogy. One of course is the inclusion of women, which was a significant departure from normal practice—and particularly of these women, each of whom is scandalous in some way. There’s another way, though, in which Matthew’s genealogy is different from most, and in a rather subversive way. You see, part of the idea of a genealogy was that if you had important ancestors, that made you particularly significant, but he flips that: Abraham and David, who along with Moses were the greatest people in the history of Israel, are primarily of importance because God used them to bring about his plan to send Jesus. They are important because of Jesus, not the other way around.

This makes the inclusion of these women particularly interesting, because it means that we are to understand their stories, too, in light of Jesus’ life and work. In the story of Bathsheba, the wife of Uriah, violated by King David, we see that God doesn’t only use good acts and positive situations to bring about his purposes. Their marriage was begun in blackest sin, yet it was through them that Solomon, whom God had chosen to succeed David and carry on his royal line, was born. From Ruth’s story, I think it’s especially important to note her faithfulness. She went way above and beyond the call of duty to be faithful to Naomi—for what reason, we don’t know, but whatever her reason, it was through her extraordinary faithfulness, so very like his own, that God used her to carry out his plan for the blessing of Israel and the world.

With the story of Rahab, the thing which stands out is her faith. In a time of war, she converted from the faith of her people to the faith of their attackers, trading the gods and goddesses with which she had grown up for the God of Israel. That’s a hard thing to do and a very risky thing to do; it’s an amazing act of faith and trust. Similarly, Tamar’s battle of wits with Judah, her uncooperative father-in-law, highlights her faith, and also her courage. We see her faith in her desire to keep her place in Judah’s family, worshiping their very different God, rather than going back to her own family and the gods of her ancestors, even when it meant putting herself at the mercy of a man who had already shown himself unencumbered by morality or ethics; we see her courage in the fact that she followed through and took that risk, and had the nerve to pull off her plan.

In naming these four women, Matthew links them to Jesus; he also parallels them to Mary, Jesus’ mother, who was a scandalous figure in her own right. In some places, being unmarried and pregnant wouldn’t be that big of a deal, but her home region of Galilee was pretty conservative—there, even engaged couples were never allowed to be alone together. Put yourself in the shoes of Mary’s parents: your teenage daughter, who’s engaged to a good man, turns up pregnant (disgracing your house, incidentally), and when you ask her who got her pregnant, she says, “God did!” Do you believe her?

No, you probably don’t—and judging from the fact that the gospels never mention them, neither did they. In fact, nobody did, unless angels had given them reason to do so. Elizabeth believed her, being herself miraculously pregnant, but Joseph didn’t, until he had his own angelic visitation; in those days, being engaged meant all the responsibilities of marriage and none of the rights, so it took a full-blown legal divorce to break an engagement, and he was planning on doing just that, until God told him otherwise. It’s pretty clear that as far as the world was concerned, here was a teenage girl who had fooled around, gotten pregnant, and had now concocted an utterly ridiculous story to try to excuse herself; and this meant she had brought great shame on herself, Joseph, and both their families, which was no small matter.

This is probably why Mary went to visit Elizabeth, as we read in Luke 1, and stayed for three months, leaving only when Elizabeth was due to give birth: it got her away from her parents and their disapproval. When she did go back to them, she didn’t stay very long, since we know from Matthew that after Joseph had his dream, he took Mary into his home; it isn’t certain, but it sure looks like her parents kicked her out of the house for getting pregnant, shaming the family, and then lying about it (and perhaps committing blasphemy in the process). The only person Mary had who was both willing and able to care for her was Joseph.

That, I think, is why she went with him to Bethlehem. She didn’t need to, legally; she was neither a taxpayer nor eligible to serve in the Roman army, and thus wasn’t subject to the census. As far along as she was in her pregnancy, traveling to Bethlehem, whether by foot or on a donkey, really wasn’t medically indicated—better, if she had the option, to stay home. What’s more, if she and Joseph weren’t formally married at this point—Matthew would seem to indicate that they were, while Luke suggests they weren’t, but both texts can be taken either way—then traveling with him would be just one more breach of propriety. But she had no place else to go; her parents had rejected her, Elizabeth had a baby, and she had no other option.

If she hoped things would be better in Bethlehem, though, she was mistaken. I know we’re all used to hearing that there was no room for them in the inn, but that’s not really what’s going on here. For one thing, inns were uncommon in those days outside the big cities; Bethlehem was small, and close to Jerusalem, and it’s highly unlikely it had one. For another, the word here isn’t the one Luke uses elsewhere for a hotel; rather, it’s the one he uses for the upper room, the spare room, in which Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Last Supper. This fits with the rest of the picture, because in that day and age, people didn’t travel much, and when they did, they usually stayed with friends and relatives. Given that Joseph was going back to the home of his ancestors, where he would have relatives—distant cousins, perhaps, but kin is kin—no doubt he would have expected to be able to stay in a guest room in the home of a member of his family.

It was a reasonable expectation. To be sure, Joseph and Mary were far from the only members of their family headed into Bethlehem for the census, but there would be room enough to manage; and certainly, who would have a better claim on a bed than a woman in the last stages of pregnancy? And yet, it didn’t turn out that way; the very relatives on whom Joseph was counting didn’t let it. As Verlyn Verbrugge, a Reformed Church pastor in western Michigan, puts it, “Mary’s pregnancy out of wedlock . . . would inevitably have brought shame to the family name—and Joseph’s willingness to believe her story and to support Mary brought the same shame on him. One can almost imagine the gathering of relatives in the [guest room] of that Bethlehem house, talking about the latest family gossip, especially the pregnancy of that young girl Mary. They certainly could not allow someone who has brought such shame to their family to enter into their midst; that would imply some endorsement of her situation.”

In other words, there was no room for Joseph and Mary in that guest room because their family refused to make room; it isn’t that there wasn’t room on the floor, there just wasn’t room in their hearts. Joseph and Mary had dishonored the family; let them be treated with dishonor, let them sleep with the animals, in the lowest part of the house. No respectable bed for such a disreputable woman, and certainly not for her illegitimate child, the fruit of her shame. And so the mother of God was given a place with the donkeys and the cow, and the Lord of the Universe was laid in a feed trough; the Messiah came home to his own people, and his own family rejected him, because he didn’t come on their terms.

That’s where Isaiah 53 comes in. At Christmas, we tend to focus on Jesus’ welcome, not on his rejection, but it’s important to realize that even at his birth, Jesus found rejection. His own family, outside his parents, rejected him, because he made them look bad. None of the respectable people showed up to hold the baby, only grubby shepherds fresh from the fields. And as for the local political types, when Herod, the governor in Jerusalem, heard the news, he immediately started plotting to have Jesus killed. Never too early to eliminate a potential rival, after all, even if he’s still in diapers.

This is what God let himself in for—and he did it on purpose. The God of all stars was born in scandal, an offense to most of his family, to a couple of no worldly significance whatsoever from a backwater town in a backwater country under occupation on the fringe of a great empire, in completely obscure circumstances as far as anyone who actually mattered was concerned. It’s hard enough to believe that the God of the universe would actually become human, confining himself in one of our bodies and one of our lives, but if he was going to do it, surely it wouldn’t be that way; and yet, that’s exactly how it happened. And did it get better from there? No; from the time he began his formal ministry, Jesus spent his years walking up and down Israel with no permanent residence, turning away from every chance at conventional success.

Instead of cultivating relationships with the rich and the powerful, Jesus chose to spend his time and focus his attention on the poor and the marginalized; instead of aligning himself with the important people of his time, he antagonized them at every turn, pointing out their hypocrisy and sin, and ultimately getting himself killed for his trouble. He didn’t come to experience only the good stuff—he came to know the hardest struggles, the greatest temptations, the darkest fears, and the worst agonies our world knows, and to take them on his back; he came to suffer them, and for them, for us, to take the cup of sin in which they’re brewed and drink it to the very dregs.

Jesus was born in scandal and he died in scandal, and he spent an awful lot of the years in between scandalizing somebody or other, because God’s saving mission couldn’t be accomplished with the world’s approval—but he didn’t care about the world’s approval. He cared about the world, to the point that he of infinite value and utter perfection allowed himself to be murdered and to bear the guilt of all our sin and shame, so that we might be redeemed from death and find new life in him. From a human point of view, this is crazy. From God’s, this is the ultimate wisdom; and it’s this wisdom, not ours, which brought the redemption of the world.

Light Has Come

(Isaiah 9:1-2,6-7; Luke 2:8-14John 1:1-14)

Human beings have a very uncertain relationship with darkness. On the one hand, we need it, because we need the nighttime; we were created to sleep at night, and we badly need that. Beyond that, it’s only in the night that we see the stars, which add beauty to our world and remind us that there are other worlds beyond our own.

On the other hand, though, there is much that we dislike and fear about darkness, because it limits us. It limits our ability to do things, for instance. Jesus referenced this fact in a conversation recorded in John 9, saying, “As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work.” He was of course talking about his death, but to do so, he drew on a commonplace of his time: people can only work during the day. That’s why, for most of human history, the changing seasons have had a profound effect on the rhythms of human activity; and it’s why, as those who study this will tell you, the invention of the electric light was one of the key technologies that made the modern age possible, because it enabled us to continue our work into the night. The really interesting thing about this is the way in which, in classic human fashion, we’ve taken this too far and turned it almost into a war on the night, to the point where light pollution is becoming a major problem and we’re disrupting the rhythms of nocturnal creatures and migratory birds—and, along the way, ourselves.

Even so, darkness still limits us, even as we try to light up as much of it as we can; and even more than limiting our ability to work, it limits our ability to control our surroundings. We can’t see where we’re going in the dark, and so we bump into obstacles and trip over things; and we can’t protect ourselves the way we want to, because we can’t see who or what might be out there. This is why children are afraid of the dark, because their imaginations can range where their eyes cannot see, conjuring up all sorts of things that exist only in their fears and worries. When our power was cutting in and out this past weekend, I ended up running out to the store so that we’d have little candles for the girls’ rooms, in case the power stayed out and their nightlights didn’t work.

The truth is, though they have nothing to be afraid of in their rooms, their back-brains are operating out of a sound instinct: the darkness isn’t safe. It may not in fact have anything bad or harmful in it in any given place, but you can’t know that for certain without lighting it up; and depending on where you are, and who you are, there might very well be. Darkness is and has always been the ally of those who would hurt others; and even those who ordinarily wouldn’t may be tempted to do so by the opportunities it presents. The 1977 New York City blackout, which turned the five boroughs into one big city-wide crime spree, is perhaps the outstanding example of this reality. As well, darkness is the natural environment of those who would conceal the truth and deceive others; that’s why we say that someone who doesn’t know what’s really going on is “in the dark.” This is why the modern world, taking its cue from the arrogance of a bunch of 18th-century French atheists, learned to express its sense of its own superiority to the rest of human existence by calling itself “enlightened” and previous times “the Dark Ages.”

Of course, darkness isn’t bad in and of itself; when God made the world, he made both day and night, and he called them both good. It’s our sin that has blighted the darkness, by finding it such a natural home for its own activities; the real problem is the darkness in our hearts, the part of us that shrinks away and hides from the light of God, to avoid being revealed for what it is. I sometimes wonder if that isn’t the darkness we’re trying to ward off with all our lights—and maybe especially as Christmas approaches. After all, you can do a lot of things to decorate for Christmas, in a lot of different styles, pulling a lot of different themes, but they all involve light—lots and lots of light. Lights on Christmas trees, on houses, on businesses, and strung with garlands and wreaths across the intersections; light-up wire deer, reindeer, even polar bears (and I really wanted to get Sara a light-up wire polar bear the other Christmas, but it just wasn’t in the budget); light-up Santa Claus, Frosty, and nutcrackers; even lights on the cactus in the front yard, if you live in Arizona. That one still gets me.

However you do it, though, whatever else you do, the agreement seems to be clear that decorating “properly” for Christmas involves lots of lights; and I think part of it, at least for a lot of people, is at some level an attempt to hold back the darkness. I think it’s part of our culture’s great tacit agreement that this is the time of year that we all get together and try to pretend as hard as we can that the darkness isn’t really there—that “’tis the season to be jolly,” and you’d better keep up. But while that may well be the best that much of the world can do, that’s not what Christmas is all about. That’s not what the good news of God is all about.

Consider the passage from Isaiah that Pam read earlier: “The people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of the shadow of death, a light has dawned.” Did that remind you of Psalm 23? “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me.” This is the promise of God—a promise that takes the darkness of our world and our lives seriously, and confronts it head-on. This is what people who deride Christianity as “pie in the sky” or some sort of fantasy wish-fulfillment thing miss, that the message of God isn’t the least bit unrealistic about our world; it isn’t at all about pretending that things are better than they are, or sticking our heads in the sand in denial of all the bad things that happen. We as Christians may be guilty of that in some times and places, but the gospel is about something very different indeed.

The gospel begins where the world lives, coming to a people walking in darkness, living in the land of the shadow of death. God doesn’t send the light to people who think life is wonderful, he sends it into the darkness. Jesus wasn’t born at high noon of mid-summer in a wealthy society, he was born in the middle of the night to a blue-collar family in an occupied nation; and though he was probably born in the spring, the church decided to celebrate his birth during the darkest part of the year, the time when the night is longest and coldest, to emphasize the darkness into which he was born. And when Jesus was born, the announcement didn’t go out to the wealthy and powerful of his nation—it didn’t even go out to the religious leaders, whom you would think should have been watching for him; instead, it went out to the people on the very bottom of the socio-economic-religious totem pole: the shepherds. (Ironically, these were likely the shepherds who watched the Temple’s flocks, the flocks which produced the Passover lambs and the sacrifices for the Day of Atonement, and since they were out in the fields with the sheep, it was probably lambing time; it was really quite appropriate that they witness the birth of the Lamb of God. But most people wouldn’t have seen them in that way.) Jesus came in the darkness, because that’s where the world is, and he came to those in need, because they’re the ones who know it.

It’s all too easy to forget that, when things are going well, when we have family and friends around us; it’s easy, when we have food on the table, money to pay the bills, and lots of love and joy in our lives, to wrap ourselves in a little bubble of light and let ourselves forget the darkness. It’s easy to forget that there are those in darkness who need the light. That’s a terrible thing, because there are many hurting people for whom this world is dark indeed. Those who are lonely, those who feel unloved or rejected, know well the darkness of the world; so do those who are struggling to keep their marriage together, or who are trying as hard as they can to help someone they love get free of an addiction to drugs or alcohol, or to do so themselves. So do those among us who have recently had someone they love die, who have lost the light they knew in that person’s life. For them, the world can be very dark, and it can be very hard to see any light at all.

This is why, as much as we emphasize the light, we need to take our cue from John and remember the darkness, too. “Light” is one of John’s favorite words, popping up all over his gospel, but he never forgot where the light shines—it shines in the darkness. And note that present tense—not “shone,” but “shines.” God said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” and that light hasn’t stopped shining yet. The light of the Word, who is the Light of the World, shone into the darkness at the beginning of creation, lighting everything as the world was spun out of nothing; the light continued to shine on, and in, the first human beings; after their fall into sin, it continued to shine through the darkness of our fallen world; it shone most brightly of all in Jesus, when the Word was born as a fellow human being; and it continues to shine through his teaching, and—however imperfectly—through us, the church he left behind him, who are his body.

In the darkness, the light shines. The darkness tried to put out the light, nailing Jesus to a cross, but even there, it failed, for the light only shone far brighter when he rose again from the grave. The light shines, and the darkness did not overcome it, for it cannot. Though battles still rage, the war is over; the victory is won. Jesus has won.

These are the “tidings of comfort and joy” which we bring at Christmas—not just “be happy because everybody else is happy,” but “be happy because no matter how dark things get, the light still shines.” As the carol has it, “Let nothing you dismay; remember, Christ our savior was born upon this day to save us all from Satan’s power when we had gone astray.” To celebrate Christmas by pretending for a while that the darkness isn’t there is to miss the point entirely; the message of Christmas is that God knows the darkness in this world—including the darkness you face, whatever it may be, however deep it may be—and that he sent Jesus to deal with it. Jesus is God’s answer to the darkness in our world; he came because of the darkness, to light up the darkness, and ultimately dispel it.