Monthly Archives: January 2009

San Antonio

The lesson on the radio this week will be given by Dr. Megan Moore of Wake Forest University. I’m in San Antonio at a conference on Christian Education. I gave a workshop on John Amos Comenius, which went well. San Antonio is lovely, although the bus system leaves a lot to be desired. We’re spending a good bit of time on the Riverwalk. Several Moravian educators are at the conference, and they have been working very hard. We all did find time to eat at a steakhouse one night. I thought about dropping in on Tim Duncan since I teach at his alma mater, but the busses don’t go past his house. Tune in next week for more on Matthew.


Israel Pilgrimage

Holy Land Trip          January 2009

 Melissa Rosebrock, member of Home Moravian Church

          Those who know me best would probably say that I’m rarely at a loss for words or an opinion.  It might surprise you to hear then that I find it a challenge to describe my recent excursion to the Holy Land.  Just how does one put into words, 2000 years of biblical history, culture, and religion—especially after experiencing it for the first time?  I’m not sure that I can.  So perhaps it’s best to express our trip in terms of the emotions I experienced.


          On January 15th, sixteen weary but enlightened Christians arrived back in the States after participating in a ten-day spiritual pilgrimage to Israel.  Our trip was organized by Rev. Rick Sides of Home Moravian Church; through the tour company Educational Opportunities.   Our merry group of travelers included not only Home Church members; but also some from the Sedge Garden Methodist congregation including, Rev. Phil Bauguess and his wife Paula as well as Moravians from Mount Airy, Raleigh, and even the state of Georgia.  Our flock ranged in age from 20 to 78.


          Let me start out by saying that at no time did we feel un-safe or unwelcome in Israel.  In fact, if we hadn’t watched CNN at night we would never even have known there was a war going on.   While you might think this a blessing, I actually found it troubling that so much pain and suffering was going on nearby and it wasn’t even visible to us.  The trip generated an interesting mix of emotions for me: peace, sadness, joy, and responsibility to name a few.  But fear was not one of the emotions I experienced.  You see, a couple days prior to leaving for our trip I felt an incredible peace come over me; the kind of peace that comes from knowing that you are finally “going home.”  This trip was, and continues to be, a very emotional experience for me.


Some trip participants, however, did express their concern and anxiety over our trip to Israel.  Rick’s message about “faith, fear, and trusting in God” was especially timely during our worship service while crossing the Sea of Galilee.  We visited various sites in and around Nazareth, Capernaum, Caesarea, the Mount of Olives, Jericho, the Mount of Beatitudes, Bethlehem, Mount Zion, the Jordan River, the Garden of Gethsemane, and Qumran, site of the Dead Sea Scroll discovery.  At several of these sites and others, we had the opportunity to read relevant scripture and sing some wonderful Moravian hymns.  I shall always remember the joy in hearing “Morning Star” being sung in the hollows of a cave in Bethlehem revered as the place where Jesus was born.  And our worship and communion service in Jerusalem was particularly powerful in the lush surroundings of the Garden Tomb.  To me, these experiences separate the pilgrims from the tourists.


While traversing northern Israel we saw beautiful fields of grain; groves of banana, date, avocado, citrus, and olive trees; and surprisingly, some large, Holstein dairy operations.  We observed miles and miles of barren desert, and lots of caves, sheep, and Bedouwin shacks in southern Israel. Some of us even took an invigorating swim in the Dead Sea, amid the raucous cheers of several observers.


At several points I saw 6-8 foot fencing and razor wire surrounding various pipes and valves.  I asked our guide, Zak, a most gracious and knowledgeable host for several of Rick’s trips to the Holy Land, if it was petroleum. He replied that it was protecting “something much more valuable—water!” 


            Feelings of sadness were generated by my observations of the plight of the Palestinian people.  While in Israel, I learned that if a Palestinian leaves the country, Israel can and does seize their property. We observed several streets, in fact, with aged Arab signs that are now under Israeli ownership.  I also saw the conditions of the Palestinian families living within the West Bank cities of Bethlehem and Jericho.  And in the last couple of years, the government has decided not allow Israeli tour bus drivers to enter the West Bank.  We had to, therefore, change buses and switch from Israeli to Palestinian drivers and busses when we wanted to enter these cities.  It’s my guess that many travelers just don’t make the effort, which is sad because tourism is their main source of income.  
            In addition, when the government decides to periodically close the checkpoints into or out of the West Bank, the Palestinian people who become ill are then at a distinct disadvantage since medical facilities are very limited within the West Bank.  At the checkpoint between Ramallah and Jerusalem babies have literally been born and/or died because of the country’s restrictions on entry and exit.  


            We were also saddened; some of us to tears, to learn that the Christian population has decreased significantly in the West Bank from 60-80% after WWII to only 20-30% today.  The rest of Israel is made up of about 80% Jews and 2-3% Christians.  The importance of Christian pilgrimages, education, and mission work in all parts of Israel cannot be over stated, in my opinion. 
            I challenge you, therefore, as Christians, to educate yourselves, pray, and to become involved as you are led, for lasting peace for all the people of Israel.  If you are interested further, I recommend reading Elias Chacour’s book entitled “Blood Brothers.”  Father Chacour is a Palestinian Christian who has a deep love for Jews and Palestinians alike. He builds schools, libraries, community centers, and youth clubs throughout Israel’s Galilee region.  
            In fact, in the most recent issue of “The Moravian,” Reverend Dr. Bob Sawyer, a Home Church member, wrote a wonderful article describing his own work with Father Chacour and the “Pilgrims of Ibillin” program which supports education and the vision of peace. I encourage you to read it if you have not yet had the opportunity.

In closing, if you have the opportunity please don’t let fear keep you from making a pilgrimage to “your spiritual homeland.”  I’m glad I went, for the upcoming Holy Week services will now take on a whole new meaning. 


And as they say in Israel—Shalom/Salaam. 




Matthew 1 – Joseph

Joseph in Matthew’s Gospel

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast January 25, 2009

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to this live broadcast of the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. I hope it was a good week for you. It was a big week for the nation as our new president assumed office. Students and faculty at the Divinity School gathered in prayer before the inauguration and then watched the festivities on CNN. We used the Moravian liturgy for National Occasions to guide our prayers for the nation and our leaders. These are perilous times and we will need divine wisdom and courage to face them. Last Sunday we had our annual Mission Band lovefeast here at Home Church, and Bishop Sam Gray delivered a very meaningful sermon that highlighted the varied ways in which Moravians are reaching out in mission around the world. I want to give a shout out to my friend Russ May, who is a Moravian minister exploring ways to create a community in Winston-Salem modeled on the church in the book of Acts. Life in the Atwood house has become more interesting since we got a Wii for Christmas. It is a video game that is a lot more active than most. We play golf and tennis, but boxing is the real workout. You do have to clear space when playing with the Wii. I’m afraid I had a Wii accident when I knocked over my eggnog while bowling. We call the controller the Wiimote instead of the remote. The other big news is that Grandma arrived yesterday. Now that she has retired from the prison, she is free to travel more. Speaking of traveling, I will be in San Antonio next weekend to lead a workshop for the Association of Presbyterian Church Educators. It looks like it will be a great conference. My workshop will be on John Amos Comenius. Eight Moravians will be joining hundreds of Presbyterians in Texas. Megan Moore will be teaching the Adult Bible Class next Sunday.

Melissa:            I forgot to mention last week that several Moravians were in Israel recently on a pilgrimage led by Rev. Rick Sides. Some of the participants on the pilgrimage are members of this class, and I’ve asked Melissa Mickey to say a few words about the trip this morning.

The Women:                        Last week we were discussing the genealogy of Jesus as given in Matthew. I did not quite get through that material, and so I’ll pick up where I left off. We were talking about the five women who appear in Matthew’s list: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s wife (Bathsheeba), and Mary. Except for Mary, these were all famous women of the Old Testament, but they were also controversial. Tamar was the widowed daughter-in-law of Judah who took extraordinary steps to insure the continuation of Judah’s family line. She pretended to be a prostitute so that her Judah would get her pregnant after he had refused to let his son take her as a wife. Tamar was nearly stoned to death when it was discovered that she was pregnant, but she proved that Judah was the father of her children. In this way she became a matriarch of the tribe of Judah and thus the mother of all Jews.

Rahab was a woman in Jericho who assisted the Israelites when they conquered the Promised Land. For her courage, she and her family were spared the slaughter of Jericho. However, Rahab was not just any woman in Jericho. She was a prostitute, and the Israelite spies she helped were probably visiting her in her professional capacity. She is not the kind of woman you would expect to see mentioned in a genealogy of the Messiah, but she also took bold action to preserve her family, and she has a place of honor in Jewish history. Tradition held that she married Joshua himself, but Matthew claims otherwise.

We discussed Ruth in detail last year, and you will recall that she was famous for her steadfast love to Naomi. She is remembered as the great-grandmother of David, but her relationship with Boaz was potentially scandalous in two ways. For one thing, she arranged her marriage to Boaz directly one night on a threshing floor rather than through more acceptable channels.  And she was not an Israelite; she was Moabite, which means she came from a tribe that was one of Israel’s traditional enemies.

You probably know all about Bathsheeba, who was the mother of King Solomon. It is interesting that Matthew reminds us that Bathsheeba was another man’s wife before David made her queen. Like the others, Bathsheeba can be viewed as bold and heroic or we can dismiss her as scandalous. Biblical interpreters for centuries have debated how Matthew viewed these women. Did he choose them simply because they were famous or did he want us to see them as heroines who risked their lives and reputations to do what was needed to be done in perilous circumstances? Or could it be that Matthew wanted us to know that Jesus’ family tree included foreigners and sinners, not just saints?

It seems logical that Matthew was intentionally connecting the mother of Jesus to these women in Israel’s history, but he does not tell us what that connection is. Was Matthew reminding us that there were women who wore scarlet letters, so to speak, and yet did great things for God? Did he view Mary as a heroine like Ruth, or was this an acknowledgment that some might view Mary harshly because she was pregnant before she was married? Could it be that Matthew himself was disturbed by the story of Mary and sought consolation in the matriarchs of Israel? Whatever Matthew intended by including Mary with Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheeba, his genealogy prepares us to expect something extraordinary about the wife of Joseph.

Son of David:                        Someone in class last week raised another problem with the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph. Matthew agrees with Luke that Joseph was not the biological father of Jesus, but he claims that Jesus was the son of David through Joseph. Careful readers of the New Testament have noted this problem for many centuries, and there is no consensus on an answer. We will explore this problem, but I’m afraid you will have to draw your own conclusions.

First of all, we should look at the significance of the claim that Jesus was a descendent of David. This appears to have been fairly widely accepted in the early church. The apostle Paul in the Epistle to the Romans appears to be quoting a Christian creed when he describes Jesus as “God’s Son, who was born of the seed of David.” Thus one of the oldest books in the New Testament claims that Jesus was a descendent of David. In all four gospels there are references to the messiah being the son of David, and in the Gospel of John, someone cries out to Jesus as the Son of David. Even though Matthew and Luke give different genealogies of Jesus, we saw last week that they agree that he was a direct descendent of King David. This does not prove that Jesus was indeed a descendent of David, but it does show that most of the authors of the New Testament believed that he was of David’s line.

Why was Jesus’ ancestry important? In ancient Israel, the word Messiah meant anyone anointed to rule Israel. According to II Samuel, God made a covenant with David that his family would always rule in Jerusalem, but the Davidic monarchy was ended by the Babylonians in 586 BC. After the Jews were allowed to return to Palestine and rebuild the temple, there was hope that eventually a descendent of David would restore the monarchy as well. Instead, the country was ruled by the Persians, and then the Greeks took control after Alexander defeated Persia. About 250 years before Matthew’s gospel was written, the Jews rebelled under the leadership of Judas Maccabeus. For a brief period of time, they had an independent country ruled by the high priests who eventually, they established a monarchy. This Hasmonean dynasty was rejected by some Jews because the rulers were not descendents of David. There is evidence that many Jews in the time of Jesus believed that God would send a Messiah to restore the throne of David, and it was natural to assume this ruler would be an heir of David.

Not everyone agreed that the messiah had to be a descendent of David. During each of the Jewish rebellions against the Roman Empire (ca. 66 and 140) there was speculation that the messiah had appeared even though none of the reputed messiahs claimed to be a son of David genetically. After the failure of the rebellions, some authorities maintained that the true messiah was hidden and would be revealed at the proper time. Interestingly, they claimed no one would know the lineage of this hidden messiah. In other words, people could have view Jesus as a savior or messiah without necessarily claiming that he was a descendent of David. Some scholars think that the early church invented the idea that Jesus was a son of David as a way to buttress the claim that he was the Messiah, but it just as plausable that the knowledge that Jesus was a descendent of David fueled speculation during his lifetime that he was indeed the messiah.

Raymond Brown states “while certainty is not possible, the NT evidence that Jesus was really a Davidid outweighs, in my opinion, doubts to the contrary.” (Brown, Birth, 511).  Brown goes on to say that this does not mean necessarily that Jesus was in the royal line, especially since Luke gives his genealogy through Nathan rather than Solomon. More importantly, Brown reminds us that “there would be no irreparable theological damage to Christianity if Jesus were proved to have been of non-Davidic descent. The Christian assertion that Jesus was the Messiah required a radical reinterpretation of that concept.” Jesus himself raised questions about the significance of biological descent from David in Mark 12:35-37. In other words, the early believed Jesus was a descendent of David who was God’s Messiah, but the crucial point is that he is the Messiah not that David was his ancestor.

Joseph                         It makes sense that Matthew and Luke would connect Jesus to King David, but there is still the nagging issue that it was Joseph who was descended from David and both Matthew and Luke claim that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father. It may be a testament to the integrity of both gospel writers that they included genealogical information that seems to contradict the idea of the virginal conception. It is possible that the gospel writers simply recorded what information they had without trying to harmonize it. They may not have noticed a problem.

Many modern biblical scholars speculate that the story of the virginal conception came later than the tradition that Jesus was a descendent of David through Joseph. It is possible that the virginal conception was inserted into the gospels as an expression of popular piety. Other scholars speculate that the genealogies were added to the gospels later to support Jesus’ legitimacy as the Messiah. Still others think that the gospel writers included both points of view and tried to harmonize them by indicating that Joseph was only the husband of Mary rather than the father of Jesus. No one can know for sure how these stories originated or were included in the gospels.

Legal Fatherhood:                        It might be helpful to keep in mind a point mentioned last week. Ancient genealogies record fathers, not mothers. People were known by the lineage of their fathers, not their mothers. It is common for languages to have a way of identifying a person as the son of a father: Ben Gurion means son of Gurion; O’Reilly is son of Reilly; MacDuff is son of Duff; Johnson is son of John; and so forth. A few languages have a formula to describe the daughter of someone, such as Anderdotter, but even then, it is the father rather than the mother who is identified. In other words, it would have been inconceivable for an ancient scribe to record the genealogy of a famous man’s mother.

There is another point to consider. Joseph was, in fact, Jesus’ legal father even if he was not Jesus’ biological father. By taking Mary as his wife when he did, Joseph was legally acknowledging Jesus as his son. This does not resolve the issue of whether Jesus was the biological descendent of David, that he was of the “seed” of David as Paul says, but it would mean that in first century Galielee Jesus would have been considered the son of Joseph, who was presumably a descendent of David. He could claim the legacy of his lineage even he did not share his father’s DNA. The fact Jesus would have been the legal son of Joseph does not resolve all of the problems with claiming Jesus was both born of a virgin and was a descendent of David, but it may help us understand why Matthew could put two apparently contradictory claims side by side in his gospel. Believe it or not, scholars have a lot more to say about the genealogy of Jesus, but I think we should move on to the story of Jesus’ conception and birth as given by Matthew.

Read: Matthew 1:18 – end

Joseph’s Dilemma:                        Unlike Luke, Matthew begins the story of Jesus after his conception. His focus is on Joseph who is a righteous man with a problem. He has agreed to marry a young woman, but he learns that she has gotten pregnant before the wedding. We do not know a lot about the history of private life or what the social norms were in ancient Israel, but there are indications in Jewish sources that it was permissible for a couple to have intimate relations after the betrothal and before the marriage. It sometimes happened in those days, as it does today, that a baby might appear just a few months after the formal wedding. Since the primary purpose of marriage was to have children, it is unlikely that Mary’s pregnancy would have been a cause for concern for Joseph if he thought he was the father.

The author of Matthew’s gospel was clearly sympathetic to Joseph’s plight. What should a righteous man do in such a situation? Keep in mind that ancient Israel was like modern Saudi Arabia or Pakistan in its approach to women and sexuality. Though the time was long past when a man could have a woman killed for such a breach of trust, a shamed bridegroom could take her before the authorities and have her condemned so as to preserve his own good name. This was a humiliating process that usually ruined the girl’s future. A woman who was publicly identified as immoral or who had a child out of wedlock would most likely be cast out by her family and left to the mercy of the streets.

It is interesting that Matthew says nothing about what Mary said to Joseph. Presumably they talked about her awkward condition, but Matthew was not interested in Mary’s feelings. He was only concerned with Joseph’s actions. How would he deal with this crisis? Matthew tells us that Joseph chose to put Mary away quietly, which means that he planned to stop the marriage plans. In setting her aside quietly, he may have planned to give her some money to live on. The main concern for Joseph was hard to break off the engagement without hurting Mary or offering himself up to ridicule.

After he has made his decision to deal with Mary as kindly as possible, an angel tells Joseph to follow a different plan. The angel appeared in a dream, which is consistent with the tendency in Judaism toward putting greater distance between God and sinful humanity. Angels are too holy to appear in physical form to people. They come in dreams for Matthew. For some interpreters, this adds to the realism of the story since it is easier to believe in dreams than in angels.

The angel tells Joseph that he should take Mary as his wife because her child comes from God; he is “of the Holy Spirit.” Many of the saints of the Old Testament were conceived through the power of God’s spirit, especially prophets of old. So far in the story, there has been nothing about Mary being a virgin. Many people have suggested that the question Joseph faced was whether to remain faithful to Mary and accept her child as a gift from God despite the implicit scandal. This is in contrast to Luke’s account where the virginity of Mary is central to the story. We’ll return to this issue in a couple of weeks.

Conclusion:                        We are out of time, so I will leave you with this thought from Martin Luther. There were three miracles of Christmas. First was that God took human form as a baby in a manger. Second was that a virgin conceived. And the third was that Joseph believed, and that was the most astounding miracle of all. 

Genealogy of Jesus in Matthew

The Birth of the Messiah According to Matthew


The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast January 18, 2009

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. I hope that it was a good week for you and those you love, and that you were able to stay warm. I think we were all thrilled by the successful rescue of the passengers on the plane that crashed in New York. Having just flown from La Guardia to North Carolina last week, it was a little weird watching the news. It is encouraging to know that we have pilots and flight crews that are so good in emergencies. Classes began on Wednesday at Wake, and I’ve got about 70 students in two courses this term. Thankfully I already know the names of more than half of them. Kudos to Wake Foret for being the only undefeated men’s basketball team.  Several of our students were in Egypt after Christmas, and we are glad they are back home. Speaking of travelers, we have a couple of Home Church members in India, and we offer our prayers for them. Here in the States, people are eagerly anticipating Tuesday and the inauguration of our new President. When we look at situations in the world that appear hopeless, such as the conflict in the Middle East, it is important to remember that change is possible. Who could have imagined that half-a-century after Federal troops were sent to Little Rock to integrate the schools that we would have a President with African ancestry? Who dared to imagine that apartheid could be dismantled in South Africa or that communist regimes in Europe would collapse without bloodshed? History confirms one of the fundamental convictions of Christianity: hope is real and change is possible. Dreams can transform the world if we unite imagination with determination and hard work.  If we live in faith and love every day, we can have hope for a better day.

Matthew and Luke:                        This week we begin looking at the narrative of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Matthew. As I mentioned back before Christmas, Matthew tells a different story about the birth Jesus than Luke tells. We tend to combine these stories in our Christmas pageants and nativity scenes, and there is nothing wrong with that as expressions of our religious devotion, but it is helpful to look closely at what each gospel says. We should respect the way each author decided to tell the story of Jesus. We saw that Luke focuses attention on a couple of individuals who were visited by angels before Jesus was born, and several people offer prophecies about Jesus. Zechariah, Elizabeth, Mary, Simeon, and Anna all have speaking roles in Luke’s Gospel. The only one of these people to be mentioned in Matthew’s version is Mary, and she doesn’t say anything.

We also saw that Luke links Jesus to Judaism and the Old Testament through these prophetic individuals and through Jewish rituals, such as circumcision and the purification of Mary. Matthew links Jesus to Judaism by quoting frequently from the Jewish Scriptures. At several important points in the story, Matthew supplies a quotation from the Old Testament to indicate that Jesus is the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. This is most noticeable in the birth narratives, but Matthew offers quotations throughout his Gospel. In fact, he quotes Scripture more than any of the other Gospels, which is one reason scholars speculate that he may have been a Jewish scribe or a Pharisee before becoming a Christian. Matthew also shows a great familiarity traditions of Judaism, and he portrays Jesus like a new Moses.

Overview of Matthew’s Account:                        Matthew and Luke agree on some basic historical points, such as Jesus being born in Bethlehem and that his mother was named Mary, but beyond that they tell quite different stories. Unlike Luke, Matthew begins with the genealogy of Jesus going back to Abraham. One of the things that Matthew tried to prove that Jesus was the legitimate king of Israel, but Luke was much more concerned with placing Jesus in the context of the whole Roman Empire. Matthew tells us that an angel appeared to Joseph informing him that his betrothed wife would have a child who would save his people. When Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a new star appeared in the heavens, and sages from the East saw it. They interpreted the star as a sign that a new and important king had been born in Judea, and so they came to honor him with precious gifts. When the king of the Jews heard the report of the birth of a king, he tried to kill all possible rivals to the throne. Joseph took the child and his mother to Egypt where they lived until Herod was dead. Ultimately they moved to Galilee. Luke does not mention precious gifts, wise men, evil kings, a journey to Egypt, or the slaughter of children in Bethlehem. Historians may debate the historical accuracy of many statements in both Matthew and Luke, such as the report of a world-wide census or the appearance of a special star, but in these lessons we are going to focus on the meaning of Matthew’s story. What role do the magi play in his story? Why is it important for Matthew’s gospel that the Messiah was an exile in Egypt?

Matthew’s Sources:                        Before examining those questions in detail, let’s think about the sources Matthew used. We saw that Luke was a good writer who used a variety of resources in crafting his account of Jesus as the Savior. One of those sources was most likely the Gospel of Mark and another was a collection of Jesus’ teachings that scholars call Q. Matthew used these same sources in preparing his gospel. In fact, he used over 600 verses from Mark, in many cases copying Mark’s text word for word. That is 11/12 of Mark’s Gospel, by the way, which shows how much Matthew loved the older work. The similarity between Mark and Matthew is so strong that for over a thousand years scholars assumed that Mark simply summarized Matthew. Folks thought he had written the Cliff Notes version of Matthew, but modern analysis has shown that Mark is actually wordier than Matthew. It is reasonably certain that it was Matthew using Mark rather than the other way around.

One reason for mentioning all this is to remind us that the gospel writers used a variety sources, including the oral traditions remembered in the Christian community. Matthew and Luke are similar in large part because they relied on some of the same materials, but when it comes to the birth narratives they are quite different. That is because Mark begins the story of Jesus with his baptism, not his birth. Matthew and Luke both thought it important to include narratives about Jesus’ birth, perhaps because some early Christians denied that Jesus was really a human being. Some believers emphasized the divinity of Jesus so much they denied that he had a mother or grew up like any child. They claimed Jesus came down from heaven like an angel. In different ways Matthew and Luke make it clear that Jesus was once a baby, but they also wanted to show that Jesus’ birth was part of God’s plan

Some of the differences between Matthew and Luke probably reflect the different contexts of the authors. It appears that Matthew was a Jewish Christian and Luke was a Gentile Christian. It is likely that they were writing for different congregations: Matthew’s church appears to have been a rather small church in Palestine or Syria that had separated from the synagogue but was still very Jewish. Matthew has some of the harshest criticisms of the Pharisees, which indicates a lot of real life conflict between Matthew’s church and the synagogue of his day. If Matthew was Jewish, we can assume that it was hard for him when Christians were excluded from the synagogues following the destruction of the Temple in 70 AD. There is a strong sense of threat throughout his gospel, including the birth narrative. It is only in Matthew’s Gospel that we hear of the Jewish king trying to have Jesus killed.

Genealogy:            Unlike the other three gospels, Matthew begins with a genealogy. Genealogies are not the most exciting part of the Bible for modern readers, and I’m sure that most Christians skip the opening words of the New Testament. I sympathize, and I will not read these verses over the air lest you turn the radio off. Though we find these verses boring, I think we should at least ponder the question of why Matthew begins the “greatest story ever told” with a list of begats. Part of the reason is that he was not bored by this list. I am sure there are lawyers who drool with anticipation when they see fine print in a legal document, and there are accountants who can’t wait to read the latest changes in the tax code. Some people love baseball statistics; others are bored to tears by them. I have to remind myself that there are a few people in the world who do not really want to hear all of the exciting news about a dead German count who preached in Pennsylvania.

Ancient scribes loved genealogies the way train enthusiasts love lists of locomotives. In those days, rulers keep official lists of their ancestors to prove their own legitimacy to the throne. It appears that many Israelites kept lists of their ancestors to prove their right to their land. After the Babylonian Exile, Jews used such family lists to determine who was really Jewish. They were also used to prove who had a right to serve in the Temple. In other words, it makes perfect sense that a Jewish scribe like Matthew would begin his account of the Messiah with a genealogy. It is also likely that he took most of this genealogy from written sources, but scholars have discovered that there are differences between Matthew’s list of names and the genealogies of the Davidic line included elsewhere in Scripture. I won’t bore you with all of the details, but will simply point out that Matthew’s list of the kings of Israel skips more than a few generations.

3 X 14 Generation:                        Matthew was impressed that there were fourteen generations from Abraham to David; fourteen generations from David to the Babylonian Exile; and fourteen from the Exile to Jesus. This makes for a nice matrix of three times fourteen, but you may have noticed a problem. Matthew actually lists thirteen generations in the first section, fourteen in the second, and only thirteen in the last one. There have been many ingenuous attempts to explain this, but none of them are convincing. It appears either that a name was somehow lost in transmission or that Matthew miscounted.  There is another problem for historians in Matthew’s genealogy. Fourteen generations would normally account for about 280 years, assuming the traditional figure of a generation being 20 years. At most fourteen generations would have been 560 years if each of the fathers was about 40 years old when his son was born. That is a relatively short time for the history Matthew refers to. It is interesting that the genealogy of Jesus that Luke gives in chapter 3 has 56 generations for the same period of time. In other words, it is likely that Matthew’s listing of ancestors was not complete. The fourteen generations was probably symbolic rather than historical. In Jewish numerology, the associated with the name David was fourteen.

Luke also gives a genealogy of Jesus, but his comes after the account of Jesus’ birth. It is a long and boring process to examine each of these lists in detail, but scholars are paid to do tedious tasks that few have the desire to do. Scholars have discovered that the names in Matthew and Luke are quite different. The two gospels agree most closely on the names from Abraham to David, which are listed in the Book of Ruth. Matthew and Luke also agree that David was an ancestor of Jesus, but Matthew traces Jesus descent from the kings of Judah, beginning with Solomon. In contrats, Luke claims that it was David’s son Nathan who was the ancestor of Jesus. Thus, almost every name after David is different in Luke than in Matthew. We know that there were people alive during and after the Babylonian Exile that claimed to be descendents of David, but few of those lists have survived, and both genealogies agree that one of Jesus’ ancestors was Zerubbabel, who lived during the Exile.

However, the lists provided by Luke and Matthew disagree almost totally after the name Zerubbabel. They even disagree on the name of Joseph’s father. The differences in the genealogies are so great that for many centuries biblical scholars proposed that Matthew is telling us about Joseph’s ancestors while Luke has given a list of Mary’s ancestors. Some biblical literalists today make this claim. The trouble is that Luke’s list of ancestors clearly ends with Joseph, not Mary.

The discrepancy between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke is disturbing only if you insist that there can be no errors of fact in the Bible. If you accept the idea that Matthew and Luke were working with the resources they had to write an account of the life of Jesus that was true and meaningful rather than factually accurate, then it is less disturbing. Even with our modern record keeping and methods of scientific research, it is hard to establish an absolutely reliable family tree for any of us. Every Scandinavian I know is somehow descended from Erik the Red.

Matthew was not trying to provide a precise family tree of Jesus; he was telling us that the birth of Jesus was part of the history of God’s covenant with Israel. The three sections of his genealogy correspond to three important epochs in Israelite history. There was the age of the patriarchs and judges, which included the Exodus. There was the age of the Davidic monarchy, which ended with the destruction of the Temple. And there was the age of the Babylonian Exile and restoration of the Temple. Therefore, Matthew was showing that Jesus had inaugurated a new age in which the Temple was no longer needed. Jesus was more than a descendent of David for Matthew; he was the turning point of history. Jesus fulfilled the promise given to Abraham that his seed would be a blessing to the whole earth.

The Women:                        There is something surprising buried in Matthew’s genealogy. Usually ancient genealogies only list the fathers, but Matthew includes the names of five women: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Uriah’s wife (Bathsheeba), and Mary. Except for Mary, these were all famous women of the Old Testament, and it is possible that Matthew was simply highlighting some of Jesus most famous ancestors. Tamar was the daughter-in-law of Judah who took extraordinary steps to insure the continuation of Judah’s family line. She was a matriarch of the tribe of Judah and thus the mother of all Jews. Rahab was a woman in Jericho who assisted the Israelites when they conquered the Promised Land. For her courage, she and her family were spared the slaughter of Jericho. Tradition held that she married Joshua himself, but Matthew claims otherwise. We discussed Ruth in detail last year, and you will recall that she was famous for her steadfast love to Naomi. Even though she was a Moabite, she has a place of honor in Jewish history as the great-grandmother of David. We haven’t talked about Bathsheeba, who was the mother of King Solomon. It is interesting that Matthew does not give her name, but merely identifies her as Uriah’s wife. She was a powerful political figure who was able to make her son king. Each of these women was famous in Scripture because they took bold action in very difficult situations, and that may be why Matthew included them in his genealogy.

However, you may have noticed something else about these women. Each of them was controversial. Tamar produced heirs for her father-in-law, Judah, by dressing as a prostitute so that he would get her pregnant. She was nearly stoned to death when it was discovered that she was pregnant, but in the end Judah acknowledged her as righteous. Rahab was not just any woman in Jericho. She was a prostitute, and the Israelite spies she helped were probably visiting her in her professional capacity. She is one of many women in history noted as a righteous prostitute, but that she is not the kind of woman you would expect to see mentioned in a genealogy of the Messiah. Ruth’s relationship with Boaz was potentially scandalous in two ways. She was not a Jew, and she arranged her marriage to Boaz directly one night on a threshing floor rather than through more acceptable channels. Matthew reminds us that Bathsheeba was another man’s wife before David made her queen. All of these women could be viewed as bold and heroic or scandalous, and biblical interpreters for centuries have debated how Matthew viewed them.

Mary:                        It does seem logical that Matthew was intentionally connecting the mother of Jesus to these women in Israel’s history. His genealogy ends with “Joseph the husband of Mary of whom Jesus was born.” It is a very odd phrase in whatever language it appears. Matthew carefully avoids saying that Joseph was the father of Jesus; instead he says that Joseph was the husband of the mother of Jesus. Even though the genealogy is of Joseph, Matthew shifts focus at the end to Mary as the mother of Jesus. It seems reasonable to assume that Matthew included the women in his genealogy because of Mary, but it is not clear what he was trying to tell us. Did he view Mary as a heroine who took bold action like Rahab? Or was Matthew acknowledging that some people viewed Mary with suspicion because she was pregnant with Jesus before she was married? Was Matthew reminding us that there were women who wore scarlet letters, so to speak, but who did great things for God?

Whatever Matthew intended by including Mary with Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheeba, his genealogy prepares us to expect an extraordinary story about Mary and Joseph. We are so familiar with the story of the conception of Jesus we tend to dismiss it, but Matthew was aware just how scandalous the story could be. Instead of focusing on Mary’s role in the conception, the way Luke did, Matthew considers Jesus’ birth from the point of view of Joseph. But that will have to wait until next Sunday. Thank you for listening.

Luke 2 – Simeon and Anna

Luke 2:22-40 Jesus Presented in the Temple

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast January 11, 2009

Introduction                                    Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church. It is good to be back with you after a little holiday break. Last week I was in New York for the American Historical Association annual meeting. I chaired a session on German Pietism, which was quite good, and I attended a fascinating discussion of the differences between religion in Europe and America. Seeing professors in New York reminded me of a favorite joke. What do you get when you cross a theology professor with a Mafioso? Someone who makes you an offer you can’t understand. Classes begin this week at Wake Forest, and I hope I am ready for my forty theology students at the Divinity School. Of course they most important event today is that Wake and Carolina are playing each other in basketball. I want to give a shout out to Rev. Bob McGee who is taking me to the game tonight. It is one of those times when I am torn between my alma mater and my employer. I’ll also give a shout out to James and Marilyn Dunn who celebrated fifty years of marriage over the weekend.

We have entered the season of Epiphany, which has actually been part of the Christian calendar longer than Advent. In ancient times, Christians in the East took the story of the Magi coming to the Christ child as an event worthy of special observance. Epiphany began on January 6, which is the proper day to take down your Moravian stars, and the theme of the season is the spread of the good news of Jesus to all peoples of the earth. Next week we will begin a study of the birth narrative in Matthew’s Gospel, which includes the story of the Wise Men. We will see that Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth is quite different from Luke’s Gospel, which we have been studying since the first Sunday in Advent. We have seen that the author of Luke used a variety of sources in crafting his story of Jesus’ birth. We have seen that Luke connected the stories of Jesus and John the Baptist, and we talked about how Luke used early Christian or possibly Jewish hymns to enliven the tale of the birth of the Messiah. There is a strong tendency in churches of all denominations to end the story of Jesus’ birth on Christmas Day with the baby lying in a manger, but Luke carries the story further. The famous scene in Bethlehem is not the climax for Luke. Eight days later, Jesus’ parents take him to the Temple in Jerusalem where two prophets acknowledge him as the Savior and sing canticles about the child.

Read: Luke 2:22-40

Presentation of the First-Born in the Temple                        Luke says that Jesus’ parents brought him to the Temple in Jerusalem a few days after his birth in Bethlehem in order to perform the expected religious rituals of presentation and purification. He quotes directly from the Old Testament in explaining these rituals to his audience, but it appears that Luke himself did not know the details of these Jewish rites. He appears to have confused two different rituals here. One concerned the birth of a first child if the child was male, which Jesus clearly was. The graphic phrase used by the Israelites was that a male who “opened the womb” was “holy” in the sense that he belonged to the LORD. In ancient Israel it appears that such boys were set aside to be priests in their local villages. This idea that the first-born male belonged to the LORD is reflected in the story of the Exodus when God claimed the first-born males of Egypt in a dramatic fashion. It is probably reflected as well in the story of the offering of Isaac when God accepted a sacrificial ram instead of Abraham’s son. You may remember that Samuel’s mother offered him as an oblate to the priest Eli since he was her first-born.

It is impossible to determine when the practice changed, but long before the time of Jesus, parents would redeem the first born by giving a gift to the Temple instead of giving the child to become a priest. We know from Jewish sources that Joseph would have paid five shekels to redeem Jesus as the first-born. Parents were not required to bring the baby to the Temple when presenting him. All they needed to do was bring the money, but Luke probably did not know this. Not only was he a Gentile, he was writing several years after the destruction of the Temple and the ending of the Jewish priesthood. He knew about the ritual, but it appears he did not know how it actually worked. We should note in passing that Luke clearly says that Jesus opened Mary’s womb, which appears to contradict Catholic teaching on the Virgin Birth.

Purification of Mary:            The other ritual was specific to the mother. According to the Mosaic Law, bodily discharges made people unclean, and this was particularly true of women. Mary would have been considered unclean for forty days after the birth of a son. The birth of a daughter meant that a woman was unclean for twice as long. It is common in tribal societies to have a period of confinement for a woman after giving birth, and there is a lot of wisdom in that. Not only does the mother need time to recover physically and emotionally, she and the child need to be protected from germs for a few weeks. Even today it is often a significant moment when a new baby is first brought out in public, and it is not surprising that this would have been governed by religious rituals in the past. Until quite recently the Anglican Church had a special ceremony for “churching” a woman after childbirth. Modern people are uncomfortable with the apparent sexism in such traditions, and modern medicine treats this issue with clinical detachment rather than religious ceremony. For the most part, modern Americans do not view women as ritually unclean after childbirth, but unfortunately we also do not treat them with special reverence.

Luke’s account of the purification of Mary is a little confusing, and most scholars are convinced that Luke did not know how the ritual actually worked. For one thing, the text says that the time had come for “their” purification instead of “her” purification. It appears that Luke thought that the father was involved in the ritual, too, which was not the case. Also, it looks like Luke thought that purification and presentation were related rituals, which they were not. It says in Leviticus (12:6) that a woman needed to come to the door of the sanctuary and offer a lamb and a pigeon or dove in order to be purified. If she were poor, two doves would suffice. She had to do this at the door because she could not enter the sanctuary. This law had applied in the days before there was a Temple in Jerusalem. There is no evidence that Jewish women in the 1st century were travelling great distances to Jerusalem to offer a sacrifice after the birth of every child, but there was probably a ritual of purification in the synagogue without animal sacrifice. If a Jewish mother made a pilgrimage to the Temple, she might provide for the sacrifice so she could enter the courtyard for women.

It is plausible that several weeks after the birth of Jesus, his parents brought him to the Temple where Mary was purified by a priest and Joseph paid the price of redemption. This was probably part of the tradition about Jesus, but Luke was a confused on the details. The important thing for him was not the rituals but that Jesus’ parents were pious enough to go to all this trouble when most people did not. In other words, Luke wants us to know that Jesus’ parents were good, pious Jews who followed the details of the law, and that Jesus was born in the normal fashion. Even more important for Luke’s Gospel is that Jesus appears in the Temple at the very beginning of his life. In the other gospels, the first time we see Jesus in the Temple is when he drives out the moneychangers. In the other gospels Jesus appears to be opposed to the Temple and the priesthood, but Luke places the infant Jesus in the Temple. He did not come to destroy the Temple or the law of Moses, but to fulfill them.

Simeon                        Luke gives much more attention to an old man named Simeon than to the rites of purification and presentation. Christian scholars in ancient times assumed that Simeon was a priest serving in the Temple, but Luke merely says that he was a devout and righteous man living in Jerusalem. Simeon was living in expectation of the coming of the Messiah, and Luke tells us that he was led by the Holy Spirit to come to the Temple on the day that Jesus was presented. We know from other sources that there were a number of Jews who were hoping for a divine Savior. Some of them were hoping for a Messiah like King David who would rescue Israel politically, but some of them were praying that God would send a religious reformer to cleanse the Temple of its corruption. Some of these people, who were called Essenes, established communities in the caves near the Dead Sea, and we know a lot about them today because of the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls. Just like today, there were probably people who shared many of the concerns and hopes of the Essenes without going off to live with them. Simeon appears to be such a person. By the way, some the Dead Sea scrolls are on display in Raleigh, and I want to thank the UNC student who gave me a commemorative shot glass from the exhibition.

The story of Simeon greeting the infant Jesus is beautiful. We are told that the old man took the child in his arms and blessed God and his parents. This has helped shape baptismal practices in many churches. Later this morning I will be baptizing the son of Kirk and Ashley Sanders and I will take young William in my arms and bless him in accordance with our religious traditions. I think parents should know that they are following in the steps of Mary and Joseph when they bring their children to modern sanctuaries and present them to God in this way. Simeon was chosen by the Holy Spirit to bless Jesus, but he was not a priest. This is biblical support for Martin Luther’s idea that any believer can serve as a priest.

Nunc Dimittis            Simeon gives two short speeches or prophesies. The first one sounds like a hymn that Luke adapted for the occasion. It has parallels to dying statements of important figures in the Old Testament, but in many ways it sounds like a post-resurrection Christian hymn in that it speaks of salvation as already accomplished. The canticle is known as the Nunc dimittis, which is Latin for the first words, “now let depart,” and for centuries it has been part of Catholic and Protestant liturgies. It is often used as an evening prayer or a blessing at the end of a service. It is particularly appropriate for use as a dying blessing for a person who has been faithful through long years of Christian devotion and service. However, the focus of the Nunc Dimittis is not on the departure of Simeon from this life, but on the salvation that Simeon sees. The themes of vision and light in the Nunc Dimittis are very similar to the themes of the Gospel of John, which this is a reminder that Luke and John have a lot in common.

It is very appropriate that we reflect on the Nunc Dimittis as we enter the season of Epiphany because it speaks of all nations seeing God’s salvation. The language used here echoes many statements in the prophet Isaiah, especially Isaiah 49:6. The last part of the scroll of Isaiah was composed in the final days of the Babylonian Captivity when the Israelites were preparing to return to Zion. Isaiah’s words remain a beacon of hope for people who live in physical or metaphorical exile  today. Isaiah’s prophecies were beloved by the Essenes, who wrote hymns similar in tone to the Nunc Dimittis, but the Essene’s hope was only for Israel.

This canticle in Luke speaks of a revelation for both Gentiles and the children of Israel. Luke begins his Gospel with an affirmation that Jesus is the Savior of all peoples, not just Jews. He claims that the work of Jesus will bring glory to Israel as well as the light of revelation to Gentiles. The great heroes of old: Moses, Samson, Samuel, and Elijah only saved the Israelites. It is no wonder that Jesus’ parents were astonished. Simeon’s vision of Jesus as a Savior for Gentiles is a wonderfully inclusive and universal view of salvation. Keep in mind that Luke also wrote a book about the spread of the Gospel throughout the Roman Empire.

A Sword                        Simeon’s next prophecy is more somber and hardly sounds like a blessing. He tells Mary that this salvation will not come without pain and sacrifice. One of major themes of all four gospels is that people react in different ways to the light of revelation. Some rejoice that they can see clearly, others close their eyes, and some try to destroy the light because it is too revealing. All of the gospel had to deal with the historical fact that only a few people became followers of Jesus during his lifetime. Even fifty years after his resurrection, the church was still a small, persecuted sect. Luke acknowledges that Jesus will divide people as well as unite people. We still live with this tension. Many Christians view Jesus as a unifier who brings together all the people of the world into a community of love and reconciliation. Others preach that Jesus divides the world into those who repent and those who reject. Still others, particularly outside of the church, believe that the Christian proclamation of Jesus as the Savior is a contributing factor to religious violence and intolerance. It is interesting that Luke’s Gospel begins with an acknowledgement that Jesus is both a universal Savior and a divisive figure. The Good News will lift up many who are oppressed, but others will stumble and fall.

Simeon also says that the innermost thoughts of people will be revealed, and the phrase he uses almost always refers to bad thoughts that people try to keep hidden. In other words, Jesus will force people to confront their own selfishness and mean-spiritedness. When we hear the Beatitudes, are we heartened by the hope that the meek will inherit the earth and that peace-makers will be blessed, or do we resent God’s liberation of the poor and his opposition to violence? Do we really God’s kingdom to come or do we secretly want to be lords ourselves? I think many of us want to keep Jesus in the cradle instead of letting him reveal our inmost thoughts.

Simeon tells Mary that a sword will pierce her soul, and this one verse has been subject to widely different interpretations. Many have viewed it in terms of Mary’s grief at the cross. Mel Gibson’s movie about the passion captured this idea very well when he juxtaposed scenes of Mary at home with Jesus and her agony on the road to Calvary. It is possible that Luke had something else in mind, though. The Bible often uses the word “sword” to refer to the prophetic Word of God that separates good and evil. The sword divides people into those who are obedient and those who are not. Simeon appears to be saying that Jesus will be that sword that reveals who people truly are, and even his mother will have to respond to his preaching the way all people will. Mary has a place of honor in the church not simply because she gave birth to the Messiah but also because she became a disciple.

Anna the Prophet                        Luke does not end his story on the hard note of judgment, however. He introduces a very old woman named Anna who was member of one of the so-called “lost tribes” of Israel. That means that she was not really a Jew according to the standards of Jesus’ day, but she was devout. Scholars debate over how old Anna was. If she was married at 12 and remained married for seven years and then was a widow for 84 years, she was about 103 years old. Others think that Luke meant she was an 84-year old widow. Either way, she was extremely old, and Luke describes her like one of the pious widows mentioned I Timothy. She was almost like a nun in that she lived alone and spent her time in prayer and fasting.

Luke calls her a prophet, which indicates that there were female prophets in the early church, and Anna was one of several women who were evangelists who proclaimed Jesus as the promised Messiah. She is a model for women in ministry as well as a model for the ministry of the elderly. She was not in the Temple being ministered to; she is there as a minister and prophet of the Lord. She is serving, not being served. Day and night she worshiped God and prayed. I know many Christians who reject this type of piety and devotion. Real Christianity for them is only found in social service, but Luke presents Anna as a model for devotion to God. There is another important point in Luke’s depiction of both Simeon and Anna. It is likely that they represent the law and the prophets. Again, Luke presses the idea that Jesus was the fulfillment of the promises of the Old Testament.

Conclusion                        We’ve come to the end of our study of the birth narratives in Luke. Believe it or not, there is much more we can learn from these little stories, and I hope you will continue to examine them and think about them. Luke’s Gospel brings together men and women, old and young, shepherds and angels in a common devotion to the infant Jesus. He repeatedly links the ministry of Jesus to the Law and Prophets of Israel, but he also presents Jesus as something more than a prophet or lawgiver. Jesus will be the Savior of the whole world, and that salvation will not come with the trampling boots of warriors. It will come with the healing touch of the prince of Peace.

Luke ends his account of the birth of Jesus by telling us that Mary and Joseph did all their duties according to the Law and returned home to Galilee where Jesus grew up and was filled with wisdom. That is a wonderful image for us to take into our own lives in 2009. We, too, should grow in wisdom and become mature as Christians.