Category Archives: Birth of the Messiah

Jesus the Exile

Exile – Matthew 2:12-23

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 22, 2009.

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class. I hope it was a good week for you and those you love. Many of us are enjoying the basketball season, although it does cut into sleep at times. When we’re not watching UNC, Wake, and Duke on TV, I’ve been reading P. G. Wodehouse in the evenings to the family. We enjoyed reading about the adventures of Jeeves and Bertie Wooster in the car on vacation last summer, and had begun to miss them. I’m afraid that my accents for the different characters roam over much of the old British Empire, but for some reason I have the hardest time speaking like a visitor from New York. Rather than sounding like an upper crust lady, I sound like a guy ordering a bagel at Penn Station. Still it is fun to try to give voice to people like Bobbie Wickham, “the vermillion-haired menace to the common weal.” My daughter used that phrase on a red-haired friend of hers who is now studying in England. I’ll give a very long distance shout out to Laura. My students at Wake Forest have laden me with papers, which must be graded today. They seem to think they are the ones who are doing all of the work in my class.

Today is the last Sunday in Epiphany and it is the feast of the transfiguration of Jesus. This will be the last week in our study of the birth narratives of Jesus, and I’m afraid that the passage we are reading today provides a grim contrast to the glorious vision of the transfiguration in the lectionary. I’ll be preaching on that topic at Fries Memorial church right after this broadcast. Despite the apparent contradiction between Jesus’ exile and his transfiguration, there is a connection between these texts. Our lectionary text is about Jesus being revealed as in divine glory on Mount Hermon, which is a theophany or an epiphany for the disciples. The lesson for today is about King Herod’s response to the appearance of the Messiah, and it foreshadows the passion story.

Keep in mind when you listen to the gospel in church this morning that the story of Jesus’ transfiguration is sandwiched between two predictions of his suffering. In other words, the revelation of Jesus as the Son of God is intimately connected with the rejection of Jesus by those in power. The passage we are studying today is harsh, and I know it can be disturbing. Many of you have been saddened by deaths of friends and family in the past week. Some of you also know the almost unbearable grief of having lost a child. Our prayers are with you, and we hope that unlike Rachel, you may comforted. People often ask me how I can believe in God when death is such a hard reality, and all I know to say is that it is God who wipes every tear from our eyes and gives me hope to face the pain of living. In fact, let us attend to the gospel.

Read: Matt 2:13-23

This is a famous story and has been the subject of some very graphic religious art through the centuries, but it presents a number of problems for modern historians. This story is not read much in churches today, but that is not because of questions about its historicity. It appears in the lectionary every third year on the Sunday after Christmas, which is one of the least attended Sundays in the year. It is very rare that Christmas pageants end with this story because it is so tragic and brutal. Who wants to explain what happened to the children born around the same time as Jesus? This is hardly the subject for a Christmas special. Who wants to think about Rachael weeping for her children while hanging stockings by the chimney? We do not like Bible stories that are “downers,” but this little story has important lessons for Christians to ponder today, and perhaps it is good that we are reading it just before Lent.

History or Literature?            Many biblical scholars suspect that Matthew took two different stories and tried to work them into a single narrative. One story was about Magi from the east coming to worship the king of the Jews. The other story was about Herod trying to kill the Messiah in Bethlehem. Each story is plausible separately, but there are difficulties when we put them together. If the Magi told Herod exactly when the star appeared, why did he not know how old the baby was? If Herod was so worried by the news brought by the Magi, why didn’t he just send along a body guard with them to Bethlehem to see which child they identified as the messiah? If the star was guiding the Magi, why did they need to stop in Jerusalem to ask directions? If a group of men in foreign robes brought fabulous gifts to a house in Bethlehem, wouldn’t you expect someone to remember which house it was and point it out to the soldiers rather than having them kill everyone?

We could go on with such observations, and attempt to solve these riddles, but that would only distract us from exploring the real meaning of this story. It appears that Matthew was indeed working from older stories passed down by oral tradition, and that he assembled them this way to emphasize the fact that people responded to the good news of the birth of the Messiah in radically different ways. In other words, those scholars who think Matthew simply made this story up are probably wrong, but that does not mean that the story he tells is historically reliable. One fact in particular that has long troubled biblical scholars is that one has found any solid evidence that King Herod ever slaughtered infants in Bethlehem. There is nothing recorded in Jewish or Roman sources about such an atrocity, nor is it mentioned in the other gospels. Many scholars think it is impossible that something this horrible could have happened and it not be noted, but the sad truth about history is that so many crimes go unrecorded.

Herod:            Most of what we know about the reign of Herod the Great comes from a single author, Josephus. He provides a great deal of information about Herod and his rise to power, but his account of Herod is often contradictory. Despite the breadth of Josephus’ histories, it is unlikely that he knew all of Herod’s deeds. Even in our modern time investigators discover atrocities that went unrecorded at the time they were committed. We are still uncovering mass graves in Eastern Europe, for instance. The only reason Matthew mentions the murder of the children in Bethlehem was because of Jesus.

We need to remember that this would not have been a big event in Herod’s biography. Movies and artwork depicting this crime generally magnify the scope of the event for dramatic effect. Bethlehem was a small village, and it is unlikely that there were more than a few children involved. That does not lessen the misery for the families, but it does help explain why this would not have been big news in Jerusalem. Though there is no evidence to support Matthew’s claim that Herod murdered children in Bethlehem, but we do have numerous stories about Herod that shed light on Matthew’s account.

Herod was called the Great, and it was a worthy name because he achieved much. His father was closely connected to the high priestly family that ruled Judea after the Maccabbean Revolt. Herod’s parents had converted to Judaism after their country was conquered, but there is little indication that Herod himself was concerned with religious matters other than in a political sense. He built the magnificent Temple in Jerusalem primarily as a political statement to demonstrate his power. The Talmud states that he built the Temple to atone for “having slain so many sages in Israel.” (IDB 2:590), which indicates that Herod has killed a number of scribes and Pharisees over the years.

Herod lived during the period when the Roman Republic was degenerating into an Empire, and his rise to power in Palestine was intimately connected with the civil war between Marc Anthony and Octavian. We don’t need to go into all of the details of imperial politics today. Suffice it to say that Herod was just as ruthless as any of the Roman politicians and generals of the day. Not only did he brutally suppress rebellions in his realm, he had rivals to his throne murdered. As king he was jealous of the popular high priest Aristobulus. Shortly after Pentecost he invited the young man to a party in Jericho. While they were swimming, he pretended to playfully dunk him under the water, but he held the man down until he drowned. When he suspected one of his wives of adultery, he had her lover murdered. Eventually he killed her as well – and her mother. Around the time that Jesus was born, Herod had two of his own sons executed for treason. Even the Roman emperor remarked, “in Herod’s house, his pigs are safer than his children.”

It is possible that the story of Herod murdering children in Matthew’s Gospel was based on the memory that Herod murdered his own children around the time that Jesus was born. It is certainly plausible that Herod would have killed children in Bethlehem if someone had convinced him that a child had been born that someone might claim was the Messiah. Just to make sure that no one claimed the child had lived, he would have put all children to the sword. In light of Herod’s other spectacular crimes, it would not be surprising if this atrocity was remembered only by the families who experienced it. Whether the events in Matthew’s account are historical, the story remains a grim reminder of the real politics of Jesus’ day. Herod was the kind of king who did such things, and his grandson beheaded the Baptist.

Israel:                        Let’s leave the historical King Herod aside for the moment and consider the story from a literary point of view. Several times we have discussed the importance of the Old Testament for understanding Matthew’s Gospel. We’ve seen that the author quotes the Old Testament frequently, apparently from more than one version of the Scriptures, and he begins his account of Jesus with a genealogy linking him to the key figures of Jewish history. We’ve also discussed the possibility that Matthew intentionally portrayed the father of Jesus like Joseph in the book of Genesis. Both men had and interpreted dreams that were important in the history of salvation. Using these clues, let’s look at this story in Matthew in light of the OT.

The most important event in the Old Testament was the Exodus from Egypt. This is the event that is remembered every year at Passover. Many scholars would say that it was the Exodus that made Israel into a unique nation under God. It was the event that revealed God as a liberator, and it was after the Exodus that God gave the Torah to Moses on Mt. Sinai. Throughout the Scriptures, prophets and priests rely on the Exodus event to describe who God is and why Israel should be obedient to God.

In case you haven’t seen the cartoon Prince of Egypt or watched Charlton Heston in the Ten Commandments lately, let me refresh your memory about some of the key points of the Exodus story that shed light on Matthew 2. The story begins with Joseph who brought the children of Israel to Egypt in order to save them from a famine. In Israelite history, Egypt is both a place of refuge and a potential danger. In Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth, Joseph has a dream that tells him to take his family to Egypt in order to save their lives. It sounds a little like the earlier story. Matthew even quotes the Old Testament to make a direct connection between the Exodus and the story of Jesus.

As the story goes, the Hebrews prospered in Egypt, but a new Pharaoh arose who did not know Joseph. The Hebrews were oppressed and are in bondage to the new Pharaohs. People in Egypt have reported to me that there are still hard feelings on the part of some Jewish tourists about this bondage 3000 years later. One of the problems with religious rituals is that they can keep grudges alive for a long time.

For reasons that remain somewhat obscure the Egyptian Pharaoh felt threatened by the Hebrews and ordered that all of the male children be killed. There is little doubt that Matthew viewed Herod as a new Pharaoh willing to kill his own children if he felt threatened. Whether of not Herod actually did slaughter the children in Bethlehem, Matthew wants us to remember the original story of Pharaoh trying to eliminate the Hebrews through genocide. One child by the name of Moses survived the slaughter thanks to the cunning of his mother, Jochebed. Likewise, the baby Jesus survived the wicked machinations of an insane king by the cunning of his father who takes him into exile.

Egypt:                        This account of the holy family seeking refuge in Egypt became very important to the people in Egypt who converted to Christianity in the 2nd and 3rd centuries. We often forget that there were many Christians in Africa before the rise of Islam, and to this day about 15% of Egyptians remain Christian. They are called Copts, and the Coptic Church is one of the oldest Christian churches. It was in Egypt that Anthony sold all that he possessed and the poor. He went into the desert to live as a hermit, and this was the beginning of monasticism. It was in Egypt that Clement and Origen used Greek philosophy to communicate Christian truths and helped created the doctrine of the Trinity. Matthew tells us that Egypt received Jesus even before he was baptized.

Coptic legends give details about the flight of the holy family through Egypt along the Nile, and there are numerous accounts of miracles along the way. Stories were told about how Joseph sold the gifts of the Magi to provide food and shelter for his family. Every exile learns that no possession is too precious to sell when your family is hungry. Some of the legends in Egypt are connected with sacred sycamore trees that miraculously grew to provide shade for Mary and the baby or sacred springs that provided water. Many of those sites were earlier associated with the Egyptian deities Hathor and Osiris. When Egyptian priests converted to Christianity, they told the story of Jesus in ways that would help the pagans convert from worship of such gods to the adoration of Jesus and Mary, much the way Patrick used Celtic legends to convert the Irish to Christianity.

Exile:                        The story of Jesus’ exile in Egypt has become even more important for Christians around the world today than it was in ancient times. The 20th century was probably the most violent age in the history of humanity. Some of you have witnessed first hand the devastating effects of war in Europe, the Pacific, the Middle East, or Southeast Asia. Whole nations disappeared in the 20th century, leading to mass migrations of peoples across continents. For the past fifty years, Africa has been the setting for one mass exodus after another. The sight of long lines of people, many of them pulling two-wheeled carts piled with their possessions or elderly relatives is all too familiar to us. War has become the scourge of the powerless throughout the world, adding its unique horrors to the persistent suffering of the poor.

There are so many refugees and “displaced persons” in the world that the United Nations has a high commission on refugees, which attempts to ameliorate their suffering. Currently they are trying to assist over 30,000,000 people who are in exile from their homes because of war and political oppression. Many of these refugees are Christian, and this little story in Matthew’s Gospel has been a source of encouragement since it shows that the Son of God shares their suffering. Exile was a reality for Jesus and remains a reality for millions. As we read the Gospel, we should remember that there are millions of Rachels today weeping for children who could not be saved from the ravages of war.

Conclusion:                        For those of us living in relative comfort and security, the story of Jesus’ “first exile” should awaken our compassion. Many of those legends about the flight to Egypt include tales of strangers who had compassion on a homeless woman and her child. If you are moved by this story to show concern for those in exile, you may be interested in a conference on immigration being held in Valdese, NC on March 21. It is co-sponsored by the Waldensian Church and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. You can learn more about immigration and ways that churches can respond. Even if you cannot attend the conference, at least remember in your prayers those in exile as Jesus was.

Postscript, Nazareth:                        Matthew tells us nothing about the life of Jesus in Egypt. Later legends described him learning all sorts of things from the Egyptians, but the early bishops rightly rejected most of those legends. All Matthew tells us is that after Herod died, Joseph took his family to live in Galilee because he was afraid of Herod’s son who had become king. Once again, it was a dream that pointed the way.

You may have noticed that Matthew and Luke disagree on whether Joseph and Mary lived in Nazareth before Jesus was born. Luke, you will recall, said that they had to move from Nazareth to Bethlehem because of a census. Matthew indicates that they always lived in a house in Bethlehem and only moved to Nazareth because of fear of the king. It is a minor detail, but it is further evidence for why we should not insist that there are no contradictions or factual mistakes in the Bible. All of the gospel writers agree that Jesus did grow up in Nazareth even if he was born in Judea. There are clues in the various gospels that some of the authorities looked down on him because he came from a hick town in the provinces, but Matthew offers a theological interpretation to Jesus being from Nazareth. He claims that this was to fulfill a prophecy.

 

Magi and Stars

Magi – Matthew 2:1-12

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 15, 2009

Introduction:               Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this Sunday after Valentine’s Day. It is probably just as well that pop culture has dropped the “Saint” from the day considering how it is marketed. In an effort to wean pagans away from the debauchery of an old festival in the middle of winter, the church promoted the feast day of the martyr Valentine. It appears that debauchery eventually won out over piety. Yesterday was also the feast day of Saints Cyril and Methodius, the patron saints of Moravia. On a more somber note, it was a tragic week for many. Not only was there a horrifying plane crash, wildfires swept through Australia. Our prayers go out for the victims and their families.

It was a big week for basketball fans as the Tarheels met the Blue Devils in the latest contest in an epic struggle between good and evil. At least that is the way it seems to the faithful of both teams. Congratulations to the victors! There is not much news in the Atwood home to report, but we did finally get our new propane fireplace hooked up. Now we don’t have to worry about losing electricity in an ice storm. My mother-in-law was wondering if she could get one for her new apartment in Indiana where winters are harder. She and my wife talked about different options, none of which would work in an apartment. Cherie proposed she might just put an insert in her fireplace. My wife replied in surprise: “You have a fireplace? Why don’t you just keep some logs handy and light a fire if the power goes out?” Sometimes we focus so much on what someone else is doing that we forget the obvious solution to our own problems. That has almost nothing to do with our lesson for this morning but it was too good a story to pass over.

This week we are turning our attention to the second chapter of Matthew, which provides one of the most popular stories in Christian history. It has inspired a great deal of art, music, legends, and literature. The Magi who pay homage to Jesus are unique to Matthew’s gospel, but this short tale has captured the imagination of generations of Christian scholars and worshipers. By now it should probably not surprise you that this section of Matthew has been the subject of intense controversy as well.

Read Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany:       This is the traditional reading for the feast of Epiphany, which is January 6. So, my timing is a little off in the liturgical calendar, but the story doesn’t really tell us when the Magi came to Bethlehem. All we are told is that it was sometime after the birth of Jesus, perhaps as late as two years. It is curious that Matthew says almost nothing about the actual birth of Jesus. He is much more interested in the response of the world to birth of the Messiah. Keep in mind that he was writing about fifty years after the resurrection when Gentiles were beginning to believe in Jesus as the son of God. At that time there was also growing animosity between Jews and Christians. There are clues in the Gospel that the author was a Jewish scribe who was one of the leaders of a Christian community that included Jews and Gentiles. They may have lived in Syria, and they felt persecuted. It is not surprising that his gospel opens with two dramatically different responses to the birth of Jesus. Herod, the king of the Jews, rejects the Messiah and tries to kill him, but Gentile sages pay homage to him in fulfillment of ancient Jewish prophecy. Chapter 2 foreshadows not only the life and death of Jesus, but the response to the preaching of evangelists in Matthew’s own time.

Magi from the East:              The main actors in this chapter are the Magi or Wisemen from the East. The word Matthew used is magoi in Greek, and this is the only time in the New Testament that the word is used positively. Normally it referred to magicians, like Simon Magus. Matthew says merely that the magoi came from the East without details about their origin. Westerners have generally seen the Orient as exotic and mysterious, and that has played into our popular descriptions of the Magi. It is possible that Matthew is using the Orient as a way to add flair to his story of Jesus, but it is more likely that he is connecting the East to the rising of the Sun. In the ancient world, the East was the direction of life and new birth while the West symbolized death.

It is likely that Matthew was not thinking of any specific country of origin for these exotic worshipers, but scholars through the centuries have offered three reasonable suggestions: Persia (Parthia), Babylon (Chaldea), or Arabia. These regions all had magician/astrologers like the magoi in Matthew. The Greek historian Herodotus described Magi as a priestly caste in ancient Medes who served the Persians after they conquered Medes. Magi interpreted dreams and advised the emperors, much as Joseph did in Egypt. With the rise of Zoroastrianism in Persia, the magi became priests of the new religion. This is why you sometimes hear that Matthew’s Wisemen were Zoroastrian priests. There was a legend in ancient Persia that Zoroaster’s seed had been preserved in a lake and one day a virgin would conceive after swimming. Her son would destroy evil and raise the dead. It is possible that Christianity spread in Persia in part because of the similarity of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth and this Zoroastrian prophecy. Early Christian artists painted the Magi in Persian dress.

Many scholars think Matthew’s Magi came from Babylon rather than Persia. You may remember that thousands of Jews were deported to Babylon six hundred years before the birth of Jesus. Many of those families flourished and remained in the country for centuries. The Jewish Talmud was written in Babylon about six hundred years after the time of Jesus. A number of important Jewish books, most notably Daniel and Esther, are set in Babylon. The Greek version of Daniel mentions Magi in Babylon who interpreted dreams. Babylon was famous for its astrologers, and modern star gazers still use some of the Babylonian names for stars. It could be that Matthew assumed the reader would associate the East with Babylon.

The suggestion of Arabia as the home of the Magi is based on the gifts that they brought. Isaiah 60:6 and Psalm 72:15 talk about dignitaries from Midian and Sheba bringing gold and incense to the king of Israel. You may have wondered why there are always camels in crèches when none are mentioned in Matthew’s gospel. You can find them in the caravans from Arabia mentioned in Isaiah 60. There were connections between Judah and Arabia dating back to the time of David. By the time of Matthew there were already Jewish settlements around Medina. Centuries after Matthew, some of the Jews in Medina thought Muhammad might be the Messiah. Some of the Arab tribes worshiped stars before Muhammad appeared. If Arab sages brought gifts to Israel to honor the birth of a king, they would have brought camels. Such speculation is interesting, but the truth is that there is no way to determine who the Magi were or where they came from. The important point for Matthew’s Gospel was that Gentile sages recognized the birth of the Messiah when Jewish scribes did not.

Three Kings?             The Magi play a minor role in Matthew’s gospel, but they grew in Christian legend. They appear in some of the earliest Christian artwork, and relics of the Magi were much prized in the Middle Ages. One of the Greek emperors, Zeno claimed to have possession of the bodies of the Magi in the 5th century. The most famous relics are housed in Cologne in a beautiful shrine. They were given to the city by Emperor Frederick Barbarossa who had sacked the city of Milan in 1162. In the early 20th century, Cologne returned some of the relics to Milan. Of course, no one has a clue whose bones are actually being venerated in those cathedrals.

Several years ago I was asked to preach in a church in Honduras, and it happened to be Epiphany. I wrote a beautiful and inspiring message about the need to be wise people today like the wise men who came to Jesus. When my interpreter read the text, she was very confused and told me that it would make no sense to the people. In Latin America the visitors who brought gifts to Jesus are never called Wisemen; they are always kings. Epiphany is Three Kings Day. So, she basically preached a different sermon in Mosquito after I preached mine in English. Hers sounded better.

The elevation of the Magi to royal status probably came from preachers using Psalm 72 to interpret the Matthew text. That Psalm says that the kings of Sheba and Saba will pay homage to the messiah and bring him gold. By about the year 500 it was generally accepted that the Magi were kings as well as priests, and thousands of sermons have been preached on the theme of kings paying homage to Christ as the king of kings and lord of lords. I even know people who claim to be biblical literalists who insist that three kings brought gifts to baby Jesus even though there are no kings in Matthew.

Names and Gifts:       You probably grew up singing We Three Kings from Orient Are. As a kid I always wondered where Orient-R was. The tradition of there being three gift-bearers comes from there being three gifts, but in ancient Christian art there are sometimes two or four Magi bearing gifts. Some ancient Syrian documents list twelve Magi who paid homage to Christ. The names of the Magi have also changed over the centuries. One of the earliest texts says that they were Hormizdah, Yazdegerd, and Perozadh, and that they were kings of Persia, Saba, and Sheba. An ancient Ethiophian book names them Hor, Basnater, and Karsudan. The names of Balthasar, Melchior, and Gaspar were known in the West in the early Middle Ages. Around that same time, the legend arose that Balthasar was black.

From early days, Christian theologians proposed that the gifts the Magi brought were symbolic representations of three roles of Christ. Gold was to honor him as a king; incense was to worship him as a deity; and myrrh was a foreshadowing of his death as the sacrificial lamb. Thus the gifts revealed Jesus as king, God, and high priest. None of this is in Matthew’s gospel, but it makes for good allegorical preaching. This also shows that people continued to add to the story of the exotic visitors. Whether or not Matthew’s account is historical, his Magi have continued to speak to the church.

The Star          Perhaps even more famous than the Magi is the star that inspired them to travel West. While I was writing this lesson, I had to answer a query about Moravian stars from a shopkeeper in San Antonio who sells tin stars similar to our 28-point stars. Every year Moravians around the world hang stars on the first Sunday in Advent in memory of the star that guided the Magi to the Christ child. It is a way to light a beacon of hope in a world overshadowed by hatred and fear.

For Matthew, the primary purpose of the star was to signal the birth of a great king. Modern scholars are skeptical about this mysterious star, but people in Matthew’s day would have found it odd if there had not been some kind of portent auguring the birth of the son of God. After all, according to Virgil a star showed Aeneas where to build the city of Rome. Josephus claimed that a star and a comet stood over Jerusalem for a year after the city was destroyed. Cicero said that a new star appeared when Alexander was born and thus the Persians knew their empire was in peril. Other Roman authors claimed that a star announced the birth of Augustus. It was not until the writings of Pierre Bayle that educated people began to doubt that stars and comets were portents.

For centuries astronomers proposed that the Magi saw a nova. Today we know that novas are not new stars; they are old stars that have exploded. And we know that they are so far away that we do not witness the explosion for many centuries after the fact. Modern astronomers doubt that it could have been a nova that the Magi saw, especially since there are no other reports of a “new star” appearing around 4 BC. Others have proposed that they saw a comet even though comets were typically viewed as portents of bad things. It is interesting that Halley’s Comet appeared around 11 BC, and it would have been pointing towards the Zodiac sign of Leo, which was associated with Judah. It is unlikely that Jesus was born in the year of the comet, but it is plausible that people recalled it being near the same time as the great comet.

The most popular explanation for the unusual star was made by Johannes Kepler in the 1600s. He calculated that around 6 BC there would have been a rare conjunction of the planets Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars. Ancient star charts confirm that such a conjunction was noted early in 6 BC or late 7 BC. When I was a kid, I saw an elaborate program on this topic at Moorhead Planetarium in Chapel Hill. It is no longer shown because it was considered too religious for a state institution. There is little doubt that a conjunction of stars occurred toward the end of Herod’s reign and it would have been viewed as significant by astrologers, but there is no evidence anyone thought it meant a king had been born in Judah. The most that a modern historian can say is that someone might have remembered that an unusual event had taken place in the heavens around the time Jesus was born.. The idea that the star itself moved and somehow guided the Magi to a specific house in Bethlehem is a bit more fanciful and impossible to explain scientifically.

Balaam:          Raymond Brown proposed that there may be another explanation for the star appearing in Matthew’s gospel. There is a famous little story in the book of Numbers about an oracle given by a man named Balaam who was summoned by king Balak to curse the Israelites. This was part of the story of the Exodus and wandering in the wilderness. Instead of cursing Israel, Balaam pronounced a blessing on them because he was compelled by the spirit of God to do so. By the time of Matthew, a Jewish philosopher described Balaam as a magus, and his oracle inspired hope that the Jews would be freed from Roman oppression. The oracle says that “a star will rise from Jacob.” (LXX) Matthew may have taken the reference to a star literally.

A century after the death of Jesus there was a major Jewish revolt against the Romans. It was led by a man called Simon ben Kosibah, and the great rabbi Aqiba hailed him as the Messiah. It is intriguing that he was popularly known as Bar Cochba, which means “son of the star.” In Revelation, Jesus is called the Morning Star. In other words, Matthew may have been drawing on a tradition of referring to the Messiah as a star rising in the East when he wrote this story of Magi. In other words, his simple narrative may have been more metaphorical than historical.

Conclusion:                 We will never know for sure what Matthew was thinking when he wrote this story, but we can be sure that he was less interested in astronomy and ancient magicians than he was in Jesus. In our desire to make sense of mysterious stars and exotic astrologers, it is easy to lose sight of Matthew’s primary purpose. It is particularly appropriate that we ponder this text on the feast of Cyril and Methodius, wisemen who came from the East to translate the Gospel into the Slavic language. We are out of time, but we will continue to examine this story next week.

Matt. 1:18-25

Matthew 1:18-25, Joseph’s Dilemma

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Feb. 8, 2009

Introduction:            Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this first Sunday after the Super Bowl in the sports calendar. It is a big event for my children because it means that they can watch what they want to on TV after church. I’ve missed several Super Bowls in recent years, mainly because I’ve been away at church or academic conferences, and unfortunately I missed most of this one as well. We got to see the last five minutes of the first half, which meant that we did get to see the great interception, but the game ended as we were deplaning. Julie and I had a great time in San Antonio. We happened to be there when they had the parade to start the annual rodeo, so we got to see the longhorn steers being driven down one of the main streets of old San Antonio. We spent a lot of time in the old Mexican market and purchased a few items. The meals were fabulous. I had very memorable chili releno sitting by the river. My workshop on Comenius went well, and there are a few Presbyterians who know a little more about Comenius. There were over 1200 church educators at the conference, including 8 Moravians, and the organizers did a great job with the event. I want to thank Dr. Moore for filling in for me while I was away. I hear that folks loved her talk about Roman history. This week we are returning to our study of the birth narratives of Jesus in the New Testament. We’ll pick the story up with Joseph learning that his betrothed bride is pregnant.

Read: Matthew 1:18 – end

Adultery?                        Unlike Luke, Matthew begins the story of Jesus after his conception. You may recall that Luke described angelic messengers coming to Zachariah and Mary, and he gave almost as much attention to the birth of John the Baptist as to Jesus. Matthew, in contrast, focuses on Joseph. He describes him as a righteous man with a problem. He has agreed to marry a young woman named Mary, and he has probably sealed a legal agreement with her family, but he learns that she has gotten pregnant before the wedding. This would be a problem in our day, but image the scandal in an ancient patriarchal culture. According to ancient Mosaic law, a woman in this situation could be stoned to death. The actual practices had changed by Joseph’s day, but it was still a scandalous situation.

Matthew is clearly implying that Joseph knew he was not the father of Mary’s child. We do not know a great deal about the actual social norms in Galilee in the first century, but it appears that it was permissible for a couple to have intimate relations after the betrothal and before the marriage. In other words, there was not stigma against a woman giving birth to a baby just a few months after the formal wedding, so long as the groom was the father. Since the primary purpose of marriage in pre-modern times 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. In fact, the opposite was probably true. Infertility was a common cause of divorce in ancient times.

The clear implication of verses 18 and 19 are that Mary discovered she was pregnant and Joseph was not 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? Ancient Israel was more like modern Saudi Arabia or Pakistan in its approach to women and sexuality than like America. Even though the marriage was not formalized, this was viewed as adultery. Though the time was long past when a man could have a woman stoned to death for such a breach of trust, a shamed bridegroom could take her before the authorities and have her condemned publicly. He might do this to preserve his own good name or to force her to reveal who the father was, but he might do it simply to humiliate the girl and her future. A woman who was publicly identified as immoral or who had a child out of wedlock could be cast out by her family. She and her baby would be left to the mercy of the streets.

Unlike Luke, who leaves Joseph almost completely out of his account of Jesus’ birth, Matthew acknowledges what a problem Mary’s pregnancy posed for Joseph and Mary. Most modern biblical scholars reject the idea of the virginal conception of Jesus on the grounds that it is medically impossible and thus is legendary. There is really no way to resolve the issue of the virginal conception on medical grounds since miracles by their nature are outside the normal laws of nature. As with all accounts of miracles, it is up to you to decide for yourself what you believe.

Some scholars dispute the claim that Matthew simply made this whole story up or was repeating a legend. It appears that the author knew that Jesus was conceived before Joseph and Mary were wed since he acknowledges that this was embarrassing. Later Jewish sources claimed that Jesus was illegitimate, and it would have been simple for Matthew to answer such a charge by having Joseph and Mary get married earlier rather than later, if he was making this all up. Matthew seems to be working with a generally accepted tradition about Jesus, and he seems aware of problems with it..  

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. Keep in mind that Joseph was living in a society in which a righteous person did not associate with “sinners.” In pondering Joseph’s dilemma, keep in mind how offended the Pharisee was when Jesus let a prostitute anoint him.

Dreams of a New Future:                        After Joseph made his decision to be merciful and deal with Mary as kindly as possible, he changes his mind. The gospel tells us that an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and told him not to reject Mary. This angelic appearance is different from those in Luke since it clearly states that Joseph was dreaming. This is consistent with the tendency in Judaism at that time to put greater distance between God and sinful humanity by adding intermediaries. For some Jews, even angels are too holy to appear in physical form to people. Instead they would appear in dreams, as in Matthew’s account. For modern interpreters, this adds to the realism of the story since it is easier for people today to believe in dreams of angels than in angels themselves. It is tempting to use modern psychology to understand Joseph’s dream of an angel telling him to do what his heart wanted to do, which was to take Mary as his wife.

It is worth noting that the appearance of angels in Luke and Matthew are consistent in that there were no witnesses. These were religious experiences, perhaps even mystical experiences that were outside the normal realm of reality. It is possible that the story of Joseph having a dream was suggested by the example of the patriarch Joseph in the book of Genesis. You may remember that the original Joseph was a righteous man who both had prophetic dreams and who could interpret the dreams of others. When I was in NY I heard a couple of good papers on the role of dreams in 17th century Protestantism (I know you are envying me) which pointed out that theologians used the dreams of both Josephs to justify dream interpretation in modern times. As we example Matthew’s birth narrative, we will see other parallels to the story of Joseph the patriarch, such as a journey to Egypt.

Jesus:                        Angels in the Bible are messengers, and so the most important thing is what the angel told Joseph. The reason he should take Mary as his wife is because her child comes from God. The angel says that the baby is “of the Holy Spirit.” The angel did not specifically say that it was the Holy Spirit who made Mary pregnant, but that may be implied. 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.

Keep in mind that many of the saints of the Old Testament were conceived through the power of God’s spirit, especially prophets of old. Isaac, Samson, Samuel, and others were conceived through the power of the spirit and were living signs of God’s faithfulness to his covenant with Israel. The central part of the angel’s message was that the child would save his people; therefore he should be named Jesus. It would be Joseph’s role to name the child and give him his identity. By taking Mary as his wife and naming her son, Matthew would be publicly acknowledging the child as his and legally bringing him into the genealogy of David. By giving him the name revealed in the dream, Joseph would be acknowledging the child’s sacred destiny even though he knew he was not the biological father of the child.

The name “Jesus” is the anglicized form of the Greek form of the Hebrew name Yeshua or Yehoshua. It is basically the same name as Joshua, a fact that gets lost in translation. Literally the name means “Yahweh helps,” but over the years the meaning was changed to God saves. It was a fairly common name in biblical times, which is why you shouldn’t get too excited when archaeologists find tombs with the name Jesus inscribed in them. Lots of people named Jesus or Joshua were buried in ancient Judea. Interpreters through the centuries have seen a connection between Joshua who led the Israelites into the Promised Land and Jesus, but the gospels do not make an explicit identification of the two.

Isaiah’s Prophecy:                        I mentioned that the angel’s message did not say anything about Mary being a virgin, but the author of Matthew’s gospel clearly believed that she was. The narrator states that this was to fulfill a prophecy from the book of Isaiah about a virgin conceiving. This is the first of many times in the Gospel of Matthew that the narrator interrupts the story with a quotation from the Hebrew Scriptures. Matthew asserts that all of the key aspects of the biography of Jesus were in fulfillment of ancient prophecy, beginning with his conception. This intense interest in the Scriptures is one of the bits of evidence that Matthew was probably one of the scribes or a Pharisee, by the way.

The prophecy he quotes is from Isaiah 7:14, and there are few verses that have been more debated in modern biblical study. We don’t have time to go into all of the details on the scholarly and not so scholarly debate, but we can summarize the controversy. First, there is an issue of translation. Second is an issue of interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy itself, and third is Matthew’s use of that prophecy to explain the birth of Jesus. The fact of the matter is that the modern debate is not all that different from debates between Jewish and Christian scholars in the 3rd and 4th century.

The passage in question is part of a longer prophecy recorded in Isaiah 7:10-25. The LORD spoke to Ahaz (presumably through the prophet Isaiah) during the Syro-Ephraim war. The prophecy began with the phrase “Hear O house of David,” which may have been what drew Matthew’s attention to it as a messianic prophecy. The LORD said that a young woman would have a son who would be named Immanuel, which is not a common name. By the time the child would be old enough to distinguish good and bad foods, the war would be over and Judah would be spared. Ahaz’s enemies would be destroyed. There is little doubt among biblical scholars that this prophecy referred to a particular woman in the royal palace, perhaps even a young girl in Ahaz’s harem, and that the events predicted were to take place not long after the prophecy. Until Matthew wrote his gospel, no one had suggested that this was a prediction about the birth of the Messiah.

The Hebrew word used to describe the young woman is Alma, which refers to a woman who has just finished puberty and can get married. Such a woman was considered a virgin since she was only just old enough for marriage and would have been kept away from men until this time. The Hebrew word for a mature woman who has not had sexual relations was Betula. When Isaiah was translated into Greek (the Septuagint), the translator used the word Parthenos to translate Alma. Parthenos does mean virgin. Matthew, like most of the New Testament authors, quoted from the Greek Septuagint. Thus, he probably thought that the passage did refer to a virgin conceiving.

For centuries scholars have known about the discrepancy between the Greek and Hebrew versions of Isaiah 7:14, and Christian scholars even accused Jews of changing the Hebrew text as a way to discredit idea of a virginal conception of Jesus. When the Bible was translator into Latin, the word virgin was used, and most later translations followed suit. Some English Bibles were more accurate and said “maiden” which preserved the ambiguity. A maiden was a young unmarried that was presumably also a virgin biologically as well as sociologically. When the Revised Standard Version of the Bible came out in the 1950s the translators boldly translated the Hebrew literally and Alma became a “young woman”. A preacher was so incensed by this that he publicly burned the Bible outside of his church in North Carolina and sent the ashes to the editor. The editor of the New Revised Version of the Bible, Bruce Metzger told me that he was given the jar of ashes as a reminder of the dangers of translation.

Born of the Spirit and a Woman:                         Regardless of the translation of the Hebrew of Isaiah 7:14, Matthew believed that the prophecy was about a virgin, and so he chose it to support the idea that Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit without the assistance of a man. We talked at length about the idea of a virginal conception when we discussed the birth narrative in Luke. Though it is never mentioned again in Matthew’s Gospel, he also goes out of his way to assert that Joseph did not have sexual relations with Mary until after Jesus was born. Aside from the fact that the Jewish law discouraged sex during pregnancy, one wonders how Matthew could have known such an intimate detail from the private life of Mary and Joseph.

Immanuel:            Even though no mention is made of a virginal conception elsewhere in Matthew’s gospel, it is interesting that Luke and Matthew give two independent witnesses to this claim. That indicates it had become an important idea in Christianity from early days. There is no indication that the idea of a virginal conception was association with a view that sex itself is sinful. On the contrary, it was to emphasis that Jesus was indeed the divine agent destined to be the savior. That was also part of the prophecy that Matthew quoted. The young woman was to name her child Immanuel, which was a Hebrew phrase meaning “God with us.” That was not the name Joseph gave to Mary’s baby. He was named Jesus, but the phrase Immanuel revealed his true identity for the church. Matthew was writing long after the resurrection when it was made clear to the disciples that Jesus was more than just a prophet from Nazareth. He was, and is, and will be God with us.

Conclusion:                        Before Christmas we discussed the importance of Mary’s decision in Luke’s Gospel. Matthew leaves Mary almost entirely out of the story, but he reminds us that Matthew also had a decision to make. He chose to take her and the baby into his home despite the risk of scandal. Men today can learn something about love and responsibility from Joseph. True righteousness is not a matter of keeping ourselves free from criticism; it is remaining faithful to those God has given us to love. 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. 

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

Overview

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. 

Luke 2:1-20

Luke 2: Shepherds and Angels

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast January 4, 2008.

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this first Sunday of the new year. I hope that you had a blessed Christmas and New Year’s celebration. It is traditional for Moravians to gather on December 31 to welcome the New Year with prayer and song. 2008 was a very difficult year for many people in America and around the world. I think we are all praying that our hopes for 2009 will be realized. Normally we have a live broadcast from the chapel of Home Church, but the lesson this week was pre-recorded. I am at the annual meeting of the American Society of Church History in New York City. I was a little tempted to arrive a couple of days early and join the throngs in Times Square, but I decided that our small family gathering in front of the TV would be more enjoyable.

I had hoped to finish Luke’s narrative of the birth of Jesus on the fourth Sunday of Advent, but I rambled a bit too long, and we did not get to the shepherds. I know many of you have already put away your Christmas decorations and have nativity fatigue, but Christmas began on Dec. 25; it didn’t end then. We have twelve days for the season of Christmas, and so we will explore the remainder of Luke chapter 2 today.

Resolutions                        But first, it has become a tradition to greet the New Year with resolutions for the people we have been reading about in the past year. Years ago I decided that it is much more fun to write resolutions for other people rather than for myself. If you have been following these broadcasts, you know that we spent several months discussing the book of I Samuel, so most of the resolutions come from there.

Hannah:            Don’t pray so loud that people think you are drunk.

Eli:                        Spend more time with your children.

Eli’s sons:            Worship is not the place to meet women.

Israelites:            Don’t think a king will solve all your problems.

Samuel:            Show up on time for sacrifices.

Samuel:            Be more careful when pouring oil on people.

Nahash:            Don’t be so literal. Just have people should “aye” not give you an eye.

Saul:                        Try Prosac.

Saul:                        When angry, count to ten before hurling your spear.

Saul:                        Get a book with suggestions for wedding presents.

Jonathan:            Honey is nice, but too many sweets can get you in trouble with Dad.

Goliath:            Don’t get stoned.

Goliath:            Don’t get so angry that you lose your head.

David:                        Rock on!

David:                        Don’t play the liar to your boss.

David:                        Remember you are not a tailor.

Nabal:                        Don’t be a fool.

Abigail:            Be more gentle in breaking bad news.

Achish:            Do a background check before making someone your bodyguard.

Saul:                        Don’t hang out with witches.

Saul:                        Stop with the necromancy.

David:                        Be a better king than Saul.

 

Luke’s Shepherds                        We left the Gospel of Luke with the birth of Jesus in the town of Bethlehem. It is likely that when writing this chapter Luke had in mind the words of the prophet Micah that refer to a leader coming from Bethlehem. Micah speaks of the daughter of Jerusalem being in travail, like a woman giving birth. Luke does not need to describe the birth pangs of Mary for us to recognize that God’s redemption often comes through pain and labor. Micah spoke of great things happening in Jerusalem, which is also called Zion, but Luke says that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, a few miles from Jerusalem. Luke that Bethlehem was the city of David, but everywhere else in the Bible Jerusalem is called the city of David. Bethlehem was no more than a village. It might have been tempting for Luke to say that Jesus was born in Jerusalem, the city of David, but he kept to the tradition that he inherited that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, not Jerusalem.

It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we have an account of shepherds being involved in the birth of Jesus. Incidentally, Luke’s statement that the shepherds were in the fields keeping watch has led scholars since the 3rd century to propose that Jesus was born in the summer rather than the winter. We celebrate his birth in the winter primarily for theological and liturgical reasons, not because there is any evidence to support a December birthday. Scholars have puzzled over these shepherds for centuries. Many have speculated that this is evidence that Luke was well read in the Greek classics where shepherds often figure in the old myths. Others have seen a reference to King David here since David had been a shepherd as a boy. Raymond Brown points out that the Micah prophecy mentions “a Tower of the Flock”, which is Migdal Eder in Hebrew (Brown, 421). This was a mountain near Jerusalem where the flocks were kept for the Temple sacrifices.

So, Luke’s shepherd may have been a reference to biblical prophecy or Greek mythology, but we should remember that shepherds in the time of Jesus were lower class people and virtually outcasts. They were one step away from being outlaws, and some probably thieves in the off-season. Real shepherds in the time of Luke were viewed kind of the way modern Americans view carnival workers or seasonal laborers. In other words, these were not A-list people to invite to a major celebration. We romanticize the shepherds in our Christmas carols and pageants, but Luke’s original readers were probably scandalized at the thought that shepherds came to welcome the Christ child. This is far different than Matthew’s wise men coming from distant empires. The fragrance these laborers brought to the manger was not myrrh, that’s for sure.

Angels                        After introducing the shepherds, Luke provides us with one of the most beloved and beautiful scenes in Scripture. An angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds watching their flocks by night. If you grew up on the King James version of this story, you may have mistakenly thought that the angel’s name was “Lo,” but Lo is the translation of one of Luke’s favorite words: Behold or See. We aren’t told anything about the physical appearance of the angel, only that the glory of God was unveiled. This is a common motif in biblical theophanies. People who have visions of God are nearly blinded by the light surrounding God. We have already discussed the fact that the normal response to such a revelation of God is fear. For the third time in Luke’s Gospel, we hear the words “Fear not.” The Gospel is glad tidings. I do not know why so many preachers want to turn this into bad news.

The angel tells the shepherds that a Savior has been born, and then he goes on to name the Savior as both Lord and Messiah. These are three exalted titles for Jesus. During his lifetime, some of Jesus’ followers thought he might be the Messiah, which is Christ in Greek. A question that runs throughout all of the gospels is whether Jesus really was the expected Messiah. Luke says that an angel declared that Jesus was the Messiah on the day of his birth, but the word was only given to shepherds. It was proclaimed in glory, and yet it remained hidden, just like the resurrection.

Messiah and Savior:            Though the word “Christ” is Greek, the idea of a Messiah is thoroughly Jewish. The kings of Israel were anointed by a priest or prophet, symbolizing their adoption as the sons of God. After the Davidic monarchy was destroyed by the Babylonians in the 6th century BC, people began to hope for a new king who would be anointed by God. The Lord’s Anointed, or Messiah, would save the Jews from their enemies and restore the kingdom of Zion. History records many men who claimed to be the expected Messiah, but none of them were able to establish a new monarchy. Jesus was the only one who did not try to be king, and he was the only one raised from the dead. Luke was writing his Gospel after the resurrection and he has no doubt who the true Messiah was, and so he begins the story with this proclamation.

The angel tells the shepherds that a Savior has been born. In the context of the story so far, we would expect a Savior to be someone who would throw off the yoke of Rome, but Luke knows that is not what is going to happen. Still, Luke puts the angel’s message in the context of the Roman Empire, as we saw earlier. In his imperial propaganda, Augustus often described himself as a Savior of the people rather than their conqueror. In his birth narrative, Luke contrasts Augustus and Jesus. The true Savior does not need legions of soldiers and an enrollment of the people to prove his power. The shepherds will not find the Savior resting in a cradle in Jerusalem; they will find him wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. The paradox of salvation has never been so vividly portrayed.

Heaven on Earth:                        One of Luke’s favorite phrases is “this day,” which may be a literary quirk. I’ve known preachers who use a catch phrase like this so often that members of the congregation start counting how many times they say. However, it is more likely that this was Luke’s way of saying that the kingdom of God has come. Salvation is not just for a distant future or for the realm after death; salvation is here and now. At this point, Luke says that suddenly there was a multitude of the heavenly host with the angel. Luke paints a scene similar to the vision of Isaiah when he saw the heavenly host singing “holy, holy, holy,” but this vision was not given to a priest in the Temple in Jerusalem. It was common shepherds who caught a glimpse of the heavenly host. Heavenly glory has burst into mundane existence. The shepherds may not have known fully what the glad tidings of the angel meant, but they felt the joy of heaven. Luke implies that we can experience the joy of salvation today.

According to Jewish writings available in the time of Luke, the angels had sung for each act of creation. Here they are singing because God has begun the work of re-creation or redemption of the world. This vision of the armies of heaven singing the praises of the creator is Luke’s version of the prologue to John’s gospel. The child in Bethlehem will be more than just a Jewish Messiah; his birth has cosmic significance. He will shake the thrones of the powerful precisely because it will be shepherds and slaves, prostitutes and sinners who glimpse his glory and experience his salvation. The angels praise God in the highest heaven because his redemption will reach to all people.

The song the angels sing has vexed translators for centuries, in part because there are several variations in the ancient Greek manuscripts. There are basically two ways of rendering the angel’s song: either “on earth peace and among men divine favor” or “on earth peace among men favored” (Brown, 404-405). A slight difference in grammar makes for a big difference in meaning. Are the angels proclaiming that there will be peace on earth because of the birth of the Messiah or is this a prayer that there be peace among those chosen by God? We have here the difference between a doctrine of divine election for some and the expectation that the kingdom of God is for all. In the context of Luke’s Gospel, I think the older King James version of “peace on earth, goodwill to men” is the preferable reading. The whole tenor of Luke’s gospel is that Jesus is the prince of peace who is the Savior of the whole world.

Finding the Child:                        After this glorious song, the angels departed as suddenly as they appeared. That is the nature of religious experience or mystical rapture. It rarely lasts for more than a few moments according to the clock, but it can change the rest of your life. Who knows what those poor, uneducated, unsophisticated shepherds thought of this blinding vision of beauty? Did they ponder this momentary glimpse of divinity years later during the dull routine of daily living? Were their lives different? What is important for the story, and for our lives as Christians, is that angelic visitors may proclaim good news but shepherds still have to take action in the real world. They could have ignored this five-minute interruption of their normal lives, but they chose to seek out the Savior. It was only after the angels left that the shepherds could go to Bethlehem.

There they found Mary and Joseph, and they saw the baby lying in a feeding trough. Historians raise many questions about this story, but let’s leave aside our modern skepticism for a moment and ponder the sublime beauty of the tableaux. Rather than removing the shepherds as a literary invention of the evangelist, let us paint ourselves into the scene. Luke is not writing about an event in the past, he is inviting us to adore our Savior. Imagine the story of the Messiah as Luke imagined it. It is not just shepherds who crowd around the prince of peace, but poor people of every kind. Picture yourself elbow to elbow with all of the outcasts, sinners, and lepers to whom angels sing words of hope and love today. Let the song of peace flood your heart and soul. “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.”

Pondering:                        Luke does not end the story with the shepherds coming to see the promised child. He tells us that the family of Jesus was amazed by the shepherds’ story of angelic messengers. The shepherds the leave, and we never hear from them again. Many people are skeptical of this tale because when Jesus begins his ministry, no one knows who he is. Even his family seems surprised when he starts preaching and doing miracles. You would think that if Jesus’ birth had been heralded by angels, he would grow up with great expectations, but Luke removes the shepherds and angels quickly. The visitation is almost like a dream, and it will be many years before hopes are fulfilled. He tells us, though, that Mary kept all these things in her heart.

This is a very interesting phrase, which seems to be related to the wisdom literature of ancient Israel. We all know things in our heads, such as what our mortgage rate is or what is on our to-do list for tomorrow, but that is mere knowledge. Israelite sages spoke of the need to learn things in the heart, not just the head. There are important truths that we can only understand when we have pondered them for years in the depths of our being. These are the truths that change the way we live. I know people who are still pondering the truth that God is not racist and that being patriotic is not the same as being faithful to God. Some of us have only begun to learn the truth that the love of money is the root of evil or that the tongue can be more deadly than spears. Many of us continue to ponder who we are and what our lives should be.

Mary had a lot to ponder as she nursed her son. She pondered Gabriel’s words to her and the mystery of her own pregnancy. No doubt she pondered the depths of Joseph’s love and faithfulness to her. And then there was the shepherd’s story of heavenly music about her child. If she knew her Bible, she may have pondered Hannah’s story and wondered if she would have to give up her first born the way Hannah did. Luke tells us that Mary kept these things in her heart, perhaps not understanding them until thirty years later when a sword pierced her heart.

Circumcision:            This is where we usually end the story of Jesus’ birth, but there is more. Luke tells us that Jesus was circumcised when he was eight days old, according to the law of the covenant. This is a feast day in the Christian calendar, but few churches observe it any longer. We’re become too refined and dignified to talk about such things in church. We save such subjects for television and magazines. There are three things to note about the circumcision of Jesus that are important for the life of faith. One of them is that Luke removes any doubt that Jesus was a man like any man. This may sound obvious to you, but you would be surprised at how difficult it has been for Christians to accept that the Son of God was completely human. For too many centuries, Christians have been ashamed of their own bodies instead of celebrating the fact that Jesus was fully human as well as fully divine. For most of his life, he bore the scar of his circumcision, just like all Jewish men.

That leads us to the second point, there is no doubt that Jesus was Jewish. With all of the culture wars about Christmas and religious inclusiveness, we should keep in mind that Jesus was Jewish. Luke emphasizes the fact that Jesus and his family were observant Jews. He was circumcised, which marked him as a foreigner in the Roman Empire. His parents took him to the Temple when he was a child, and he will begin his ministry in a synagogue reading from the scroll of the prophet Isaiah. The final point to note is that Jesus was circumcised as an infant. Too many parents think that they do not have to be concerned about the spiritual life of their children, but Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the Temple when he was an infant. People sometimes ask me why Moravians and other Christians baptize people as infants instead of letting them choose to be baptized. I think Luke 2:21 gives us an excellent example of our Lord entering the covenant before he could speak.

Conclusion:                        I had every intention of completing chapter 2 this morning, but I see that clock remains a cruel master. Next week we’ll look at the story of Jesus’ circumcision and why that was a feast day in the church for many centuries. And we’ll talk about two elderly people, Simeon and Anna, who greet the baby with songs and prophecies, some of which were painful.

Luke 2 – Birth

Luke 1:57-2:7 – The Births of John and Jesus

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast Dec. 21, 2008

Introduction:                        Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class on this fourth Sunday of Advent. Today is the shortest day of the year, but we light our candles as beacons of hope in the midst of darkness. I hope that these final days before Christmas are a blessed time for you and those God has given to you to love. We’ve finished our decorations at home, which include a wooden partridge in our pear tree in the front yard. We have no chimney so the stockings are hung on the stairs with care. I want to thank all of the people who made donations in our name to local charities. That is a wonderful way to remember people during this season of giving. The demands on food banks and homeless shelters are much greater than they have been in years. If we truly love our neighbors, we will share what we have so that they will have food and shelter. We had a great time on Friday night here at the church as we made garlands and hung them in the sanctuary. Each year I love how young and old, men and women, come together in this common project. I hope you will join us at one of the lovefeasts on Christmas Eve. They tend to be full, so come early, and remember that we have apple cider at the 11:00 a.m. children’s service.

During this season of Advent, we have been studying the story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospel of Luke. Every year we watch A Charlie Brown Christmas, in part so I can hear Linus recite Luke 2 in answer to Charlie’s plea: can someone tell me what Christmas is all about. But we have seen in our study that Luke tells the story of the birth of John the Baptist alongside the story of Jesus’ birth.

The Birth of John the Baptist                        At the end of chapter one, we read that the time came for Elizabeth to give birth, and all of neighbors and relatives rejoiced that a woman thought to be barren now had a son. Celebrations were probably even more joyous in ancient days than they are now because childbirth was much more dangerous for mothers and babies then. The birth of the first-born is especially a time of rejoicing. Years ago when my oldest daughter was a toddler she ran toward the street. I raced after her to catch her before she went into traffic. A friend of mine from Africa saw my concern and said solemnly, “Yes, indeed. The child who opens the womb is very precious.” In the case of Elizabeth, the birth of the first-born was even more significant because she had lived for decades with the shame and heartbreak of being barren. Now she had helped bring new life into the family and into the world. It was a time for dancing, singing, and feasting.

But the father was silent during the celebration. Zechariah had been struck dumb nine months before. During the whole time his wife was pregnant, he was unable to express his joy, hopes, and fears, or his love for her. Eight days after the birth it was time for the ceremony of circumcision. The boy still had no name because it was the father’s right to name the child. Finally, the family decided to just name the baby Zechariah after his father, but Elizabeth protested. She insisted that the baby’s name was John, just as the angel had instructed.

Naming John                        Was this a confirmation of prophecy or was Elizabeth following her husband’s commands? Luke does not tell us. The family objected to Elizabeth’s name for the child, even though John was a common name in priestly families. She does not relent, and so they asked the father what name he wanted. The text says that they had to communicate by signs, which may indicate that Zechariah was deaf as well as mute. They eventually bring him a writing tablet so he could write the name. We are so accustomed to writing in place of speech that we are not surprised at this, but the ability to write was rare in the 1st century. The written word was almost magical, and Zechariah had that special ability.

Zechariah wrote that the boy’s name was to be John, just as the angel commanded, and as soon as he named the child he was able to speak again. There is something powerful in this image of a father who rediscovers his power to communicate once he bestows the right name on his child. I wonder how many fathers in this world have metaphorically lost their ability to communicate because they have never known the true identity of their sons. Zechariah resisted the pressure to make his son a copy of himself: a priest named Zechariah. Instead he gave him the identity chosen by God. The boy would be John. “The Baptist” got added later.

Rather than rejoicing with Zechariah, the people were afraid. Fear is the natural human response to unusual events. We think we want to see a miracle, but real miracles frighten us. We are disoriented when the mute speak, the deaf hear, the blind see, and the evil repent. We think it would be nice to know someone truly exceptional, but it usually makes us uncomfortable to be near those filled with the Spirit. Perhaps the reason John left his father’s home and lived in the desert was because of the lingering suspicion that he wasn’t normal.

Zechariah’s Song                        Last week we discussed the Magnificat, and I mentioned that there are several such hymns in the first two chapters of Luke. One of them is placed on the lips of Zechariah at the end of chapter 1. It is more plausible that a priest would sing a hymn of joy on the spur of the moment than a young woman like Mary, but scholars generally agree that it was Luke who chose this song for Zechariah. Like the Magnificat, Zechariah’s song sounds like it could have come from the Old Testament. In fact, scholars have shown that many of the verses closely parallel verses throughout the OT, especially the Psalms and prophets. This should not surprise us. Though it is less common today to borrow language from Scripture, this used to be a common practice. Many of the sentences in our Moravian liturgies are taken directly from Scripture.

Read: Luke 1:67-79

A Jewish Hymn of Salvation?            Like the Magnificat, Zechariah’s song is about God saving Israel, but Zechariah’s song focuses on Israel being rescued from the hands of her enemies. It specifically mentions the prophets of old who promised that God would redeem his people and remember the covenant with Abraham. Once again, Luke is connecting the story of Jesus to the old covenant with the children of Abraham, but the song introduces a new and important theme: the house of David. Zechariah sings of a “horn of salvation in the House of David.” The image of the horn is used several times in the Old Testament, usually as a symbol of potency and authority.

It is not clear if Zechariah is singing about John as the horn of salvation who will deliver the people. We discussed earlier that John the Baptist is depicted like Samson the Nazarite, and it is possible that this hymn of praise was originally about John the Baptist as a savior. But Luke has adapted it for his gospel by adding a line about John being a prophet who would prepare the way. Verses 76 and 77 are more clearly Christian than the rest of the poem since they speak of forgiveness of sins and the knowledge of salvation, important themes in Luke’s gospel.

One of the most beautiful parts of Zechariah’s song is the end, which speaks of a light rising in the darkness to guide our feet in the way of peace. It is not clear if this was part of the original Jewish hymn or is a Lucan reference to the appearance of Jesus. Either way, it is a beautiful image of salvation as release from fear and death. The Greek word anatole in this stanza can refer either to the stars rising at night or to the rising sun. We Moravians draw on this idea when we sing about Jesus as the Morning Star. As we sing that hymn, we should keep in mind Zechariah’s prayer that the Messiah will guide our feet in the way of peace.

Caesar Augustus                        It may be significant that Luke inserted a song that refers to the enemies who hate Israel just before beginning his narration of the birth of Jesus. He moves quickly from the birth of John the Baptist to a statement that an edict went out from the Roman Emperor. Luke wrote his gospel just a few years after the first Jewish War when the Judeans rebelled against the Empire and were brutally crushed. Jerusalem was besieged for more than a year, and the residents were starving. After they surrendered in 70 AD, the Roman general Titus destroyed the Temple. Titus’ triumph was well-known throughout the Empire, especially in the cities where there were large Jewish communities. The original readers of Luke’s gospel would have had no difficulty identifying the enemies of Israel as the Romans.

We miss all of this context when we start the Christmas story with the first verse of chapter 2. That is one of the most famous sentences in the Bible, and it sounds best in King James English: “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus.” Luke was providing a date for the birth of Jesus; he was placing the birth of the Messiah in the context of both world history and Jewish history. Augustus was the first and in many ways the greatest Roman emperor. All subsequent emperors were called either Caesar or Augustus. As late as the 20th century, European emperors called themselves Kaiser or Czar in imitation of Augustus. Long before Luke wrote his gospel, Augustus called himself the son of God, and after his death he was deified by the Roman Senate. Luke’s gospel addresses the question of who is the true Son of God: Jesus Christ or the emperor? Which is preferable the Pax Romana or the Peace of Christ? Luke begins the story of Christianity with a decree of Caesar, and he ends his account with Paul arriving in Rome, symbolizing the victory of Christ over Augustus. Those of you who think religion has nothing to do with politics should ponder this.

Read Luke: 2-1-7 (KJV)            And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Quirinius                        Luke says that Jesus was born during the time when Quirinius, the Roman governor of Syria, called a census in order to tax the people of Judea. That would seem to be conclusive evidence for dating the birth of Jesus since we know from Roman records that Quirinius was appointed the legate of Syria after Herod Archelaus, who had succeeded his father, Herod the Great. In 6 AD the Romans removed Archelaus and appointed a governor named Quirinius. He had been a successful general in Asia Minor, and the emperor gave him the task of disposing of Archelaus’ property and restoring order.

Luke’s statement that Augustus decreed that “all the world” should be enrolled does not mean that one day the emperor launched a world-wide census. The “whole world” meant only the Roman world, and even then there was no general census recorded in Roman history. What Luke probably meant was that it was the policy of the Empire to account for the property of all subject people. Such censuses were handled on an ad hoc basis as governors asserted authority over subject people, thus Quirinius conducted the first census of Judea under Roman authority.

The trouble with Luke’s statement about the census is that disagrees with an earlier statement that John the Baptist was born during the reign of King Herod, who died in 4 BC, ten years before Quirinius’s census. Matthew agrees that Jesus was born during the reign of Herod. Though there have been many ingenuous attempts to harmonize the data about the birth of Jesus, none of them work. Either Jesus was born around 4 BC during the reign of Herod the Great or during the reign of Quirinius in 6 AD. This discrepancy shouldn’t bother us too much. We have to remember that Luke did not have access to the archives of the Roman Empire nor could he check back issues of the Jerusalem News and Record on-line. Written three quarters of a century after the events, it is not surprising that Luke’s chronology was a little fuzzy. He knew there was a controversial census around the time Jesus was born, and so he wrote that into his account. What was important to Luke was not the precise year of Jesus’ birth, but the fact that Mary and Joseph were two ordinary Jews who were subject to Roman authority. They were pushed around by the Romans like everyone else.

The goal of the census was taxation, which people don’t usually like. When Quirinius started listing property taxes, a man named Judas the Galilean led a revolt against the Roman, which was brutally suppressed. The survivors formed a group of resistance fighters called the Zealots who were still active in the time of Jesus. The Zealots helped launch the great rebellion in 66 AD that led to the destruction of the Temple. Luke specifically mentions Judas the Galilean in Acts 5, calling him a false messiah. By linking the birth of Jesus to the census of Quirinius, Luke draws a vivid contrast between the violent uprising of Judas the Galilean and the appearance of the true Messiah, Jesus the Galilean.

Bethlehem                        There is another problem with Luke’s claim that Joseph took his wife to Bethlehem before of the census. There is almost no historical evidence to support the idea that people had to travel to their ancestral home to be taxed the way Luke has presented it. It is possible, though, that people had to assert their property rights in person. Is possible that Joseph went to Bethlehem in order to verify that he owned property there, probably a piece of land. Scholars are skeptical of this claim since Luke says that Mary had no place to stay in Bethlehem, but owning property does not mean that they had a house. Personally, I see nothing surprising in the idea that a resident of Galilee had to return to Judea to account for family property during the first Roman census of the province. It is even possible that they were actually on their way to register with the authorities in Jerusalem and simply stopped in Bethlehem out of necessity.

Since he took his pregnant wife with him, Joseph was probably planning to be there for several months, which may indicate that there was a dispute about the property. Even if Luke’s account is not historically accurate, Bethlehem plays an important role in the story. You may remember that Bethlehem was the town where Ruth the Moabite settled with her mother-in-law. She was the ancestor of King David. By highlighting Bethlehem, Luke is placing the birth of Jesus in the story of Ruth, David, and the kings of Judah. However, most modern scholars doubt that Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Matthew assumes that Joseph was living in Bethlehem when Mary got pregnant and then moved to Galilee after the death of Herod the Great, but Luke claims that Joseph was living in Nazareth and had to travel to Bethlehem for the census.

Scholars assume that this interest in Bethlehem in the gospels is primarily because of a prophecy in Malachi that identifies Bethlehem as the birthplace of the Messiah, but that alone would hardly account for Luke and Matthew both going to lengths to place the birth in Bethlehem. There is no indication outside of the New Testament that people placed much weight on this prophecy. There is simply not enough historical evidence to answer the question of Jesus’ birthplace definitively, keep in mind that our faith in Jesus does not rest on minor historical details.

Manger                        Many of us have nativity scenes or crèches in our homes, and there are countless Christmas pageants in churches around the world. It was St. Francis of Assisi who started the practice of re-enacting the Christmas story in the 13th century, but pictures of the nativity go back to earliest Christianity. Typically you see the Holy Family, the shepherds, magi, donkeys, cows, sheep, and camels. Frequently the setting is a cave outside of town. Oddly enough, the NT does not mention animals or a cave. Those details come from non-canonical gospels, especially the protoevangelium of James. Though rightly excluded from the NT, this gospel provides a third independent tradition that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, but it claims that Mary delivered her baby in a cave where they were forced to take shelter. By the fourth century, the tradition of Jesus being born in a cave was so well-established that pilgrims regularly visited a particular cave to pay homage to the Christ-child. The Christian scholar Jerome established his monastery in adjacent caves, and today there is a beautiful church built over the cave, but there is nothing about a cave in Luke or Matthew.

All Luke says is that there was no room in the inn and so Mary laid the baby in a manger. This has been the subject of countless Christmas plays and sermons, often with a heartless innkeeper sending an expectant mother out into the cold, but the reality was probably quite different. The word we translate as “inn” does not mean the kind of lodgings we’re familiar with. It was much more like a very cheap youth hostel where people slept in a big room, often on the floor. It is quite likely that Luke meant that there was no room in such a place for a woman to deliver a baby, and we can presume that a more suitable place was found. Luke’s statement that Jesus was laid in a manger probably reflects the fact that animals were often kept in houses in the winter.

When the baby was born, the family used the most suitable cradle available. A manger is simply a feeding trough, which was probably filled with fresh hay to lay the baby in. Luke tells us that Mary swaddled the baby with cloths, which is Luke’s way of assuring us that Jesus was loved and cared for properly. In other words, the Messiah entered this world, much like other babies. This is a good place to end on this Sunday before Christmas. During Advent we have looked at hymns and prophecies about the births of John and Jesus. We have traveled with Mary to Bethlehem where she gave birth to the child that would shake the thrones of the mighty and bring salvation to the world. Let us leave with this image of a young mother, exhausted from her labor, as she lovingly swaddles her son and lays him in a manger. It is tableaux that needs no scholarly exegesis, but is a fit subject for songs: “Not Jerusalem, lowly Bethlehem, twas that gave us, Christ to save us. Not Jerusalem.”  

Magnificat

Luke 1:39-80: Magnificat

Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church; originally broadcast Dec. 14, 2008.

Introduction:                       Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this third Sunday in the season of Advent. Home Church members have been working very hard this December, and I want to give a shout out to all of the Candle Tea volunteers. Sometimes you get unusual questions at Candle Tea. A young boy asked one of the interpreters in the Candle Room a question that weighed heavy on his mind. “What was the name of the Moravian who jumped over the Candlestick.” She let him know that his name was Jack B. Nimble. I never knew Jack was one of the Single Brothers, but that is how legends grow. I want to give a shout out to Meyers Park Baptist Church in Charlotte. They had their first lovefeast and candlelight service on Wednesday, and it was a beautiful service. It is so good to see these Moravian traditions enriching the ecumenical church.

A stalwart group of Home Church members went out yesterday and gathered cedar boughs to decorate the church. This Friday dozens of people will be working in the Fellowship Hall, making beautiful garlands of real cedar that will be hung in the Sanctuary. This is a tradition that goes back at least 150 years at Home Church. The practice of bringing evergreens into the sanctuary is much older than the garlands, and has its roots in pre-Christian Germany. I am often bemused at the perpetual debates over Christmas trees in towns and colleges around the country. I read in the paper that UNC Chapel Hill will no longer put up decorated trees in the library since the University represents many “belief systems” and is not a Christian school. The funny thing is that yuletide trees are not part of any single belief system. In fact, many Christian churches object to Christmas trees, especially in the sanctuary, precisely because evergreens had been part of pagan religion during the winter solstice. I am concerned that supposedly well-educated people think that Christmas trees or stars in December are specifically Christian just because they are used by Christians during this season. It would be like arguing that since most churches use flowers in church on Sunday mornings we should ban flowers in schools and government buildings. I think it is time that government officials and academics lighten up about winter decorations and focus on genuine problems, such as the anticipated cuts in financial aid to poor students.

Personally, I am glad that Home Church uses evergreen decorations as part of our celebration of the birth of Jesus. The evergreens remind us that there is life in the midst of winter’s death, and they kindle hope that spring and rebirth will come. We call Advent a season of Hope because we are anticipating the day when the light of Christ will shine in the darkest recesses of our hearts; when the warmth of Christ will melt the ice of hatred; and when the Prince of Peace will reign over all earthly governments. So, hang your festive garlands, put lights on your trees, light candles, sing carols of love and good cheer, and drink a cup of wassail this Advent, but may we also do what we can to live into the hope of a new age.

I Sing of Women and Salvation:               Last week we discussed the story of the annunciations to Zechariah and Mary, and we had a lively conversation about the importance of Mary in the church historically and for today. This week we are discussing a meeting between the mother of John the Baptist and the mother of Jesus. It is only in Luke’s Gospel that we read of a visit between these women, and historians doubt that the Mary and Elizabeth really knew each other. Many scholars view this scene in Luke like one of those books or movies where two historical figures have a dramatic meeting even though they probably never met in real life. The main reason biblical scholars question the historicity of this story later on John does not seem to know who Jesus is when he comes to be baptized in the Jordan. In fact, in none of the gospels does John the Baptist recognize Jesus until the Holy Spirit reveals his true identity, but Luke brings Mary and Elizabeth together to make a theological point. Jesus and John were never rivals. God was working through both men for the salvation of Israel and the redemption of the world, even before their births.

Though there are doubts about the historicity of this story, it makes sense in context. Luke doesn’t tell us why Mary went to her cousin Elizabeth, but it is easy to guess. Perhaps she went to confirm the angel’s words that Elizabeth had also conceived. If the angel was right about that, she could rest assured that what he said to her was true. Or it could be that she went simply because she did not know what else to do. It is quite likely that she was confused and frightened by her pregnancy. It is hard enough for an unmarried teen-ager to be pregnant in our society, imagine what it would have been like in ancient Israel. Who would believe Mary’s story of angelic intervention? It is hard enough for people to believe it today even though we worship her child as the Son of God. We can picture Mary as a frightened young woman seeking refuge with one woman who might understand. We don’t know where Mary’s mother was, but it appears that Elizabeth served as a surrogate mother to her for three months.

We should also note the important fact that Luke begins his gospel with two women. Unlike Virgil, Luke is not singing “of arms and a man” whose fate is decided by the gods. Luke is singing about an old priest, his wife, a teen-age girl, and a bunch of shepherds. According to the standards of classical literature, Luke should be writing a comedy, but he chooses the most beautiful language he knows to celebrate God’s salvation. In the first two chapters of Luke, there are at least five hymns, perhaps more since Gabriel’s prophecies sound like hymns. This is the highest concentration of songs in any portion of the New Testament, and I think it tells us something about the birth narrative in Luke. This is not a story that can be confined to prose; it requires poetry and music. We need to avoid the temptation of turning the Gospel writers into Joe Friday on Dragnet who just wanted the facts, ma’am. Luke wants to impress upon us the magic and wonder of the birth of Messiah. The story of Christmas should lift us from the mundane and invite us to sing songs of hope and joy. Luke tells us that Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit when Mary approached her. Incidentally, this is further evidence that the early church believed that women could be prophets that proclaim the Word of God. Elizabeth declares a blessing on Mary, saying that she is blessed among women, saying:

Read: Luke 1:42, 45

Blessed Among Women:                 This blessing in Luke is similar to other blessings in Jewish literature, most notably Deborah’s statement that Jael was blessed among women for killing Sisera (Judges 5:24). In the Apocrypha, we read of Uzziah’s blessing of Judith among all women of earth after she killed Holofernes (Judith 13:18). We do not know if Luke knew these stories, but it appears that he was well read in Jewish literature, especially the Old Testament. It is possible that Luke simply used familiar language to express Elizabeth’s blessing of Mary, but it is possible that Luke expected the reader to know these earlier stories.

Perhaps Luke used this ancient blessing to identify Mary as a heroine that would save her people the way Jael and Judith did. Jael and Judith both used their femininity to slay powerful men who were attempting to destroy Israel. Could it be that Luke is telling us that Mary used her power as a woman to defeat Satan and his kingdom? It should also be noted, especially in light of last week’s discussion, that Jael and Judith both risked their reputations when rescuing their people. Both were alone in a tent with a foreign man, and there were rumors about what they did before killing their enemies. Mary was also risking her reputation (and her life) by being pregnant before getting married. Luke wants to remove any doubts her. The blessing indicates that she did the right thing and would be remembered for all generations. Just like Jael and Judith, Mary trusted in God and was a participant in God’s work.

Prenatal Spirituality:                     One of the more curious things in this conversation between Elizabeth and Mary is that the older woman reported that her unborn son leaped in the womb when Mary approached. Before modern science, the first movement of a fetus was often called the Quickening because it was believed that this was the moment when the developing infant came to life. Even though we can now see the movement of a fetus on an ultra sound, that first discernable kick of the child remains a significant for parents. It may be that Elizabeth was telling Mary that her presence brought life to the child in her womb. This would be a foreshadowing of Christ bringing life and new birth to the world.

Elizabeth says that the babe leaped for joy at the sound of Mary’s voice, and this is a major theme of Luke’s gospel. Joy is the proper response to the good news of Jesus. 250 years ago, this story of John the Baptist leaping for joy was important in Moravian worship and theology. Zinzendorf often made the point that John the Baptist leaped for joy even though he could not see, hear, or have any physical contact with Jesus. He leaped for joy because he could not express himself in any other way. Zinzendorf was one of the few theologians to argue that people with physical or mental impairment can still have faith and experience the love of God. Children can know their Savior in ways that adults have forgotten.

This was the essence of religion of the heart, for Zinzendorf, and it was proof that faith does not depend on intellect or any human ability. Faith is a living, spiritual connection with Christ, which includes the joyful experience of saving grace. Zinzendorf used this story of John the Baptist in the womb to justify the practice of infant baptism, by the way. Who are we to decide that God’s grace does not include children? Not surprisingly, Zinzendorf, like Comenius before him, encouraged mothers to sing hymns while pregnant so the child that is developing in the womb can know the same joy John knew when he heard Mary’s voice.

Respect for Women:           Some folks in church get uncomfortable with all this talk about wombs, and I can understand that, but sometimes Christians are more pious and prudish than the Bible. Luke put this story of Jesus’ conception into song and praises Mary for being the one who brought the Savior of the nations into the world. He’s not embarrassed to sing of the fruit of Mary’s womb, so why are we? Luke celebrates the fact that Jesus developed like all humans and that he was dependent on his mother like all of us were.

I apologize for bringing up good old Count Zinzendorf again, but he also taught that men should treat all women with respect because of Mary. This story in Luke is proof that there is nothing shameful about the female body or pregnancy. Perhaps during this season of Advent, we should think about how we as individuals and as a society treat women, especially women who are expecting children. What would happen if we remembered the way the elderly Elizabeth greeted young Mary with words of joy and blessing? What would happen if we treated every women, especially poor women, with the same respect that Elizabeth and Luke showed Mary?

It is only after Elizabeth prophesies that Mary speaks. She had little to say to the angel, but once Elizabeth confirms that she is blessed among women and that her child will be special, Mary lifts up her voice in song. The canticle she sings is called the Magnificat because that is the first word of the song in Latin. There are many beauty musical settings for this song, which are often used during Advent. One of my seminary classmates was a professional singer. He named his cat Toby the Magnificat.  Unfortunately, those who know me know that I could not sing the Magnificat without divine intervention. So I’ll just read the words, but keep in mind that this was always sung in the church.

Read Luke: 1-46-55

Magnificat                The first thing to note about the Magnificat is that it is very unlikely that Mary composed this hymn on the spot. We have to remember that no one had a tape recorder in the first century, and Luke had not even been born when this meeting with Elizabeth took place. It is possible that Mary sang a song that was familiar to her, much as some of us today spontaneously break into song, but it is more likely that it was Luke who put the Magnificat on Mary’s lips. You could think of this like a Broadway musical. My wife and daughters love musicals, but it strikes me as odd when all of the cowboys start singing the same song and dancing in a musical. I also usually wonder who’s playing the music when the Jets and Sharks are doing their number, but they tell me you have to leave such skepticism aside when watching a musical. John Adams didn’t really burst into song when it came time to write the Declaration of Independence, but the songs he sings in 1776 communicate important things about the founding of the country.

The canticles in the first two chapters of Luke’s Gospel are like the songs in a Broadway show. Luke has Mary sing the Magnificat as a way to communicate something for which prose is inadequate. The question among biblical scholars is whether Luke composed this great hymn or whether it was a hymn already known to him. There are also several passages in the NT that appear to have been hymns sung in the early Church. Some were probably Jewish hymns adapted for Christian use; others were composed by Christians. The Magnificat may have been written during the days of the Maccabean Revolt. If so, it is doubly appropriate that we sing it during December since Hanukah commemorates a miracle during that Revolt.

Why do scholars like Raymond Brown think that the Magnicat was originally Jewish? Aside from the fact that it is sung by a Jewish woman, the main reason is that the hymn is about the salvation of Israel. No one would think it odd if this hymn were included in the book of Psalms or had been part of the worship of the Temple. It could have been sung at almost any time in Israel’s history. There is nothing in the hymn that is specific to the situation of Mary, other than verse 48, which refers to the Lord’s handmaid that all generations will call blessed. There are some clear parallels to the song of Hannah in I Samuel. Both are songs by women who have just found out that they are unexpectedly pregnant and will give birth to special children. Both rejoice in God’s ability to overturn the normal social order. Those who are strong, proud, and arrogant have been scattered, like the men of Babel, but the lowly have been exalted.

Liberation:                The Magnificat, like the Beatitudes in Luke, offer a radical critique of human society from the perspective of God. The powerful and mighty will be cast out of the chairs of power, but those of low estate will be lifted up. The hungry will be fed and the rich sent away empty. For many centuries, the Magnificat has been sung in Latin in Catholic churches, but the radical message of this song was generally buried under elaborate musical ornamentation. Monks and nuns chanting in the chancel identified themselves with the poor that Mary sings of, even though they were well cared for by endowments. During the 20th century, some Catholic leaders highlighted the meaning of the words in the text.

One of these Liberation Theologians, Don Helder Camara, noted years ago: “When I give food to the poor, they call me a saint. When I ask why the poor have no food, they call me a communist.” Liberation theologians reclaimed the Virgin Mary from the powerful who constructed golden altars to her memory. They proclaimed the Good News revealed in the Magnificat. Advent is a season of hope, but the Magnificat reminds us that it remains a season for repentance. According to Luke, the rich and powerful may have less reason for singing in the kingdom of heaven than the humble and downtrodden.

Luke 1: Annunciations

Annuciations: Luke 1:11-38

The Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church, originally broadcast on Dec. 7, 2008.

Introduction:                       Good morning and welcome to the Adult Bible Class of Home Moravian Church on this second Sunday in Advent. I hope it was a good week for you. It was the last week of classes at Wake, and so it was quite a challenging few days for me as well as for the students. Plus, it is the season for special events. We had our Advent Lessons and Carols at the Divinity School, and I attended Salem College’s Christmas Candlelight Service. Today is Wake’s annual Christmas Lovefeast and I’ve got another lovefeast in Charlotte on Wednesday. I’m afraid I missed the Baptist Hospital Star Lighting this year. The divinity students had their ncarnation Celebration Friday night. Each year I do a dramatic reading of one of the classics of Christian theology: How the Grinch Stole Christmas. In the midst of all that, there was much grading of papers and now students are in exams. Here at the church we will have our family Christmas party on Wednesday night, and Candle Tea is in full swing. Whew!

Last week in worship the pastor talked about the change of the liturgical color for Advent from the traditional purple to the modern blue. Purple remains the official color in Catholic churches, but Episcopalians and Lutherans began adopting blue in the 20th century as a way to distinguish Advent from Lent. I think we can put to rest the rumors that this was a plot by Tarheels to get Carolina blue in sanctuaries across the country. Most of the Carolina fans I know would not be content with having blue paraments only four Sundays of the year. Several sources claim that the blue of Advent is to remind us of the blue heaven above us. Of course, the Dean Dome is also called Blue Heaven, so maybe there is something to the rumors after all. The important thing is that Duke blue is always inappropriate in church. Seriously, though, the blue of Advent is most likely a reference to the Virgin Mary who is traditionally depicted in a blue robe. Many Protestant churches neglect Mary, in part as a reaction to the Catholic elevation of Mary. Moravians may be surprised to know that for at least four hundred years, Mary played a prominent role in Moravian devotions and worship. It is especially important that we remember Mary during the holy season of Advent.

Gabriel and Zechariah                   Last week we began our discussion of the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke. We read about the angel Gabriel appearing to a priest named Zechariah while he was offering incense in the Temple. Gabriel announced that Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth was soon going to become pregnant and that her child would be filled with the Holy Spirit. We can easily see parallels between this story and the account in Genesis when God tells Abraham that Sarah is going to give birth to a son even though she was past menopause. There is a motif in the Old Testament that children conceived late in life by supposedly barren women are the bearers God’s covenant with Israel. In his preaching, John the Baptist called on the descendents of Abraham to live according the covenant.

Incidentally, the only book in the Old Testament that mentions the angel Gabriel is Daniel, which is an apocalyptic book that was popular among the Essenes. The Essenes were a radical Jewish group in the time of Jesus who established religious communes in the Dead Sea area. By giving the angel’s name as Gabriel, Luke is letting us know that the Gospel he is writing is about the coming kingdom of God under the true Messiah.

John the Nazarite?              Gabriel tells Zechariah that his son should be raised without wine or other intoxicating beverages. It appears that John was to be set apart as a Nazarite even before his birth. We do not know a lot about the Nazarites, but it appears that Israelite parents sometimes dedicated their sons to the Lord by making special vows, which included abstinence from alcohol and barbers. They may have been the forerunners of Christian asceticism, but Christian monks tended to abstain from sex rather than alcohol, and monks cut their hair instead of letting it grow. It is possible that the Islamic prohibition of alcoholic beverages has its roots in the Nazarites, by the way.

The most famous Nazarite was Samson, the strongman who was destroyed by Delilah. You may remember that Delilah seduced Samson and had someone cut off his hair, robbing him of his strength. It is quite likely that Luke is foreshadowing the fact that John the Baptist will have his head cut off at the request of an evil Queen. Luke is lifting up John the Baptist as a great prophet by comparing him to Samson. It is not clear in the original text if Gabriel is saying that John would be filled with the Holy Spirit while in the womb or from his birth. Translators deal with this issue in Luke in different ways, but we should probably not place too much weight on this passage since it is ambiguous.

Malachi:                    Gabriel also announces that John will play a role in the redemption of Israel. It appears that Luke used words from the prophet Malachi in crafted the angel’s proclamation. Malachi said that a messenger would appear in the Temple, and that God would send “the prophet Elijah before that great and dreadful day of the LORD comes. He will turn the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers; or else I will come and strike the land with a curse.” (Malachi 4:5-6) Luke believed that John the Baptist was Elijah who had come to prepare for the day of the Lord.

Raymond Brown points out that Luke changed the prophecy slightly. Malachi said that the hearts of the father would turn to the children and the hearts of children to their fathers, but Luke only quotes the first part. Instead of saying that children will turn to their fathers, he says that the disobedient will turn toward the righteous. We probably should not make too much of a change in poetic imagery, but it is intriguing that Luke does not say for children to turn toward their parents. throughout Luke’s gospel there is a theme that children understand the truth better than their parents. In the new age of the Messiah, it will be parents who have to listen to the wisdom of a younger generation that willingly embraces the good news.

Zechariah questions the angel, asking how this could come to pass. That is actually the normal human response to a theophany. In virtually every story in Scripture when a revelation is given by God, the initial reaction is rejection. Abraham did not believe that he would have a son. Isaiah protested that he had unclean lips. We will see that even Mary protested at first. But when Zechariah asks how his wife could have a son at her age, the angel strikes him dumb. There have been a lot of sermons on this passage with the theme of not talking back to God or to your parents (or pastor). This passage has often been used to silence people in churches, but may be a misreading. It is not clear in the text whether this was a punishment for Zechariah’s lack of faith or merely a sign to confirm the testimony of the angel.

The only proof the people have that the priest had a vision in the Temple is that he could not speak when he came out to give the ritual blessing. He was supposed to hold his hands over the crowd and say “The Lord bless you and keep you,” but he could not speak. Rather than a punishment for being inquisitive, Zechariah being dumbstruck is a classic response to an encounter with the Holy One. Truly awesome experiences leave us speechless. Ironically, by not speaking, the priest communicated things that might not have been heard had he said them. The people had to figure out for themselves what Zechariah had experienced.

There is a poignant aspect to this silence. Luke’s Gospel begins with the story of a priest who can no longer pronounce a blessing on those gathered. The old ways are passing away and a new age is dawning. Luke ends his Gospel with Jesus blessing the disciples as he sends them into to world.

Virgin Mary:             Now we come to the more familiar part of the story, which is read in worship services across the world each December. Six months after Elizabeth conceived, the angel Gabriel made another appearance. This time he came to a woman with an even more extraordinary message. Luke describes her as a virgin and clarifies that even though she is betrothed, she has not had relations with a man. For the past 150 years or so, the virginity of Mary has been the subject of much controversy, and a lot of scholarly ink has been spilled on the subject. The fact that Luke and Matthew both discuss the virginity of Mary indicates that this was already part of the Christian tradition before they wrote their gospels, but that does not mean that this was the most important idea in Christianity.

We need to acknowledge the fact that the virginity of Mary is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament. Paul, John, and the other NT writers say nothing about Jesus’ mother having been a virgin, and it is never offered as proof that Jesus was the Savior or the Son of God. Mary’s virginity was not a major issue for the early church. By the time the Apostles Creed was written, it had become tradition to refer to Jesus’ mother as the Virgin Mary to distinguish her from all other Marys. Virgin Mary was almost like a proper name. The Apostles Creed says that Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary, but it does not focus on her virginity as an object of faith. The emphasis is on Jesus’ birth, life, sufferings, death, and resurrection.

Ever Virgin?              Over the centuries, Catholic and Orthodox churches placed increasing weight on Mary’s virginity. Through the centuries, Catholic theologians expanded on simple statements about Jesus’ miraculous conception in Luke and Matthew to argue that Mary not only was a virgin when Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, remained a virgin even after the birth of Jesus. It became Catholic dogma that Jesus was not born through natural means, and legends arose about doctors verifying that Mary’s body was unchanged. This is why nativity scenes show Mary looking almost surprised that she’s just had a baby rather than lying exhausted from her labor.

One of the reasons why Mary’s perpetual virginity became a dogma of the Catholic Church was because the church identified celibacy as a mark of sanctity. The more the church used celibate monks and nuns as living exemplars of Christian perfection, the more theologians considered it unseemly that the mother of Jesus could have ever been tainted by sex, even after his birth. By the time of Augustine, Catholic scholars asserted that Joseph had been an aged widower who was too old to consummate his marriage to Mary. They also claimed that Jesus’ brothers and sisters mentioned in the gospels were Joseph’s children from his first marriage. Some theologians even claimed that Mary had taken a vow of celibacy before her marriage and had made Joseph respect this, just the way some Catholic saints had done. This view of Mary as ever virgin was closely connected to the Catholic Church’s overall negative attitude toward sex even within marriage.

Protestant views of the Virgin:                 Protestant theologians generally had a more positive view of sexuality and rejected the teaching that Mary remained a virgin after the birth of Jesus. For the most part Protestant biblical scholars had no trouble acknowledging that James and the other siblings of Jesus were indeed the children of Mary and Joseph. For the most part, Protestants reject the idea of a Virgin Birth as well and have no trouble believing that Jesus was born naturally. Until the 19th century, though, most Protestant theologians and biblical scholar did not doubt Luke’s claim that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. She was still a Virgin Mother in Protestant teaching, but Protestants saw no need to multiply miracles beyond those recorded in Scripture. A supernatural conception was miraculous enough!

Confidence in the virginal conception gradually eroded in the 19th and 20th centuries as scientists learned much more about biology. Religious skeptics seized on the Luke chapter 1 as evidence that the Bible is mythology rather than history. It is perhaps ironic that modern people find it hard to believe in the miracle of Jesus’ conception when we live in an age when it is technically possible for a virgin to conceive through scientific means. Skepticism about the virginity of Mary helped fuel the fundamentalist movement in the early 20th century as conservatives responded to skeptics by making the virginal conception one of the “five fundamentals.” Some fundamentalists even referred to a Virgin Birth, which is not scriptural. It is curious that Mary’s virginity became so important to fundamentalists who were opposed to so many other aspects of Catholic teaching.

Mythology or History?        Modern scholars have suggested that Luke’s story of a virginal conception may have roots in mythology rather than history. The ancient world had many stories of heroes or emperors who were sired by gods, but scholars have yet to find a story in mythology that corresponds to the conception of Jesus. There are stories of gods impregnating women, but they usually include some form of coitus. Some biblical scholars have argued that the Bible does not really teach that Mary was a virgin, but their arguments are not compelling. The conversation between Mary and Gabriel hinges on the impossibility of her conceiving since she is a virgin.

It is interesting that Luke included the virginal conception even though it appears to contradict a key part of his argument that Jesus was the Messiah. Luke and Matthew both give genealogies of Jesus that claim he was a descendent of King David through the line of his father Joseph. If Joseph was not his father, David would not be Jesus’ ancestor. The most logical reason why Luke would include the tradition that Joseph was not Jesus’ biological father is that it was such a widely held belief he could not ignore it.

There are those who think that the virginal conception was invented to explain away embarrassing facts about Jesus’ parentage. Some member of the Jesus Seminar agree with anti-Christian authors of the 3rd century that Mary had been raped by a Roman soldier before she was married. Some writers have spun elaborate psychological webs around the idea that Jesus grew up as an outcast because of his illegitimacy. There is not a shred of historical evidence to support such an idea, but it appeals to people who reject miracles. Ironically, at the time that Luke was writing his gospel, the church was struggling with people who wanted to deny the human aspects of Jesus. By including a birth narrative, Luke affirmed that Jesus was indeed “born of a woman” rather than having come down from heaven fully formed.

Conclusion:               You must decide for yourself whether to believe in Luke’s claim that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived, but I think the debates over this issue have distracted us from the meaning of the story. I think it is a beautiful story that communicates profound truths. I don’t think we need to multiply the miracle of Mary, the way some Catholics do, but I also see no need to rob the story of its magic and wonder. The focus of the annunciation in Luke is not the miraculous aspect of Jesus’ conception; it is on the faith of Mary and the significance of her child.

Luke is the only New Testament writer to call attention to Mary. She is hardly mentioned elsewhere in the New Testament, but here she is honored by a visit from the angel Gabriel. Mary would have been in her teens when she was betrothed to Joseph, and she lived in a time when women had no public voice. But here we see her conversing with an angel and being overshadowed by God’s own spirit. Mary joins the ranks of other women who played critical roles in the Bible: Hagar, Sarah, Miriam, Deborah, Hannah, Abigail. She was just a child by our standards, but she had a choice as well as a voice. We’ll continue the story of Mary next week, but for now simply ponder her profound words of faith “let it happen to me according to your word.” May all people of faith answer so willingly when chosen by God.