Joseph and the Angel

A Very Messy Christmas

Fourth Sunday in Advent

Isaiah 7:10-16
Romans 1:1-7
Matthew 1:18-24

Ring the bells that still can ring
Forget your perfect offering
There is a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.

-Leonard Cohen

Judah is threatened, but King Ahaz, not otherwise known for piety, refuses to test God in his moment of need. God nevertheless renders a sign: Isaiah, who thinks he knows what information a calculating ruler wants to hear, announces that a girl with soon give birth.

Paul writes as a self-described slave to Christians in the imperial capital where he will eventually be executed. Yet, compelled by Christ, he greets his readers with words of grace and peace.

Joseph learns that his fiancée is pregnant with someone else’s child, and looks for a way out. Yet God speaks to him through an angel in a dream and – get this! – Joseph is persuaded to stay. Read more

The Logic of the Incarnation

Christmas

Luke 2:1-14; John 1:1-14

“The Ancient of Days has become an infant.”
John Chrysostom, 4th century

On Christmas Eve we read Luke’s dramatic account of the birth of Jesus. On the first Sunday of Christmas (or, as it happens this year, Christmas Day) we read the prologue from John’s gospel. At first glance these texts seem to offer two very different perspectives on the coming of Christ into our world: Luke’s is earthy and political, conveying the historical contingencies (and palpable dangers) that attended the first Advent; John’s is meditative and philosophical, written in academic Greek, locating the “Word made flesh” not in the provincial politics of first-century Palestine but boldly and unapologetically in the sweeping history of the cosmos.

But despite the differences there is, I suggest, an affinity, a necessary and even urgent correspondence, between these two traditional Christmas narratives. And perhaps especially this year, as liturgically we read and hear them only hours apart, this affinity is worthy of deeper exploration.

In Luke, we glimpse what the tyranny of the imperium romanum meant for its subjects, especially those on the margins of empire geographically, ethnically, and religiously. In verses 1 through 5 it is clear that the events leading up to Jesus’ birth were no picnic – nothing like the familiar, beatific stuff of greeting-card sentimentality. Rather, despots and oligarchs populate the scene and the treacherous journey to the stable – labor pains upon labor pains – includes refugees on the run, authorities asking for papers, and risky border crossings.

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Herod Rules

Matthew 2:13-23

If, as the late Raymond Brown was fond of saying, the infancy accounts in Matthew and Luke are “the gospel in miniature,” then this Sunday’s gospel may be read as Matthew’s preview of the passion and resurrection. As with the passion accounts, we go astray if we read ourselves into this story in ways that are too easy, too comforting. If we don’t find something of ourselves in the person of Herod the Great, we’re cutting ourselves far too much slack.

Historical accounts of Herod the Great suggest a ruler wily enough to switch allegiances just in time and pragmatic enough to execute his own children when politics demanded. An Idumaean rather than ethnically Jewish, he was nonetheless named “King of the Jews” by the Roman Senate while in exile.
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The Whole Package

Second Sunday After Christmas
Ephesians 1:3-19; John 1:1-18

It’s still Christmas. It’s hard to tell that from the culture around us, and maybe even a little hard to tell from this Sunday’s appointed lessons. For a few days we were immersed in the earthiness of the Nativity (barn animals, labor and delivery, a feeding trough for a bed). But this week’s readings have phrases like “before the foundation of the world,” “the mystery of his will,” and “in the beginning was the Word.”

It’s tempting, perhaps, to see a sharp division here. To imagine that the Christmas lections are about the simple, familiar, child-friendly stuff—cradles and crèches and shepherds and angels—and that the “After-Christmas” readings have gone all grown-up and academic on us. Logos? John wants to talk Greek while we’re still singing Away in a Manger? Read more

God in Particular

 

Luke 2: 1-20

My college church organized a big evangelistic training and event. We went through two nights learning how to “win people to the Lord” using handy little tracts organized around “the four spiritual laws.” (#1 God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. #2 Man is sinful and separated from God. [Yes, only men.] #3 Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. #4 We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. – I still remember them after all these years.) Each spiritual law had a verse of Scripture attached to it to give it biblical validity. On the third night we were given the assignment of going out to neighborhoods and college dorms, knocking on doors, and if the person answering the door would allow us, we were to tell him the four spiritual laws. If the person said “yes” to the last law, we were to pray with him, asking for Jesus to enter into his heart. After the prayer, we congratulated him on becoming a Christian, told him to go to church the next Sunday and then off we went to “win” the next person to the Lord. Read more