Friday, December 21, 2007

Christmas: New Beginnings

Matthew 1:1-25

Once upon a time. It was a dark and stormy night. What crosses your mind as I say these words? Perhaps it was the land of castles and dragons and princesses. Or the creepy, dilapidated mansion at the end of the street. Or maybe a flood of boredom simply filled your senses as your hand automatically reached for the remote. Yet whatever our reaction, whether of anticipation or ennui, those stock phrases instantly communicated to us a whole range of (dull) plotlines, images and characters simply because of their familiarity.

Does the beginning of Matthew seem like that? Many of us will own up guiltily to ho-humming here. I know I do. Luke’s beginning has the tone of a learned professor, scribbling furiously at his desk as he seeks to preserve an “orderly account”. Mark is the excitable movie director, plunging us straight into the action. John is that intriguing artist – his prologue may be perplexing, but it has the ring of poetic beauty and philosophical sophistication to it. Matthew, uh, sounds like the guy from the National Office of Statistics. I guess somebody has to record that kind of stuff. Number-crunching, genealogies, blahblahblah. And the list isn’t even all that familiar, although we might recognise some names like Abraham and Isaac and Boaz and David, in the same way we might know the Disneyfied versions of many fairy tales but be hazier on the original stories themselves.

But hang on. Let’s go back to the beginning. What if the sentence continued “Once upon a time, there was a woman who discovered she had turned into the wrong person” (Back When We Were Grownups, Anne Tyler)? Or “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen” (1984, George Orwell)? Our interest is piqued, and we are eager to find out more. To do so, however, is to enter the world of the story. Most of us understand that clocks, first of all, do not strike thirteen, and secondly, thirteen is an unlucky number in many cultures. Some of us might pick up that a bright, cold day in April is actually very rare. Orwell is hinting right off the bat that something is definitely amiss. Why are the clocks striking thirteen? We’ll need to read on. We’re actually in media res, or in the middle of things. The story is told linearly, but we will need to fill in retrospective gaps, to look not just forward but backwards.

So back again we go to Matthew’s opening and this time, attempt to imaginatively inhabit his world, see it through Jewish eyes. All those names! Each transports me to an anecdote passed down from generation to generation, a memory of what it was like to be part of God’s people, a recalling of events of my collective past. They strike a chord within me – wonder and sadness. Scanning the list, I see Matthew doing something striking. He divides the genealogy into three main sections of fourteen names each (v.17): from Abraham to David, from David to "the time of the exile to Babylon" (v.11) and then to Jesus himself, situating the central character of this account in the midst of the larger story of Israel. It is “something which gives explicit expression to the conviction that a providence of God had been at work in the ordering of Israelite history up to Jesus' time” (John Goldingay).

Matthew wants me to see God’s hand at work here, but to what end? I peer at this family tree again. Jesus. That’s it. A biography of Jesus that sees the need to include a genealogy is making a point about his heritage. Matthew realigns my line of sight. Jesus is of royal stock, the son of David, the greatest king in Israel’s history. I go back to David’s story, and remember the promise made to him:

"When your days are fulfilled and you rest with your fathers, I will set up your seed after you, who will come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for My name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his Father, and he shall be My son." (2 Samuel 7:12-14)
King David with harpAnd I begin to get excited. It’s not so much that Jesus is David’s son per se. As a Jew, it’s been drilled into me since young that the arrival of this Davidic King coincides with the coming of God’s reign! It is the end of oppression, the coming of justice, the restoration of Israel. Jumping ahead in Matthew’s story for a moment, imagine my shock when Matthew tells me of Jesus standing trial before Pilate and being asked, "Are you the king of the Jews?" to which he replies in the affirmative (27:11). But how can this be? Not only is the Davidic king suppose to come in victory, but he is meant to be a true Israelite, the one who models obedience, and yet on both counts Jesus seems to come up wanting by being executed as a criminal.

Jesus is also identified as the son of Abraham. So I go back to another story of beginnings, this time, the beginning of Israel. Once again, it is the story of a promise (Genesis 12:1-3). It is the promise of people, starting with a son, out of which a nation would arise. It is the promise of blessing, but startlingly, it is not a blessing merely for a particular people group. "All peoples on earth will be blessed through you." The same is said of the Davidic king: "All nations will be blessed through him" (Psalm 72:7). If I still don’t get the point, Matthew gets me to look at the family record again and particularly at the women. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba. The women...they’re not Jewish! (And not with the best of reputations either). Being part of Israel is not the be all and end all. John the Baptist later on warns the Pharisees of their complacency: "Do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’" (3:9).

But how can John say that? And back again we go to the beginning. This is "a record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ". And once more, I am reminded of yet another beginning, but a more unpleasant one this time. It is the beginning of death. The exact same phrase (although it might not appear so in some English translations) is found in Genesis 5:1, where we get a genealogy of Adam. And in this genealogy, with one exception, we hear that so-and-so died, one after another, even if they lived remarkably long. Death does not discriminate between Jew and non-Jew, for all are children of Adam. All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.

And so Jesus is now situated not only within Israel’s story, but humankind’s history. But now let’s go to the beginning of the Jesus narrative itself. And let me briefly compare it with another beginning. Laurence Sterne’s novel Tristram Shandy famously starts with these words:

“I wish either my father or my mother, or indeed both of them…had minded what they were about when they begot me; had they duly consider’d how much depended upon what they were doing…Had they duly weighed and considered all this, and proceeded accordingly, - I am verily persuaded I should have made a quite different figure in the world, from that, in which the reader is likely to see me.”
The running joke is that the protagonist, Tristram, attributes all the blame for his failings in life to his parent’s thoughtlessness in conceiving him; it is, in a way, a comic take on original sin. There is also another running thread, which doesn’t really come out in the excerpt above, that Tristram keeps on trying to get back to the beginning of his story but he doesn’t know where to start (Sterne’s point: there’s no beginning and end in art, or life).

Matthew goes about showing the birth of Jesus in a much more deliberate manner. This is the point of new beginnings; it is also the end of an era. It is the fulfilment of prophecy, the climax of history. Matthew matter-of-factly tells us that Joseph was going to divorce Mary because, you know, his wife-to-be happened to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Say what? This is no ordinary child, to say the least. He "will save his people from their sins" (1:21), those cancerous acts of opposing God’s kingship which plunged us into the world of death in the first place. Jesus is the new Adam!

Here we also find the beginning of new expectations, for this wasn’t quite what people were expecting the Messiah’s coming to be about. Steven Kellman, in an essay ‘Grand Openings and Plans: On the Poetics of Opening lines’ suggests that openings tend to serve one of two functions, “either to thrust us immediately into the text or to retard our encounter until we are prepared for it.” And so Matthew, in his opening 4 chapters, by citing fulfilled prophecy after fulfilled prophecy, hammers it into us that Jesus is Immanuel, God with us, the promised Davidic King and Son of Abraham, the fulfilment of God’s plans, so that we can absorb the shock and grasp the magnitude of Jesus’ mission. For "just as Moses lifted up the snake in the desert, so the Son of Man must be lifted up" (John 3:14). In other words, Jesus knows that he must go on to the Cross, where he takes our place. Only then will the New Creation, the hope of true forgiveness, true justice, true beauty, and true life be ushered in.

Christmas. It is the story of a gracious God who knew what he was doing from the very beginning. It is the story of a God who keeps his promises. Today, we know it primarily as the story of a birth of a rather famous historical figure, but Matthew shows us that it is far more than that. And in the present day, it is an invitation to a new beginning for us, if we repent, turning from our old, sinful ways, and trust in Jesus. It is eternal life itself. And it is also an invitation to have confidence in the promise that God, through Jesus, will one day reconcile all things to himself, under his rule. Imagine that. All things. All nations, Malaysia, England, South Africa, Iraq. No more threats of war and racism. No more fears of global warming. No more subjugation, institutional and spiritual.

We’ve been talking about beginnings. How about this for an ending?

And He who was seated on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new”
- Revelation 21:5 (ESV)

The dream is ended: this is the morning.
…now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on for ever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.
- The Last Battle, C.S Lewis

> Last year’s Christmas post: The Only One who can change the world

P/S Christmas, new beginnings? Sounds like quite the story but...Bah humbug. Not in the real world. If that’s you, why not read through one of the gospels for yourself, and you might also like to pick up one or more of the following:

Where is God in a messed up world?, Roger Carswell
The Case for Christ, Lee Strobel
Mere Christianity, C.S Lewis
Who was Jesus?, N.T Wright

† Expand post

Labels: ,

Post a Comment

<< Home

Links to this post:

Create a Link