The Politics of Christmas

January 8, 2012

(Isaiah 60, 1-6; Matthew 2, 1-12)

May I wish you, again, a happy Christmas!

Yes, I know that, for the secular world, Christmas is behind us, all the decorations have been taken down, and we’re well into the New Year.

But in the church year, the season of Christmas continues until Candlemas, the Feast of the Presentation of Christ in the Temple on February 2nd; and although we are now into the part of the Christmas season we call Epiphany, on this particular Sunday we are actually hearing another version of the story of Christ’s birth. This time, not Luke’s version with the Annunciation to Mary, the census, the journey to Bethlehem, the child in the manger, the visit of the shepherds, the presentation in the Temple and the peaceful return to Nazareth; but Matthew’s version, with the Holy Family living in Bethlehem, the annunciation to Joseph, the magi led to see the new born baby by a star, their visit to King Herod, their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, their return home by another way, the flight of the Holy Family to Egypt, the slaughter of the innocents by Herod, and the family’s decision to live in Nazareth, rather than Bethlehem when they return. Two very different narratives, but asking the same questions and giving the same answers about who this child is, and what it means  to follow him.

The Archbishop of Canterbury was roundly criticised in some quarters for his Christmas Day sermon,which some people thought was ‘too political’. Politics can be defined as ‘of, for or relating to citizens’ or as ‘the process of human interaction by which groups make decisions’. Whichever definition of politics you use, the whole of the Bible, the Gospels and the Nativity stories in Luke and Matthew are about politics.

Do you remember the series of comedies starring Rowan Atkinson called ‘Blackadder’? In the one set in Tudor times, Miranda Richardson, playing a rather petulant Queen Elizabeth I had a catch phrase, which she produced whenever anyone disagreed with her: “Who’s Queen?” And that question is what the Nativity narratives are all about. Who is in authority, who wields ultimate power, whose laws do we obey?

Luke, writing for a predominantly Greek audience asks: who is the emperor, who is the Son of God, who is the Prince of Peace, who is the Saviour of the world? Is it the Roman Emperor Augustus, to whom all these titles were given at the time? Or is it Jesus?

Matthew, writing for a predominantly Jewish audience, asks who is the King of the Jews, who is the Son of David, who is the Messiah, who is the successor of Moses? Is it King Herod, the puppet king, installed by the Roman Emperor; or is it Jesus?

Matthew’s Nativity story demonstrates that Jesus is greater than the Roman Emperor, by mirroring the myths about the founding father of the Emperor’s dynasty with the story of the journey of the Magi. The imperial mythology tells of a star which led the ancestor of Augustus, Julus, his father Aeneas and his grandfather, westward from the doomed city of Troy to found the Roman race. Matthew tells of a star which led the wise men westward to worship the new born King of the Jews.

But Matthew also wants to show that Jesus is greater than, and is the summation of, all the leading figures of the Old Testament, and in particular the law giver, Moses, and the iconic king, David.

The Jews believed that Moses was the author of the Torah, contained in the first five books of the Old Testament. So Matthew includes in his Gospel five great discourses, giving the new Torah; and this pattern of five occurs also in his birth narrative, which is like the Gospel in miniature. There are (very unusually for a Jewish genealogy) five women mentioned in the list of Jesus’s ancestors; there are five dreams which guide Joseph and the Magi; there are five mentions of the town of Bethlehem; there are five texts of the Old Testament which illuminate the events of Jesus’s birth.

Matthew’s birth story also mirrors closely the non-biblical elaboration (targum or midrash) of the story of the birth of Moses. First century Jews and Christians would have been very familiar with these, but we miss the echoes, both because we don’t know these stories, and because we rarely read or hear the whole of Matthew’s story. Usually the visit of the Magi is tagged onto the end of the end of Luke’s nativity story, and we never hear the climax of the story, the killing of the baby boys in Bethlehem, (unless the Feast of the Holy Innocents falls on a Sunday – and we all know how small congregations are on the Sunday after Christmas!).  Yet Matthew wrote about this slaughter as a direct parallel to the slaughter of the Hebrew boy children by the Pharoah.

In the Moses midrash the Pharoah has a dream that a Hebrew boy will be born who will threaten his power. So he decrees that all Hebrew boys are to be drowned at birth. The Hebrew men vow to divorce their wives, so they don’t produce any more boys. But Moses’s father is told in a dream to remarry his wife, as their son will be the saviour of Israel. He does so, and the child is protected and survives the slaughter of the babies to lead the Hebrews out of Egypt.

In Matthew’s version, Joseph (another name that harks back to the time in Egypt) vows to divorce his wife after finding she is pregnant. He is told in a dream to take her back, which he does. Herod finds out about the child from the wise men, and attempts to kill him, but through messages given in dreams, the child is protected and escapes to Egypt. When the danger is passed, in a new Exodus he returns to Nazareth to grow up, and eventually begin his ministry.

The Moses midrash is not the only Old Testament reference in Matthew’s birth story. The references to Bethlehem, and to the king who will be a shepherd to his people, refer back to the story of David, the greatest Jewish King. The five prophecies refer back to the prophet Isaiah and the threat from Assyria, the hope for a restoration of the Davidic kings, the Exodus, the Exile in Babylon and the time of the Judges. As we heard in our first reading, Matthew also draws on passages in Isaiah and the Psalms (particularly Psalm 72 on which Hail to the Lord’s Anointed is based); these refer to foreign nations and kings being drawn to the light of God in Jerusalem, and bringing gifts of gold and incense. Other passages which influenced his story include the prophecy of Balaam in Numbers 24, 15-19  and the dreams of Daniel.

But Matthew’s birth story does not just look back to the Old Testament and its prophets, kings and heroes who served God, revealed God’s will before Jesus, and so prefigured him. It also looks forward, to the climax of the story of Jesus in his death and passion, and his continuing story in the life of the church. The third gift of the magi, myrrh, foreshadows his death. The attempt by the Romans’ puppet king, Herod, to kill a rival King of the Jews, foreshadows the decision of the Roman governor, Pilate to crucify Jesus as King of the Jews. The escape to Egypt foreshadows Jesus’s escape from death through the resurrection.

The star foreshadows the acclamation of Jesus in the Gospels, especially John’s Gospel, Paul and Revelation as the light, which reflects the glory of God;  and the Magi, foreigners and pagans who recognise and worship Jesus as the Messiah when the Jewish leaders try to destroy him, foreshadow the Gentiles of Matthew’s church, who recognise and worship Jesus as their Saviour, when many of his countrymen reject him. Matthew’s birth story is filled with joy, like Luke’s, but is much more obviously filled with conflict and foreboding – which perhaps explains why we prefer to ignore many of its details.

But if we do only read ‘the nice bits’ of Matthew, we will fail to hear the message Matthew intended us to hear. Matthew wrote in a tradition that believed that hearing the stories of the past made these events real and effective in the present. His story says that Christmas is not just something that happened two thousand years ago; it happens now, and demands a response from us, as it demanded a response from those who witnessed it then.

It asks us who we are in the story. Are we like the Magi who follow the light, and refuse to comply with the attempts of those in religious and political power who want to extinguish it?

It asks, who is king and emperor over our lives? A secular ruler or party leader, or the one who embodies the values of God’s kingdom? When we vote, who is uppermost in our minds.

It asks what most completely discloses the divine will for us? The law of Moses or the grace, forgiveness and sacrifice shown by Christ?

It asks what really brings light and peace to the world? The exercise of military and economic power or following the example of a persecuted and crucified Messiah? Peace through military victory or peace through justice?

Matthew’s Christmas story is not a nice story for children, about exotic kings, guiding stars, dreams and strange gifts.   It is an adult story, about religion, and power and politics, and how they can be abused. It places before those who hear and read it a choice about  the decisions they make, and the guidance they follow.

The Christmas story proclaims the beginning of a new world order, initiated by the birth of Jesus, It challenges all of us to consider what we are being called to do to bring about that new world order in our time, in our church and our town. And that’s politics!

Will we follow his star? Will we bring our gifts to offer to him? How will we pay him homage?

Are you Ready for Christmas?

December 18, 2011

(Romans 16, 25-27; Luke 1, 26-38 & 46b-55)


It’s a question people constantly ask you this time of year. “Are you ready for Christmas?”


Is anyone ever ready? There’s so much to do, so many things to arrange at home and at church: services to plan, shopping to do, meals to prepare for, presents to buy for different age groups, and celebrations with family members to co-ordinate. No wonder so many people collapse exhausted on the actual day!


The trouble is we all want to have a ‘perfect Christmas’. When the Archbishop of Canterbury spoke on Radio 2’s Pause for Thought’ last Thursday, he spoke of his belief that God doesn’t wait until we are ready and everything is perfect; God comes to us, in the same way as he came at the first Christmas, in the middle of the mess, to bring love and joy.


In the account we heard from Luke’s Gospel, it’s quite obvious that Mary wasn’t in the least bit ready for the events of the first Christmas Day. She wasn’t ready to be a mother: she was betrothed to Joseph, but, as she explained to Gabriel, they weren’t yet living together and she was still a virgin. She certainly wasn’t ready to be the mother of the Messiah, the Saviour of the World and the Son of God. So her response to the angel’s announcement was, “Why me?”

As she knew, she wasn’t anyone special. Two thousand years of Christian devotion may have turned her into something remarkable, through doctrines such as her Immaculate Conception and bodily Assumption, and titles such as Theotokos (God-Bearer), Mother of God, Queen of Heaven and Co-Redemptrix; but, as many of our TV Nativities show, in reality she was a simple girl, probably still a teenager, from a provincial village in an occupied country, with very little education, destined for a life of hard work, marriage and motherhood. The choice of her to be the mother of Jesus was nothing to do with her special qualities; it was an act of God’s grace.


Luke’s account tells us about Mary’s response to the announcement of Jesus’s coming birth, and at the same time, gives us pointers to how we can make ourselves ready to receive him when he comes into our lives.


Mary responded with humility. She puzzled over the announcement that she was ‘highly favoured’, because she didn’t think she had done anything to deserve that. But she accepted God’s plan, not just as a ‘handmaid’ or ‘servant’ as the text is usually translated, but as a slave, which is what the Greek original usually means. She demonstrated that she was ready to go along with what would happen to her, even though she knew it would make her life very messy and turn the ordinary life she was looking forward to upside down.


She also responded with acceptance and obedience. “Let it be with me according to your word”. She accepted in spite of her doubts and questions, believing that with God’s plans, even the most unlikely events were possible. She demonstrated at the Annunciation that ‘obedience of faith’ that Paul spoke of in his letter to the Romans.


Mary also responded with joy. The Magnificat, which we heard in our second reading from Luke, is a psalm of praise to God for everything that will come about through the birth of Jesus, the Saviour.


But she also responded with insight. The Magnificat is a prophecy, which describes the distinctive and revolutionary character of the Messiah which Jesus will be. Through his coming, the poor will be exalted, the mighty will be brought down, the hungry will be fed and the proud will be scattered. This anticipates the whole of Luke’s Gospel, which  proclaims that  the titles which were given to the Roman Emperor – Saviour of the World, Prince of Peace, Son of God – actually belong to Jesus, not Augustus Caesar. The coming of Jesus undermines the worldly standards of wealth, status and power; his reign is not just for the Jews, but includes the Gentiles and those considered outsiders (Romans emphasises this as well). A peaceful revolution is about to begin!


What the Magnificat also tells us is that Christmas is not just about the birth of Jesus. It is about the birth of a whole new order of peace, love and justice, which this child brings into the world. It is about the birth of the Kingdom of Heaven. How ready are we for that this Christmas?


The celebration of Jesus’s birth should not be an escape from the harsh realities of life, as is the case with so many people’s Christmases these days. Mary is not going to escape reality. Luke’s story shows her as part of a poor family, which is pushed around and has their lives disrupted by the decisions of the civic authorities. She gives birth in squalor, away from the support of her own family and the familiarity of her own home. She has to rely on the kindness of strangers.


It’s very different from the sanitised version that we are so often presented with in Nativity plays, where politics and poverty are very much in the background. Most people prefer it that way, and see the Christmas holiday as a chance to retreat into domestic life, and forget the problems of the world. But the Magnificat calls us to the very opposite of escapism. It calls us to active engagement with the powers of this world, in the name of a God who comes to undermine the established order. At Christmas we are challenged to be part of the new order of things which the Magnificat describes.


We are called to called to engage with the way power is exercised in our world – but to do so as servants, as Jesus  did, not as dictators. We are called to tackle the issues of poverty, but with generosity and through sharing, as Jesus did, rather than by assigning blame. We are challenged to do something about the causes of disease, homelessness, and prejudice; but we are called to do so as collaborators, as friends, as welcomers, as Jesus did, rather than judging and excluding those who suffer from them.


The story Luke tells us this morning, and the psalm which Mary sang, tell us of a new way of living within the old order; a way which is messy, which turns our normal lives and expectations upside down, but which is ultimately joyful and transforming. They call us to connect with the outcasts, the marginalised and the poor of the world and of our community, and to live Christmas in the same servanthood, humility, and simplicity as Mary did.


So, are you ready for Christmas? Am I?


No, I’m not! If I knew one of the local clergy was coming round, I’d have a tidy up. If I knew a member of the Royal Family was going to pop in for tea, I’d get some new crockery and make sure the front room was newly decorated. But how  can I be ready to welcome our heavenly Priest and King into my life, if he’s going to enlist me into his revolution, and turn my life upside down? I’m not a revolutionary, and I like my life the way it is.  How can I be ready to be a servant of the poor and the marginalised, to be open to those whom society disapproves of, to be someone who challenges those who exercise power in church and state in the name of Christ.

I may be ready for the comfortable, sentimental family Christmas, that concentrates on the baby and the animals and the Magi with their strange useless gifts, but I’m certainly not ready for that sort of Christmas.


Yet I know I have to try. That’s what Advent is about. Advent 2011, like every Advent before, is when God gives us an opportunity to become more Christlike, a fresh chance to appreciate the true meaning of Christmas and an invitation to make ourselves ready to welcome the Baby of Bethlehem as the bearer of the Kingdom of Heaven, our King, and the Saviour of the World. So, let us get ready together!

Let us pray:

God of all hope and joy,

open our hearts in welcome,

that your Son, Jesus Christ, at his coming

may find in us a dwelling prepared for himself.


(© New Zealand Prayer Book)


Sermon for Palm Sunday    Psalm 118, 1, 2 & 19-29; Matthew 21,1-11.

I don’t know if any of you are planning to be in London on Friday week to watch the Royal Wedding. I only did it once, for the wedding of Princess Alexandra in 1963! Somewhere at home I have a set of black & white photos  that I took, which are the only memories I really have of the occasion, apart from seeing many of the Royal Family as they swept past my corner of Horse Guards Parade in their big shiny cars.

It’s not something I’ve ever done since. It was a great feeling at the time, but as I’ve got older I’ve got less keen on being present in large crowds on such public events. It’s too easy to get lost in that sort of crowd: not lost in the physical sense, but lost in the sense of losing control of emotions, and sometimes of common sense. And nowadays these occasions are almost always a magnet for groups bent on highjacking them for their own purposes, or causing damage to people and property, as we have seen from numerous protest demonstrations in recent years.

I’ve enjoyed sometimes being present in large groups of Christians for services – there is something about singing hymns, and receiving communion in a really large crowd that lifts the spirits and makes you feel closer to heaven. That’s the sort of atmosphere I imagine on that first Palm Sunday.

But what, I wonder, was it really like?

Although the story of Jesus’s entry into Jerusalem on a donkey is told in all four Gospels, what actually lies behind the story remains a puzzle. When you hear the story read after hearing Psalm 118, as we did this morning, it’s very obvious that the psalm has had an influence on the way it’s been recorded. That is even clearer when you hear the citation from Zechariah 9, which Matthew has included in his version. Matthew is so keen to make every detail of Jesus’s entry fit the prophecy that he has Jesus riding on a she-donkey and her foal at the same time!  (A physical impossibility, and a totally unrealistic scenario to anyone who’s ever tried to lead a donkey with a foal; it’s hard enough to get them to go in in a straight line, let alone ride them!)

As so often happens, the account has been written with hindsight, from the point of the post-Resurrection community, who believed that Jesus was the promised Messiah, and searched the Hebrew Scriptures for passages to support this understanding. In Matthew and John the citations are explicit, but they are there just under the surface in the other Gospels too. The Evangelists see the entry into Jerusalem on a donkey as Jesus’s way of proclaiming himself as the Messiah foretold by the prophet Zechariah, a humble Messiah with a message of peace,  who would nevertheless free his people from oppression by foreign powers. They portray him as being recognised and welcomed by large enthusiastic crowds, acclaimed as ‘the Son of David’ (a royal title) and causing an upset in the entire city.

But there are problems with accepting the Gospel accounts as a record of what might actually have happened. Scholars tell us that, at this period, the Zechariah passage was not seen as a Messianic prophecy; it only became so when Christians used it to support their belief that Jesus was the Messiah, though not one who behaved in a way many of his contemporaries expected. If there had been that understanding of what entry on a donkey meant, and the whole city had been in the uproar that Matthew describes, then Jesus would have been arrested by the Romans that same day.

The great pilgrim festivals were times of extreme tension in Roman occupied Jerusalem, especially during the Procuratorship of Pontius Pilate. The Jewish authorities knew they had to crush any nationalistic demonstrations, or they risked a backlash which would destroy the fragile  balance of power they had negotiated with the Roman authorities. Jewish writers of the time recount a number of incidents whenPontius Pilate reacted with severity to popular demonstrations, resulting in deaths and executions. The Jewish leaders would be quite prepared to sacrifice one prophet from the provinces to prevent any such incident during a major religious celebration.

So if we try to reconstruct what happened, when and why, on the basis of the Gospel accounts and biblical scholarship, what might we arrive at? If we’d been there what might we have seen? What might have been in Jesus’s mind when he entered Jerusalem?

Biblical scholars agree that Jesus never claimed to be the Messiah. So his entry on a donkey wouldn’t have had that in mind. There is always the possibility that, although pilgrims usually entered the Holy City on foot, he used a donkey because he was tired, or unwell, or someone provided him with one. But Jesus (like the Old Testament prophets) sometimes did things as an acted parable, to make a point. His entry on a donkey, surrounded by the ordinary people from Galilee that he lived among and associated with, might well have been done to point the contrast between a procession of the Kingdom of God which he proclaimed, and one of the Roman Empire. God’s Kingdom was one where the poor were blessed and the meek would inherit, the sort of people who used donkeys as to carry goods and themselves; the Roman Empire was maintained by force and celebrated by triumphal processions of horses and chariots, weapons and captives and the booty of war.

All the Gospel writers place the entry into Jerusalem in the week before the Passover Festival. But many scholars think they may be telescoping together an number of events from different visits to Jerusalem in their account of Holy Week (just like the writers of today’s docudramas do for dramatic effect). The descriptions of Palm Sunday don’t fit very well with what happened at Passover; but they do fit very well with the rituals of the autumn festival of Tabernacles. On that festival the pilgrims approached Jerusalem waving branches of palm, myrtle and willow. Psalm 118 was recited during the approach to the Temple and while pilgrims circled the horned altar. Like Passover, it was a celebration which commemorated the liberation of the Hebrew people from Egypt; in the psalm the pilgrims are blessed as those ‘who come in the name of the Lord’ and they in turn shout ‘hosanna’, which means ‘God save us’.

Rather than disturbing the whole city, this incident may well have been of significance only to those who  accompanied Jesus. He and his disciples might well have been part of a large group from Galilee, who would have been excited at the prospect of introducing ‘their’ prophet to the big city, a noisy and exuberant  group.  But as long as it did not pose a challenge to the religious authorities, or a threat to the Romans, no-one else would have taken much notice.

What did alarm the Temple authorities and eventually bring Jesus to the notice of the Romans was what the Synoptic Gospel writers say he did next, which was to go into the Temple and overthrow the tables of the money-changers.  He couldn’t have cleared them all out, as the Gospels claim. The trading area of the Temple covered many square feet, and no one person or group of people could have destroyed them all. It is likely that Jesus was again making a symbolic protest, as the Old Testament prophets did, against the misunderstanding of the covenant faith represented by Temple worship, which placed the main emphasis on sacrifice and celebration, not on justice and righteousness.

But what he did, and what he said about the coming destruction of the Temple, and its replacement by a ‘spiritual’ temple, were a direct challenge to the political, religious and economic elites of Jewish society. In acting in this way Jesus did the wrong thing, in the wrong place at the wrong time. Caiaphas and the Sanhedrin were perfectly willing to sacrifice one person to save themselves and the Jewish people from a Roman clampdown. We can only speculate whether Jesus  knew that his action would end with his arrest and death; but anyone with any sensitivity to the political realities of the time would have been naïve to expect any other outcome.

When we look back on something, we often see things in quite a different way from the way we did originally. When we look at the film of Charles and Diana’s wedding, we can’t feel the same optimism as we did at the time. We know how it all turned out. When we look back at the first Palm Sunday, we can never recapture the joyous anticipation of the Galilean’s entry into Jerusalem, whenever it took place; we know the story of the rest of Holy Week, as our Palm Sunday hymns testify; we know it ends badly. Our joy will always be tinged with  dread.

But we also know about the resurrection, and so we look at the scene through the eyes of the Evangelists, and we too hear the people’s shouts as greeting Jesus as God’s Messiah. ‘Hosanna to the Son of David’, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord’ means something quite different to us now from what it meant to those who shouted it on the way down from the Mount of Olives.

That’s one reason why I’m not too keen on Palm Sunday processions. Acting out the story, pretending that 21st century English people can  feel like first century Jews just doesn’t work, and sometimes can be a means of avoiding the hard work that is necessary to tease out the many layers of meaning behind the story that the evangelists tell. Too often people come and take part in the joyful festivities on Palm Sunday and Easter Day, but avoid the hard realities in between.

And so often people get hung up on the donkey, especially trying to find a real donkey, as if having a real donkey somehow makes the whole experience more real.

It’s not about the donkey! It’s about the person who rode the donkey and what he was trying to tell us, in his life and in his teaching, about the nature of God, and what it meant to be committed to the Kingdom of God. It’s about how we live, how we serve, how we cope with political and economic reality in all its potential for evil, and how we can accept suffering and come through it to experience resurrection. It’s about looking back after the events and seeing new significance and new meaning in something that didn’t seem to be anything unusual at the time.

Palm Sunday is about starting Holy Week and the journey to the cross with Jesus – but always with God’s assurance that it leads not to death, but to life.

Isaiah 63,7-9. Matthew 2,13-23

On Christmas Eve we were with John the Divine, contemplating the mystery of the Incarnation, the Word made flesh, the light that shines in the darkness. On Christmas morning we went with Luke to the manger and worshipped with the rustic shepherds.

But this morning we are back in the real world, with Matthew. This is the part of the story that is never depicted  on Christmas cards and  is never acted out in children’s nativity plays, because human beings cannot bear too much reality. It didn’t even get into the BBC Nativity last week – the one that was supposed to be as real as Eastenders! For many people, Christians and non-Christians alike, Christmas is a short escape from the harsh world of reality, and they would prefer to forget this part of the story, lest it spoil that escape.

The exotic magi have gone home by another way, warned in a dream not to return to Herod, leaving Mary, Joseph and the infant Jesus to face an uncertain future. Herod has realized Plan A is not going to work, and has put plan B into action – kill all the  babies and toddlers in Bethlehem in an effort to destroy the one among them who may grow up to be a threat to his power.

So, like many families the world over, Mary and Joseph are forced to take their baby away from their home, and become refugees in a foreign land, camping out there until the threat to their child seems to have gone; but even then, they continue to take precautions, keeping away from area near the capital, and setting up home in a Northern backwater, while their son grows to maturity.

Politics and plots, massacres, flight and life in a refugee camp: it’s just like the new we see in the media. Not very Christmassy, is it?

But it is Christmassy. Christ’s Mass is not about making the world a fairy tale place, with only sweet smelling straw, starlight and candlelight, cuddly animals and foreign visitors who bring rich and exotic gifts. It’s about living on in the real world, a world where tyrants do send their soldiers to slaughter whole populations including woman and children; where families do have to leave their homes and face insecurity to escape persecution; where fathers do have to think carefully about where they choose to live, in order that their wives and children may be reasonably safe.

But yet it’s about living in the real world transformed, because  of Immanuel, God with us. It’s about a world where we no longer feel ourselves alone or powerless in the face of such evil. As Isaiah tells us, it’s about a world where we know God’s presence alongside us, experiencing the worst that life can throw at us, but never defeated, nor destroyed. It’s about living in a world with the hope that there is a better way, and that ultimately, in spite of all appearances, that better way will triumph.

Christmas is not just about the children, it’s not just about December 25th, it’s about how we live through the whole year, in the faith that God is our saviour no matter what our trouble or distress, and that his presence will support us and save us no matter what we have to face on our journey.

Happy continuing Christmas to you all.

What’s in a Name?

December 19, 2010

(Isaiah 7, 10-16;Romans 1,1-7; Matthew 1, 18-25)

May I speak in the name of God, Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

You can sometimes tell when a person was born by their name. I don’t just mean the time of year – we have probably all met people called Holly, or Noel, or Natalie because they were born on Christmas Day -but the decade.  There are names like Herbert, Hilda, Ada, and Elsie that were typical of my parents’ generation – and others like Tracy and Darren which came into fashion in the Sixties and Seventies.


When we chose names for our children, we tried to choose names that were timeless, and that wouldn’t identify them as being born in a certain era. We also tried to find names that wouldn’t be easy to shorten, though we failed in that – schoolchildren can manufacture a nickname no matter what name you choose!


What we didn’t give any consideration to was the meaning of our children’s names. I only found out this week that the name of our son means exactly the same as the (different) name of our grandson. Both their names mean ‘God has heard’. I wonder if any of you know what names they are?*


In Bible times, the meaning of a name was very important. This was unfortunate if you were the child of a prophet, since you were likely to be given a name which was in itself a prophecy – and some of them could be very long and complicated. Hosea called his first child Jezreel, meaning God plants, but when his wife was unfaithful and he saw that as a metaphor for Israel’s unfaithfulness to God, he called their next two children Loruhamah (no more mercy) and Loammi (not my people) as a warning to the nation.


Isaiah (whose own name means Salvation of God) also gave his two sons prophetic names. The first was a hopeful name: Shearjashub, meaning a remnant shall return; but the second was called Mahershalalhashbaz, which can be translated ‘quick to plunder, swift to spoil’ a prophecy about the actions of the kings attacking Judah.


It is no surprise, then, in our O.T. passage today, to find him advising on the name of a baby soon to be born. Ahaz, King of Judah is terrified by the prospect of being attacked by the combined forces of Syria and Israel. Isaiah says that a child soon to be born (probably in the royal family) should be called Immanuel, meaning God is with us, and that before he is old enough to be weaned, the threat from Syria and Samaria will have vanished, as both kingdoms will be destroyed by the Assyrians.


In English (as in most of Northern Europe) surnames often come from the occupations followed by our ancestors, or from their personal names. Hence the large numbers of Smiths, Bakers and Cooks, and the Johnsons, Jacksons and Richardsons, descended from people in those occupations or with those names.

Names help us to recognise, identify and explain people – and the names given to Jesus are no exception.


In the opening of the Letter to the Romans, our N.T. lesson, Paul defines Jesus as the Son of David according to the flesh. So he identifies his place among the rulers of the Jewish people, and argues that he is a continuation of God’s provision for his people. Then he calls him Son of God, identifying his coming as a new initiative on God’s part, since he is proclaimed Son of God by being raised from the dead, something which has never happened before. Paul also gives Jesus the surname, which is really a title of Christ, the Greek form of Messiah, meaning ‘anointed one’; kings and priests are anointed, and Jesus was both.


Finally, Paul gives all of us a name: those who belong to Jesus Christ, or Christians. In that name we receive the gifts of faith, obedience and peace.


Our third reading, from the beginning of Matthew’s Gospel, also centres around the giving of a name.


Usually, on the fourth Sunday in Advent, we concentrate on Mary, the mother of Jesus; but Matthew’s account centres on Joseph.


He and Mary were betrothed when she conceived Jesus. In Jewish law, this meant that they were already considered to be a married couple, even though they had not yet started to live together. When she was found to be pregnant, Joseph would have been entitled to accuse her of adultery, and have her and the father of her child executed. At the very least, he would have been entitled to divorce her. Joseph seems to have been a man who knew his Bible, so he was very clear about the options open to him.


But Joseph was also a man whose knowledge went beyond the written law; he knew the name of God, which is another way of saying he knew  the character of God, and because he believed that God was merciful, he resolved to be merciful too, and to divorce Mary quietly. Of course, that would have spared her from death, but it would have left her with very little in the way of life. In a small town, everyone would have known he had rejected her, and when the child was born, no-one would have been prepared to marry her or care for the child.


Joseph’s name means ‘one who adds’, that is, one who goes beyond the minimum that is necessary. He shared the name with a major character from Israel’s past: Joseph of the coat of many colours, Joseph the dreamer, Joseph who saved the people of Israel from famine and kept them in safety in Egypt.


The New Testament Joseph is also one who hears God speaking in dreams, and who acts to save those of God’s people who are vulnerable. His dream contains an instruction to take Mary as his wife, and an assurance that her child is not the result of sin, but the work of the Spirit of God. He is given a personal name to give to her child: Jesus, or in Hebrew, Joshua, which means ‘God saves’.


Joseph married Mary and gave her son the name announced by the angel. But in marrying Mary, he also gave Jesus  a family name. In the Aramaic which they all spoke, Jesus would now be known as Yeshua bar Yoseph: Jesus the son of Joseph. Joseph gave to Mary and her son not just a name, but a home, respectability and a place in society.


The Bible and the Christian tradition have given many names to Jesus, as well as those he bore during his lifetime. They look both backward into Jewish history and forward to his unique role. From the Old Testament, he has been given the names from Isaiah’s prophecies; Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. In the New Testament he is known as Messiah, Saviour, Word, Light, Redeemer. In this same passage, Matthew applies to him the name given in Isaiah’s prophecy that we heard earlier, Immanuel, God with us.


One of the hymns we sang this morning, contains another list of names, taken from the Advent Antiphons, traditionally sung during the last days of the season from 17th to 23rd December at Evensong. Jesus is called Adonai, or Lord of Might; Rod of Jesse, from another of Isaiah’s prophecies, which predicts that a new shoot will rise from Jesse’s stock. He is named Key of David, a reference to another passage in Isaiah, where the Key stands for royal authority, a reference taken up by John the Divine in Revelation; and finally he is called Day Spring or Day Star, reflecting Zechariah’s prophecy in the Benedictus, that he will initiate a new dawn, a new beginning in the history of God’s people.


Some of the names given to Jesus in the New Testament have more importance for his earliest followers, since they look back to his Jewish heritage, and proclaim the continuity of God’s provision for them; but others have a more universal appeal. Jesus is the Day Spring, whose coming initiates a new dawn in the relationship between God and the human race. The name Jesus reminds us that God comes to us, not as a ferocious judge of our failings, but as one who saves us from our sins. the name Immanuel tells us that, no matter how dark and difficult our life seems, God is with us.


Names are so much more than just labels. They can be full of riches if we think about them carefully. In these last few days before Christmas, as we prepare to greet our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ, at his birth, may we meditate on his names, and so come to know and love him better, and be ready to receive him more fully into our hearts and lives.


* Simon and Samuel



Which Jesus?

December 26, 2009

Sermon for Christmas Morning 2009.   Luke 2, 1-20

Children’s nativity plays are often a source of memorable and humorous moments. I treasure the tale of a small boy picked to play ‘first innkeeper’, who was so annoyed at not being given  a star part like Joseph or the Angel Gabriel that he resolved to sabotage the whole thing; when ‘Mary’ and ‘Joseph’ knocked at the door of the inn, instead of saying ‘No room!’ he said ‘Come in. I’ve plenty of room!’. Luckily the boy playing Joseph was resourceful enough to look past him and then say ‘No thank you. I wouldn’t bring my wife into an inn like yours!’ and the play continued as normal.

Sometimes there is an unexpected theological moment. A small child playing Mary at the nursery in my previous church, pushed ‘Joseph’ away when he tried to take the Baby Jesus. ‘Go away’ she said. ‘He’s nothing to do with you!’ She had obviously absorbed the doctrine of the Virgin Birth at a very young age!

I am told that at the nativity in my granddaughter’s church toddler’s group, the child playing Mary took the ‘Baby Jesus’ out of the manger, and substituted her own favourite doll instead. She wanted her own version of Jesus, not someone else’s.

And that got me thinking. How often do we do that – create our own version of Jesus, and refuse to allow anyone or anything to change our set ideas?

It is not surprising that we do that, because people have been doing the something similar  since the first Christmas Day.

In the Bible, we have three different version of the birth of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, we have a Greek hymn  to the Logos or Wisdom (personified in the Old Testament as  a female companion of God since the beginning of time) adapted by the Evangelist to provide an explanation of how the Word of God became  a human being in the person of Jesus; born through the will of God to bring Light and Truth and the opportunity to become ‘children of God’ to all who believe.

The writer of the gospel of Matthew took themes from the lives of Old Testament leaders such as Moses, Samson, Samuel and David, and from the writings of prophets like Hosea and Isaiah to create the tale of the birth of Jewish Messiah. Born in a house in Bethlehem ( like David) he will become a saviour, like Moses; a judge and a Nazarene, like Samson; coming from the dynasty of David, he will be King of the Jews. As the prophets and psalms predict, the wise and powerful of the pagan world  come from afar to pay homage to him. They are  drawn to his light in the form of a rising star and  offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew’s Jesus is the fulfilment of all these Old Testament traditions. Like the Jews of old he has to flee from persecution to Egypt, before going to live in Nazareth.

As we heard in our reading this morning, we get a very different story of the birth in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ parents come from a provincial town, from a region despised as semi-pagan by the religious leaders. They are humble folk, pushed around by the Roman authorities, forced to leave home to register for a census when Mary was heavily pregnant. They were not important or wealthy enough to be given a guest chamber, so her baby was born in the lower part of the house, where the animals were brought in from the cold, and  placed in a manger. The news of the birth is given first to more outcasts – shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks on the hills outside Bethlehem ( as King David was doing when Samuel summoned him to be anointed as the next king of Israel). They are the ones who recognise him as King and Messiah, as do other poor and despised people like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Simeon and Anna.

In Luke’s tale, the birth goes unnoticed by the rich and powerful – there are no wise men, no star, no slaughter of babies in his story. After the purification, the family goes peacefully back to Nazareth, and Mary ponders all that has happened in her heart, as Luke means us to do.

There are some themes in common to all three stories; they hint at a virginal conception, to make the point that the birth marks a new spiritual beginning for the whole human race; and they tell us that the people who accepted this child as the Messiah were those outside the religious mainstream: people from the provinces, the poor, shepherds and pagan astrologers.

Over the years, many more have elaborated the story. New Testament writers, theologians, composers of hymns and carols, authors of mediaeval mystery plays and folk stories, all have added their own interpretations, some of which have become part of the main story for us. Even saints have done their bit, like St Francis, who gave us the crib scene, with the stable, the ox and the donkey, none of which are mentioned in the Gospels. The birth of Jesus has been set in every place and time, until we come to the rich tapestry of the Christmas story we enjoy today.

None of this matters. God gave us his son to be born into obscurity, in a time when no official documents, like birth certificates or passports, and no technology like cameras or videos existed to record the exact details for future generations. It was as if God was saying to us: “Here is my gift to you. Take it and make of it what you want. Tell his story in the way that is most meaningful to you and your people.”

The only proviso is – don’t think (like the child in my granddaughter’s nativity) that your  Jesus is the only proper one. Read and listen to all the accounts of the birth of Jesus, don’t muddle them up, and try to hear what God is saying to you through the elements of each different story.

Nick Baines, the Bishop of Croydon, has been in big trouble with some sections of the media recently. (That seems to be an occupational hazard of being a C of E bishop these days!) He was accused of saying in his most recent book, ‘Why wish you a Merry Christmas’, that we shouldn’t sing traditional carols or have infants doing nativity plays. If you read his book ( which many who commented hadn’t!) you will find he is not saying that at all. What he did write is: sing carols, enjoy them, but don’t stop there! Some of them are good theology, but some of them are nonsense – especially those that imply that the baby Jesus never cried, or that the birth was beautiful and easy and Mary and Joseph had no problems. Enjoy your children and grandchildren performing the nativity story, but don’t stop there. Don’t leave the birth story as a tale for children, anaemic, tame and a fantasy, like Tinkerbell or Father Christmas, to be rejected when you grow up.

Go back to the Bible and read the accounts in the gospels and think about the characters as real people with real problems. Think how difficult it must have been for Mary and Joseph to accept this child, how their lives were disrupted by his birth, how the religious people missed the point, how the news was given to outcasts and strangers, and that it was not the faithful, but the faithless who came to adore him – and meditate on what that says to us about how God chooses to be present with us in the problems and uncertainties, the disasters and messiness of real life.

Then think about what that says to us as Christians, about where we are meant to be and how we are meant to live, so that we bring light and truth and love to others as Jesus did; and how we can demonstrate what it means to know that, because of this child and the man he became, we have the chance to become children of God  – and so does everyone else.

That is amazing and life transforming stuff – and a very good reason to ring bells and decorate our houses and celebrate and wish everyone a very happy Christmas.