Matthew's Christmas

In preaching classes at Calvin Seminary we have a “one text” rule when it comes to student sermons. To ensure sermon unity and the congregation’s ability to find and follow a single theme of focus, choosing and sticking with just one biblical text—as opposed to shifting the congregation’s focus over to another two or three other texts—is a good way to go. Seldom are preachers more tempted to violate this rule than when dealing with a gospel text that has parallel versions in one, two, or even all three of the other gospels. Even then, however, it’s best to let Luke be Luke and Mark be Mark because each of those writers had a reason for shaping a given story a certain way, and that unique focus can be blurred or obscured when other versions are brought into the sermon.

In the larger picture of the church, we cannot really do what I am about to suggest. But what if we could try to let Matthew alone be in the driver’s seat for Christmas some year? What if we bracketed entirely Luke’s first two chapters and found out what Advent and Christmas might feel like if Matthew were all we had to go on?

A Different Advent

If we were to preach and celebrate Advent solely based on the gospel of Matthew, we would experience an entirely different Advent. For starters, we would have far fewer hymns and Christmas carols to sing. There would also be far less artwork to display that depicts the Christmas story. Matthew provides no angels, no stable, no shepherds. What he does provide in place of all that is properly disconcerting—indeed, Matthew is disconcerting by design.

We have come to experience and celebrate Christmas as something cozy, familiar, comfortable, and straightforward—the kind of story in which children may safely dawdle. Everybody likes a birth story, right? When everything goes well, the delivery suite on the OB-GYN floor is typically the happiest place in the whole hospital on any given day.

Matthew, however, seems to have precious little interest in all things cozy and serene. Instead he opens his story of Jesus’ arrival on this earth with a family tree that is calculated to offend people of good religious sensibilities. Matthew overtly trots out the skeletons in Jesus’ family closet as a reminder to every careful reader that Jesus was produced from a line of people that included non-Israelites, prostitutes, adulterers, murderers, and other sinners of note. (Consider the song “In Matthew’s Gospel There Are Five,” RW 85, pp. 28-29.)

Matthew provides no angels, no stable, no shepherds. What he does provide in place of all that is properly disconcerting—indeed, Matthew is disconcerting by design.

According to promotional ads on television, if you go to Ancestry.com and follow the little green leaves of your family tree, you may be delighted to find out that, by gum, you’re related to Abraham Lincoln or Martin Luther. That’s what you call a fun family find. But the family tree Matthew provides for Jesus is more like following the Ancestry.com leaves to find out that you’re a distant cousin of Adolf Hitler or Mata Hari. Startling. Disconcerting. Not something you’d brag about on a Facebook status update.

Off Kilter

Matthew wants his buttoned-down, religious, and righteous readers to be knocked off balance a bit by Jesus’ family tree. And the reader will not yet have recovered her balance before getting to the next scandal in Matthew. There, a good man named Joseph discovers what for all the world (and ultimately what to all the world) will look like a tawdry incident of fornication on the part of his intended wife, Mary. Joseph prepares to do the only thing a righteous man can do: divorce her quietly. But he’s halted in his righteous tracks by an angel who tells him both that there is no true scandal there and that Joseph needs to stick with Mary despite the fact that people may not buy the story the angel gave him. In other words, to stay truly righteous before God, Joseph needs to sacrifice some of his own public righteousness in the eyes of others.

Walter Brueggemann has frequently commented that the psalms—particularly the psalms of lament—reveal the pattern of orientation/disorientation/reorientation. Something like that is happening in Matthew, and it causes us to remain firmly rooted in the disorientation phase. Religious sensibilities as to what’s righteous and what’s not, who’s holy and who’s not, keep getting thrown off kilter.

However, as they say on those Ronco TV ads hawking the latest gadget or cleaning solution, “But wait! There’s more!” Indeed there is. Because, as the reader reels in disorientation, suddenly Magi from the East—that is, astrologers from Baghdad—arrive to take a look at the King of kings. These people don’t belong in Israel’s story—such pseudo-scientific quacks are even overtly condemned in the Hebrew Scriptures. Worse, they tip off paranoid King Herod, who unleashes a mini-holocaust on account of what those Persian bumblers told him. That’s Matthew’s story (and he’s sticking to it).

Seeing through Matthew’s Eyes

So what would a serious consideration of Matthew do for our annual celebration of Advent and Christmas? Setting aside the fact that we cannot actually strip out of our churches for any given December the other trappings of the season that come mostly via Luke, we could ask what gloss Matthew gives us on the larger Advent/Christmas story. It seems to me that a main thing Matthew wants to achieve is precisely the disorientation mentioned above.

The coming of God’s own Son in flesh to this world—the very fact of Immanuel, “God-with-us”—should not be (how could it ever be?) something to be treated as routinely and as casually as we often render it. Advent should be a season to be knocked off kilter, to reassess what we know or think we know as righteous and religious and buttoned-down church folks. It should be a time to wonder if we can make room for people not ordinarily associated with the rank-and-file members of the average congregation, if we are willing to let the presence of Jesus in our midst cause us to wonder whether or to what extent we—like Joseph—might have to sacrifice everything we thought was good and proper in order to make way for God’s new way of doing things.

The theme of Matthew’s gospel is, in many ways, Immanuel. We get that idea of God-with-us in chapter 1, and Jesus then clamps the gospel together in chapter 28 in his final words of promise that surely he will be with us until the end of the age. In between that opening and closing, Matthew again and again brings people into contact with Jesus who are in their own ways surprising companions for the Son of God. But all of that—starting with how Matthew frames up what we today would call Advent and Christmas—was this evangelist’s way of poking his readers in the ribs so as to say, “Keep your eyes open, be ready for surprises, don’t be so startled to meet unexpected folks that you scare them away by your reaction to them. The gospel and God’s kingdom are far bigger and more diverse than you can imagine.”

What a fine thing it would be if somehow Advent/Christmas in our churches were imbued with just enough disorientation to lead to a reorientation that both recognizes and celebrates the true majesty of Immanuel’s surprising kingdom.

This column is provided in cooperation with the Center for Excellence in Preaching. For more on the CEP, its upcoming events, and its online resources, visit http://cep.calvinseminary.edu/.

Scott Hoezee is director of the Center for Excellence in Preaching at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.