The Rev. Dianne OíConnell

First Congregational Church

November 28, 2010

First Sunday in Advent

Psalm 122

Isaiah 7:14-15

Matthew 1:18-25

Luke 1:26-38


ANGELS: Theyíre Everywhere


            Good morning.  I hope you each had a good Thanksgiving.   We can put away the pumpkins, pilgrims, and for the time being anyway, the turkey basters. Itís time to get out the elves and the angels, and maybe even the nativity scene. The tree comes later, but there is no doubt about it, the holiday season is beginning.             

            I have really been looking forward to the Advent season.  This year is different, maybe more meaningful for me because Iíve got more responsibility.  For instance, itís my JOB to think about Jesus.  Iíve been thinking and talking about my faith more than usual, because it is my job. I enlist my friends in conversation all the time, and they put up with me because, well, they know itís my job. 

            And I like Christmas. I like angels. Christmas starts with angels. We read of angels, we sing of angels, next week weíll put an angel over by the Bethlehem stable.  Kathy can tell you that I changed the Scripture readings twice this week just to make sure that I covered the angels. Angels are messengers from God and they usually have something important to say. 

            Did you notice when Kathy read the two Gospel lessons this morning that they both had angels as main characters and were really the same story?  The same story, but told from two different perspectives.  Matthew and Luke even use different names, or titles, for Jesus.  Matthew refers to Jesus as the King of the Jews, for instance; yet everyone knew that this was Herodís title. Luke called Jesus things like Savior of the World, the One Who Brings Peace on Earth; titles which belonged to Caesar.  The emperor, son of Apollo, god of light and reason, was also called the Light of the World.  In other words, both authors contrasted Jesus with the rulers of the day, the message being that Jesus was to be the truer and more authentic ruler of our lives. 

            Letís compare the two Gospels a bit more. The reading from Matthew is chauvinistic, if you ask me.  It is about the Angel of the Lord coming to Joseph.  Itís all about Joseph. Joseph is concerned that his fiancťe appears to be with child and he knows that he has been a completely honorable man with her. While he is pondering what he should do, the Angel of the Lord comes to him in a dream and explains the whole thing. Itís the Holy Spiritís baby.  Not to worry. When the baby is born, just name him Jesus. And take a moment to review the prophecy of Isaiah: a virgin shall give birth to a child whose name will be Immanuel, meaning ďGod with us.Ē Itís all coming together the way itís supposed to be, says the Angel, worry not, and then he leaves.  

            There are no birth stories or Angelic visitations reported in the Gospels of Mark or John, but the Angel does appear in the Gospel of Luke.  In this Gospel the angel does not visit Joseph at all, but rather he comes to Mary, and explains to her what is about to happen.  She will conceive a child by the Holy Spirit and she will be blessed among women because the Lord God will give the child the throne of his father David Ė Joseph being a descendant of David.

            This is a very busy angel, by the way, he has flown over to Visit Zechariah and Elizabeth to tell them about the impending birth of John the Baptist, he flies back to Nazareth to visit the dreams of Mary, later chats with Joseph, moves stars around in the heavens to attract the attention of traveling philosophers, and swoops down to talk with the shepherds, getting back to Bethlehem in time for Christmas Eve.  Either this was one very busy Angel of God or, more likely, there was a whole host of angels.  Neither Matthew nor Luke tells us the whole Christmas story, by the way.  Each gives us bits and pieces and weíve patched it all together into a combined narrative.

            Same story, told by two different writers, focusing on distinctly different messages. This is because Matthew and Luke were writing for two different audiences with two different sets of interests. Some aspects of the birth stories were of more interest to the Jewish community and some points were of more importance to the Gentiles.

            Matthew is determined to prove to the Jews that Jesus was, indeed, the long awaited Messiah. He is writing for the Jewish people who are currently living under the boot of Rome. Let me digress here for a moment. Everyone in town, everyone in each tiny village, everyone has had a personal experience with the Romans. Not many years before the birth of Jesus, the Romans swept through the area killing and burning everything in sight. There had been a revolt and the Romans were making sure that PEACE would reign in Galilee, a peace built on fear and military might.

            Weíve not experienced the soldiers of a conquering nation patrolling our streets, checking each of us for identification when we cross the checkpoint between Anchorage and Eagle River, or the checkpoint at Rabbit Creek, before we can go further south. Weíve not had our sons arrested, or even go missing, with no explanation other than they were seen hanging out with known agitators.  At least most of us havenít experienced this. But everyone in Galilee had. They were looking for the Messiah as promised in the Jewish Scriptures, one who could help them fight back, and this is totally understandable.           

            Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy beginning with Father Abraham, and goes some 42 generations down to Joseph and Jesus.  And he doesnít leave out any of the potentially embarrassing people in the family tree: there was Tamar who tricked Judah into marrying her; there was Ruth who seduced Boaz; and Solomon who seduced Bathsheba; and then there was Mary, the betrothed of Joseph.  Maryís awkward situation pales in comparison to some of the other women in the family, which might be the main reason Matthew presents the genealogy the way he does. 

            Throughout his Gospel, Matthew quotes the Hebrew prophecies and shapes his story to show that the birth of Jesus fulfills the Biblical prophecies.  Some references are taken a bit out of context, but Matthew makes his point. Jesus is the Messiah, come to release captive Israel from the bondage of Rome. Israel was always being held captive by somebody, but it was Roman legions that were patrolling the streets today. Matthew sees Jesus as a new Moses, leading his people to freedom.  His story includes the slaughter of all the male Jewish children after the birth of Jesus, very similar to the slaughter of the male Jewish children at the birth of Moses.  Joseph saves his family by fleeing to Egypt Ė so that the prophecy would be fulfilled that the Lord would bring his son out of Egypt.

            Matthew later compares Jesus to Moses with the story of the Sermon on the Mount.  Moses went up Mount Sinai and brought down The Ten Commandments.  Jesus goes up a New Mountain and delivers a New Law, or fulfilled law:  ďYou have heard,Ē he says, ďÖ.but I say to youÖ.Ē

            Lukeís story is different.  Luke writes his Gospel almost a hundred years after the events of Jesusí earthly life.  Times have changed. He does not include the flight to Egypt, the Three Wise Men or Herod or the slaughter of the Jewish children.  Luke doesnít seem to be interested in Jewish prophecies. Thatís because Luke wasnít writing for the Jewish community; he was writing for a Gentile audience, one made up of people who were already Christians. Jesusí connection with Abraham or Moses didnít matter to them. These readers wanted assurance that Christianity was a faith for all people, not just one Jewish sect. To meet this concern, Luke traces Jesusí genealogy not back to Abraham, like in Matthew; but rather all the way back to Adam and Eve, to show that Jesus came for the whole world, not just for the Jews.

            There are other differences in Lukeís version of the Christmas story. Luke tells us about the census that Rome ordered, and the trek Joseph made with his pregnant wife back to his home town of Bethlehem.  Matthew doesnít mention the census or the trip to Bethlehem. In Matthew, Mary and Joseph already live in Bethlehem and Jesus is born at home. But Luke starts the family out in Nazareth and moves them to Bethlehem, rounding up the shepherds and angels along the way and this is the story we have chosen to remember.  Luke knew Matthewís version, why did he choose to emphasize different things in his own Gospel?

            Luke includes three important themes which Matthew seems to ignore: the role of women in the Jesus story, Jesusí concern for marginalized people in society, and the work of the Holy Spirit.  But this is another sermon, one which I hope to get back to between now and Christmas.

            Today, weíre talking about waiting for the birth of a newborn baby. The birth cry of this child woke up hosts of angels who scattered to the corners of the earth, re-kindling HOPE in the breasts of wise, kingly-type folk, shepherd-type folk, zealots and aged mystics, all kinds of people. Taken together, thatís the message of Matthew and Luke; thatís why their stories have been written, copied, memorized, cherished, interpreted and re-interpreted. Thatís why they have provided the subject matter for the great art, music, architecture of our culture. 

            As we enter Advent, it seems appropriate to take a really good look at the Christmas stories.  They, along with teachings of Christ and the Easter Story, are the foundation of a 2,000-year worldwide religious movement of which we, sitting in this sanctuary today, are a living, breathing part.           

            Did the birth of Jesus happen the way Matthew wrote it or did it happen the way Luke wrote it?  I imagine that both authors took some literary license with the details. But itís the Christ message in each that counts, a message which has impacted and saved lives, including mine, for generations. 

            I am convinced that the birth of Jesus happened. Without a doubt a baby was born, he grew to maturity, and walked this earth in special relationship with God. Iím convinced that by virtue of Jesusí life on this earth, the Kingdom of God is, indeed, dawning both for us individually and as community.  I believe that this is the Child, the Child who continues to lead the oppressed and marginalized out of slavery, and the Child who releases even us from the chains which restrain our lives and our spiritual journeys.  May we wait and listen together in anticipation of the Child.

            O Come, O Come Immanuel, and ransom captive Israel.    Amen.

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