Fulfilling Christmas (Christmas Eve, 11pm)
One of my favorite Christmas jokes comes from Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The three wise men mistakenly end up at the stable next door to the one where Jesus is and so pay homage to a baby named Brian instead. The magi explain to Brian’s mother how they followed a star that prophecy said would lead them to a new king. She replies, “So you’re astrologers, eh? What is he, then?” “Hm?” “What star sign is he?” “Capricorn, I believe.” “Capricorn, eh? What’re they like?” “Well, he’s the Son of God, our messiah, king of the Jews!” “And that’s Capricorn, is it?” “Oh no, no. That’s just him!” “Oh, I was about to say. Otherwise there’d be a lot of them.” Of course, after Brian’s mom kicks out the magi, they see the star hovering one stable over, realize they got the wrong manger, take back the gold, frankincense, and myrrh from Brian’s mom… and make their way over towards Joseph, Mary, and Jesus the child of star and prophecy.
Monty Python’s mistaken magi aside, the entire sweep of the Bible seems to build up to or grow out from the child born on Christmas Day. Depending on who’s talking, Christian scholars claim there are anywhere from 40 to over 500 different prophecies about how the messiah would arrive, who they would be, how they would act. However you slice it, the amount of prophetic hoops any would-be messiah would have to jump through to qualify is astounding. Tonight’s scripture reading takes a handful of those predictions and shows how they weave into the story of Christ’s birth. Depending on how you translate the Hebrew, the messiah would be born of either a young woman in general… or of a virgin in particular. Yet this messiah—perhaps born of a woman who never knew a man’s touch—would somehow also hold claim to David’s royal lineage, which was tracked through the male line. The messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the city where great King David was born. Yet the messiah would also come out of nowhere, from the little forgotten places of the world—which Bethlehem was not—or as Matthew tells the prophecy, “He will be called a Nazorean,” for Nazareth was considered a backwater dump at the time, a forgettable place of nothing good. Yet despite these two origins, the messiah must also come up from Egypt, Bethlehem must also be ravaged during this time, and on and on the expectations and requirements go. If you stack up the Biblical prophecies, it’s almost as if the messiah on Earth needs to be in five places at once to pull it all off.
But isn’t it the same for us today? I don’t simply mean the frenzied imitation of Martha Steward as you race to be everywhere at once as you roast a ham, open presents, welcome guests, sing carols, and somehow video tape the whole affair. I rather mean that we all have practical, personal needs for a messiah in our lives that seem impossible to pull off at the same time. Some of us wrestle with guilt and shame, and we need a messiah who can forgive and help us to let go. Others of us endure abuse, neglect or cruelty and thus need the opposite: a messiah who doles out justice to wrongdoers. Or sometimes we feel alone in the world, and so it would help to have a messiah who is human like us so we feel seen, heard and a little less lonely. Yet conversely, we feel small and powerless at other times, and then it would help to have a messiah who is as powerful as God Almighty above, one whom we can rely on to overthrow all the powers-that-be with a divine hand. We need a messiah of beginnings, so we can celebrate every newborn child as a God from God, yet we also need a messiah of endings so we can grieve with hope, knowing that through the messiah death is not defeated and life forever will reign. When we feel anger at God or distant from the Lord… we need a messiah who knows what it’s like to feel abandoned by God too. Yet when all is right in the world, as it often feels at Christmastime, we need a messiah who also wraps us tightly in his embrace and calls us God’s own children. It seems the messiah we need is a jumble of contradictions and confusion.
A wise man once said, however: “I love it when a plan comes together.” Granted, that man was Hannibal on the 1980’s hit The A-Team. But still, who doesn’t love it when everything comes together? For those hosting parties tomorrow, there’s that feeling when everything is set and everyone sits down at last for dinner. Or for board game enthusiasts, when your grand strategy in chess, Settlers of Catan, or poker finally is unleashed on unsuspecting opponents? Beautiful. Matthew’s gospel relishes the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ in similar fashion, for in Jesus Matthew sees all of God’s plans, promises, and prophecies from across the entirety of scripture at last coalescing in the Christmas child. Though to an untrained eye the circumstances of Christ’s birth might seem like happenstance—the poor kid’s family is whisked from one locale to another as they scramble to avoid King Herod—to Matthew the gospel-writer’s eye, all of this happens so that Jesus of Nazareth can rightly claim to be born of a virgin, son to a father descended from David, yet also the untouchable and infinite God Almighty incarnate in human flesh. The frenzy of Mary and Joseph’s journey allows Christ to be born in Bethlehem, called out from Egypt, and growing into adulthood in a backwater like Nazareth. The wise men’s gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh recognize that Christ was born a king, yet the homeless wanderings of his family in exile confer on him the messianic claim foretold of Isaiah’s suffering servant.
I may not know how Ebenezer Scrooge had time to visit with all those Christmas ghosts in a single night. I may not understand how it is that every winter snowflake looks unique. But the lesson of Matthew’s gospel is that Jesus, the child born on Christmas, reveals the messiah is not a contradiction… but a paradox, a man who holds truths within him that seem at odds yet find their harmony within his very being. Jesus is both fully God and fully human. Jesus knows the eternal warmth of God’s embrace, and he knows the cold loneliness of feeling rejected by all. Jesus dies a sinner’s death to uphold the demands of justice against evil, yet he rises in life to win forgiveness of sins and freedom from death for the world. Matthew’s story of Jesus’ birth is a heart-warming reminder that the child of Christmas is not a walking contradiction… but a man who completely fulfills the paradoxical requirements you and I personally need in a messiah: one who is just and fair yet merciful, powerful yet humble, mortal yet God, pure yet a friend to sinners. It allows Christ’s message and salvation to touch not only me and you… but every woman, man, and child of every race and nation. For Christ is not the messiah of merely a few… but the savior of the world. He fulfills all these paradoxical needs we have. And we find their tension resolved in the humble majesty of a newborn king laying in a manger, of a holy man who welcomes sinners and nonbelievers, of a messiah dying on a cross, and of a dead man restored to life. So as we celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ this evening, in all its glory and tensions, in all the gentle stillness of that holy night and the frenzied rushing to escape mad-king Herod’s wrath… as we celebrate Christmas, may we find hope and consolation in Matthew’s reminder that the messiah has come for all peoples, for all of us, in all our needs and hopes and fears. For the child born on Christmas came not just to save you and me… but the whole world. Praise be to God. Amen.