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Matthew 1:1-17 & Matthew 24:36-44
This is how Advent begins – with a lengthy and kind of boring genealogy followed by a what seems like an “end times” warning, a kind of shocking tale in which one is taken and one is left. Doesn’t seem very much in the spirit of the season, no angels singing, no bells ringing, no mention of a sale at all. Matthew knew as he offered up his version of the gospel story that people needed more fuel for their imaginations. Perhaps they had read Mark’s gospel, written probably a decade earlier, or perhaps they had in their heads the myriad of stories told about Jesus, but it apparently wasn’t enough. They had all been waiting for Jesus to return, just as the stories told them, and they were tired of waiting. They wanted change now.
So, Matthew did some imagining for them, the trick of a good writer, and lifted up the memory of King David, the perhaps somewhat idealized King of Israel. And he made a connection to that image with some good Jewish tradition – through genealogy. Jesus was related to David, Matthew claimed, and by David to the line of Abraham. Now, any cursory examination of this long list of names reveals something pretty quickly – Jesus is being traced through his father, until his father’s line doesn’t match up, and Matthew switches, not once, not twice, but three times from the patrilineal line to the matrilineal, and then back again. Matthew’s genealogy is a pretzel, twisting and turning over on itself. And you might be asking – so what? I mean what does that really matter? One way to look at it is that Matthew was very interested in his readers seeing the story of Jesus, the figure of Jesus, as rooted in tradition.
Another way to see it is that Matthew wanted to impart something more subversive – so he made the genealogy switch not only to women, but even to foreign women – like Ruth – including everyone in Jesus’ story, as if the gospel cannot be told through patriarchal structures, nor through the lens of xenophobia. Yet we know that people in Matthew’s day would have looked around as they heard this and said to themselves – this is not the way things are. But, Matthew says, God calls to us in the midst of our anxiety about the state of the world and reminds us – it doesn’t have to be this way. So, even in such a simple thing, a genealogy, Matthew delivers to us the action of God that defies our expectations, and does not behave the way we anticipate. Jesus will also not behave the way we expect…he will speak in riddles and parables, and make us scratch our heads as much as warm our hearts, which brings us to the little apocalyptic piece later in Matthew’s gospel.
Now, I would not blame you if you hadn’t noticed that every Advent season begins with some version of an apocalyptic text from the Bible. So, before we even get to birth story, we have this account of the “end.”
Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left.
Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left.
Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.
It doesn’t exactly scream “Merry Christmas,” does it? Any of you with “rapture theology” in your background will feel some familiar strains, complete with their overt message about the “chosen,” and, of course, the NOT chosen. I hate to break it to you, but you’re going to church here now, you’re no longer chosen. But the good news is, the whole rapture thing isn’t real anyway, so you have that going for you.
Meanwhile, the scriptural tradition IS having us focus on this thing we tend to call the “second coming”, at a time when we’ve got our eyes on the manger (and maybe our presents, too). Why is that? There is a lot of speculation that Matthew wrote his gospel to an audience that was growing weary of the wait. Jesus was supposed to set all things right, and things are not all right, so when was he coming back to finish the job? And this weariness was impacted greatly by the reality that things weren’t so great. The people through whom the Gospel spread most rapidly were on the downside of empire, they were poor, hungry, buffeted by crisis after crisis, subjected to the whims of a power structure they seemed unable to affect. Matthew, it seems, thought it was time to write an account of Jesus that took part in this so-called “apocalyptic” orientation, which we often completely misunderstand in our day and age.
An apocalyptic orientation was a common literary genre in ancient days, it worked from the belief that history is divided into two ages, two eons in Greek — a current, corrupt age (often called this world in a derogatory tone) that God would soon replace with a new, holy age (often called the Kingdom or the realm, or what we call the kin-dom, of God or heaven). The current Kingdom is marked by idolatry, sin, injustice, exploitation, sickness, violence, and death. The Kin-dom to come will be characterized by the community, forgiveness, mutual support, health, blessing between nature and humankind, and life – even life beyond life, what we have called eternal life. All of this “end” language is not about destruction, it’s about birth, which is never without pain or struggle. It doesn’t have to be this way, Matthew writes to his readers, but it won’t be easy to change it.
Advent is the season of waiting, our tradition tells us, but not the kind of waiting that happens in the Doctor’s office. Don’t grab a magazine, don’t pull out your phone, this is Advent waiting. It is like children waiting for Christmas morning, with anticipation and hope and imaginations for what isn’t yet but will be. It’s like an expectant mother waiting on a birth, something which she has no control over at all. It’s like waiting for the medicine to take effect, it’s here, but not yet here, hoped for, and anticipated. It IS coming…it is almost here.
I have to say that “almost here” is not a comforting feeling these days. For the things that feel “almost here” are things I don’t want. Peace doesn’t feel “almost here,” nor does hope, most of the time. What does feel close are negatives – feelings of dread or anxiousness more than hope or joy. It feels as though we’re close to tipping the balance in a direction I don’t want the balance to go, like we’re backtracking on gains made or victories won, and that’s hardly inspirational.
Maybe that’s why Advent is more crucial than ever. Maybe that’s why I need to hear this story again, the story we’ve all heard a hundred times before, the story of a little baby born in the smallest of places to the people who the system says do not matter. It lets us hear, once again, how God works…which is not how we work…and to engage our hope once again, for we must have that if we are to really say, with all our hearts, that it doesn’t have to be this way. Advent gives us the space to engage our imaginations, to picture a world that is not yet here as we engage with the world which is here.
There is no singular event that will transform the world in a moment, no superman to fly down and change the course of history. There is, though, a God of presence, who is with us all as we step forward, asking us to seek the ways of the kin-dom, to do the things that make for life, to seek the good and the right, and to love in this world the best we can, where we are, with what we have. With God, our wholeness, our integrity, our salvation is a two-way street, it requires our participation. We have to pay attention to see things changing, for they won’t come in an instant, they’ll be born somewhere small, in a stable in the back, for we don’t make room in the main halls.
The baby is born, we say again this year, but Christ must be born again in our hearts, for if Christ stays an icon in a nativity scene, then we can take refugees like he was, lock them in cages and call it justice. But when he is born in our hearts, then we’re rooted in something deeper, knowing that we are connected one to the other, that our borders don’t matter as much as our shared humanity, and that God’s Love is for all people…
every – single – other.
It doesn’t have to be this way.