Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 11th December 2011
11 December 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
As part of the preparation for Christmas I am using the three matins sermons I have this month to think about the nativity stories we find in two of the gospels, St Matthew and St Luke, to ask what the purpose of the authors was in each case, and then, next week, to think about what might be history and what might be legend in the two stories. Last Sunday I thought about St Luke’s account, and if you are interested it is on the Abbey’s website. This week I want to think about the nativity according to St Matthew.
Now Matthew’s account, like St Luke’s, takes up the first two Chapters of the gospel, but it is much briefer than Luke’s. Matthew’s story is told in 48 verses in all, 17 of which are the genealogy he gives of Jesus, so the story we are familiar with only takes 31 verses. Luke’s story takes 132 verses and in those chapters there is no genealogy, which occurs later in Luke’s Gospel. So Luke’s account is far more detailed. And Matthew says nothing about a lot of the story that Luke tells, there is nothing about a stable or even an inn or any census, the implication of Matthew’s gospel is that Bethlehem was the home of Mary and Joseph, and there is nothing about a choir of angels, or of shepherds. But what Matthew does stress, more strongly than Luke, is the fact that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, and it is, of course, only in Matthew’s Gospel that we read of the visit by the magi, or wise men, it is only there that we read of any flight to Egypt, and it is, of course, only in Matthew that we read anything of a massacre of the innocent children by Herod, a episode of which there is no other record in any other historical account of the period. So the two gospel stories, while they have some things in common, are very different.
And that reflects their purposes. As I explained last week Luke was largely writing for a Gentile readership, but Matthew was writing sometime in the last quarter of the first century after a particular crisis in the Jewish world. In the year AD 70 the Romans put down a Jewish rebellion and sacked the city of Jerusalem with particular savagery. Vast number of the population died in horrible circumstances, and even more disastrously from the point of view of the Jewish religion the Temple itself, the centre of Jewish worship for centuries, was destroyed. So Judaism had to reform itself to this new situation and there was a conflict as to who was the real heir to the Jewish tradition? On the one hand there was the emerging practice of Jewish communities finding a new way of worshiping without the Temple, but on the other hand there were the Christians, who certainly had emerged from Judaism but who now also incorporated into their religion Gentile converts. Matthew’s Gospel was written against that background and, rather notoriously, Matthew includes some strongly anti-Jewish statements in his gospel reflecting that more hostile relationship. That is why one notable feature of Matthew’s Gospel is that, more than any other Gospel writer, he was concerned to show that Jesus was the fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy and Old Testament hopes. Ten times in his gospel Matthew uses the phrase ‘this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet’ or something very similar and five of those ten occasions occur in the first two chapters in his account of the nativity. And perhaps a good way of looking at what St Matthew was trying to do in his nativity stories is to look at least four of those five passages that he sees as being fulfilled by this birth.
Some 700 years before Jesus was born Assyrian troops were massed on the Israeli border, and the childless king of Israel was terrified that Jerusalem would be overrun, and that the sacred royal line of King David would come to an end with his own death. The prophet Isaiah was angry with the king at having so little faith in God’s power, yet at the same time he wanted to reassure him. So he wrote:
Listen now House of David are you not satisfied with trying the patience of men without trying the patience of my God too? The Lord himself, therefore, will give you a sign. It is this: the Virgin is with child and will soon give birth to a son whom she will call Immanuel.
Matthew wrote in Greek, so the quotation he gave was in the Greek version of the Old Testament known as the Septuagint, but in the original Hebrew the word translated virgin simply meant ‘young woman’ and in the context of Isaiah’s original prophecy ‘the young woman’ or ‘virgin’ is Israel herself, and Isaiah is trying to reassure the King that the Royal line would be continued. It is clear from later parts of Isaiah that he hoped the child referred to, Hezekiah, would grow up and prove to be a second King David, although his hopes there were to be dashed. But the point of the prophecy is clear, that the Davidic line would be saved and Israel would be saved by the grace and generosity of God. He would not abandon his people. And Matthew saw that hope, which would have been familiar to any Jew, as being fulfilled in Jesus.
The second prophecy, this time from the Book of Micah, refers to the same political crisis and it is spoken of in terms of Zion, or what we would call Jerusalem, labouring in birth pangs and hoping for a saviour. Micah wrote:
Out of you, Bethlehem in Ephrathah, though you are the least of the clans of Judah, will be born one who is to rule over Israel. The Lord will only abandon Israel until the one who is with child gives birth… He will stand and feed his flock in the power of the Lord.
So Micah too is looking forward to the birth of a better king that the one in power at the time. He hoped the next king would be another shepherd, like King David, springing from the ancient Bethlehem clan. Micah, like his contemporary Isaiah, was to be disappointed, and such a hope was to be unfulfilled in his lifetime, but the hope that some form of saviour would come from Bethlehem was fixed in Jewish consciousness.
The third prophecy is from the prophet Hosea, ‘out of Egypt have I called my son’, and it refers back to the exodus of Israel from Egypt. Those of you who know anything of the Old Testament will know that the tribes of Israel went to Egypt with the support of Joseph to escape a famine, but then over generations were turned into a slave people building the pyramids for Pharaohs. But then they were led by Moses out of Egypt into the promised land of Israel. The whole basis of the existence of Israel subsequently, and indeed even now, is seen by Jews to rest on God’s faithfulness in calling them out of Egypt. So in Matthew’s account the infant Jesus, like the tribes of Israel, went to Egypt to escape a terrible situation, in his case the dreadful action attributed to Herod in the massacre of the innocents, and then came back out of Egypt to lead his people to a promised land, which as far as Christians were concerned was not just a piece of territory, but to be the whole world claimed for and ruled by Christ.
Then the fourth prophecy is from the sixth century before Christ. By then Jerusalem has been destroyed, Israel, the northern kingdom, has been exiled to Assyria, Judah, the southern kingdom to Babylon, and the deportees were collected at a place called Ramah a few miles to the north of Jerusalem in a sort of concentration camp where they were held before their long march into captivity. Ramah was the place, according to tradition, where Rachel, the mother of the Joseph tribes, was buried, and so the prophet Jeremiah laments this disaster:
A voice is heard in Ramah, lamenting and weeping bitterly; it is Rachel weeping for her children because they are no more.
Matthew, of course, saw that as being fulfilled in the massacre of the innocent children, but that is only part of his purpose. Matthew’s main point is to make out that King Herod is the new Pharaoh, enslaving and destroying God’s new chosen people, and it was from this enslaving Pharaoh that Jesus was to redeem his people.
So we can see that four of the key elements in Matthew’s story owe their origins to Old Testament prophecies, the virgin giving birth, Bethlehem as the place of his birth, the flight to and return from Egypt, and the massacre of the innocents by a wicked king. And Matthew’s point is clear, this Jesus will be the fulfilment of all of those prophecies in a new and different way. Whether we today think that the Old Testament can be used in quite that way, with an meaning divorced from the original context in which it was written and applied to a completely different situation, is a moot point. I suspect many of us would not, but Matthew certainly did think it, and it moulded his story.
And that also applies to the most well known of Mathew’s nativity stories, the coming of the magi, or wise men. For who did they come to see? ‘The King of the Jews’. And who were they? Well gentiles, not Jews. Their presence was a foretaste of the whole message of the Gospel, that what had previously been for the Jewish people alone was now for everyone. And what Old Testament story would that visit by the magi have reminded Matthew’s readers? It was the visit by the Queen of Sheba to Solomon, when she presented the king with gold and great quantities of spices…and then she went home, she and her servants to her own country. And the parallel is even clearer if you read one of the rabbinic commentaries on that passage that would have been familiar to Matthew’s readers. For there it was said that the Queen of Sheba was guided to Solomon by a star. Matthew’s point is obvious, this Jesus is not only the new Moses and the new David, but he was the new Solomon as well, the builder of the Temple, and as Matthew says later in his Gospel, he is indeed someone greater even than Solomon.
And that is what Matthew was doing in his nativity stories. He was not so much concerned with giving an accurate historical account of what happened, as though he were a twenty-first century historian, as showing that this baby was no ordinary baby, but by interpreting Jesus against the background of the Old Testament he was showing that Jesus would usher in a new world, where the promise to the Jews would be extended to the Gentiles as well, and in that he was a new Moses, a new David, a new Solomon, and it was Gentiles who were the first to recognise it. He was the root by which all that was good in Judaism would be maintained in the world.
But what are we to make of all of this, what significance can all of these stories have for us today? Can they all be historical? That will be the subject of my last address in this series next week.