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Matthew's Christmas

Matthew’s Christmas is quite unlike many of the Christmas images that I can readily recollect. In fact, Matthew’s image of Christmas is unlike the only other biblical image that we have which is found in Luke’s Gospel. Mark and John do not even have the Christmas story in their gospels. Matthew’s Christmas story is contained within 48 verses in the beginning of his gospel. The first 17 of those verses is genealogy and 23 other of those verses have to do with Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus. Only 8 verses have anything to do with a virgin birth. There is no image of a silent night or even shepherds coming to see the baby Jesus. There is no choir of angels and no story about the lack of hotel rooms in Bethlehem for the holy family. So what is the Christmas story according to Matthew?

Matthew's Christmas

According to Matthew, the Christmas story is about subversion and holy revolution. The birth of Jesus the Messiah is a political event for Matthew. Christmas is the birth of a king who was bound to upend the entire system of world power. Matthew begins his gospel like the beginning of a movie that is set in the middle of a series of films. For most people, including myself until more recently, the opening genealogy of Matthew’s gospel is more of an extremely boring and slow opening to a film whose creators attempted to give too many credits right at the beginning. But for those who have been in tune with the previous stories that have already been told, namely what we call the “Old Testament”, the opening genealogy of Matthew’s gospel is catching you up to speed and even catapulting you into the highly charged drama of the entire gospel. Matthew’s Christmas story is about anything but a silent night. To begin with, the genealogy is a story about Israel and the very strange way that God has moved in and through the nation of Israel, particularly in the family line of Jesus, throughout the history of the nation. Abraham is where the story really got started before it got expanded and more complex in Jacob’s large family. Judah was the father of Perez and Zerah, Matthew reminds us, and they were the children of Judah’s own daughter-in-law Tamar. Do you remember that scandal? Ok, well there is more. Boaz was also the son of a former gentile prostitute, named Rahab. Boaz himself had a son born to a gentile convert named Ruth, who turned out to be the Great Grandmother of the most famous King in Israel, David. David’s heir to the throne, Solomon, was the son of a woman whom David stole from a man that he also murdered, Uriah. All these strange and messy situations are leading us up to yet one more strange way the Matthew wants to tell us God has been at work in the nation of Israel. Jesus, whom Matthew is presenting as Israel’s Christ, the deliverer King, was born to a woman who was impregnated by the Holy Spirit. For most of us, we have been taught that the virgin birth is central to the claim that Jesus is God’s Son. Jesus was born to a woman impregnated by the Holy Spirit, therefore he is “fully God and fully man”. To be sure, I believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man, but I don’t believe that the virgin birth is central to this claim, nor do I believe that Matthew intends for us to see things that way. For Matthew, the virgin birth is another strange twist in the story of God and His people and also a reminder that this gospel announcement is of God’s initiative and not man’s. But the real claim that Matthew is making for Jesus is found in the sequence of the genealogy of Jesus.

According to the Mosaic Law, every fiftieth year (the first year after a sequence of seven sevens, 49 years), the Israelites were supposed to observe a sabbatical year called “Jubilee”. Every fiftieth year, people who had sold themselves into slavery to pay off debts were supposed to be released from those debts in the fiftieth year, the year of Jubilee. People who had sold their family property to pay off debts were supposed to receive their property back again because the property was a gift from the Lord that could not be taken away. The prophet Daniel, when asking the Lord about the timing for the restoration of Israel from their exiled slavery in Babylon, receives the answer that the restoration will happen in seventy years, times seven, a kind of ultra-Jubilee. This ultra-Jubilee would be the time of the Messiah and Israel’s rescue from foreign domination. Matthew presents us with Jesus' birth as the first birth of the seventh generation of sevens (Matthew 1:17). For Bible reading Jews, Matthew’s claim is clear: Jesus is the one who will restore our inheritance to us and will free us from those who have made us their slaves. I.E. Jesus is the Messiah and the ultimate Jubilee. The virgin birth is important and worthy of reflection, but it is not central to the claim that Matthew is making about Jesus. The validity of Matthew’s claim that Jesus is the Messiah, the son of God, is based on what Jesus would actually do, not merely the circumstance of His entrance into the world.

It is because Jesus’ messiahship was about this-worldly matters such as a kingdom, restoration of property, freedom from debts, etc. that King Herod is enraged and threatened by the news of the birth of a new king. This is why more than half of Matthew’s Christmas story is about Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus. Is it any wonder that the Western Church as struggled to keep “Christ” in Christmas? Of course, we say it every year and we remind our children that Christmas is “Jesus’ birthday”, but it always comes across as trite sentimentality. In truth, we have difficulty keeping “Christ” in Christmas because we have forgotten what a “Christ” is. The Christ is a King and Kings rule the world. We have lost the sharp edge of Christmas that causes kings to be enraged and peasants to rejoice (Luke 1:46-55) and have been left with only a mythical “silent night”. Let us celebrate the true meaning of Christmas this year: the Christ has come and has established God’s Kingdom on earth as it is in heaven! This is the good news of Christmas and it is still shaking kings, kingdoms, and individuals in all the world. This is what Matthew wants to tell us about Christmas. In fact, it’s the good news that Matthew wants to announce to planet earth.

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