December 16, 2018
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
“He was a rebel, yes a rebel. He changed water into wine, he was human and divine, and he sold a revolutionary line. That was the trouble. That was the reason. Nearly everything he said was bound to cost his head for what he told the people sounded like treason.”
This rather unmelodious tune has been stuck in my head for about fifty years now. It was written in 1971 by Avery and Marsh, songwriters whose simplistic tunes were considered the cutting edge of contemporary church music in the 1970s, and it was introduced to the congregation of my childhood by our youth pastor who wanted to be cutting edge in all things. This song that describes Jesus as a rebel returns to my brain every time I read the gospel warnings that though the people were praying for a Messiah, the Messiah that God sends to them is not at all what they expected. For those who looked for a military leader who would overthrow the government, Jesus’ death on a cross was an embarrassment. For those who looked for a Messiah to confirm their religious authority, his teachings were subversive. And for those who thought they knew exactly who was going to get invited to God’s heavenly banquet, and more importantly, exactly who was not going to be invited, Jesus’ association with the disreputable was disturbing and his promise that the lowest of the low would sit at the head of God’s table downright horrifying. When Matthew and Luke sat down to tell their young churches about Jesus and the salvation he offers, the first thing they had to do, then, was prepare their people for the fact that Jesus was not going to be at all the kind of Messiah people had been preparing for for ages. And so the opening verses of every one of the four gospels, confronts us immediately with the unexpected and radical nature of this Jesus who has come to bring us God’s salvation.
“Hold on to your seats,” the gospel writers warn their readers. “This is going to be a rough ride.”
As I have mentioned in previous sermons, the writer of the gospel of Matthew chose to prepare his readers for this controversial Christ by opening his gospel with Jesus’ genealogy and in a move against convention, by naming four of Jesus’ female ancestors as well as the ancestors of his male line. The women Matthew names were known to the Jews not only as important to the advancement of God’s plans but also for being women of dubious backgrounds — a prostitute, an adulterer, a foreigner — and so while these women might have been respected for their place in the Jewish story, they were also not the type of upright women a good Jew would want in his pedigree. Nevertheless, Matthew’s gospel says, this dubious pedigree foreshadows the kind of Savior Jesus will become; one who discomforts us as much as comforts us; one who challenges our assumptions, and one who is willing to flout convention if convention is standing in the way of God’s desires for the people.
“Prepare the way of the Lord,” the gospel says, “and hold on to your seats, because this is going to be a rough ride.”
At Christmas time, we deck the halls with boughs of holly and sing lovely songs of babies lying in a manger, but the gospel asks, “Are you really prepared to receive the kind of Savior God is sending to you this Christmas?”
In the gospel of Matthew, the first person we see struggle with that question is Joseph. After the ancestors have all been trotted out in the long list of begats, the curtain rises and the spotlight falls on Joseph. Joseph is Mary’s fiancé, and in those days, betrothals had little to do with romance but were arranged by families in an attempt to enhance the status of both the man and the woman’s relatives. The betrothal period could be quite long, sometimes as long as a year, and during the betrothal, the couple continued to live separately in their parents’ houses until they were ready to set up their own home and consummate the marriage. Nevertheless, during that period, it was understood by all that the two were contractually obligated to one another; they were essentially already husband and wife even if the final ceremony had not yet taken place. If then, during the betrothal, the woman became involved with another man, the affair would be considered adulterous and her fiancé could legally divorce her.
When Mary was discovered to be pregnant, then before the marriage had taken place, as far as the law was concerned and as far as public opinion went, Joseph was the wronged party. It was well within Joseph’s rights to break the betrothal contract and moreover, no one would condemn him because no one expected a man to bear the cost and care of raising another man’s baby. In Matthew’s account, Joseph agrees with this convention and chooses to divorce Mary — to end the betrothal — and find a more dependable woman who can give him sons to continue his line unblemished but, we read, Joseph is also a gentle hearted sort of guy. He is moved as he thinks of the shame that will be heaped upon Mary when people learn of her behavior so he resolves to divorce her quietly. He won’t make a scene. In other words, he feels that he has to do what convention requires in order to avoid tainting his own legacy but he will try to be as nice about it as he can. He will cut Mary off, he will send her on her way into the world as an unwed mother to manage as best she can on her own, but he will do it gently and with a kind word to assuage his own conscience.
Joseph is the picture of the upright man who wants to be seen as compassionate but who lacks the courage to challenge his culture and to dare to find a new way forward for himself and for Mary. And immediately after he makes this decision, an angel appears and says to Joseph those four words that resound a refrain throughout the gospel story: “Do not be afraid.”
“Do not be afraid, Joseph, to go against your culture and take Mary as your wife. Do not be afraid to sacrifice the purity of your lineage for the sake of God’s plan. Do not be afraid of the ridicule you might receive from your community. Do not be afraid to give up your comfort to show grace to this fatherless child. Do not be afraid because God will be with you.”
It seems to me that if the Bible is constantly telling us not to be afraid, if God has to over and over again send angels to the people to say, “Fear not,” what that says to me is that real faith is going to require courage. Otherwise, there would be nothing to tell us not to be afraid about. Like Joseph, we too, often make the mistake of thinking that being nice is the same as being faithful, but there’s got to be more to discipleship than simply being nice or being kind because kindness usually doesn’t require any courage. In fact, history is replete with examples of men and women who have treated others with kindness even as they oppressed them: “I’m truly sorry and I really feel horrible about this,” they say kindly, “but my hands are tied. I’ve got to think about my own family or it’s just not a good time to try to change the world right now or I don’t like it either but you know, it just the way things are so what can I do?” Oppression done in a kind and gentle way is still oppression. This opening scene with Joseph teaches us that kindness is not the same as discipleship.
I knew a white woman who out of the kindness of her heart adopted an orphan from Haiti but when that little girl grew into a teenager, her mother forbid her from dating white men because she believed that the races need to remain separate. The woman showed kindness but no courage; she gave her daughter food and care but not freedom from bigotry and oppression.
In 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was imprisoned in Birmingham, Alabama for protesting segregation. He wrote a letter from his cell to be publicly circulated in which he said, “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro’s great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the … Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to ‘order’ than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice; who constantly says: ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I cannot agree with your methods of direct action’; who paternalistically believes he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom; who… constantly advises the Negro to wait for a ‘more convenient season.’
“Shallow understanding from people of good will,” King said, “is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”
Joseph decides to accept his culture’s conventions but to do it in a kind and gentle way to alleviate his conscience, but God sends an angel to tell him to buck up, have courage, be a revolutionary and find a whole new way of living for himself, Mary, and the baby she is carrying. This is the message that trumpets out of the opening verses of our gospels: before Jesus even enters the scene, we are forewarned that Christianity is a countercultural faith. Christianity is a countercultural faith and following this Savior who is about to be born will require that we have the courage to confront what is wrong in our culture and find new ways of living together.
This is a crucial message and a tough one for most of us to hear — the message that being nice to others is not going to be enough, but that we will also have to be bold and a little bit of a rebel if Christ’s work is truly to be done through us.
But there is a second part to the gospel message which we will miss if we close our Bibles after the story of Jesus’ birth. The second part of the gospel message requires Matthew another 28 chapters to deliver, and that is namely the answer to the question, “Exactly what is the culture that Christ is calling us to counter?”
There are an awful lot of very vocal Christians today who would consider themselves very counter-cultural, who are constantly pushing back against cultural norms and developments in the name of their faith, and who would undoubtedly wear the badge of rebel for Christ proudly, but I would contend that while they have understood the countercultural nature of the gospel, they have completely misunderstood which part of our culture Christ was critiquing. These are the Christians who believe that Jesus died on a cross in order to keep the teaching of evolution out of our schools, or who believe that Jesus’ birth can only be celebrated if Starbucks’ decorates their coffee cup with Christian symbols. These are the Christians who believe that Jesus was as obsessed as they are about what we do with our bodies — when we have sex and who we have sex with — and are willing to march to war in a crusade against those cultural mores. This is certainly a faith that is boldly countercultural but it misses the message about which culture Christ wanted us to critique.
I once asked our youth group to find all of the passages in the Bible in which Jesus talked about the hot topics in our society today: abortion, pre-marital sex, and homosexuality but to their surprise, they were hard pressed to find anything. Jesus didn’t seem particularly concerned about those things. I then asked them to find all of the places where Jesus talks about money — about the dangers of wealth and the plight of the poor — and they filled their papers with references.
This is the culture we are called to critique, the one that measures our value in dollar signs, the one that ignores the needs of the refugee for fear that they will take our jobs, the one that says only the wealthy deserve decent health care while the working poor are on their own, the one that allows the rich to manipulate the legal system to their own advantage while leaving the impoverished to linger in prison. These systemic injustices are much harder to tackle because they are complex and entrenched but that is why Jesus required an army of followers with the courage and perseverance to say, “It doesn’t have to be this way. We can find a new way of living together that offers real peace for all of the people.”
The gospel that opens with an unwed mother and an angel telling Joseph to buck up and be a rebel on her behalf ends with the baby she was carrying all grown up and walking to the cross on the behalf of us us. And just before his arrest, he says to those who listen – to you and me,
“Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me…. Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”