Something Has Changed
I started my Christmas reading this week. I read through the relevant Gospel passages and through some of the Old Testament prophecies, hoping to find the Reason for the Season, to recapture the magic of the Christmas story. I want to be captivated by the manger scene, wonder with the shepherds at that star of wonder, smell and hear the cattle, feel the cold, and see the glory. We all want that, don’t we? We want Christmas to be more than gifts, more than hopeful words without content, longer lasting than the month of December, and far more eternal in its consequence. We want Jesus to be real and present to us. We want Him with us in a special way this season. Now we want that all of the time. We want to experience His presence with us. We want to know He is there, has been there, and will be “with us.”
So I decided to start with Matthew. Everyone is always reading Luke. It has the good stuff – the shepherds, the inn, the angels, and most of all Mary. She is so compelling. God selects this young teenage virgin to carry His only begotten son. She can’t believe it. Her cousin can. The angel Gabriel comes. She sings a beautiful song. Wow! What a story!
But Matthew seems to tell us much less. He begins with this long genealogy. All of us hate genealogies, don’t we? It’s just a list of names of people we don’t know who begat other people we don’t know. When we read them, we mostly look for familiar names. But I will come back to that…
Matthew tells the pre-Christmas story from Joseph’s perspective. He is good guy. He finds out his wife-to-be has somehow betrayed him sexually and is now pregnant. So he is ready to do the Biblical thing and “put her away,” albeit quietly. No marriage for him. But the angel appears and strongly encourages him to go ahead so he does. Yes, he probably felt some shame. Yes, he somehow knew that this really was an angel speaking to him in his dream. Yes, they were more accustomed than I to listening to their dreams and God did seem to speak more often that way to those in that time. It’s a good story about a good and faithful man who took a leap of faith. We are all grateful that he did.
But why did Matthew focus on Joseph? What made him so special? Why not run on the Mary story? It is so much more compelling!
Did you know that most scholars believe that Luke was written primarily for Gentiles and Matthew primarily for Jews? Why is that a big deal? The answer is fairly simple. If you were a Jew, you lived with a historical/cultural/spiritual awareness of your chosen-ness by God. Matthew begins with a genealogy that reminds his readers that God had promised His presence with them for over 20 centuries. You note that he begins his genealogy with Abraham, not with Adam. Abraham was the one chosen, the one to whom God appeared, the one with whom God made a covenant. God had promised to be with them, and He had been. Matthew uses the genealogy to remind His Jewish children that He had been with them, through King David, through the horrors of the Babylonian exile and the return to their Promised Land, through a relational lineage that ran from Abraham long ago to… Joseph, the carpenter, the Dad of Jesus.
But in the middle of story, Matthew inserts a sentence of explanation. “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel—which means, “God with us.’”
Matthew is telling us that God has always been with His people. But the meaning of “with” is about to change. This Jesus will not serve as a reminder of God’s presence. He won’t point us to God or simply tell us about Him. He won’t come in rare dreams or short visits. He will be God’s presence in the flesh. He will not remind us of God’s salvation. He will bring it Himself. In fact, He will be that salvation.
Matthew says that something is changing, has changed, with the birth of this son. God is no longer “with” His people in some amorphous connectivity. He is in the flesh, in our face, on a mission.
Now since then, Jesus lived the life we should have lived and died the death we should have died. He was raised from the dead, ascended, sent His Spirit to be not just “with” us, but “in” us. But sometimes that doesn’t even seem to be enough for me. I want Him “with” me as well as “in” me. And Christmas reminds me of that too. Jesus has come. He will come again. And when that happens, I will stop longing for Christmas. It will truly be Christmas every day!
Palmer Trice is an ordained Presbyterian minister. He is married to Lynne, has three children and has been in Charlotte since 1979. In his spare time, Palmer enjoys golf, tennis, walking and reading.