Prayer. Introduction - Last week we looked at the Old Testament prophecies about Jesus, next week we think about the people closest to Jesus at the time of his birth.
But his birth took place in a wider context, and there is a much bigger picture to look at. It wasn’t just individual people who needed preparing for his coming, but the world also.
The real broken world of politics, economics, war and social oppression. Often we skip over these details, but the gospel writers didn’t. They set their stories on the world stage and who was in power at the time of the birth of Jesus. This too was all part of the meticulous preparation for the Messiah’s birth.
What’s in a list…My friend Mary is a big list writer. When we were younger, I used to laugh at her meticulous lists for EVERYTHING. When we went on holiday together as families, Mary was the planner and we all relied on her lists for everything, although it didn’t always go according to plan. Now I am older, I’ve become the same. List after list after list. I even make lists of my lists now! How sad is that. But Matthew starts of his Gospel with a list – and you’re all now thinking, I’m not offering to read this one!
For Matthew it was important to establish the legitimacy of Jesus’ claim to be the Messiah. If he was to be the Messiah he needed to come from the right bloodline. Two connections were of importance. He had to be a “son of Abraham” and he had to be an “heir of David”. Matthew begins by investigating the family line of Jesus.
Matthew’s list has been described like a map of the London Underground system. It’s helpful in that it gives us the right information and how things connect up, but is far more complex than we can really know. He places Jesus’ forerunners in three groups – each consisting of 14 generations. Abraham to David; David to the exile and the exile to Jesus. He works forwards from Abraham to David and then backwards from Jesus to David – showing that Jesus is the culmination of history. With him a new beginning occurs, everything leads up to the coming of Christ and everything takes it’s cue from him.
Some of you may have traced your family tree, it’s become very popular these days, but not always easy. Sometimes people are known by different names and that makes life complicated. On occasion you may uncover a secret, best kept hidden. A friend of ours did that and he discovered someone had gone to prison for murder!
In the list provided by Matthew, there is no attempt to hide the dubious characters. Jesus had his fair share of failures, embarrassments and family scandals, just as much as we do! That’s an encouragement all by itself.
Rehoboboan –who lost half of Solomon’s kingdom.
Asa and Hezekiah – who were great kings at first, then messed up!
There is also the inclusion of four women. Tamar, who acted as a prostitute and enticed her father-in-law into bed to expose his callous indifference to her plight. Rahab, an outsider from Jericho who demonstrated faith in Israel’s God, but was probably a brothel-keeper by trade. Ruth, we know. And Uriah’s wife – not even named, but she was also an outsider and foreigner, which is more likely why she’s not named, rather than because of her relationship with David.
Each of these remarkable women faced tough and messy lives, not of their own making, yet they are honoured as women who took the initiative and acted with faith. Whatever their backgrounds or life, God included them in his plan and was working his purpose out through them. Jesus was to be the saviour of the world – Jew and Gentile.
Read: Matthew 1:1-17Jesus came from a very imperfect family line. How does that magnify the grace of God, and what hope does it give you concerning any disappointments you face in your family?
If you’re able share something of your family history and the way in which you can trace the goodness of God in them.
It’s not very often we’re grateful for taxes, but with our next reading, it’s one occasion when we should be. It was the need by the most powerful man in the world at the time – the ruler of the Roman empire, to collect taxes and in order to do so he needed an accurate database – or a register, which is why Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem when they would normally have been at home in Nazareth.
The Caesar at the time was Gaius Octavian, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, known as Caesar Augustus. He was in power from 27BC to 14AD and he presided over a period of relative peace. He built up the army and left the empire with an infrastructure of government, roads and communications, that none could rival. But of course, this all cost money. Hence the need of the taxes and the need to work out who should pay the taxes. In other parts of the empire, this register would have provided a list for future conscripts to the army, but the Jews were exempt from this.
Augustus wouldn’t have been aware of it, he would have thought he was making his own decisions, acting independently or making his own mark with his fiscal policy, but God was working to make all things happen to enable his Son to be born in the place where the prophets had said he would be. Although Augustus may have thought he was in control, ultimately God was. Jesus had to be born in Bethlehem to fulfil the prophecy of Micah.
What is ironic is that Augustus considered himself to be a god. But there was only one God, the God whose prophet could foretell the future long in advance, and the God who could use an ordinary arrangement, such as the registration of the population and the administration of the tax system, to his glory.
Read Luke 2:1-3As you think about the decisions of our world leaders, how far do you consider that God is at work, accomplishing his plan through them? Or do you think they are just human beings, acting on their own initiative, independent of God?
To what extent do you believe that God is in control of the events and rules of our world? Discuss what such a faith means in the light of things currently in the news.
The Christmas story is somewhat spoiled by the appearance of King Herod of Judea. True, Mary and Joseph couldn’t find decent accommodation in Bethlehem, so Jesus was born in less than ideal surroundings, but even then there is a good side to the story because an innkeeper did take pity on them and provide them with some shelter.
But Herod. Is there anything good that could be said about him? Doesn’t he spoil what could be a great fairy tale Christmas?
Herod was a nasty piece of work. In this reading he comes across as ignorant, insecure, devious and scheming. In real life he was even worse. By the time Jesus was born he was an old man, in his younger days he’d been a shrewd diplomat, a great builder and a generous benefactor, especially when Israel suffered a severe famine, but he wasn’t now. He loved power, imposed heavy taxes on the people and was consumed by paranoia. Any member of the family who he suspected of conspiring against him was liquidated. One mother-in-law, one wife and three sons were all on his hit lit. He’d had 10 wives and wrote 6 wills. His last will written just days before he died, divided his kingdom into three to ensure that no successor would be as powerful as he. On one occasion he’d executed a terrorist called Hezekiah without trial. And when the Jewish Council objected, he bided his time and then killed them too. Massacring the male infants of Bethlehem was entirely in character.
So, foreigners turning up at his palace and asking the whereabouts of a new born king, wasn’t the wisest thing to do! Their enquiry would have fed his suspicion and hastened his decline into a very evil man.
Why is Herod allowed to spoil the story? As disturbing as it is, it shows that Christ was born into the real world, no fantasy world of tinsel, robins or snow! The world then, as now was governed by greedy politicians who used force to protect their interest and augment their power. The world then, as now, was full of tragedy and pain, much of it manmade. This was the real world that Christ was born into.
Sadly, Herod the Great prepares the way for his son, Herod Antipas to send Jesus to the cross. Like father, like son.
Reading: Matthew 2:1-18Questions: Who are the victims of oppression and injustice today? What can we do about it? How does the inclusion of Herod in the narrative help us get a more realistic perspective of the Christmas story? How can we inject a great degree of realism into our telling of the Christmas message and save it from suffocating under wrapping paper and too much Christmas pudding?
Next week: Tell out my soul, the greatness of the Lord! Preparing the way of the Lord among those most closely involved.