I am not sure if any of you are fans of the operettas by Gilbert & Sullivan. I know that as a small child my older sister was mad about them and collected recordings. Then when I was in high school I had a leading role in a production of The Yeoman of the Guard.
Not surprisingly, my children acquired a taste for this kind of music, but they collected the videos of productions including the scandalously wicked Jon English. And my son Ben even played in the orchestra for the G&S Society production of Mikado some years ago.
The significant feature of G&S operettas is the opening piece of music called an Overture. In their genesis in 17th century music, overtures were intended to introduce the overarching musical themes that will follow in the story. Thus those who are familiar with the songs that will follow will hear hints and themes from those tunes woven together into a completely new piece of music.
I mention this as a way of preparing to look at the Gospel in a particular way. I am sure that you are aware of the different kinds of literature that form the collection of writings we call the Bible – poetry, history, prophecy etc. – and to properly understand these we need to understand a little about the kind of writing we are considering.
Christine Simes, in the advent study we looked at this week said that Gospel texts operate at three levels. They first and foremost express a remembered history – of things Jesus said and did.
But they also have theology interwoven with the remembered history enabling the writer to shape the stories in such a way that they help us to understand something in particular from the way he has written the story.
The Gospel also operates by speaking to us in our time and place. What it may say to us need not reflect the intention of the author, but it will reflect the prompting of the Holy Spirit in our lives, leading us into new insights for our life in God.
In recent years scholars have suggested that the birth narratives we have in Matthew and in Luke, which are both quite different in detail, want us to remember different things about Jesus as we read on into the Gospel.
In a way they are suggesting that these stories are a bit like a literary form of a musical overture, introducing us to the overarching themes that we will find throughout the Gospel stories that follow.
There are two major themes that I want to explore with you from Matthew’s birth narrative – one today and the other when we celebrate Epiphany on the nearly 12th day of Christmas – the 5th January.
In the first of our Bible Studies back a few weeks ago we looked at the Genealogy of Jesus as outlined by Matthew. Matthew lists 42 generations from Abraham to Jesus – three groups of 14 generations marking the three significant periods of Israeli history – the Patriarchs, the Monarchy and the Exile.
As an aside, Luke lists just 37 generations from Jesus back to Adam (who was also a Son of God). That might be fodder for another sermon.
In the study our attention was drawn to the names of four women included in the genealogy – Tamar, Rahab, Ruth and Bathsheba – around each of whom there was indeed some scandal and we know that three and possibly all four were not Jewish. Tamar was a Canaanite woman, married to one of the son’s of Judah, Rahab was a Gentile from Jericho, Ruth was a Moabite and Bathsheba was married to a Hittite which she may also have been.
When we think of Biblical genealogies we think of them necessarily being full of Jewish people – but think about your own family tree; how many different countries are represented among your ancestors? Mine are almost exclusively British, but they come from all the nations of The United Kingdom, and they have lived in exotic parts of the world, too.
So, if this is a theme that Matthew is going to develop throughout the rest of his Gospel, I wonder what it might mean.
One of my favourite preachers, Bruce Prewer, uses a quintessentially Australian term for his hint at it – he says we are all mongrels and that Jesus was a kind of “Holy Mongrel!” Because this term is bordering on crude for some of us, it feels a bit extreme to apply to Jesus – yet Matthew has gone out of his way, giving us information we would not normally get in a genealogy to put the case that Jesus had his fair share of gentile heritage alongside his Royal Jewish heritage.
Within the Jewish system of Jesus’ day, that could have been cause for scandal, something to be hidden from view just as people once tried to hide the scandal of their ancestors coming to Australia as convicts.
The hint that Matthew is trying to give us by doing this, I think, is that Jesus will care about the outcasts because he himself was one. Even the scandal of Mary’s premature pregnancy was enough to make him an outcast.
So what we see again and again in the rest of Matthew’s Gospel is Jesus welcoming the outcasts – eating with Tax Collectors and sinners, speaking to Samaritan women, allowing a prostitute to bless him, defending a woman caught in adultery.
These are the people that Jesus brought Good News to. These outsiders are now in and it seems to me that often we forget this in our attempt to keep church as comfortable for ourselves as we can. It is easy for us to be judgemental about people whose lives don’t seem to commend themselves to our good company, and even if we utter words that mean the opposite, our attitude towards them leaks out in such a way that they get it – I think that is why so many people outside the church type-cast us all as hypocrites.
In our Gospel reading today the Angel tells Joseph to name his soon to be soon Jesus “because he will save his people from their sins.” This makes me wonder what you think it is that Jesus saves us from. Our sins, certainly, but let’s think of sins, not just as things we do that are breaking the rules. Sin is more than that. Sin is about our failure to be the fully human people God created us to be.
I saw a cartoon in the week – a parody of the romantic 19th century painting of Jesus standing at the door of our hearts knocking. The conversation goes like this:
“Let me in.”
“So I can save you.”
“From what I am going to do to you if you don’t let me in.”
I think sometimes we operate as if that is about how it works, but I think there is much more that Jesus saves us from.
As God freed Israel from bondage in Egypt, so Jesus can free us today from the things that bind us – addictions, obsessions, feeling so inadequate and such things.
As God showed the way for the Israelites over 40 years of wandering in the wilderness, so Jesus shows us a way to live our life in God.
As God brought the people of Israel back home and out of exile, so Jesus brings us back to God in whom we live and move and have our being.
This is what the Good News of Jesus is offering anyone who feels that they are a bit of an outsider. Jesus was an outside who came and lived among us as one of us – what better recommendation can there be for calling him your friend?