While COVID-19 makes our in-person services challenging, Knox is providing podcast services. Not everyone can access these, though, so we are also posting my sermons on our Knox Talks blog. I would like to thank Shelley Rose for transcribing my notes into text for the blog.
A new baby means that life has changed: there are so many things to do!
“Fulfilling requirements” is something we still do today. When a baby is born we know we have to register a name – the hospital won’t let you forget that one – get medical checkups done, schedule first vaccinations, buy a car seat, decorate the nursery, have lots of blankets and baby clothes in increasing sizes, diapers of course, and the house needs baby-proofing before this child gets mobile. The list can make a family crazy.
The requirements when Jesus was born were different. Obviously, some things don’t change: diapers have been needed for centuries, but that’s not what Luke was talking about.
Most of us know that Jesus would need to be circumcised on his 8th day, but Mary herself had things to do. Luke mentioned the special dedication and offering needed for a first-born son. As well, Leviticus 12 declared that a woman who gave birth to a son was ritually unclean for 7 days which meant that on the 8th day, in addition to the circumcision, she would need to have a ritual immersion in a special pool to become eligible to take part in worship again. If she had a daughter, she was unclean for two weeks – no one has a good explanation for this difference but it did allow her to be available for the circumcision.
Anything involving a priest in Nazareth would have involved waiting for the travelling priests who came from the temple on regular rounds. But the family was in Bethlehem, so close to Jerusalem, so they could go to the temple to fulfill the requirements. That was a real bonus for the family.
In this case, their careful religious observances allowed them to meet Simeon and Anna. It’s hard to imagine what this must have felt like to the parents. Simeon and Anna were both very elderly, in their eighties in an age when most didn’t live long enough to get grey hair. Leviticus 19 commands people to “rise up before those with grey hair, and show respect to the elderly”, so they would feel obligated to give these strangers their voice and couldn’t just dismiss them as a crazy old codger and a loony old bat.
But it must have felt really uncomfortable. Simeon took the baby from Mary and Joseph and declared that he was content to die, now that he had seen Jesus; that this baby was a fulfillment of a personal prophesy and also a saviour for his own people and a light to all the nations. Simeon went on to make some scary predictions and said that a sword would pierce Mary’s own soul.
Who says something like that to a new mother? It’s scary enough if you suspect the man is crazy but when it sounds like he is speaking for God
it must be chilling. Mary must have been desperate to take Jesus back and have him safe in her arms again.
Then Anna showed up and started talking about the new baby to everyone who would listen. We don’t have her words recorded but we are told she focused on the redemption of Jerusalem. In those days, that would have more than religious overtones: there would be political implications too.
With king Herod on the throne and his willingness to kill babies to protect his power, this kind of public scene would be very ominous.
This is all what we might call portentous and since we know the whole story of Jesus’ life, we understand the portents, the predictions, of what he would do and what would be done to him.
Mary was being warned that Jesus would create amazing change and that she would watch her son die on the cross. It’s no wonder that Mary and Joseph wanted to get out of town right away. Luke tells us that they went back to Nazareth as soon as their religious duties were fulfilled.
Obviously Luke and Matthew have recorded different versions of what happened to Jesus at this point. Matthew portrays the family living in Bethlehem in the first place and fleeing to Egypt before finally ending up in Nazareth. Luke says they came from Nazareth first and had to come to Bethlehem for the registration and then went straight home as soon as they could.
There is no way to confirm the historical accuracy of either of these versions. We can’t find independent records of the registration for taxes or of Herod’s slaughter of the babies in Bethlehem but the people of that day knew very well that their rulers inflicted death and taxes on them every day, so none of this was out of character.
Instead, we can reflect on what the gospel writers are trying to tell us. They considered these stories of Jesus’ birth important enough to share them with their readers. We know that Matthew was a Jewish Christian: his inclusion of the Magi was a clear message that the Gentiles were to be an accepted part of Jesus’ ministry, a welcomed part.
Luke was a Gentile Christian, writing for people in the non-Jewish parts of the Roman empire and he showed us Mary and Joseph taking pains to fulfill the requirements of the law of Moses at Jesus’ birth. He also made a point of showing us these two elderly faithful people, whose Hebrew credentials are undeniable, making it clear that Jesus was destined to be God’s hand in the world, transforming both Israel and the other nations.
What strikes me about this, beyond the emotional effect it would have on new parents with their first child, is the determination of the gospel writers
to reinforce bridges between the Jewish and Gentile Christian communities which, at the time of writing, were coming under some strain.
Humans are, by nature, tribal creatures. We are most comfortable with familiar people, traditions, habits and we find it particularly easy to push others away when the world is disrupted and full of fear: 2020 has given us more examples of this than we can count.
But the gospel writers are clear that in Jesus we find someone to bring us together; in the birth of Jesus, as well as in his adult ministry and hopefully in the way we make real that ministry in our own lives. Luke and Matthew both call us to appreciate and welcome the contributions of other cultures and religious traditions, people whose roots are not ours, whose traditions may confuse us or even offend us. They call us to make a place for others; to respect them, and honour them even while the teachings of Jesus call us to transformation.
And there’s the challenging part: the transformation comes from God. It’s not our job to try to transform someone else, it’s our job to discover how God wants to transform us as we share the journey with those others, those people whose very differences may reveal something we need to discover.
As isolated as we may feel right now, we cannot escape the clear message in both Luke and Matthew as they share their versions of Jesus’ birth. They are both telling us that we are not on this journey alone; that we share God’s gift of Jesus with people from around the world; people who are unlike us in many ways; people who are loved by God just as much as we are; people who, despite our differences, have become our sisters and brothers in life.
Jesus came to transform this world, to bring it closer to God’s desire for a place of justice and peace.
Jesus came to transform us, not so that we and the other people of the world would all become identical – Jesus wasn’t a glorified cookie-cutter –
but so that we would all grow into different versions of people of love, of peace, of hope, of joy; able to share what we’ve learned and to learn from others as they walk with us.
As the world goes through some profound changes, the birth of Jesus gives us the clear message that we are not alone.
Thanks be to God.