Sunday, December 18, 2022

Phil Kniss: An untidy genesis

LOVE: Waiting for love to be born
Genesis 1:1-2; Psalm 23:1-6; Matthew 1:18-25

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Christmas, I’ve decided, can be a fairly untidy season.
    Those of us drawn toward things that are orderly,
        can find it a bit stressful.
        Light strings get tangled.
        Traffic gets jammed.
        Calendars get full.
    At our house, there are containers stacked in odd corners.
    Cookie tins and chocolate boxes are strewn around the kitchen.
    And . . . as charming as Christmas trees can be,
        adding one to our small 1920s-style living room,
        always crowds the other furniture,
            and our cozy room loses its feng shui.

And in many households,
    other kinds of messiness comes to the surface.
    Relationships are under greater stress.
    Family reunions can be dicey.
    Loss and grief stare us in the face.

But why shouldn’t it be this way? Why shouldn’t it be?
    What gives us the idea that Christmas should be perfect?
        Shall we blame Currier and Ives picture-perfect scenes
            that have dominated Christmas cards for the last 120 years?
        Shall we blame the relentlessly cheerful and well-dressed
            entertainers singing carols on TV?

We should all be thankful for the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth.
    They bring us back to earth real quick,
        if we actually read them, and think about what we’re reading.
    Jesus had an extremely untidy genesis.

Now, “an untidy genesis” might seem like a strange turn of the phrase.
    But I was struck, in today’s Gospel,
        that the writer of Matthew chose that very word, “Genesis,”
        to talk about Jesus emerging on the scene.

It’s a Greek word.
    Our Bible begins with the Book of Genesis, as you know.
    That title comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible,
        “Genesis” meaning,
            coming into being, emergence, the birth of something new.
        That’s the word when God says “let there be . . .”
            light, land and sea, animals, etc.
            Literally, “Let them have genesis.”

The word Genesis is not used very often in the New Testament.
    There’s a more precise word for the birth of a baby.
    But Matthew chose to use “genesis” when he wrote v. 18,
        “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way.”
    I think he chose to say the “genesis of Jesus” deliberately,
        because he was talking about much more
        than certain events that happened in a stable in Bethlehem.

In fact, unlike Luke, where we get all the Christmas-y details—
        Bethlehem, stable, shepherds, angels—
    Matthew barely mentions the actual birth,
        only that it happened; in about six words, no details.

But what Matthew is very interested in telling us,
    is about the kind of world that Jesus emerged into.
He wants us to know what was going on in the life
    of the human family Jesus entered,
    what the larger social and political context was.
        And about that, we learn a lot in the Gospel of Matthew.

In two weeks, we launch into several months in this Gospel,
    starting with the most fascinating, and untidy,
        genealogy you’ve ever read.
    That’s the other place in Matthew that the word “Genesis”
        is used—at the beginning of his family tree.
    To introduce his genealogy,
        Matthew 1:1 says, translated literally,
            the book of the genesis of Jesus.
        You’ll get all the details of that in 2 weeks.

So immediately after listing the 42 messy generations between
    Abraham and Jesus,
    Matthew launches into the story of the social context
        Jesus was born into.
        And it’s untidy . . . to put it mildly.

He starts the story with Joseph, interestingly.
    Matthew is the only one who gives us a portrait of Joseph.

From what we know of marriage customs,
    and from details in the text,
    the best assumption here
        is that Joseph and Mary were legally married,
        but were not yet united as a couple.
    The legal arrangement between the families had been made,
        the papers signed,
        but they were holding off starting their own household.
            They both were still with their parents.
        Maybe Joseph had to finish building the house
            they would live in.
        Maybe he still owed Mary’s parents some money or property.
        They were not together as a couple,
            but they were legally bound.
            Only a divorce could change that.

    Mary’s pregnancy at this stage,
        created huge problems for both Joseph and Mary.
        Mary was at risk of losing all her financial security,
            and becoming unmarriageable.
        Joseph was at risk of losing his honor, and that of his family.

    But after a visit by an angel, Joseph took on the risk,
        and decided to protect Mary,
        and follow through with the marriage.

    That in itself is enough of a mess,
        for us to call this an untidy genesis.
    But that story is just a microcosm of the mess
        the whole world was in,
        and just how fraught and fragile was the human community,
            the Jewish community,
            where Jesus emerged, had his genesis.

Jesus was born into a hostile and dangerous world,
    ruled by a brutal and deranged and insecure king Herod.
    Herod ruled with an iron fist.
    There were numerous attempts to overthrow him,
        some by his own family.
    He didn’t hesitate killing anyone who seemed to be a threat.
    He had three of his own sons executed,
        and one of his wives.
    He was so insecure—and so deranged—that on his death bed,
        he apparently ordered that a large group of prominent citizens
            be brought to his palace,
            and executed when he died,
            to make sure there would be national mourning,
                instead of celebration, when he died.
        His family did not carry out that plan, however.

The Roman emperor crowned Herod with the title “King of the Jews,”
    but the Jews never accepted that, of course.
    Herod was not of David’s line.
    So Herod never knew when the Jews might try to overthrow him.

Given all that, the next couple chapters in Matthew’s story
    are not that surprising,
        concerning Herod’s rage when the three wise men
        didn’t go back and report on the location of the child Jesus,
            the new so-called “King of the Jews.”
    Also not surprising,
        the story about his mass murder of the children,
        to try to make sure Jesus would not grow to adulthood.
    As horrifying and repulsive as that tale is,
        for Herod, it was par for the course.
        It wasn’t his first bloodbath, and it wouldn’t be his last.

This was the world where Jesus had his genesis.
    The one named “Emmanuel,”
        came tiny, helpless, red and wrinkled.
        Completely vulnerable.
        Completely dependent.
        Already with a price on his head.
    Jesus and his family became refugees, fleeing to Egypt.
        Dependent on the goodwill of strangers in a strange land.

Why do we think we deserve a “perfect Christmas?”
    Why should we despair about the sorrows and fears we face
        as Christmas comes ‘round again
        in this messy world we live in.
    Everything about the story of Jesus’ genesis is messy.

    The stigma of Mary and Joseph’s marital situation.
    The oppressive tax and census that Caesar ordered,
        that brought them to Bethlehem to begin with.
    Their poverty relegating them to a barn out back to give birth.
    Their land being occupied by a foreign power.
    Their deranged and violent king.
    Their status as refugees seeking asylum.
    The massacre of the innocents.
    The religious in-fighting between different Jewish parties,
        with radically different visions of the future.

But here’s the thing—
    it is precisely into such a messy world
        that God had a new genesis—
        that God emerged as Emmanuel.

Historically, saying God is with us, is a way of saying,
    “Everything’s going our way!”
When fortune smiles on people, the assumption is “God is with them.”
    Health and good fortune are held up as evidence
        of God’s presence and blessing.

But in Jesus, the opposite is the case.
    God makes a choice to come and be with us
        in the worst of times.
        When all hell seems to be breaking loose,
            there Emmanuel emerges,
            there love is born,
            there is the untidy genesis of Jesus,
                who comes to save, to heal, to redeem.

And to be clear, this isn’t a new strategy for God.
The first verses of the Bible, Genesis 1:1-2, that we heard this morning
    make clear that God’s first move in creation, first move,
        was to enter the chaos and be in the thick of it,
            bringing about the genesis of shalom.
    We also heard the twenty-third Psalm today,
        where God is praised as the one who prepares a table
        in the presence of . . . our enemies.

    So people of faith, do not despair!
    Proclaim hope! Proclaim love! Boldly!

The story of Jesus’ untidy genesis proves one thing—
    that God will stop at nothing to show us love;
    that God yearns to save us from sin and death;
    that God is intent to heal and restore a broken creation,
        to bring about a new creation
        shaped by justice, mercy, and love.

One of my favorite Christmas poems is “Risk of Birth”
    by Madeleine L’Engle.
    It’s a short 12-line poem. You can look it up.
    I took six of the lines, roughly half the poem,
        and rearranged and added to them, for our confession today.
    Please read it along with me, in your bulletin, or on the screen.

one  O God, even in this season of hope,
        we confess our struggle to trust that
        your love is ready to be born in this world.
        With the earth betrayed by war and hate,
        while time runs out and the sun burns late.
all    Give us the courage to wait.
one  While honor and truth are trampled to scorn,
        when is a good time for love to be born?
all    Now is the time.
        Come, Lord Jesus, make this your home again.

one  Though the inn is full on the planet earth,
        And many wonder what life is worth,
        God’s love still takes the risk of birth.

—Phil Kniss, December 18, 2022

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