Sunday, January 1, 2023

Phil Kniss: Introduction to Matthew

Jesus reveals God's expansive family
Matthew: Jesus the Revealer
Matthew 1:1-17; Revelation 7:9-10

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We already dipped our toes into the Gospel of Matthew two weeks ago,
    with the story of Joseph.
    Today we begin a deep dive.
    From now until Easter, we will be immersed in Matthew—
        we, along with another dozen or so area congregations
            using the Narrative Lectionary,
        and a group of Anabaptist churches around North America.
At Park View, we are giving this series the title “Jesus the Revealer.”

Jesus came to be with us
    for the purpose of revealing a fuller picture of God.
And Matthew’s Gospel was written
    for the purpose of revealing Jesus the Revealer.

That’s the agenda of all the Gospels,
    even those that didn’t make it into our Bible.
Each written Gospel was an effort to capture the story of Jesus,
    for a particular purpose for a particular audience.
The four Gospels that ultimately did the best job at that,
    and stood the test of time,
    and were deemed worthy to include in our Bible,
    were the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John.

The names attached to these Gospels do not mean
    that four disciples of Jesus named Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John,
    each sat down separately one day after Jesus departed,
        and wrote down everything that they remembered.

    No, the Gospels are rooted in a deep oral tradition of story-telling—
        a tradition we don’t practice very well in our day.
    Stories were carefully told and retold about Jesus.
    They circulated far and wide among his followers.
    Certain stories, over time, were deemed important and reliable,
        and put into writing,
        and gathered into collections that were passed around.

Communities of Jesus-followers emerged
    in various places around the Mediterranean,
    and started engaging in witness and mission.
So it became important to bring these Jesus stories together,
    and put them together into one complete narrative
        of the life and ministry of Jesus,
    a narrative that made sense for their particular time and place
        within the Roman Empire.
This is why, from one Gospel to another,
    we find many similarities,
    and many things that get a different slant, or different emphasis.
    Because their audience was different.

So, before we dive into Matthew, let’s consider,
    who pulled the stories together,
    who was the first intended audience,
    and what the intended impact on that audience?

It’s by no means unanimous, but a common view among scholars,
    is that Matthew’s Gospel emerged
    from the Jewish Christian community around Antioch of Syria,
        sometime after 70 A.D.
    Both that time and place is significant,
        as we read and understand Matthew.
    Antioch was about 300 miles north of Jerusalem,
        in modern-day Turkey,
        in the heart of the oppressive Roman Empire.

There was an active early Christian community there.
    And just a few years earlier, around 70 A.D.,
        Jerusalem was destroyed by the Roman military,
        and the temple lay in ruins.
    All of that happened because of
        an attempted Jewish revolt against Rome,
        and a long siege of Jerusalem by Caesar’s army,
        during which about one million people died.
            One million!!
    So the first few decades after the time of Jesus,
        were catastrophic and horrific for the Jewish people.

Can we get our heads around the tragedy and trauma
    that the Jewish people suffered?
    …just a handful of years before this Gospel was compiled?
    …in a city of Jews and Gentiles living together
        in the heart of the Roman Empire?
That reality, to say the least,
    deeply informed the writers and compilers of Matthew.

The other reality that shapes this book
    is the conflict inside the Jewish synagogues
    between those who said Jesus was the promised Messiah,
        and those who did not.
    That divide between followers of Jesus and the rest of Judaism,
        got especially tense in cities like Antioch
            that were largely Gentile,
        because the followers of Jesus were beginning
            to incorporate more Gentiles into their communities.

Antioch was kind of ground zero for that conflict,
    and resulted in a separation from the synagogue.
So Jewish followers of Jesus found themselves
    having to choose between their faith in Jesus as God’s Messiah,
    and having a home in their local synagogue.

We believe the Gospel of Matthew was written, first and foremost,
    to strengthen and encourage this hybrid Jew-Gentile
        community of Jesus’ followers living in the midst of
        multiple layers of religious conflict and military conquest.
Matthew shows us a Messiah
    who came into a world deeply broken and flawed,
    but was the embodiment of Yahweh’s love and presence
        in the midst of that brokenness.
Matthew seems very concerned that his Jewish readers understand
    that Jesus is the bonafide Messiah,
    who fulfilled all the prophecies of their Hebrew scriptures.

In contrast to the resistance they were experiencing at the synagogue,
    Matthew reassures them that Jesus is the Jewish Messiah.
    And then to reassure Gentile members of the early church,
        Matthew highlights that Jesus is God’s way
        to further God’s plan for the peace and flourishing
            of all the nations of the world,
        not just the biological descendants of Abraham and Sarah.

This is why Matthew is the only one
    who tells us the famous Christmas story
    of the magi who come from the east
        to worship the newborn King of the Jews.
This story emphasizes, understandably,
    both the Jewish identity of the Messiah,
    and the universal, global, and inclusive scope of Jesus’ kingship.

And, I believe,
    this is why Matthew is the only Gospel
    to begin his book with an extended genealogy of Jesus,
        which you are about to hear.
He traces Jesus’ ancestral roots back to King David, and to Abraham,
    and at the same time, highlights the Gentiles in his genealogy,
    and the key role played by certain named women,
        who might otherwise be dismissed,
    and even calling attention to some unsavory ways
        that Jesus’ ancestry played itself out.

The message seems to be that Jesus’ Messiah-ship
    is for all people and all nations,
    and that God’s faithfulness toward us, does not waver,
        even in the face of our own failures and sin and missteps.

I think that’s an important message for the first readers of Matthew,
    living in a time of political and religious turmoil
        in Antioch of Syria,
    and an important message for us today,
    living in times that are not all that different, come to think of it.

And so begins our journey in Matthew.

—Phil Kniss, January 1, 2023

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