The unpredictable graciousness of God
As we embark on our Advent journey, so we embark on a new Church year, and it being a new Church year our lectionary concentrates upon a new Gospel, this year it is Matthew. Matthew wrote his gospel to support the beleaguered community of messianic Jews in Antioch. After the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in AD 70 and slaughter of the priesthood many were looking for reasons why such a catastrophe had befallen the Jewish community. Why would God do such a thing? Some of the remaining Pharisees suggested it was because the community had not been sufficiently devout in their observance of the law; God’s wrath had been visited upon them as a result of their wayward behaviour, thinking and worship. The messianic Jewish community, later to be called Christians, came in for particular attention and persecution as a community challenging the established orthodoxy. Matthew is writing precisely to this community, to support and uphold them in their difficulties.
Matthew begins his Gospel with a genealogy, a long list of names. Of course some of the names are familiar to us, but to his Jewish audience they would all have had significance. Matthew offers them this genealogy for two reasons: first to confirm their belief that the Christ who they now recognise is indeed the Messiah, born of the race of David, the one for whom they have all longed. Secondly, to provide them with hope, they would recognise that this genealogy contained people who were not the personification of perfection, indeed they are quite a motley bunch. The story begins during the ‘patriarchal’ period when Abraham begets Isaac. Why not Ishmael, he was the older? Or why Isaac begetting Jacob and not Esau? Granted, he was a bit challenged, but at least he was honest, unlike Jacob who stole his birthright. Or again Judah over Joseph and so it goes on. In the period of the Monarchy David was hardly an example of stunning sainthood, more a mixture of saint and sinner – he arranged for the murder of Bathsheba’s husband so that David might possess her legally. Matthew publishes this list as proof that God rarely chooses the best, most noble, or the most saintly. God is not controlled by human understandings of merit but ‘Manifests his own unpredictable graciousness’. God works, as the reformers of the church proclaimed, through grace. Matthew’s gospel tells us as we later learn in the birth narrative that the story of Jesus is our story too. Matthew challenges the pharisaic understanding that the messiah could only come through our perfection, our perfect observance of the law. Rather God works with and through the imperfections of humanity to bring forth the Christ child and he does so not dependent upon our behaviour but by and through his own will, ‘grace’. The whole birth narrative is shot through with stories of the imperfect being chosen as the vehicles of God’s good news. The Christmas story, like Matthew’s genealogy, proclaims the ability of God to work through the marginalized and imperfect to make real the kingdom, in other words through you and I.
We had a wonderful Community Christmas lunch on Wednesday of this week, thanks to Anne McBride and her team of helpers, with a visit from Santa who came bearing gifts (see photos below).
We look forward to the Nativity play this Sunday, for which the Children’s Church have been busy rehearsing. If you subsequently wish to explore the nativity story in a little more depth I can recommend visiting St Paul’s Cathedral website, clicking on their videos, and watching a talk called ‘God with us: seeing the Christmas stories with fresh eyes’ by Paula Gooder, a distinguished New Testament scholar. She is a great fan of nativity plays and unravels some of what the well-loved and familiar Christian stories really tell us about Jesus’ birth and why God chose this ludicrously risky way to redeem the world.
With every blessing as we journey on through Advent and prepare to celebrate Christmas