Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Scandalous Good News of Christmas: Homily for the Sunday before the Nativity of Christ in the Orthodox Church

Hebrews 11:9-10, 32-40; Matthew 1:1-25
            Some things are so familiar to us that we no longer take them seriously.  We can become so accustomed to thinking about people, events, and ideas in the same old way that we become blind to their true character and significance.  When that happens, they lose their ability to shock us. 
Unfortunately, it is very easy to view Christmas in precisely that way.  For too many, this is a time of year primarily to become obsessed with buying and receiving gifts, with socializing, traveling, and otherwise trying to meet cultural expectations.  The danger with this attitude is that it distracts us from preparing to enter into the mystery of our salvation as the eternal Word of God takes on flesh and becomes one of us as the God-Man. If we have become so used to a merely commercial and cultural Christmas that we neglect to welcome the Savior into our lives in a new way at the celebration of His birth, we will have missed the point entirely.
Sometimes it takes something really shocking to wake us up, to get us to reexamine our perspective and priorities.  Today’s lengthy gospel reading should do precisely that, for it is not simply a list of who begat whom to be rushed through or skipped over.  Instead, it is a reminder that the One born at Christ had the right family tree to be a very surprising kind of Messiah.  Of course, the family tree shows that He is a descendant of Abraham and David in Whom the promises to the chosen people of the Old Testament were fulfilled.  But the genealogy shockingly includes four women:  Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheeba.  They stick out like sore thumbs in this list of Jewish fathers and sons because they were women, Gentiles, and involved in situations involving such scandals as the intermarriage of Jews with foreigners, prostitution, adultery, and murder.  For St. Matthew to have gone out of his way to include them in the family tree of the Messiah must have surprised many who first heard this account.
To mention their names is also to remind us that our Lord’s salvation is not a fulfillment of anyone’s expectations on their own terms.  His blessing is not a reward for our righteousness or limited to those who have a certain ethnic or national heritage or who have spotless reputations in any time or place. This genealogy reminds us that even the great figures of the Old Testament, such as King David, fell into the most serious sins.   To mention these names is to destroy the assumption that there is anything conventional, customary, or expected about the One born at Christmas. 
Things get even more complicated at the end of the family tree when we are reminded that the Theotokos is a virgin who became pregnant while betrothed to the elderly St. Joseph.  He was selected against his will as her guardian when she left the Temple where she had grown up in purity and prayer.  When he first learned of her pregnancy, he was horrified and wanted to divorce her quietly.    He obeyed, however, when the angel told him in a dream that this Child was conceived of the Holy Spirit and would be the Savior.  Of course, others remained as skeptical then of a virgin conception as they would be today.  The Theotokos’ situation appeared to be as scandalous as those of the other women in our Lord’s genealogy.  To say that this household made up of an old widower, a young virgin girl, and the incarnate Son of God is an unconventional family would be an understatement. By any normal human standards, it is truly outrageous and unbelievable.  No, there is nothing customary about how the Savior comes into the world.
Likewise, His ministry does not fit with the cultural expectations of first-century Palestine, for this Messiah was neither a legalist out to condemn the unrighteous nor a military leader ready to destroy Israel’s foes and set up an earthly reign for the Jews.  His family tree shows that He fulfills God’s purposes to draw all people, including Gentiles and scandalous sinners, to a Kingdom not of this world.  The circumstances of His birth demonstrate that God’s ways are not our ways and that holiness is not the same thing as cultural respectability. Imagine the courage and humility of the Theotokos and St. Joseph in playing their unique roles in bringing salvation to the world, despite the risk to their reputations and even to their lives.
That really should not be surprising, for Christmas is about the One Who spoke the universe into existence becoming a human being in order to heal and restore our fallen world in holiness.  The Savior is not born to make us socially respectable or successful or even happy according to the standards of our, or any other, culture.  His Kingdom is radically different from even the best of earthly realms and challenges what we have come to accept as the way things are. 
Unfortunately, there is much in our society that encourages us to approach Christmas as just another cultural celebration that is not really about God, but simply about various unrealistic social expectations.  For example, only the wealthiest people can afford to buy all the latest and most expensive items that advertisements tell us are the key to the happiness of our loved ones.  But even if we go into debt to purchase them, possessions will never truly fulfill those created in God’s image and likeness.  Those who get accustomed to receiving more than they could possibly need or use in a healthy way are also at risk for developing the expectation that those who love them will show that primarily by spending a lot of money.  For both the giver and the receiver, there is the danger of becoming so accommodated to the commercial aspects of the season that we neglect and weaken our relationships with one another, not to mention our relationship with God.  And if we spend all our resources indulging loved ones with expensive presents they they do not really need, we will not be able to give to the poor what they truly need in order to live.  When we serve them, we serve the Lord Himself.   
 The way that our culture observes Christmas also tempts us to unrealistic expectations about our families.  What we are told should be the most wonderful time of the year is often one in which whatever tensions and problems exist in our families will be highlighted and brought out into the open.  And given all the focus on happiness and warm feelings, it is also the time of year when we are most likely to feel the loss of loved ones and mourn for the better days of years past. If our life circumstances do not fit with what we have learned to think Christmas is about in our culture, we may want these weeks to pass as quickly as possible.  At the very least, we all know people who think of the season in this way.  We have an obligation not to abandon them to their despair, but to reach out to them as brothers and sisters whom Christ also came to bless and save.
Our Lord’s family line was not full of people who were rich, powerful, and happy by earthly standards.  When you read the Old Testament, you will learn about some terribly broken family relationships. Today’s epistle passage mentions Hebrew saints who suffered greatly as they waited in hope for the Messiah.  As that reading concludes, “And all these, though well attested by their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had foreseen something better for us, that apart from us they should not be made perfect.”  In the next week, let us turn away from all that would distract us from embracing the good news that God’s ancient promises are fulfilled and extended to us, and to the entire world, in the birth of Jesus Christ.  Our salvation is not in striving to meet unrealistic cultural expectations or any other merely human standard, but in the great mystery of the Word made flesh.  He comes to save broken, imperfect, and sometimes scandalous people like you and me who have a lot in common with His ancestors.  Use this next week to recognize from the depths of your souls how shocking the true meaning of Christmas really is.

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