Reflection ~ Rev Dr Phil Wall
And peace and hope and joy and…
Over the last few weeks, we’ve traversed centuries and empires; ventured through bottle episodes and Bechdel tests; journeyed beside spies, sex workers, a monarch and a Mary as we’ve heard the often shocking stories of the five women found in Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus. What we haven’t done, however, is actually read that the genealogy itself. We’ll correct that now as we turn to the opening few verses of the gospel according to Matthew and as we do, I encourage you to listen out for those we’ve got to know; to be grateful that you’ve not been asked to read; and – if you’re someone who needs motivation to get through a mundane job – to pay attention, for I will give a trophy to the person who first correctly tells me the number of ‘and’s used in this passage.
Reading: Matthew 1:1-16
Well…how many conjunctions did you make? How many ‘and’s? The correct answer was…? [Answer revealed below!].
So, how are all your Christmas preparations going? Have you booked your online shopping slot? Have you wrapped all your presents? Have you sorted out if you’ll be meeting up with others during the travel window? It’s not easy is it…I know the latter caused some tantrums and tears in my family…but whilst some of us will be avoiding seeing anyone this year to reduce the risk of Covid transmission, others of us will be glad that we can meet up with family members and participate in some of the traditional festive activities. Christmas, the papers tell us, has been saved (!). But – seeing as we’re looking at our family tree this morning – I wonder what some of our foremothers and fathers would have thought about the Government’s handling of Christmas during a pandemic. You see, this isn’t the first time that the Government has considered cancelling Christmas for the health of the nation. In fact, in the mid 1660s – when Lynda was just at nursery – the British Government was so worried about the spiritual health of the nation that the celebration of Christmas was outlawed and, in many cities, soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets, seizing any food they discovered being prepared for celebrations and even turfing worshippers out of church! And whilst this year, it’s a few rather petulant church leaders who have moaned about not being able to put on Christmas services, back then, it was other petulant church leaders who demanded that we didn’t. What was their reasoning, we may well ask, well let’s just say they weren’t big on Christmas;
‘More mischief is at that time committed than in all the year besides…What masking…and robbery, whoredom, murder and whatnot is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used more than in all the year besides to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.’
So declared puritan pamphleteer Philip Stubbs in his most famous work ‘The Anatomie of Abuses’ a century earlier.
In other words, many of our church mothers and fathers were against any celebration of Christmas as the festivities often devolved into drunken debauchery. And whether you empathize with that point of view or want to cry ‘Scrooge’, I think it’s interesting to unpack, briefly, which Christian beliefs framed that perspective on Christmas.
You see, the Puritans of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries had their origins in Calvinist theology which, you might remember, stressed that our salvation – our path to paradise – came through faith alone; grace alone; and, well, just alone alone – for our salvation was not understood to be communal – it was not available to everyone or even to all at church – but to a few individuals. Essentially, the argument goes, God gives the gift of salvation to some individuals and withholds it from others. Your receipt or denial of salvation has nothing to do with your actions or the choices you make in this life and you can never really be sure whether you are on God’s naughty or nice list. The only hint you can get is to analyse just how good, how holy, how pure your outward behaviour is. And thus continued centuries of Christians trying to outdo each other in piety and trying to work out – to judge – whether the person in the pew next to them was behaving better or worse than themselves. And, as you’ll know, anyone deemed to be behaving badly was hauled up in front of the elders to receive their humiliation, punishment or banishment…for sin would otherwise spread like a pandemic!
Compare this, then to the extraordinary women we have read about who defiantly take their place in Jesus’ family tree. Rahab the sex worker who saved her family; Tamar who tricked her father-in-law into bed; Bathsheba the innocent woman turned adulteress, war widow and grieving mother by the King; Ruth who was essentially pimped out by her mother-in-law in their desperate plan for survival; and Mary, likely a teenager who was pregnant out of wedlock.
The Biblical truth…and I don’t use those words lightly…is that God chose to work out his plan to bless all the nations of the world through these women and their less than pious family – that these women cannot be written out of Jesus’ story…just as we can’t write anyone out of his. And I think that this is no happenstance. I believe the truth that we hear time and time again throughout the scriptures, and most fully and fantastically in the person of Jesus, is that God loves things by uniting with them, not by excluding them. God so loved the world that Jesus was born into it. God so loves all his children – not simply the pious and puritanical but the outcast and maligned, the forgotten and despised, the villains and the victims – that Christ was born our brother, reminding and revealing to us the sanctity of all humanity – of all creation for that matter. This is why the angels sang of God news of great joy for all people. This is why Jesus spoke of blessing from a mount, forgiveness on a cross, and peace in a locked room. This is why we’re called to celebrate Christmas through our demand for justice in our Amnesty service; in our gift-giving to our friends in the community; and in our support of our nominated charities today, the first of which – Women’s Aid RCT – supports the women who are at risk of domestic abuse, sexual violence and poverty in our local community – women whose foremothers were judged by the church, loved by Jesus and who stand proud in his genealogy.
We might also remember that Tamar, Rahab, Bathsheba and Ruth were also foreigners – women who crossed boundaries of nationality and religious otherness to take their place in the story of salvation. A reminder, perhaps that Jesus’ family ties and ours extend well beyond the limits of geography and religion – a truth we joyfully declare in our support of a school in Madagascar that bears the name of a lad from Carmarthenshire. A little later we’ll hear more about the second cause we’re supporting this advent – the David Griffiths Church School – from someone who took Griffith’s trip in reverse – who travelled from Madagascar to Wales in order to share God’s love – but for now it is enough to say that our support of this school and the work it does to educate and empower the most vulnerable children in the area speaks of Christ’s coming as a sibling of all people, from every nation and tribe.
What’s more, I believe that the understanding of the global nature of our family – of all God’s children – can be found in those opening verses of Matthew. Which brings me to something I need to clear up from the very first of our sermon series on these strong women, and that’s the fact that the genealogy we find in Matthew focuses on the family line that goes through Joseph, Jesus’s adopted father, rather than Mary, his blood mother. Some commentators have stressed how this is a bit odd. After all, if we’re talking about a biological family tree, surely it should be Mary’s ancestry in which we’re interested?
Well, in first century Palestine, for both Jews and Romans, adoption was absolute and the adoptee was to be treated as though they were the biological child of the new parent(s). In other words, Joseph would have been viewed as Jesus’ legal, recognized father, which meant Jesus would have shared his ancestry. A simple, perhaps rather prosaic, explanation there.
But I wonder if the fact that Jesus’ genealogy goes through his adopted father might reveal something more profound. I wonder if it says something about how we are all ontologically changed – a fancy term that essentially means that our very nature is transformed – through our relationships with one another. I wonder if, in this year of global pandemic; Black Lives Matter protests; of politicians arguing about national fishing rights whilst children continue to drown at sea – I wonder if it reminds us that we all belong to one another; that nationalistic pride, egocentric judgments, and individual salvation make no sense in God’s kingdom in which I am because we are because God is. I wonder if it reminds us that Tamar and Rahab and Bathsheba and Ruth and Mary; and Judah and Salmon and Boaz and Bathsheba’s husband and Joseph; and Stubbs and Calvin and David Griffiths and Dewi Sant; and Julian of Norwich and Mary Jones and Constance Coltman and Maya Angelou; and Eric Garner and George Floyd and Breonna Taylor and Sean Rigg; and Joe Biden and Donald Trump and Boris Johnson; and Mark Drakeford and Michel Barnier and Christian Ntsay; and Angela Merkel and Kamala Harris and Jacinda Ardern and Elizabeth Windsor; and Joe Exotic and Peter Sawkins and Vernon Kay and Tess Daly and Claudia Winkleman; and Wynne Edwards and Haydn Goodfellow and Rob Hughes and Sandra Parker, and you and me are all inextricably connected, united, bonded together as the siblings of Christ, as children of God, breathed into life by the Spirit who enlivens and encourages us to live out God’s demand for justice and joy for all.
That’s 41 ‘and’s, billions of siblings, and one extraordinary God. Amen.
Prayers For Gift Sunday ~ By Deborah Jones
We know that family trees and ancestry have run through the centuries – that they have helped many people to know family and belonging on earth.
During the year of coronavirus, it has sometimes been hard for families to be part of a family tree which has been an important way of family life since the beginning.
Governments uniting and finding the best way for family trees to continue in the wider world.
In this year of confusion, we are thankful that Jesus takes us back to the descendants of David.
‘And there shall come forth a rod out of Jesse and a branch shall grow out of his roots’.
We give thanks for the following:
Families will be able to have Christmas this year
Families who have reunited maybe at Christmas.
We think of those lonely without family – may they know the gift of Christmas.
We give thanks for the great physicians, Albert Einstein, Stephen Hawking, scientists breaking through the boundaries at the edge of life changing medicine.
We pray for the nominated charities the church is supporting this advent, Women’s Aid RCT; The David Griffiths Church School in Madagascar; Christian Aid.
We give thanks for Constance Coltman, Florence Nightingale, the descendants of Abraham, Mary the mother of Jesus.
From David when the people of Israel were taken into exile in Babylon, from the time after the exile in Babylon,
Christmas takes us from ancestry to the star in the East. As we wonder at the birth of the Messiah
Christmas takes us from ancestry to the one who came to change the world. A true Christmas gift.
And in a moment of quiet, we bring to you all the people and places who are in particular need of your peace, hope and joy this Christmas.
[Time of quiet]
Gift-giving God, we bring all our prayers together – those silent and spoken; communal and individual – in the prayer that Jesus gifted us, saying in whichever language and version we choose;
Our Father/Eid Tad…Amen
Go, speak joy, for Jesus is the Good News for all humankind.
Go, seek joy, for the face of God can be glimpsed in friend and stranger.
Go, spread joy, for we all are unconditionally loved and nothing – not sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, not even death – can take that love away.
And so may the blessing of God – Creator, Son and Spirit – give us joy in our hearts this day and forevermore. Amen.
Joy to the world