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All four of our Gospel books conclude their proclamation of the Good News of God through Jesus Christ with an account of his crucifixion and resurrection. Today we read from Matthew’s account which is strikingly similar to Mark’s except for a few additions by Matthew to make the story even bolder.
They start with a brief trial before Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor. Jesus does not respond when questioned about stories about his being the “King of the Jews”. Pilate hears the crowds cheering for Jesus to be executed, so he releases a bandit instead of Jesus. Jesus is hung on the cross with a mocking crown of thorny branches on his head, continuing the theme of his being the “King of the Jews”. Two bandits are also crucified on either side of him.
Jesus last words are the beginning of Psalm 22: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” [Mark offers it in Aramaic, while Matthew make it Hebrew]. Luke’s and John’s crucifixion account do not have this very negative way of dying. Instead they say “he gave up his spirit”, and “it is finished”. Scholars debate if he intended to complete the Psalm (which ends on a more positive note - which we use at the end of our Maundy Thursday service), or really felt abandoned. Even though we believe Jesus to have been fully divine, we also believe he was fully human, and could feel abandoned at death.
This lesson is more powerful for us because we began our service with the remembrance of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem with branches of palm lain before him. The fickle nature of the crowds is shown in that one day Jesus is welcomed as a king, then five days later he is crucified with bandits.
Palm Sunday, as it used to be called before it was put into the context of the entire passion of our Lord ending in his death and resurrection, is really “hypocrisy” Sunday - a day to remember how passing fame is. When Jesus cured the sick and lame, everybody worshipped him. But, when he did so outside of the approval of the organized leadership of religion he was quickly snuffed out like last night’s candle.
The events remembered today remind us that following Jesus, seeing him as our leader and following his teachings, isn’t easy. Jesus appeared to the religious leadership to be outside of their understanding of God’s Law. Especially when he calls on us to “love our enemies” we sometimes find it hard to hail him as our king. When Jesus proclaims God’s unmerited gift of love, his gracious forgiveness and restoration of all of us, we find the world laughing at us. How can we have a religion based on nothing to do for God - after all, isn’t that why we gather together - to learn God’s rules, and to practice following them. With Christ we learn that God’s first rule is “I do all the saving here”.
Particularly, today it is hard to trust in Jesus as our savior, since it appear he looses in the end - he dies a humiliating death. He must have been wrong.
But next Sunday we will gather joyfully hailing Jesus as our Savior again. We will resume sharing the good news of God’s unmerited, saving, gracious love of all creation - rich and poor, black and brown and white and yellow. Once again we will gather at his Feast of Victory and feel no sense of sorrow nor shame.
No wonder this week is called “Holy Week”. It challenges every article of our faith. We view God, in Christ, dying for us. We see how serious God was when he became fully human. Pray, this week, that you will not be fooled by the mob, as Pilate was. Pray that you will continue to trust Jesus, even when he hangs dead on the cross. Pray that we will all together be able to express unbounded joy next Sunday when the cross and the tomb are both empty.
GIFTS FROM THE BLUE
The Church did not always celebrate the day of Christmas in its calendar. Easter and Good Friday were the original two big days because they captured the essence of Christianity – God died and rose in Jesus for us. Next came the celebration of Pentecost – the coming of the Holy Spirit, because without the spirit there is no belief that God came in Christ, died and rose for us.
Christmas fills in the trinity of big holidays only after Emperor Constantine became a Christian and required everyone in his empire to do so, too. December 25 was chosen to celebrate the birth of Jesus for two reasons: it had been celebrated before Christianity as the birth of Mythra, the patron of the Roman Army’s religion; and because it marks the first noticeable increasing of daylight from December 21st, the Winter Solstice. The sun was coming back, and a celebration was appropriate. It has nothing to do with the reality of when Jesus was born.
We do not know the exact date of the birth of Jesus. We don’t even know the year since it is pegged to King Herod, who died in 4 B.C. Tradition puts the event in Bethlehem (the City of King David from 1000 B.C), even though all his life Jesus is known as “Jesus of Nazareth”, a small town way in the north hinterlands, nowhere near Bethlehem. The two Bible birth stories (one in Matthew, a different one in Luke, none in Mark or John) cleverly weave these two cities into the incarnation of God into Jesus, but in different ways.
In Matthew, Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem because Joseph was of the family of David. Jesus is born in their “house” (Matthew 2:11), but the family flees to Egypt to avoid Herod who was killing babies whom he thought were threats to his rule. After a while they return to Israel, but go to Nazareth in the north to avoid Herod’s son.
In Luke, Mary and Joseph live in Nazareth, but go to Bethlehem only to register for a tax. While there, Mary gives birth to Jesus in a stable. They return to Nazareth after a b rief visit to the Temple.
Alas, God does many things about which we are not totally sure.
Although we all know the baby Jesus and his mother are the chief figures of our Christmas holiday; the celebration of Christmas was first associated with St. Nicholas, the Greek Bishop of Myra (then Greece, today Turkey). He lived from 270 to 343 AD. His day is celebrated on December 6th – prior to Constantine this was, in effect, “Christmas”. He was known as a giver of secret gifts to the needy in his diocese – putting coins and treats in the shoes people left outside their simple homes as part of their custom of leaving their dirty shoes outside their otherwise cleaner homes. St. Nicholas was one of the Bishops at the Council of Nicaea, who signed the original Nicene Creed.
In Europe St. Nicholas somehow morphed into the Dutch Sinterklass. Like his Greek original, he was associated there with random gift giving to the poor and needy. In his case, in snowy Holland, by tossing coins down chimneys. How St. Nicholas and Sinteklass became associated with the celebration of Christmas 19 days after his day is not quite clear; but, it is easy to see how random, gracious, unmerited gift giving can be associated with the unmerited gift of his Son by God to us at Christmas.
The poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas”, first published in 1823, attributed to Clement Clark Moor (a New York doctor whose home is still marked on 9th Avenue) in 1837, depicts St. Nick as an elf-like tiny person, in a “miniature sleigh with eight tiny reindeer” bringing small presents to children by descending down their chimneys. The presents are still “out of the blue”, because no mention is made of the children being good or bad, nor of the birth of Jesus. But even in the 1830s, Christmas is become more of a children’s holiday.
The point of Clement Moor’s poem is not gift giving to children based on whether they were well behaved. That concept enters Christmas gift-giving only after the 1934 song written by John Coots and Haven Gillespie for Eddie Cantor’s radio show. Santa becomes an almost God-like creature, “Knowing when you are asleep, knowing if you’ve been bad or good”. He gives gifts only to good little children. Christmas has moved, thus, far away from its origins. Nothing is mentioned of Jesus’ birth in this song at all.
Gifts from out of the blue, for the needy not the good, is what we Lutherans call GRACE. Grace is God’s love for all people in spite of their sin. Grace is God choosing Abraham and Sarah, an elderly childless couple, and making them the parents of all Israel. Grace is God choosing David to be the greatest King of Israel, in spite of him being the last of several brothers, the most puny, with wandering eyes for Bathsheba. Grace is God coming in Jesus Christ to suffer and die for us. Grace is loving the unlovable. Grace is gifts placed in our shoes when we need them most. Grace is gold dropped down our chimneys out of the blue. Grace is God bringing presents to rich and poor alike. Grace is God healing sick children, or taking them to himself when healing is not the best solution. Grace is what we celebrate at Baptism. Grace is what we celebrate at Holy Communion. Grace is the simple one word summary of every good sermon. Grace is what every tiny child represents. Grace is what every elderly person will receive from God in due time.
Christmas is the celebration of God’s unfailing, unalterable, faithful grace.
Grace is not God giving us everything we demand (the Lexus with the bow, a new flat screen TV), but everything that we need. Grace is not God going against divine principles to manipulate lives and history, but remaining consistent so ultimately science, education and technology can cure disease and correct human problems. Grace is God turning us around so we can care more for each other. Grace is forgiveness in the face of sin, not rampant destruction of sinners here and now. Grace is patient.
May the Grace of God fill you as we celebrate Jesus’ gracious entry into our un-gracious world. Naughty or nice, Grace is God’s gift to you at Christmas.. The Kingdom of God is here, amongst you, the gifts of God are all around you. Celebrate God at Christmas - his stooping to enter our fallen world with his loving presence.