Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Lenten Reflections: Matthew 1 & 2

I was raised in the Baptist tradition, so low church I think I scrapped the bottom of the holiness barrel. I leaned downright Anabaptist for a long time, so the idea of a Christian calendar with seasons of fasting seemed alien to me. After all, fasting doesn't make you a better Christian. Aren't we free in Christ from the law and its appointed seasons of feasting and fasting? The whole Christian life is a feast, I thought. By the end of high school I was identifying as a Calvinist and in college I was exposed to the deep wells of tradition and theology that pushed me firmly into a broadly-Reformed camp. There I discovered the history of the saints gone by and realized that the Church Universal didn't end with the Apostle John only to restart with Billy Graham (and maybe a blip with Martin Luther). I learned how Lent is supposed to be a time to prepare us for Easter, that the fasting is supposed to deepen our feasting on God. Our hunger for food or caffeine or the internet is supposed to bodily turn our affections toward a deepened spiritual hunger for God. Still I participated in Lent only once and then halfheartedly, forgetting partway through I was even fasting or what the point was. I failed to orient my hunger toward the Lord and fell back into my thoughtless feasting. Praise God that grace abounds to the chief of sinners.

This year I actually attended a morning Ash Wednesday service at Sojourn, a Southern Baptist congregation which manages maintain low church form with high church sensibilities. They have a deep appreciation for liturgy, ritual, art, and holy expression while keeping the last, the lost, the least unalienated with esoteric holy trappings. So this morning I heard the real truth of Lent again for the first time: Man is mortal and we die to something to come alive again with a celebration of Christ's resurrection. Along with that came a charge to read the Gospels this season, so I endeavor to do so as I fast praying that my devotion to the Holy Writ will increase in my temporary death.

Today I read and meditate upon Matthew chapters 1-2. Here we read the genealogy of Jesus. It is filled with the names of men sometimes glorious, but more often inglorious. Particularly Matthew calls to mind the wicked kings of Israel we read about in Kings and Chronicles. These are men like Rehoboam and Manasseh who bow the knee to idols and demons, couching the plans of God with their own expedient safeguards and back-up plans. God can't be wholly trusted, they reasoned, so my Judahite army, Molech, and Asherah will save me if Yahweh fails. There are harlots like Rahab and liars like Abraham. Still God chose to use this pedigree to fulfill His purpose.

Other things could be noted (the Magi, Herod, the Bethlehem slaughter), but I was struck today by the example of Joseph. Here was a man I once heard described as "the manliest Christian outside of Jesus Himself." He first hears that his betrothed is pregnant though he has never had sex with her. Rather than expose her to a public humiliation, we are told that he plans to divorce her quietly. This is a drastic understatement. According to Levitical law, he could have had her stoned for infidelity! Yet even before he realizes what has transpired, he still intends to extend grace and break off the engagement. Now, we know as the reader that had he done these things he would have in fact done something quite unjust. Yet from his perspective and the vantage point of those around him, this would have been reasonable, just, and even gracious.

Then he has a vision of an angel telling him that this child is from the Holy Spirit. And he believes and marries her. In spite of the local gossip around Nazareth, he takes responsibility for a child not his own. Only an unfair modern critic would try to say that he is buying into some mythology to justify himself here. Ancient people may have had a more primitive science, but they certainly knew where babies came from! He knew this wasn't natural, that it defied all explanation. He knew that the community might (and probably did) speak against the character of his future wife. Nevertheless he persevered by faith that God was working something astounding. He doesn't even know that Messiah has come, he just believes!

It is by faith that he takes his family to Bethlehem. His wife is due any day and he still goes, knowing that through obedience to Caesar he is obeying God. He trusts God to iron out all the details. God provides a safe birth. It is by faith that he listens to the angel's warnings and flees to Egypt. Can you imagine? He didn't go back home to Nazareth at all. He brought no effects of home with his young family. Instead, he flees by night to a foreign land--a land of slavery in the Jewish mind--to escape the wrath of a jealous king. Here he shows the great virtue of provision. He thinks again of the safety of his family--a disgraced wife and a child not his own--and leaves everything behind all based on another vision from a divine messenger. He has no natural promise of safe conduct, no tangible guarantee of success. He has his faith and his God, and that his more than enough. He has nothing yet he has everything.

His journey is not so different from ours. We too sojourn by faith, not by sight. We Christians live as a people in-between in a kingdom here but not here yet. The promise of Christ has yet to be fully realized. We have the Word of God, the Spirit of God, and promises of suffering and deliverance. And so we sojourn. We travel through life prayer by prayer, trusting not in the might of our hands nor the strength of our earnings nor the knowledge of our minds. This is the life of a Christian, the life of Joseph. It is one which is folly to the world yet salvation for those who believe. May we endure well this mortal race with our full hope in God the Father, faith in Jesus Christ our Redeemer, by the power of the Holy Spirit indwelling us. May the ash on our foreheads be a reminder that to dust we shall return and from death we shall rise in the glory and majesty of our brother Jesus Christ and our Father God Almighty. May this season of death be a season of life.

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