How many people here have experienced the sensation of déjà vu? It seems to be a rather universal experience in which one feels as though one has already experienced the present, as if in a dream. It’s a strange familiarity with a present scene, lasting no more than a minute or two. Not like time traveling, but a faint memory triggered by some present scenario. It could be a place, a person, a conversation…Its weird. Science does not fully understand it. It has something to do with the brain and memory, feelings associated with similarity. But what if déjà vu signifies something more, a reminder or a warning?
Today’s story, Matthew’s Christmas story, is a bit like déjà vu. The reader is meant to hear and see in this scene some familiar themes, characters, and events. Paying attention to those connections is necessary in hearing the meaning of Christmas according to Matthew. So, do you want to hear the meaning of Christmas one week early?
Let’s start with the obvious one. Matthew gives it to us. “The Virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” A citation of the prophet Isaiah, chapter 7. We heard it earlier. Isaiah, however, was suggesting something more than a “miraculous conception”. He was talking about the birth of the next King. He was telling the current King, Ahaz that His replacement was about to be born. He would be overthrown and his power was coming to an end. Isaiah may have had an actual person in mind, someone born in the royal family itself perhaps. So the first familiar scene is the connection to King Ahaz and Isaiah: A change in the Monarchy, a new King is on the way. This is bad news for the sitting ruler. It suggests the toppling of an ineffective government, one that has been full of corruption, idolatry, and bad decisions. He paid the Assyrian empire to conquer smaller neighbors that threatened Israel. Seeing Israel as weak under Ahaz opened the door for Assyria to conquer Israel and divide the kingdom. But God is going to establish another ruler, a new King. He will rule with equity and justice. Bad rulers will have their power taken from them. A good king is born.
We have to back up, though. Because the first memory we must confront is of Joseph and his dream. We must remember the story from Genesis. Jacob also called Israel had 12 sons. His favorite was Joseph. Israel gave him a coat. Joseph had dreams in which he saw his own superiority over his brothers. Angry and jealous, they beat him and sold him as a slave to traders, who took Joseph to Egypt. In prison for a crime he didn’t commit, Joseph interprets the dreams of two inmates, both workers for Pharaoh. When the dreams came true, the released prisoner returned to work for Pharaoh. When Pharaoh had 7 nights of bad dreams, his cupbearer remembered Joseph. Joseph was brought to Pharaoh and he interpreted the dreams to be a warning of a coming famine. Pharaoh appointed Joseph secretaries of Agriculture and treasury, making him second in command of all Egypt. Joseph was a wise steward and saved Egypt from famine. IN fact, when the famine spread north to Israel/Judah, Joseph’s brothers came begging Egypt for food. Joseph, generous, forgiving, and obedient to God never waivers in his faithfulness. In the end, Joseph saves his family and reconciles with his brothers and father. They all move to Egypt and prosper there. The end.
Except its not the end: On account of the dreams, Joseph is sent to Egypt, imprisoned, rescued, and empowered. As a result the Israelites emigrate to Egypt, where in subsequent generations, they are feared—because people fear growing populations of immigrants. As a result the government establishes a work camp program, stripping them of human dignity and rights and limiting births. Infant Hebrew (Israeli) boys up to age two must be killed.
An infant boy, Moses is rescued by four brave Hebrew women and adopted by Pharaoh’s daughter. Raised as royalty, he identifies with the slaves, kills an Egyptian slavedriver, and flees. He settles in the land of Midian to a life of shepherding in a good family. But, God confronts Moses in a burning bush, reminds him that his people suffer in slavery, and commands him to obey. Moses is empowered by God to return to Egypt and confront Pharaoh. He does. God helps, A lot. Frogs, locusts, flies, thunderstorms with hail, diseased cattle, it was a bad time in Egypt. When the firstborn sons of Egypt are found dead one morning, including Pharaoh’s own son, he relents and lets God’s people go. They go. Following Moses. The army gives chase. God parts the red sea and they walk through the waters to safety, as the army of Pharaoh drowns. Moses sister Miriam, or Mary, sings a triumphant song of freedom on the banks of the sea. Moses leads Israel out of slavery in Egypt as the great liberator, on a spiritual journey that will last a generation. Joseph’s dreams and his brother’s jealousy lead them to slavery in Egypt. 400 years later, God intervenes and rescues them by rescuing Moses and preparing him to lead the people in the wilderness.
There is a pattern in the Hebrew scripture: Corporate sin and unfaithfulness, consequence and suffering, grace and liberation, and finally a call to new obedience. This pattern rings true within the personal family story and within the larger political story of Israel and its neighbors, throughout the Old Testament this pattern is repeated. And so, we return to Matthew:
We see that this birth is not a miracle, but a sign that God is about to repeat the second half of the cycle. For the people were suffering under oppressive rule from a mighty foreign power (Rome, which reminds us of Egypt) and under a bad Jewish rule by Herod the great (which reminds us of guys like Ahaz). The people were suffering. God hears and responds to suffering. Always with mercy. Often with a great liberating act of restoration. As God saved Israel from itself, with Joseph and Moses, God will come again. A child, a son will be given. He will save his people from their sins. He will be called Emmanuel, God with us. Christmas is the story of God’s liberating grace act, enfleshed in the birth of a King, chosen before birth to liberate, lead, and call the people to a new obedience.
And so, we are invited to see the birth of Jesus as the beginning of the end of tyranny, suffering, violence, hatred, political corruption, ineffective rule, and slavery to systems of injustice and mass production that costs people their dignity and humanity. So long as "work" is the solution to poverty, we will not see peace. Work is not the solution. Grace enacted through love is the solution to every form of suffering. Billionaires and generals are not the solution. A poor, middle eastern peasant child is God's intervention into human suffering. This may be hard to see and believe, given the state of the world today. This is the scandal of Christmas. A baby, born 2,000 years ago, is our saving grace. Not Trump. Not the Pentegon. Jesus.
So, remember that God interrupts the pattern of sin and punishment/consequence with grace and a call to obedience. See that Christmas is that interruption. Notice that we are called to follow this King Jesus as God’s appointed savior. Realize that we are called to a new obedience to Him and in Him we will live in peace. So are you feeling like things in the world are off the rails? Violence, political scheming, and economic inequality are rampant. Billionaires and generals are abusing power. But, their time is limited. Trust that God acts against threats, powers of injustice, and evil. God will not let the children suffer forever. God comes for us. God has done it before. God will do it again. Like déjà vu, or a repeating dream. What we destroy, God rebuilds. The ones we enslave, God sets free. The ones in power are cast down from their thrones and the rich are sent away empty. This is the subversive story of Christmas. It is the revolutionary act of God. An end to tyranny and oppression. The beginning of the way of salvation. Do not be afraid. God is with us. Amen.