Delivered at Claremont UCC on January 4, 2015
© The Rev. Eileen Gebbie
You may have seen in the news that there is some controversy around the new movie about the 1965 march on Selma. Critics are arguing that President Johnson is misrepresented, shown as being too opposed to Dr. King’s work and complicit with the FBI’s efforts to shut down the movement. At stake is not only LBJ’s reputation but who gets to define the narrative of a movement, of a specific point in human history.
Our gospels know that struggle. The authors of our scripture were vying to tell the winning narrative of Jesus Christ. Not just in terms of language and poetry, the style of the story, but the very content itself.
What, they seem to have been asking themselves, do people need to hear about this man whom we adore in order to adore him in the same way? What will it take for strangers to his name to take Jesus as seriously as we do?
An easy answer was to use citations from other authoritative texts, like the Hebrew Bible. In today’s passage we have three:
This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”
Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”
There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”
So, there you go. Jesus fulfills what was predicted. He’s it, everyone! Except…except did Joseph really do all that we read today or has the story been made to fit the predictions?
We don’t know. We don’t know because we lack archaeological and non-Biblical evidence. We also don’t know because this portion of the Jesus story, the flight to Egypt and back, only occurs in Matthew.
Which could mean one of three things: It never happened and was made up to match the prophesies. It happened but the details did not reach the other gospel communities. It happened but the details were unimportant to the other gospel communities
The challenge for us today is that the gospels were not live-action reporting. Written down decades after the Easter mystery, details could have been lost over time, or could have been exaggerated, or could have been set aside in favor of other details that each community felt were more compelling.
Those possibilities are evident from the very beginning of each gospel.
John starts at the beginning of time itself:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.
Jesus, by name, does not appear until the 29th verse of the first chapter, already fully grown and in public ministry. John’s community is concerned with Jesus’ transcendence of all human constraints. His Creation pre-existence supports his Easter post-existence. John emphasizes immortality to inspire faith, not prophesy.
Mark, however, begins with a lengthy quotation from the prophet Isaiah, moving right into John the Baptist’s preaching in the wilderness, and Jesus’ baptism by the Spirit. There is no birth narrative in Mark, either.
For the Markan community, Jesus is the fulfillment of Jewish prophesy through his baptism. How Jesus is born is unimportant. For Mark, it is the alignment of predicted preparation by John the Baptist and paranormal appearance of the spirit that makes Jesus credible.
Luke is likely much more familiar because we use it at Christmas time. Luke begins with Elizabeth and Zechariah, a barren woman and her priestly husband. The angel Gabriel comes to Zechariah and tells him of John the Baptist, his and Elizabeth’s future son. Elizabeth becomes pregnant. Then Gabriel goes to Mary, prophesying her own son, Jesus. The two women meet and we have Mary’s beautiful prayer known as the Magnificat.
Luke is replete with miracles. Mary’s virginity and Gabriel’s presence lend Jesus the credence of the supernatural. But the Lukan account is also humanizing. By including all of these uterine details—Elizabeth as yet another barren woman playing a part in history—Jesus is made familiar.
Put together, Jesus is marked as both different and intimately among. For Luke, Jesus doesn’t need to be outside of time, but in time through God’s power.
Matthew is most closely aligned to Luke in its concern for genealogy. We are provided with 42 generations of ancestors that directly tie Jesus to David and Abraham.
Curiously, though, the Matthean community includes women as ancestors, women who at times acted scandalously in order to preserve the genetic line of David: Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.
After the genealogy, the Matthean community also gives us a birth story. In this version, Gabriel does not appear to Mary but an unnamed angel approaches Joseph. That angel instructs Joseph not to reject the already pregnant Mary, but to care for her in order to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy of a virgin birth.
Matthew validates Jesus through claims that he fulfills predictions of Messiah, Davidic kingship, and by normalizing the scandal of his birth through comparisons to other shocking women.
CASE FOR CHRIST
But we still don’t know if any of it really happened!
All we can know for sure about Jesus is that each gospel community was inspired to make a case for the Christ. Each tried to tell the “true” story of Jesus Christ in such a way that we would do as they did—give up our families and possessions in order to follow him.
And centuries later, men far, far removed in time and culture from those communities selected these four gospels as the truest, despite their discrepancies. Those ancients canonized these four as the versions of a life that, put side by side, best inspire devotion to the Easter mystery.
That compilation, it turns out, is itself a theological statement.
By not having all of the literal or material facts of Jesus’ life and death, or even insisting on a unified timeline, our faith ancestors have released us from any tendency to make faith a purely intellectual effort. We are released from having to justify in human terms what is necessarily greater than those terms.
We have to decide for ourselves—because no one has authority to decide for us—what makes the best case for Christ in our lives. It may be prophecy, genealogy, angels, or immortality, or simply the felt truth in our individual hours and days, that moves us to keep along this rough and gracious Way.
With the movie Selma, the makers and critics alike have contemporary correspondence, media coverage, and the congressional record to rely on. (Although each of those also comes with their own levels of narrative crafting and editing.)
The good news for us in our understanding of faith as alive and multi-vocal is that we do not have to battle each other to be the winner. Our gospel collection ensures there can NEVER be one definition of Jesus’ life and meaning.
So what do people TODAY need to hear about this man whom we adore, what will it take for strangers to his name to take Jesus as seriously as we do in this time and place?
Not proof-texting, not digs in the desert, or Papyrus translations. All it takes is us living our faith in ways as disorderly, passionate, hopeful, and transformative as scripture itself.