Advent Challenge

20th December 2018

The Bible is believed to be many things and one of those things is a very long story – God’s story! And while the long lists of names – genealogies – like those in 1 Chronicles 1-8, Ezra 2 and here, in Matthew 1, might not seem the most exciting bit of the story, they’re actually some of the clues that help us see the plot develop. Genealogies were important to show that people were part of the Nation of Israel, a particular tribe, or part of the priesthood. Over the next week, we’ll explore how these carefully constructed genealogies in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels frame the Christmas event within the whole sweep of the Old Testament story so far. But for today, your challenges are about lists…

Reflect

Matthew’s genealogy (the list of names, like a family tree) opens in a very similar way to the beginnings of the Bible in Genesis. Matthew’s opening phrase, ‘the book of the genealogy of Jesus Christ’ echoes Genesis 2.4 ‘These are the generations of the heavens and the earth’ that begin the second creation account, and Genesis 5.1 ‘this is the book of the generations of Adam’. It casts our minds right back to the dawn of creation and the origins of humanity. Like a motif or pattern, Matthew is signalling that somehow this birth in Bethlehem links back to the genesis of everything and everyone. Today’s challenge is about beginnings. 

Reflect

Enter Abraham. By naming Abraham, Matthew zooms right out on the family history, back to the father of the Jewish nation. In Genesis 12, God called Abraham out of fallen humanity in order to be uniquely blessed and set apart for a redemptive vocation. Through Abraham’s offspring, ‘all families of the earth shall be blessed’ (Genesis 12.3). A seed or offspring of Abraham will somehow convert curses into blessings on a cosmic scale. So Matthew opens his Gospel identifying the baby in Bethlehem as ‘son of Abraham’. It’s his way of saying: ‘Ta dah! World, meet your hope!’ And it’s one of the first hints in this list that Jesus is the baby who will come and be all that the nation of Israel was intended to be: a blessing. Today’s challenges are about family.

Reflect

Let’s zoom back in on another key character in Matthew’s list, David. Around some 800 years later than Abraham, David is another main player in Israel's history – and he connects with Christmas in a couple of important ways. Firstly, he was part of the tribe of Judah. That might not seem obviously festive but consider an ancient prophecy given by Abraham’s grandson on his deathbed: ‘The sceptre shall not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from between his feet… to him shall be the obedience of the peoples’ (Genesis 49.10).

David was thought to be the long awaited king, but a quick read of the second part of his life shows he wasn’t. But God had promised that one of David’s descendants would rule on his throne forever still stood. By identifying Jesus as ‘Son of David’ it’s like Matthew is saying: ‘Here he is! Israel, meet your long awaited Messiah king!’ Your challenge today is to bless those who lead you. 

Reflect

Matthew’s genealogy included five women. That might not sound earth-shattering, but genealogies normally traced only the men of the family. What makes the appearance of these women even more noteworthy is that four of them were not strictly Jewish: Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites, Ruth was a Moabite and Bathsheba was a Hittite. For all we’ve said about Matthew emphasising the Jewishness of Jesus’ line, here he makes room for Gentiles – and women! None of them had perfect credentials and yet they’re written into the ancestry of the Messiah. Your challenge today is include outsiders.

Reflect

On to our next list! Luke’s Gospel was composed with a different audience in mind: the Greeks. He traces Jesus back to David through Mary’s line, via Nathan (rather than Solomon). This way, Luke is emphasising Jesus’ humanity. Plus, he stretches his list all the way back Adam himself, the very first man (Luke 3.23‐38). By taking us all the way back, Luke shows that the back­‐story to the Christmas story is the entire human story. That means the birth of Jesus is not just good news for Israel but for the whole of humanity. Your challenge today is think globally, and bless globally.

Reflect

Back in Genesis 3, as humanity rebelled against their maker and faced exile from the garden, God issued the earliest prophecy of hope. An ‘offspring of a woman’ will ‘crush’ the head of the evil serpent, even as the serpent strikes a deadly blow to his heel. So when in Romans we read that ‘death reigned through one man’ (Adam) we also find out which baby grew up to be the snake-crushing Messiah: Jesus. Today your challenge is to resolve or improve something.

Reflect

The Gospel writers would have known their Scriptures (our Old Testament) pretty well, and we’ve seen their hints to it in their genealogies, but there’s more! Over the next few days, we’ll be teasing out some of these parallels in the nativity stories that might seem obscure to us but would have resounded like a megaphone with the first readers. But today’s reflection is on the amount of striking parallels between Jesus and the nation of Israel, beyond the Christmas story, when he’s grown up!  

The rest of Matthew’s Gospel makes the parallel between Jesus and Israel clear. There are Israel’s 12 tribes and Jesus’ 12 apostles; Israel’s 40 years in the wilderness and Jesus’ 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. Israel passed though the Jordan river to the Promised Land, Jesus came up out of Jordan to begin his kingdom ministry. As if we couldn’t already see the link with Abraham, Matthew makes it really clear that Jesus is like a second ‘Israel’. Today’s challenges are in 12s or 40s!

Reflect

The prophet Micah prophesied that this small hamlet — later called a ‘royal city’ because of its association with David (who we already know is key to this story!) — would be the birthplace of the Messiah. When Matthew names this key location in Matthew 2.1-2 it’s like a giant neon arrow location cries out that he is the true descendant of the shepherd-­king David who has come to fulfill Israel’s vocation to bring hope back to the world. Not only that, Bethlehem was the setting for the story of Ruth, where a poverty-stricken Gentile is saved from poverty through marriage to Boaz. Boaz was a ‘kinsman-redeemer’, who, according to Old Testament law (like Leviticus 25.47-55) had the privilege or responsibility to act on behalf of a relative in trouble – which is exactly what he did. It’s an evocative backdrop to the Christmas story. Bethlehem was a small town with a big calling! Today your challenge is to make time for small things.

Reflect

The first mention of ‘magi’ or ‘wise men’ in the Bible appears way back in the book of Daniel 5.11, (perhaps under the guise of ‘satraps’ depending on your translation). They were the wisest in the land of Babylonia, the world power that gave us the basis of modern astronomy (and square roots in maths!). And yet, in the account of Daniel 2, they were flummoxed when asked to interpret the King’s dream. It was only the God of Daniel, the Jewish exile, who could give an answer. Something of the God of Israel was known in the empire of Babylon. Daniel predicted a ‘Son of Man’ would come (a term Jesus uses to refer to himself in Matthew 8.20), and centuries later, magi in the same tradition as Daniel’s contemporaries used their knowledge of the stars to come and look for him. Your challenge today is to look out!

Reflect

Matthew’s Jewish audience would have been aware of parallels with Solomon, literally the son of David, who was brought gifts by the Queen of Sheba: ‘gold, spices and precious stones’. In Jesus, the ultimate son of David, receives even greater honour from gentile dignitaries. The gifts of the Magi also point forward. In Revelation 21.24­–26, the kings of the earth bring into the New Jerusalem gifts that represent ‘the glory and honour of the nations’. The Magi therefore herald the hope of new creation in the birth of Israel’s Messiah (and spark our culture’s tradition of giving gifts). Your challenge today is to give generously.

Reflect

Isaiah promised the arrival of a ‘Prince of peace’ (Isaiah 9) – and he didn’t just mean peace and quiet! The Hebrew word for peace, shalom, means a state of completeness or wholeness. Isaiah was writing in a time of conflict… And so the angel’s announcement of ‘peace on earth’ signals that Christmas is God remaking peace or shalom with this world. Through Jesus, he will one day bringing everything back under the blessings of shalom. In the meantime, Jesus grew up to teach his followers: ‘Blessed are the peacemakers’ (Matthew 5.9). Today your challenge is to make peace!

Reflect

Luke frames the birth of Christ in the context of the occupying forces of the Roman emperor, ‘Caesar Augustus’ who reigned over ‘all the world’. Luke is deliberately using the wide‐angle lens to capture the global ramifications of this local scene. Over the next week, we’ll be exploring how the very human, grounded, earthly aspects of the nativity help us to understand it better. So today your challenge is stay grounded!

Reflect

In around 4 BC, Mary and Joseph experienced what people through history have: fleeing their country to avoid death. As they became refugees, they retraced the steps of their Jewish ancestors, making a home in Egypt and later returning to the Promised Land under the protection of God. This parallel does not go unnoticed for Matthew. He quotes the prophet Hosea and applies Israel’s story to Jesus: ‘Out of Egypt I called my son’. This is like a new Exodus, not only drawing yet another parallel between Jesus and the nation of Israel but also the sign of freedom. Today your challenge is to welcome others.

Reflect

The Hebrew Scriptures (which we know as the Old Testament) were a story in need of an ending. In the Christian arrangement, Malachi ends the Old Testament with a mysterious promise that God himself intended to visit his temple… but only after a herald ran on ahead to prepare the way for him. 

In the Greco-Roman world a herald would run breathless to a city waiting on tenterhooks and announce the good news: ‘The Emperor is coming!’ This claim of ‘good news’ through the arrival of a ‘saviour’ was highly political. In the context of Roman rule, Caesar Augustus considered himself to be the good news. An inscription discovered from 9 BC claimed that providence had sent the world Augustus ‘as a saviour’ and that ‘the birthday of the god Augustus was the beginning of the good tidings for the world’. Today your challenge is to share good news. 

Reflect

In the Hebrew Scriptures, Isaiah depicts a herald with ‘beautiful feet’ bringing a victory announcement to defeated exiles: ‘Your God reigns!’ Now for Luke, the birth of John the Baptist heralds the ultimate gospel announcement. The moment the whole story has been waiting for is now at hand. John’s calling was therefore to be a herald in the ‘spirit and power of Elijah’ and to prepare the way for the Lord himself! Today your challenge is to get ready.

Reflect

In the 400-year gap between our Old and New Testament is the sense that God has stopped speaking to his nation. But then, at the start of the first century, there is a sudden flurry of angelic visitation. In the Bible, such angelic visitations are reserved for rare moments of game‐changing significance, like appearing to Sarah, to announce she’ll become pregnant, with Abraham’s promised son. Just as Abraham struggled to believe his wife would bear a son when they had passed the age of child bearing, hundreds of years later, Zechariah struggles to believe it when an angel comes to deliver a similar message. By drawing a parallel between the two dads, Luke is turning up the tension and setting the scene for the arrival of someone very special. John will grow up to be the herald of the moment in history God will fulfil his promises to Abraham. Today your challenge is to welcome messengers. 

Reflect

Luke captures two songs sung by key players in the story. As Zechariah and Mary both draw on their Scriptures to express their reactions in song, they both emphasise the challenge to the ruling powers. In her song, Mary declares: ‘He has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate’ (1.52). Zechariah’s song celebrates that God has remembered his people under Roman oppression and celebrates the prospect of being ‘delivered from the hand of our enemies’ (1.74). Your challenge today is to bless others with song.

Reflect

Luke’s nativity story doesn’t finish out in the fields or in Bethlehem but in the Jerusalem temple. There two very special (and quite old) servants of God have lived faithfully waiting for the Messiah, and they both get to hold him in their arms. Simeon captured the moment as he proclaimed Jesus ‘a light for revelation to the gentiles and for glory to your people Israel’ (2.32). His words echoed Isaiah’s prophecy: God will send forth his servant to be ‘a light for the nations that my salvation may reach to the end of the earth’ (Isaiah 49.6). This was over 400 years before, Malachi promised: ‘the Lord whom you seek will come to his temple’ (Malachi 3.1). The Hebrew name for Jesus is Yeshua, which means ‘the Lord is salvation’ which was one of the ways Simeon knew this child Jesus was the promised Messiah. So when he says that ‘my eyes have seen the salvation’ he literally means Jesus is that salvation. Worth waiting for! Your challenge today is to be faithful.

Reflect

If Luke’s list took us further back from Matthew’s all the way to Adam, John’s Gospel takes us even further – to the very start of creation. And you can be forgiven for having a sense of déjà vu when you open John’s Gospel. Its opening words, ‘In the beginning’ echo the very start of Scripture, the origin story when God’s word called everything out of nothing is the personal word now revealed in JesusChrist. He tells us that this child whose birth story we tell is older than all that exists. This is God in the cosmos: there before even the world began. This birth is something really special. Over the remaining few days of Advent, we’ll be unpacking what it means that God came to us from the cosmos! Your challenge today is to enjoy creation.