One of the most important things I have learned about God can be summed up in a single word: intentionality. There is meaning and purpose in every facet of both the created universe and each individual life. God “intended” it that way.
If we are to be godly people we must be intentional about how we practice our faith and how we plan on bringing into fruition the requirements of being Jesus’ disciples.
Advent is the perfect time to recover and put into practice our often diminished sense of intentionality. We spend a lot of time and expend a lot of energy and resources responding to crises throughout the year. That’s life and there is certainly nothing wrong with thoughtful, bold, and compassionate responses to the emergencies that are so often and unexpectedly thrust upon us. But even a cursory glance at the ministry of Jesus in the gospels and the apostles and early Christians in the book of Acts reveals a great deal of thought and prayer put into achieving God’s will and implementing the spiritual realities and goals of His kingdom.
My contribution to Advent this year is to examine the opening chapter of each of the gospels. It is there that we find the key to unlocking each author’s version of the “advent” of Jesus the Messiah. All four gospel writers presented a unique perspective on the revelation of God’s Son and were very intentional in the early sentences (verses or chapter) about what the theme of their presentation was to be.
Let’s begin with Matthew. <Read Matthew 1:1-25>
Why in the world did Matthew think it would be a good way to capture anyone’s interest or attention by sharing a lengthy list of names that begin with Abraham and culminates in Joseph the husband of Mary? And even more to the point…if you believe in the inerrancy and infallibility of the Bible (as I do), what possible reason could God have in ensuring this genealogy made it into the eternal Word of life? Of what significance to people living centuries removed from the gospel is Matthew’s genealogy? What is Matthew conveying beyond the interest of the ancestry of Mary’s husband?
One word: History.
Those who place an emphasis on history are still around to be a part of it. Those who don’t…who are they?
Most of the issues that are tearing at the fabric of America today are related to the de-emphasization of history in our educational system as well as the culture at large. For instance, one of the newest members of Congress is a self-avowed socialist (Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) and a recent poll revealed: “nearly half of all millennial Democrats (48%) identify as democratic socialists or socialists.” This, despite the fact that there is not a single instance in history, of socialism being successful. Not one. I saw a meme on the internet the other day that read, “If Socialism is so good and Capitalism is so bad…then why isn’t the Caravan heading to Venezuela?!” That’s a good question that everyone who has embraced socialism should ponder.
History is the rudder for the future. When you abandon history, you abandon reality.
The first thing Matthew wanted to say about his account of Jesus of Nazareth is that Christianity is rooted and entrenched in real-world history. Critics of the Bible love to say that it is just a great big fairy tale. But fairy tales don’t really bother with genealogies or who was the particular king during a particular time when events being related occurred, do they? Luke’s gospel begins with a paragraph that purports to record “things that have been accomplished among us,” “eyewitnesses,” and “an orderly account” (Luke 1:1-3). As a matter of fact, Paul would later admonish his young protégé Timothy to “Have nothing to do with irreverent, silly myths” (1 Timothy 4:7).
Matthew’s genealogy is a signal. What he is about to reveal and unfold is not a tall tale dreamed up by a bunch of desperate self-aggrandizing Jews in an attempt to control others or immortalize their own names and fame. No, this is an account of how God personally entered world history.
As the Creator of all that is, God was never really a part of His creation. He is the first cause and the prime mover and would often interact with the created order, but that is not being a part of the creation. It’s like the Christmas village I set up in front of our kitchen bay window each year after Thanksgiving. I put the pieces in place. I hide all the electrical cords with fake snow. I create the atmosphere. And from time to time I manipulate it. A bulb goes out of one of the houses or stores and I reach down, pull the old bulb out, and replace it with a new one. I think it is a beautiful sight. But I am not a part of it. I can’t miniaturize myself and walk down the snowy street or ride on the Ferris wheel. I created the village but I’m not a part of it.
The first thing Matthew wanted to convey after placing his gospel squarely within the framework of history through the genealogy was that God Himself entered into and became a part of history. God did what I cannot do with my Christmas village…become a part of it. Actually, live in it.
No other religion in the world is like Christianity in this respect. Our God condescended to enter into His creation and subject Himself to the creatures He created. Not only that but He “emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant” (Philippians 2:7). It is astonishing. It is mind-boggling. It is breathtaking. C.S. Lewis called it “The Grand Miracle.” He wrote
[T]he Christian story is precisely the story of one grand miracle, the Christian assertion being that what is beyond all space and time, what is uncreated, eternal, came into nature, into human nature, descended into His own universe, and rose again, bringing nature up with Him. It is precisely one great miracle. If you take that away there is nothing specifically Christian left (from God in the Dock, chapter 9, The Grand Miracle).
With a single sentence, Matthew sets a course for uncharted territory. No one has ever said anything like it. After the introductory sentence that what follows is about Jesus Christ, Matthew wrote,
When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit (Matthew 1:18).
Read Hebrews 2:14-15 and 1 John 3:8 to grasp and comprehend why “The Grand Miracle” was not a display of divine showmanship but an absolute human necessity.
Only one thing remained for Matthew to convey about Jesus of Nazareth that was absolutely foundational to his overall message. The absolute necessity of human cooperation. God’s invasion of history was overwhelming from a spiritual perspective but quite underwhelming from a strictly human perspective. It was hard to believe. Right from the beginning of this incredible story, Matthew makes it clear that no one’s free will was going to be overridden to accomplish the divine will.
Matthew quickly reveals that Joseph was no stooge. He was a “just” man, but not a dumb man. When Mary revealed to her fiancée that she was pregnant but that she had not been unfaithful to him, he didn’t buy it. He didn’t want to shame or embarrass her publicly but he “resolved to divorce her quietly.”
What happened next demonstrates just how important having a mother and father is from a kingdom of God point of view. An angel visited Joseph in his dreams and assured him that Mary was being truthful and that her child (for which he would be responsible for raising) was to “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21). Without Joseph there would be no trip to Bethlehem, no family guidance or protection, no fatherly training or wisdom imparted, and not even the name “Jesus” since the angel told him what to name the child. Perhaps the most critical words in Matthew chapter one are:
When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus (Matthew 1:24-25).
He obeyed. The greatest mystery or paradox of Christianity is that all the good that God desires to bestow on humanity depends entirely on each individual’s free will decision to embrace and accept it. In other words, the plan of salvation utterly fails if it is not individually and personally accepted. No one is automatically saved despite the nearly unfathomably meticulous plan of God that was carried out over the span of…well, from the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4-6).
In summary, Matthew’s advent message is threefold. First, the Christian faith is rooted in real-world history. Second, the story of Jesus is the account of God’s personal entrance into His own creation. And third, from the beginning of the story of Jesus all the way through now, human cooperation is absolutely essential to the plan of salvation. God did what no one could do but every single human being is required to do what they can do…accept and believe.
Everything that follows in Matthew’s gospel is directly related to those three propositions set forth in the very first chapter.