“Our Jewish Story”
Sermon for January 1, 2017 —1 Christmas
Lutheran Church of the Cross, Nisswa, MN
In our tradition our new year is a month old. Christians started the church year on the first Sunday of Advent. This day (January 1st) is called the first Sunday after Christmas. Even thought the commercial world doesn’t know it, Christmas continues for us. It’s almost better this way.
My concession to this being a new year is that I created a documents folder on my laptop yesterday that has a folder for each month of 2017. And in March folder I placed a document I’ll use when teaching Paul’s letter to the Galatians in Lent. I’ll do that on Tuesday evenings and on Wednesday afternoons for any of you who might be interested.
I’m thinking ahead.
And at the same time, with this sermon, at least, I’m thinking backwards. This isn’t a review of the past year, but I do have one of the more recent news items on my mind. I think you know that the Israeli government is extremely upset with President Obama. The USA didn’t cast a negative vote on the resolution of the security council that condemned further encroachments on the West bank with regard to Jewish settlements.
Well, having started with this political issue let me clear: this sermon does not concern the wisdom or stupidity of the actions taken by our President. This one historical moment does bring Israel to our attention, and it is the land of Israel that ties in with our gospel lesson from Matthew.
Matthew roots the birth of Jesus in a very particular historical moment—namely when King Herod ruled Judah and Jerusalem. It began, “Now after they had left….” So who just left? The wise men, who “had been told in a dream not to return to Herod.”
In case you didn’t notice, Matthew is a strong believer in dreams as part of this narrative. First there was the angel that appeared to Joseph. Next the wise men had the GPS dream to avoid Jerusalem their way back home. Joseph has another GPS dream to go to Egypt. And then after Herod dies Joseph was told in a dream to take Mary and the child to go the Israel, but on the way, he received his last GPS dream, and was told to avoid Judea and head to Galilee.
Now in case it hasn’t already occurred to you: this isn’t the first Joseph in Holy Scripture who had powerful dreams. This isn’t the first story of some wicked tyrant ruler who fears the birth of a particular child, and proceeds to massacre innocent children. Being called to leave Egypt with the child and head back to Israel as Joseph was has echoes of another Exodus —the one led by Moses, who happened to have survived by being placed in a basket, and ironically adopted into Pharaoh’s family.
Everything in this story that Matthew tells is about knowing what was in the books of Genesis and Exodus. That’s part of the frame for knowing Jesus as Messiah for the community that stood behind Matthew’s gospel, which is the focus for this liturgical year. Some scholars believe this is the most Jewish of all the four Gospels. I think that’s a debatable question, but it certainly is the Gospel that most frequently has direct allusions to specific texts from the Old Testament.
Since this is a Lutheran church and we have this gospel clearly rooted in reference to the Hebrew bible, I feel a responsibility to discuss Luther in reference to Jews in the 15th century. My source for these reflections is an article by Professor James McNutt titled “Luther and the Jews Revisited.” I don’t know if you know that there were two parts to the life of Luther with regard to Jews.
In the first part, when he was working out his understanding of justification by faith, and when he courageously resisted the papacy, he wrote a book titled, “That Jesus was Born a Jew.” That was in 1523. Twenty years later he wrote “On the Jews and Their Lies.” In the later work his vitriolic language echoed the century in which he lived that created a hatred climate with regard to Jews. The anti-Jewish sentiments of that time, according to McNutt ranged from “verbal abuse to open murder.” (p. 43)
Luther’s earlier theology of the cross had declared that with regard to salvation of the Jews, “God would be God.” Even in a revision of his commentary on Romans in 1541 Luther said thinking about evangelizing Jews, “who knows what God will do with the Jews.” Two years later he wrote the book that the Nazis happily republished to further their twisted aims.
Now please don’t think for a moment I’m trying to diminish the iconic image of Luther the theologian. The problem of the past 1900 years of Christianity is that Christian identity has been shaped in a vacuum thinking that Judaism is somehow radically different. Even though we kept the Old Testament, there has been a persistent wedge between Jews and Christians. The Biblical scholar Markus Bochmuehl said it is a wedge that “…has from antiquity to the period of living memory wrought consequences of incalculable horror.” It’s not Luther’s fault! It’s a history that belongs to all of us.
Perhaps our year with Matthew’s gospel can help us bridge the divide of all these centuries. I think it begins with the wisdom of Pope John Paul II who made a historic visit the oldest synagogue in Rome in 1986. He said on that occasion that Judaism was profoundly “intrinsic” to Christianity. Most significantly he said, ““This people continues in spite of everything to be the people of the covenant and, despite human infidelity, the Lord is faithful to his covenant.” (Bochmuehl, p. 222)
Precisely what Matthew will repeat over and over. Do you want to know who this Jesus? We have go back to God’s story of making covenant, even with people who wander away and forget their story.
Remember, my dear Lutheran friends, that Luther knew Jesus was raised up knowing all those stories. To be sure we have had a history of biblical scholars who try to explain away the Jewish identity of Mary’s son. One of the more recent attempts to offer a “so-called most scholarly” understanding of the historical Jesus was named the Jesus Seminar. Their strange conclusion: that Jesus was not an observant Jew, but a “secular sage.” Try telling that to the author of Matthew’s gospel.
I hope not too many of you are squirming in your seats right now. Many of us haven’t been asked too often to focus on the Jewish roots of our story. I certainly wasn’t as a child, and not even when I was in seminary. It wasn’t something that I heard my New Testament professors taking seriously.
I never knew, for example, that the Lord’s Prayer which we consider so central to our prayer life and our common worship is really deeply rooted in Judaism. One scholar wrote, regarding the Lord’s prayer, “It is the prayer of the Jew Jesus with which every Jew without inner reservation can pray…..The Our Father is the great ‘bridge prayer’ between the Jewish and Christian communities.”
What about the word “remember.” I’ll use that word when we have communion. For we will remember what Jesus did at the last supper and the words he said. And Jews at their Sedar supper, “Remember when my father was a wandering Aramean, and the Lord led us out of the wilderness.”
And what of Paul, the apostle to the Gentiles, and Peter with his mission to the Jews? Something I never gave thought to: in the early days, perhaps in the 2nd century, when the oral memory of Jesus and the gospel stories were told by those who knew some of the eye-witnesses—somewhere in that time the early followers of Jesus gave the same saint’s day to each of them. It’s June 29th. “They were apostles of the same Christ to different people.” (Bochmuehl, p. 129)
As we begin this new year of 2017 we don’t know how Israel and the United States will resolve their differences. But we can resolve as a people of faith to read our story in the light of Jewish story. To know that it is not our task to change them. That’s up to God. (And that’s what the early Luther was saying as well.)
Our task as a faithful community is to tell the story to our children. Here at LCC this years confirmation class is focused on the Old Testament. Rather than defining ourselves as different from Judaism I suggest that God calls us we treat one another, even those of different faiths, with grace and love. And with my suggested theme for the new year—it is “Going Deeper in Faith—I invite you to consider your spiritual priorities as I do the same for myself. At the very least lets wonder what in the year to come Matthew’s gospel will teach us about Jesus and what we are called to be as his disciples in the community of the Lutheran Church of The Cross, or wherever it is that you call your church home.