Advent 2013: How are we waiting? (Matthew 1)

Christmas is coming. On December 1st we entered the Advent season. Advent is a Latin word and means coming. This is the time in the church calendar when we intentionally remember Jesus’ first coming and anticipate His second coming. The theme for the first week of Advent is typically “Waiting.” Therefore, we want to ask ourselves: How are we waiting for Jesus’ coming? Are we waiting confidently for His return? If so, how does our confidence show in our actions?

As we read the Gospels, we discover that the people of Jesus’ day were waiting expectantly for the coming of the Messiah. Unlike us, the context of their waiting was one of oppression and injustice. Therefore, they longed for the redemption He was to bring (see Luke 2:38). Redemption was a word that referred to being set free from slavery. Due to the reality of their lives, the people of Jesus’ day longed for redemption, not primarily for a redemption from personal guilt and sin but for redemption from the oppressive structures of evil in their world as expressed by the Roman empire, regional tyrants, and local, evil power brokers (see Luke 1:67-75).

Yet, when Jesus came He did not directly confront these socio-political structures of evil. In fact, when the situation got tough in Jerusalem and Judea, Jesus left that area and stayed in Galilee. Since Jesus did not take on these evil power structures of His day, many of the Jewish people could not understand His ministry. His ministry appeared to be more talk and less action. So the question arises: Did so many reject Jesus and fail to understand His message due to this ‘failure’ to set them free? Was this also John the Baptist’s perspective when he sent two of his disciples to Jesus in Luke 7:20 and asked, “Are you the one who is to come or shall we look for another?”

Yet, these socio-political structures were not the only power structures that oppressed the people; there were also the powers of sickness and evil spirits. Remember that the ancients did not have a materialistic view of the universe. The assumption that sickness happens due to natural causes didn’t become the dominant perspective in our world until the 1700s. So, the people of Israel in Jesus’ day also longed for redemption from these powers.

Jesus’ healings and deliverances demonstrated that the redemption He offered as Messiah included being set free from sickness and evil spirits. His works and His answer to John’s disciples pointed them in that direction: In that hour he healed many people of diseases and plagues and evil spirits, and on many who were blind he bestowed sight. And he answered them, “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me (Luke 7:21-23).

Yet, even after Jesus ascended to heaven, and sat down at the right hand of God, these powers of evil remained active in the world. Sickness, death, and evil spirits persisted. Since this was the case, some of the initial recipients of Matthew’s Gospel were likely asking: What really happened with the first coming of the Messiah? Their confidence in the Messiah and in His ministry was being tested. Matthew wanted to answer their question and help them remain strong in faith as they waited for His second coming!

I lived for many years in contexts where there were significant levels of corruption, oppression, and evil. From time to time I ended up asking the same question as Matthew’s readers- wondering what had Jesus actually accomplished.

I don’t know where you are in respect to these issues in your journey with Christ, but as we enter this advent season, and move into the new year, I encourage you to explore the Gospel of Matthew. I encourage you to discover how Matthew encouraged his community to stand strong as they lived out their faith in this fallen world, as they lived out their faith waiting for the second coming of the Messiah.

To help kick off this exploration, let’s look at how Matthew begins his Gospel. Matthew begins by writing: The book of the genesis (genealogy) of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.

Now, Matthew’s intended readers were steeped in the Scriptures. They would have known about the promises that were given to David and to Abraham, promises that shaped their expectations of the coming Messiah. The promise to David was in 2 Samuel 7:12-14 – that one of his descendants would sit on his throne forever: When your days are fulfilled and you lie down with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring after you who shall come from your body, and I will establish his kingdom. He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be to him a father, and he shall be to me a son. The promise to Abraham is found in Genesis 12:3. Genesis 12:3 was wonderfully global in perspective- that all the families of the earth would be blessed in him. These and other promises shaped the people’s expectations of the coming Messiah. The Messiah was to be a king who would reign eternally, and his kingdom would extend and embrace all the peoples of the earth.

Yet, Matthew injects something else here. Matthew artistically used Genesis 5:1 to shape the way he opened his Gospel. Genesis 5:1 reads: This is the book of the genesis (generations) of Adam. Matthew begins his Gospel with this: The book of the genesis (genealogy) of Jesus the Messiah. Through this similarity Matthew seems to be indicating that God through His Messiah was creating a whole new world with a whole new humanity. In spite of the difficulties in faith that his initial readers may have been facing as they tried to balance their expectations of the Messiah with the realities of their world, Matthew raised the bar high for his readers’ expectations of what this Messiah was meant to accomplish. God through the Messiah was creating a whole new world.

To help his readers address the tension in their faith caused by the conflicting harsh reality of their world with these high expectations of the Messianic ministry, Matthew begins to shape his initial readers’ understanding of their Messiah-King by introducing them to the theme of redemption in verse 21.

The angel appeared to Joseph and said: you shall call his name Jesus for he will save his people from their sins.

The angel alluded to Psalm 130 in this statement. Psalm 130:6 says: And he (Yahweh) will redeem Israel from all his iniquities. Psalm 130 was one of the few times where redemption in the Old Testament referred to sins rather than to slavery or to land being restored to its rightful owners. Matthew directs his readers’ attention to the sin dimension of redemption.

This sin dimension was not what they were expecting. When the angel first made the statement, and when Jesus walked among his people, and even for Matthew’s initial readers, the expectation was that the Messiah would produce a new exodus. The Messiah would lead the people out from their bondage to Rome and their oppression from all the powers of evil, and establish his kingdom, a kingdom which would be guided by the perfect law of God.

And this is what Jesus did. But this exodus and kingdom didn’t look like what they had expected. And this is what the rest of Matthew is all about- explaining what this exodus and what this kingdom of the Messiah-King were.

Matthew fully affirmed that the promised Messiah-King had come. The Messiah-King taught, suffered, healed, delivered those oppressed by evil spirits, He suffered, was crucified, died, and was buried in order to model the beauty, the power, and the standards of His kingdom. By His life and death He defeated the powers of sin, Satan, and death. By His death Jesus created the way of redemption, redeeming people from their sins and from the debilitating effects of sin. This was the way of redemption, and through His death He opened the door for our transformation- the way to create a whole new humanity. His kingdom starts at the personal level and moves to the communal. When people enter His kingdom, the way they treat one another is different. They treat one another as the King treats them.

Therefore, Jesus’ kingdom was and is unlike any other kingdom in this world. Jesus’ kingdom is characterized by the cross, by self-sacrifice. The Messiah-King gave up his life for us. He rose again and ascended into heaven so that He could set His people free from the destructive power of sin and Satan. He sets people free by giving them the promised Holy Spirit. Jesus through His Spirit empowers His followers to live in and live out His kingdom while they resided among all the other kingdoms of this world.

My friends, Matthew wanted his initial readers to understand that the Messiah-King had come. His kingdom had begun. However, what they had not anticipated was that His kingdom was meant to coexist with all the other human kingdoms in this fallen world. His readers lived in the time between the inauguration of the kingdom and its final and full consummation. The Messiah-King was not going to crush all opposition to His kingdom by force, not yet anyway. That would happen with His second coming. This was a time of appeal to all those all over the world who opposed him- that they be reconciled with God.

So, while Jesus’ followers lived in this fallen world, amidst oppressive evil power structures, they were to live by faith in what Jesus had accomplished, in what He was accomplishing through the working of His Spirit and His people, and they were to be confident in where their Messiah-King was taking his world as the world moved through history.

In the ensuing chapters of his gospel, Matthew encouraged his readers to live by faith and in hopeful expectation for the second coming of their king.

The questions Matthew presented through his Gospel to his readers with were these: How are you going to wait? What kind of communities are you going to form? Are you going to form the kinds of communities that abide by the Law-Ethic of God, that are characterized by love, and that reflect the power, the beauty, and the majesty of the Messiah-King? Are you going to work with the King and see His kingdom expand and embrace all the peoples of the earth?

In this light, Matthew speaks to us and presents us with these same questions this Christmas season. How are we as followers of the Messiah-King waiting? Is our confidence in the Messiah being tested? Are we confident that He is working in the lives and hearts of our colleagues, friends, and neighbors? Are we living out our faith in positive ways? Are we living out our lives as individuals and as communities in ways that show that we are shaped by the Law-Ethic of God, that are characterized by love and reflect the power, the beauty, and the majesty of our King? Are we going to work with the King and see His kingdom expand and embrace all the peoples of the earth?

I pray that we can say yes to each of these.

Have a wonderful Advent season.