December 12th, St Barnabas (Carol Service)
Every year we tell the Christmas story about Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men and, of course, the baby Jesus. But do we ever stop to think how we got the story? These sketches imagine the gospel writer Matthew in about AD 60 travelling around, making sure he had a reliable account of Jesus’ life to pass on to future generations …
Matthew in Nazareth
Matthew: Thank you so much for agreeing to meet me here in Nazareth.
Old lady: And your name is?
Matthew: Matthew, although some know me as Levi.
Old lady: And you said you were writing a life of Jesus.
Matthew: That’s right. Well, Jesus’ friends are getting older and some of them have been killed, and I am trying to write a reliable record of events before it gets too late.
Old lady: It’s funny you should mention that. We had some doctor fellow called Luke round here last year trying to do the very same thing.
Matthew: Ah yes, I know Luke and I think he’s produced a top class book. He obviously did a lot of research about John the Baptist and Mary and the shepherds. I am sure his work will be read for years to come.
Old lady: So why are you writing another one?
Matthew: Don’t get me wrong – Luke did a fine job. But I think there are some details that he didn’t include.
Old lady: Such as?
Matthew: Such as Joseph, for instance. I know so little about him, and I’d love to find out more.
Old lady: I am glad you mentioned Joseph. Yes, he was a truly remarkable man.
Matthew: You remember him then?
Old lady: Oh yes. Of course I was very young when he died but I still remember him. He was the sort of person who always seemed to do the right thing. Not in a big or showy way. But if there was one person you could trust it was Joseph. And we were so pleased when he got engaged to Mary. He’d been looking for a wife for so long and it seemed he’d now found the perfect match.
Matthew: So it must have been quite a shock for him when Mary said she was pregnant?
Old lady: You can say that again. I was only little and didn’t really understand what was going on. But there were all sorts of stories flying around. Some said Mary had been visited by an angel, others that she’d got too friendly with the Roman soldiers, others that Joseph wasn’t the good Jewish man he made out to be. It’s little wonder Joseph wanted to call the whole thing off.
Matthew: Did he indeed?
Old lady: Oh yes. What else could he have done in the situation?
Matthew: But clearly he didn’t.
Old lady: No. That’s because just as he about to wash his hands of Mary he had a dream. Now carpenters aren’t the sort of people to have fanciful dreams and visions about God, if you know what I mean. But when the next day he began sharing what the angel had said, folk began to realise what Mary was saying was true. Mary’s child wasn’t a shameful secret or an embarrassing accident. He was the wonderful gift of God who would save people from their sins.
Matthew: So you’re saying if Joseph hadn’t had his dream, folk wouldn’t have believed Mary.
Old lady: That’s right.
Matthew: Thank you. That’s most helpful. I must include Joseph in my book.
Matthew in Arabia
Young man: Welcome, weary traveller. We do not get many from the West who travel over the desert to visit us. Your task must be important indeed.
Matthew: My name is Matthew and I am writing a life of Jesus of Nazareth. I am looking for someone here who might have visited him when he was born.
Young man: Nazareth, you say? I am afraid I have never heard of this place called Nazareth. I have heard stories of a man called Jesus but he was born in Bethlehem. I hope you haven’t travelled all this way for nothing.
Matthew: No, not all. All my research indicates this Jesus of Nazareth was in fact born in Bethlehem, and I have heard many stories about the foreigners who came to worship him.
Young man: What kind of stories?
Matthew: Of strange visitors to the palace in Jerusalem. Of camels ridden through the streets of Bethlehem. Of rare and exotic gifts given to the new-born child.
Young man: Such as gold and frankincense and myrrh?
Matthew: That’s right. How do you know?
Young man: My grandfather was one of those who made the journey. He often used to tell me stories of what happened when I was young. He isn’t alive now, but I can remember everything he told me.
Matthew: It clearly was a very special experience for him.
Young man: Oh yes. In fact in many ways it changed his life.
Matthew: So take me back to the beginning of the story and explain why your grandfather made the journey in the first place.
Young man: Well, if you really want to understand, you have to realise that for hundreds of years our people have been guided by the stars. Stars told us, or so we thought, what was going to happen, who we were going to marry, whether the flocks would breed well that year. It was our life’s work trying to read the signs from the heavens and working out whether the gods were pleased with us or not.
Matthew: So how did the stars cause your grandfather to make his journey?
Young man: Well, you see, we had always looking for that one special arrangement of the stars which would tell us that a king had been born. We always thought the stars would show us a king amongst our own people. You cannot imagine the shock and wonder when the stars revealed that the king had been born amongst the Jewish people. But if this what the gods had willed, who were we to argue? It was clearly our duty to travel to the land of the Jewish people to worship him.
Matthew: So your grandfather set out straight away on his journey.
Young man: No, no, no. You have to spend weeks, even months making sure you are properly prepared to visit a king. You have to find the right gifts, the right clothes, the right servants before you can even think of travelling. That all takes a lot of time.
Matthew: But in the end your grandfather set out and he found the king.
Young man: Not exactly. I suppose he and his companions should have seen where the star was leading. But they could only imagine the king was born in a palace, and so they went to Jerusalem.
Matthew: And that’s when they ran into King Herod.
Young man: Absolutely right. My grandfather could see from the very first meeting that King Herod was going to cause trouble. And he told me later that unless he had been warned in a dream not to go back the same way, he would have fallen right into the trap Herod had set him.
Matthew: So how did he find Jesus?
Young man: That’s the really odd part of the story. Because it was in the palace that my grandfather learnt about the Hebrew Scriptures and the promise of a king born in Bethlehem. Of course our people had all heard about these Scriptures before and we respected them. But up to that moment when my grandfather heard the chief priests speaking to Herod we never realised that the God of the Jewish people would want to speak to us Gentiles through them.
Matthew: That’s something we Jewish people have had to learn too. We never imagined God would actually want to come and save people who didn’t keep the law, who – please forgive me – chose to do things like worship the stars.
Young man: Yet that’s exactly the lesson my grandfather learnt when he arrived in Bethlehem. It didn’t matter to the child whether the visitors were Jewish or Gentile, male or female, rich or poor. My grandfather couldn’t ever describe it exactly, but something about that child spoke to him of God’s acceptance of all people no matter who they happen to be.
Matthew: And yet that child was also a king.
Young man: Oh yes. Of course he wasn’t the person my grandfather was expecting. But in that ordinary child he saw God come among us as king and as Lord. And he could do no other than bow down and worship Him.
Matthew: Thank you. I am so glad I made this journey.
Matthew in Jerusalem
Security official: (Bringing a bundle of folders) I shouldn’t really be giving you these files. If anyone knew I had shown them to you, I would definitely be for the chop.
Matthew: Don’t worry. Thirty years of persecution have taught us Christians how to keep identities secret. So what do you have here?
Security official: (Reading writing on first folder) “Top Secret – The Jesus files. Only to be read by authorised personnel. By order of King Herod.” (Takes paper out of first folder). “Intelligence sources indicate several foreign dignitaries have entered our country without the express permission of the king. Their mission is at present unknown. We have heard reports, as yet unconfirmed, that they are heading for Jerusalem. Their intent appears not to be hostile. Recommended course of action – ongoing surveillance. Arrest and deportation only to be used as last resort.”
Matthew: (taking second folder). “The above-mentioned foreign dignitaries yesterday requested permission to see King Herod. After taking appropriate security measures, access was granted. Stated purpose of mission to worship King of the Jews. They have received reports of a royal birth. Herod requests agents to investigate this apparent threat to the national interest and to report on ideas as to how best to neutralise it”
Security official: (reading third folder). “Agents have reported back. Chief priests indicate place of royal birth to be Bethlehem. Herod to invite foreign visitors to report back exact location. Ongoing surveillance of their movements recommended.”
Matthew: (Taking fourth folder). “Foreign visitors appear to have escaped. Unsubstantiated rumours so-called King of the Jews has been taken to Egypt by parents. Herod wants swift action to demonstrate his authority. Operation Rachel to be put into effect as soon as possible”
Security official: I think I better return these folders as soon as possible.
Matthew: It makes you wonder though, doesn’t it? Why did Herod think one tiny child could be such a threat to his authority?
Security official: Maybe that child really was a king.
Matthew: Well, you’ve heard what happened to that child, haven’t you? You haven’t? Come with me and let me explain what happened next…
Matthew interrupts the service
Matthew: So you’re going to end the story there?
Rev Tim: Well, yes, it’s where we stop each Christmas.
Matthew: And what is this Christmas that you are talking about?
Rev Tim: It’s a special celebration each year of Jesus’ birth.
Matthew: So you read the opening words of my book to celebrate it. I am honoured (bows low)
Rev Tim: Yes, although if I may say so we do tend to skip over Jesus’ family tree. We’re not very hot on all those long names, you know.
Matthew: I might just about forgive you for that. But tell me – after you celebrate this Christmas do you all come back to hear the rest of the story?
Rev Tim: Some of us do.
Matthew: Only some of you? You mean there are some people who only ever hear the beginning of my story?
Rev Tim: That’s right.
Matthew: Let me get this straight. Each Christmas lots of people come to church and hear the first part of my story over and over again. But they never go on to read the rest of it.
Rev Tim: That’s about the sum of it.
Matthew: But…but…but…that’s crazy. I mean, do you folk usually read the opening words of a story and then decide you don’t need to read the rest of it?
Rev Tim: Not generally, no.
Matthew: But you do this with my precious book, the story of Jesus? I really don’t understand. What about all of Jesus’ precious teaching? The miracles he performed? His suffering and crucifixion? The wonderful story of his resurrection and the great commission? Don’t you see this Christmas story is only an introduction?
Rev Tim: I tell you what, why don’t we give everyone here a copy of your gospel tonight? It can be their Christmas present.
Matthew: That sounds like a really good idea. The only trouble, I can’t sign any of the books …