Sermon
January 4, 2004
First Congregational Church, 36 Main Street, New Milford, Ct  06776
Rev. Michael Moran
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Scripture Readings

John 1:1-5, 10-12, 14, 16
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

Second Reading: ‘Twas In the Moon of Wintertime
’Twas in the moon of wintertime,
When all the birds had fled,
That mighty Gitchi Manitou
Sent angel choirs instead;
Before their light the stars grew dim,
And wondering hunters heard the hymn:
Refrain
Peace on Earth, Christ is born,
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.
Within a lodge of broken bark
The tender babe was found,
A ragged robe of rabbit skin
Enwrapped His beauty round;
But as the hunter braves drew nigh,
The angel song rang loud and high:
Refrain
The earliest moon of wintertime
Is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on
The helpless Infant there.
The chiefs from far before Him knelt
With gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Refrain
O children of the forest free,
The angel song is true,
The holy Child of earth and heav’n
Is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant Boy,
Who brings you beauty, peace and joy.
Refrain

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Sermon


A few weeks ago I suggested in a sermon that some of the power of the Christmas season came from the stories that surround it. Some of these stories are ancient, some are modern, and some are adaptations of the old story to new circumstances. Certainly the retelling of the nativity in the carol ‘Twas in the Moon of Wintertime is an example of this process and power.

Jean de Brébeuf was a seventeenth century Jesuit missionary working with the Canadian Huron nation who wrote the text of this carol to interpret the story of Jesus’ birth in terms his congregation could understand. He wanted to invite them into the story, he wanted to involve them in the purpose of God made flesh in Jesus Christ.

The earliest moon of wintertime
Is not so round and fair
As was the ring of glory on
The helpless Infant there.
The chiefs from far before Him knelt
With gifts of fox and beaver pelt.
Peace on Earth, Christ is born,
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.

In that verse you probably recognize the story of the wise men, the magi, who arrive with their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, and you probably have a pretty clear picture of them joining the shepherds at the stable with the star above them in the sky and the heavenly hosts off in the distance. But even that picture is shaped by the same forces of change and interpretation as “In the moon of wintertime.” And I would like, for a minute this morning, to go back to the original story and see what the first teller of the tale had in mind for his audience to understand, what purpose of God they were being invited to understand and serve.

In music, in drama, in our rituals of nativity scenes and crèches, we have combined two unique and different stories of the birth of Jesus as told in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew. This morning I want to concentrate on Matthew’s tale and understand how he frames this first revelation of Jesus as God’s messiah.

The role of Joseph is very different in Matthew than in Luke. In Matthew, Jesus traces his family tree back to King David and the line of Abraham through his father’s side of the family – not through his mother, as Luke does - and in Matthew it is Joseph, not Mary, who receives the Angel visit to announce that the child is born of the Holy Spirit and will be the savior for his people. Further, in Matthew, this all takes place in a dream.

In Matthew Joseph and Mary live in Bethlehem and only leave because Herod seeks the life of their child – Joseph again being warned in a dream. And so they flee to Egypt.

In all this Matthew expects us to recognize a familiar character from the scriptures – which in those days were only what we now call the Old Testament. And it really couldn’t be clearer because this character has the same name – it is Joseph, now a Broadway star because of his Technicolor dream coat. Joseph is the interpreter of dreams, Joseph finds safety and salvation in Egypt – not only for himself, but for his family and thus for all the people of Israel.

The story of King Herod sending soldiers to kill all the children of Bethlehem and of Jesus’ escape is a mirror image of another story from the sojourn of Israel in Egypt – the story of Moses and Pharaoh.

Just like our Christmas story, the story of Moses had a whole literature which had grown up around it, and in that bigger story Pharaoh was forewarned by his scribes that a child was about to be born who would prove a threat to his crown, so he decided to kill all the male children. At the same time, through a dream, an angel told Moses’ father that his wife, already pregnant, would bear the child who would save Israel, and so warned they were able to escape Pharaoh’s massacre.

Much of this is familiar to us, but there is one more Old Testament story that fills out the picture of Jesus as the new Moses – the wise men from the east.

Although in our Christmas pageants and crèches we picture the three Wise Men as arriving at the time of birth, the text in Matthew says clearly that they arrived after Jesus was born and says nothing about how many there were – two, three, or twenty three. In fact, the term “wise men” is a bit of an interpretation. The Greek text says Magi which is sometimes translated magicians, astrologers, wise men, or simply as Magi.

Do these characters ever show up in the Old Testament? Indeed, and it involves again the character of Moses.

When Moses was leading the people of Israel through the wilderness on their way to the Promised Land, he encountered a wicked king who, like Pharaoh, sought to destroy him. This was Balak, king of Moab, and the weapon Balak tried to used against Moses was sorcery – a magical charm – a curse. And to perform this magic, to cast this cursed spell he sent to the east for a Magi, a famous seer named Balaam to use his arts against Moses and Israel.

Now the story of Balaam takes up two chapters in the Book of Numbers and has a great scene with a donkey and an angel, but it is the outcome which is interesting to us today, for instead of cursing Moses and Israel, Balaam gives them a blessing and pronounces a favorable vision of their future:
There shall come a man out of Israel’s seed, and he shall rule many nations… I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not close; a star shall rise from Jacob, and a man shall come forth from Israel.

Every element, then, of Matthew’s story is designed to put the Gospel which follows into a context his congregation can understand – the context of the people of Israel and their sojourn in Egypt and their redemption by God through the work of Moses. Jesus is the new Moses, Jesus gives the new law, Jesus leads the people out of slavery into God’s Promised Land.

The great festival of the Jewish people to celebrate the salvation which Moses brought was Passover, a celebration we echo today in the sacrament of Holy Communion. The ways in which Moses gave up his privileged life to serve the purposes of God are remembered by the Jewish people even as we remember how Christ came down from heaven to be a servant to set us free.

The slavery which Jesus broke and the Promised Land he reached, of course, were of a different nature than seen in the story of Moses. It was a slavery to hardness of heart and to all things that oppress the soul and lead to sin; it was a promised land of peace with God and a kingdom that has no end, a place of completeness and blessed reunion and joy that has no end.

God invites us to step into this story of salvation. God invites us to come and serve the story and give our lives over to the divine plan of redemption. The elements on the table are reminders of what God has done in Moses, in Jesus, in the lives of good and faithful people in every generation who gave themselves for the saving and service of others. Receive the salvation of God – be free and serve the Lord with gladness.

O children of the forest free,
The angel song is true,
The holy Child of earth and heav’n
Is born today for you.
Come kneel before the radiant Boy,
Who brings you beauty, peace and joy.
Peace on Earth, Christ is born,
Jesus is born,
In excelsis gloria.  
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