So, here it starts. At the very beginning.
Well, not the beginning. That happens much, much earlier and we’ll get an amazing glimpse of it when we move onto John’s Gospel.
This beginning is three-fold. Firstly, we see the beginning of Israel, from Abraham right through to the birth of Jesus via no less a figure than King David. Jesus’ royal pedigree and Jewish pedigree are being established right away. He is a direct descendant of David, so he meets one big criteria for being Israel’s long awaited Messiah.
The second beginning is the birth itself. Here we encounter one of my favourite Biblical figures in Jesus’ step-father, Joseph. This is a man with an unbelievably tough decision to make. His fiancee, Mary, is pregnant and it is clearly not his child. He is a “righteous man”, so he knows that the Law demands that he has nothing to do with Mary and he intends to follow that. However, there is clearly love and compassion in his actions as he resolves to divorce her on the quiet, to avoid any public disgrace to her. Even though, as far as he knows at this point, she has betrayed him, he still wants to protect her rather than gain revenge by humiliating her.
Then, a dream. Joseph is told that the child is God’s own son and he needs to trust in God that things will be ok. And he does. As far as we can see there are no quibbles or arguments, but Joseph trusts God unconditionally, despite what the repercussions are for him and Mary.
I love that. What Joseph does demonstrates respect for God’s law, love for Mary and complete trust in God all in one event. All of which probably went against his own desires and instincts. There’s an example for us all to follow.
The final beginning is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In a few verses we’ve jumped about 30 years, but this is where the action begins.
It starts with a wild man in John the Baptist, Jesus’ cousin, declaring that the Kingdom of God is near. Not far off. Nor in a box. Not separated from us by a curtain in the Temple. It’s near to us, almost with us.
He’s seen at the start preparing the Pharisees and Sadducees for the many times Jesus’ brings their narrow views down to earth (“nest of course” is such a cracking insult!). He then, though, echoes Isaiah’ s prophecy which is mentioned in chapter 1,
“Then Isaiah said, “Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel. He will be eating curds and honey when he knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right” (Isaiah 7:13-15 NIV)
“But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not think you can say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance. But after me comes one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not worthy to carry. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire.”” (Matthew 3:7-12 NIV)
The whole theme of separating the good from the bad, the wheat from the chaff, is prevalent here. Both are aimed squarely at Israel and those who reject God. In John’s case, however, it is specifically aimed at those who will, in time come to reject Jesus. Not even their Jewish heritage will save them as God can fashion sons of Abraham from the stones (an early sign that textiles are being saved too?).
After all of this examination and hellfire, though, we finally see Jesus. Not the “Baby Jesus, meek and mild” of our Nativity stories and childhood prayers. This is a man who has come to carry out the most incredible ministry, followed by an act of remarkable love and amazing grace.
John recognises this and protests that he isn’t worthy to baptize Jesus, it should be the other way round. He does it anyway.
Cue the sky opening and that voice,
“And a voice from heaven said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”” (Matthew 3:17 NIV)
So, here it starts. It’s going to be some ride!