Mystic Christmas
Click here for the audio version of this sermon.

mystical (adj. \ mys·ti·cal  \ ˈmis-ti-kəl) – the experience of having a spiritual meaning or reality that is neither apparent to the senses nor obvious to the intelligence that leads to union or direct communion with the divine.[1]

Matthew 1:1-17; Luke 1:5, 26

I really wanna know

Religious writer David Dark wrote, “Religion is born out of questions, not answers.” Before I read his book, I had already come to this conclusion based on my general educational experiences. Most notably, my father getting me a library card and buying a set of encyclopedias for me to encourage that curiosity. As I began my faith journey, I had a few questions that popped up that I really did not understand until I heard them expressed by Andrew Lloyd Webber. See if any of these thoughts resonate with you,

Every time I look at you I don’t understand

Why you let the things you did get so out of hand.

You’d have managed better if you’d had it planned.

Why’d you choose such a backward time in such a strange land?

If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation.

Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication. [2]

And then from the next verse,

Tell me what you think about your friends at the top.

Who’d you think besides yourself’s the pick of the crop?

Buddha, was he where it’s at? Is he where you are?

Could Mohammed move a mountain, or was that just PR?

Did you mean to die like that? Was that a mistake, or

Did you know your messy death would be a record breaker? [3]

The music, for those of you who may not recognize it, is from the musical Jesus Christ Superstar, a musical written in 1970 but one whose questions still resonate with us today. The questions of the first verse are relevant to our series in that the heart of them asks, why then? Why in the Jewish year 3758 in a backwater province of the greatest empire the world had ever seen? Why step on the stage at that time and place?

Timing is everything: A World of Honor, Patronage, Kinship, and Purity

Most all of us have heard the adage “timing is everything.” For most major movements within religion or culture, it is a matter of the right person with the right message meeting the right people at the right time. With that in mind, I wonder what the catalyst or catalysts were for Jesus’s ministry to have the kind of effect on the world that it did, leading to the eventual founding of a faith? What created the perfect societal storm for the life, ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus to alter the trajectory of world history?

The world that Jesus was born into was a world that revolved around the ideas and systems of honor, patronage, kinship, and purity. Honor is the respect given to individuals by their cultural group based on being the right kind of person and doing the right kind of things. This is the opposite of shame, which can be either the loss of respect based on one’s actions and character or in the positive, the corrective means to restore someone’s honor after its loss.[4] Another way of saying this is that honor is “basically a claim to worth that is socially acknowledged.”[5] For those who lived in Jesus’s day, honor was easily lost in the droning of public opinion if one did not keep their reputation up. A person had to maintain the correct character and behavior or at the least, the correct appearance of character and the façade of proper actions if a person wished to maintain or aspire to a certain social standing.

Patronage is a relationship between two parties, one of whom has something privileged to offer to the other, such as goods and services, or social standing.[6] Patronage provides people with something they cannot normally get for themselves, but it calls them to respond to that generosity with gifts or services in return. The client becomes indebted to the patron as one who is the provider for that which the client cannot get themselves and must respond in a variety of ways according to the patron’s wishes. The New Testament recognizes this as part of the culture and alters it according to the gospel by changing reciprocity to grace. “God has indebted all living beings by virtue of being the creator and sustainer of all life.”[7] The story of Jesus and Levi provides an example of this Christian expression of patronage. Jesus, a learned and respected rabbi, invites Levi (aka Matthew), a Jew and traitorous tax collector for the Roman government, to become one of his followers, a change in social standing for Levi who is dishonored and impure by Jewish standards. In return for this act of generosity that Jesus has offered to him, Levi has a feast in Jesus’s honor, inviting his friends and associates to celebrate this change in his life.[8] Jesus demands nothing, but Levi reacts to grace and mercy with gratitude and contrition. Patronage, in this case, becomes life-changing.

A common expression in the “genteel south” that is not as innocuous as it sounds is, “Who are your people?” It is a way of finding out whether or not your family is the ‘right kind of family’ for the person asking the question to associate with. This is not a new thing as those in Jesus’s day also had to wrestle with the question of kinship and familial connection. “A person’s family of origin [was] is the primary source for his or her status and location in the world and an essential reference point for the person’s identity.” If you were born the child of a farmer, most likely you grew up to be a farmer or marry a farmer. If you were born the child of a priest, you most likely became a priest or married one. All of this because of your accident of birth into that class of people. That accident, however, had long-standing implications on the trajectory of your life going forward from that point. “In well-ordered societies, it is belonging to the proper ranking of one’s well-ordered society (often called hierarchy).”[9] Your family, whether it was an actual biological connection or what is known as a fictive or embraced kinship, defined your social standing in the community, especially within the higher echelons of society where it defined not only social but political standing and therefore, power.

Of the various social issues at play in Jesus’s world, none had more power over the religious dimension than the idea of purity. “A purity system is a social system organized around the contrasts or polarities of pure and impure, clean and unclean.”[10] An example would be if I picked my nose in the middle of this sermon; everyone here would have a visceral reaction of disgust. Yet in China and other Asian countries, no one would think anything of it.[11] Purity was not just a matter of physical cleanliness but of moral and, therefore, social cleanliness as well. “Purity codes are a way of talking about what is proper for certain place and time (however one’s society fills in the content).”[12] The opposite of purity is pollution or the defilement of those proper things as understood by society. A notable example of this is the story of the Good Samaritan in Luke chapter 10.[13] In this story, a man is attacked, robbed, and left for dead on the side of the Jericho Road outside of Jerusalem. A priest and a Levite, both members of religious castes within Jewish society, pass by this man who is near death but refuse to help as they might defile themselves by coming in contact with the dying or the dead. They are acting according to the purity law of the Old Testament, laws which were common in the ancient world for those who served God/the gods.

Flipping the Script

As we have seen, Jesus turns the Greco-Roman and Jewish world systems upside down. He declared the dishonorable, the hopeless and humble, to be the inheritors of the earth and the kingdom of heaven as he spoke about the Beatitudes.[14] In doing so, Jesus is making a statement about the honorable being those who live lives of simplicity before God, seeking not for themselves but for others and after God. He declared those who had no one to care for them to be cared for by God himself in the Sermon on the Mount.[15] This stands against the system of patronage by saying even the lowest of the low have a patron greater than the ruling classes of the Roman Empire. He declared those who were fatherless and without family to be his brothers and sisters, children of God as he wandered the countryside teaching and healing the people.[16] This kinship, according to the writers of the gospels, gives the ‘family’ of Jesus the most powerful of familial ties, ties to divinity. And he declared those who had been unclean in the eyes of the religious establishment to be made clean in the eyes of the Creator as he did with the woman caught as an adulteress whose accusers, in the end, were nowhere to be found.[17] This reframing of what is clean and unclean sets itself against the excessive purity expectations of a society obsessed with outward appearance but giving little regard to the character of the person within.

So, why did Jesus come in the Jewish year 3758 rather than in this day and age, as the Judas of Superstar asks? Because the time itself was pivotal and ripe for change. The Roman roads made the connection to major cities possible and the Pax Romana, the peace of Rome, made the world stable enough for those with the message of hope to travel and share that message. Despite Rice and Webber’s challenge to the contrary, the world of ancient Rome was the perfect place for word of Jesus and his message to take off in and reach the masses, masses who found themselves among the poorest of the poor. These masses hungered for change, not just the Jews in Palestine, but the poverty-stricken peoples of all races in the Roman Empire. That hunger found a messenger in Jesus, one whose message said, “The world system is the wrong system. The world system is the system for the rich and powerful. The God system, the true Way of Discipleship, opens the door for all to know life and know it abundantly; to know a world of plenty in the face of want, to know honor in the face of being downtrodden; to know kinship without a family; to know purity in the filthiest of outward circumstances. It was, and is, true communion with God and neighbor, true connection to what is most compelling about life.

And so, the child was born in the Jewish year 3758, because he needed to be, for the generation then, and the generations to come.


Adams, Douglas. The More than Complete Hitchhiker’s Guide. Avenel, NJ: Wing Books/Random House, 1989.

Borg, Marcus. Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time. New York: HarperCollins, 1995.

Crossan, John Dominic, and Jonathan L. Reed. Excavating Jesus: Beneath the Stones, Behind the Texts. San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco Publishing, 2001.

deSilva, David A. Honor, Patronage, Kinship, & Purity: Unlocking New Testament Culture. Downers Grove, Il: IVP Academic, 2000.

Ferguson, John. The Religions of the Roman Empire. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1970, 1994.

Goodman, Martin. Rome and Jerusalem. New York, NY: Vintage Books / Random House, 2007.

Head, Murray. “Superstar.” Jesus Christ Superstar. Comps. Andrew Lloyd Webber, & Tim Rice. 1969.

Malina, Bruce J. The New Testament World: Insights from Cultural Anthropology. Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 2001.

[1]; also

[2] (Head 1969)

[3] ibid

[4] (deSilva 2000, p. 25)

[5] (Malina 2001, p. 29)

[6] (Malina 2001, p. 94-96)

[7] (deSilva 2000, p. 126-127)

[8] Matthew 9:

[9] (Malina 2001, p. 82-83)

[10] (Borg 1995, p. 50)


[12] (deSilva 2000, p. 243)

[13] Luke 10:25-37

[14] Matthew 5:3,5

[15] Matthew 6:25-34

[16] Matthew 12:46-50

[17] John 8:1-12


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