This week is a curious limbo in the church year. Even though is the week that follows Christ the King and, thus, the last full week in the church year, the Advent preparations are underway. It's like the week between Christmas and New Year's, you might not quite be ready to pull down that tree (and you shouldn't until 6 January), but you're ready to get on with the New Year and whatever that will look like.
This year, though, I experience a little hesitation. For churches that are on a lectionary cycle, meaning sets of readings prescribed through three years, this Sunday is the beginning of Year A- the year of Matthew. Matthew is not my favorite.
I adore Mark, the quick pacing, the sparse detail, abrupt beginning, the equally abrupt ending. I savor the slow, unique parables of Luke, the inclusion of women and children, the surprise appearances of Samaritans and righteous Gentiles. I enjoy the special perspective of John- the classic verses, the unique metaphors, the secrets half-exposed for the exploring.
But Matthew... Matthew is the first gospel, not because it was written first, but because it was historically prominent in the Church. Matthew has the structure and instruction, from Jesus, about how church members should treat one another. Matthew has the beauty of the sermon on the mount, but it's contrasted with the undertones of Jesus as the new Moses, leading the people to the final Promised Land. This would be great and gorgeous, if it didn't come with some underlying anti-Semitic tones. (And, yes, those are in John as well, but this isn't about John.) Some of the undertones are there in the gospel and some appear through the historical lens of interpretation that has been laid over Matthew for centuries.
In the year of Matthew, we have to deal with divorce. With the fig tree. With more specific passages about the paraousia (the Second Coming and judgment) than any other year.
In short, Matthew requires real pastoral work- wrestling for blessing and leaps of faith. And this work won't just be on my part. It will be on the part of those who are listening. You too will have to consider where the good news is in this gospel. How Jesus Christ is revealed in, this, the church's favorite gospel. What does it mean to say "Jew" and mean the religious Hebrews of Jesus' day? What does it mean to break traditions, to have a Savior who brings not peace, but a sword, to see Jesus as the new Moses?
Due to the shape of the church year, it can be easy to feel like the Bible just happens to you. You show up and there are readings. But there is a shape, from anticipation to birth, from slow realization of God's epiphany to the anger and crucifixion, from resurrection to the gifted Spirit, from the teaching and shaping of the church back to the triumphal hope in Christ's return.
Matthew has a unique outlook on those events, an outlook that has shaped the church in years past and with which we are still shaped, by or against, today. Perhaps a good resolution for me (and maybe you) in the coming year, Year A, is to seek the good news of Jesus Christ according to Matthew and to be found by it.