Waking Up to a New Reality
Imagine waking up. But rather than your typical experience of slowly opening your eyes as you gradually wake up, imagine that you are jarred awake suddenly.
You sense a queasiness in your stomach as you realize that your bed is swaying. Disoriented, you realize that books and pictures are unexpectedly falling from shelves. You hear glass shattering and a low, unrecognizable rumble, but you can’t quite identify the source. As a racing heartbeat quickly replaces the fog of sleep, you realize that you are in the midst of an earthquake.
If you’ve never experienced an earthquake, you can at least imagine how disorienting and devastating it can be. As the ground swells and rolls, you feel completely helpless. Suddenly nothing feels secure or certain. As you grasp for stability, questions flood your mind:
- How long will this last?
- Will my loved ones and I survive?
- If we do, how long will it take to recover?
- How much damage will there be?
Of course, the wreckage left in the aftermath of an earthquake isn’t just physical. Just this morning, I was listening to accounts of people in Puerto Rico who recently faced the largest magnitude earthquake that the island had experienced in a century. The reporter explained the emotional anxiety the people faced as they pitched tents on sports fields because they were too afraid to return to their homes due to the possible aftershocks. Their typical routines have been completely disrupted as they try to orient themselves to their new reality.
Waking Up to a New Reality
The first readers of the Gospel of Matthew faced similar disorienting circumstances. Matthew writes his account of Jesus’ life to a community agonizing about the uncertainty of their future. Understanding the original context of Matthew’s readers gives us important keys to unlocking the first stage of our journey through the Gospels.
Scholars believe that the Gospel of Matthew was originally written to a community of Jewish Christians living in Syrian Antioch on the Orontes River in the early 70’s AD. This group of Jews who now identified as following the Jesus way would have been part of a larger group of Jews who had fled when the Romans had marched upon Jerusalem in 70 AD.
Tired of the Jewish revolt that had begun in 66 AD, the Roman Emperor Vespasian sent an army led by his son Titus to encircle Jerusalem in 70 AD. After a seven-month siege, the Roman army finally breeched the wall surrounding city. The Romans intended to deal a definitive blow to the rebellion by effectively destroying the Jewish religion. With this aim in mind, they slaughtered the Jewish priestly class along with their families, sacked the city of Jerusalem, and tore down the Temple stone by stone.
The impact of the destruction of the Temple for the Jews is hard to overstate. The Temple served as the very heart of Jewish life. It more than just symbolized the unique relationship between the Jews and their God — it was a seal of their future restoration. For centuries they had languished under the repressive occupation of foreign powers from the Assyrians to the Romans.
The Temple stood as a sign of God’s continued presence among his people despite their current oppression. For the Jews, the Temple was the very bedrock of their connection to God and their hope for the future. The annihilation of the Temple, therefore, was like an earthquake that completely shook the very foundation of Jewish life.
It is important to note that in the 70’s, the Jewish Christians still held close ties to their Jewish roots and had not yet completely parted ways. So, the destruction of the Temple would have been felt very acutely by the Jewish Christians living in Syrian Antioch. Along with their Jewish neighbors, they would have been confronting similar questions that inevitably arose from the ashes of the tragedy in Jerusalem:
- Are we living in the end days?
- Does God still care about us or has he abandoned us?
- Why has something as horrible as this happened to us?
- How do we deal with this new reality that we find ourselves in?
When Our World is Turned Upside-Down
Matthew writes his Gospel account as a response to a community that is shaken to its core. The event that they thought could never possibly happen has, in fact, occurred. He addresses a community whose world has been turned thoroughly upside-down.
But Matthew writes not only to that community. He also writes to us at the moment when the foundations of our own lives are shaken, and we’re suddenly confronted by an unexpected new reality.
Many of us can identify a similar moment in our own lives when the thing we believed in and counted on was suddenly taken from us. Maybe you’ve faced this kind of moment when a loved one died, or a relationship abruptly ended. Or when you lost a job. Or perhaps when you suffered a change in your health because of an accident, illness, or disease. Or when there was a financial downturn and you found yourself struggling to make ends meet.
We find ourselves asking similar questions as we sift through the ashes of our former lives:
- Why has this happened?
- Does God still care?
- How do I pick up the pieces and start again?
- How do we face change?
An Invitation to Begin Again
At these very moments, when our lives are upended and we are questioning the very foundations of everything that we hold dear, the Gospel of Matthew comes to us proclaiming that God is indeed at work. Even in the midst of life-altering tragedy, he is doing something new.
In fact, now that we have been shaken awake to a new reality, we’re invited into a new and deeper journey with God.
The first stage of our journey through the four Gospels is all about the summons to a new journey. God invites us, sometimes subtly and sometimes in not-so subtle ways, to leave our old lives behind and venture out with him into a new way.
At the beginning of his account, Matthew presents Joseph as the model of one who responds to God’s (sometimes bewildering) summons to a new life in the midst of some difficult circumstances. The life Joseph hopes for with his soon-to-be bride, Mary, is suddenly flipped upside-down by an unexpected pregnancy that he wasn’t a part of.
Faced with an unanticipated decision, an angel visits Joseph in a dream. The angel not only provides important context (Mary hasn’t been unfaithful as he probably suspected), but also assurance of his new path ahead. Here Matthew announces a name for Jesus that none of the other Gospel writers use. The angel tells Joseph that the child will be called Immanuel, which means “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).
I find the next line in Matthew’s account stunning. He says, “When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him” (Matthew 1:24). Joseph wakes up to a completely new reality. Though he probably doesn’t fully understand all the implications of what the angel tells him, he nevertheless embraces the fact that God is doing something new and unexpected. And he willingly accepts God’s invitation to be a part of it.
I think the reason that he is willing to accept God’s invitation to move forward with his marriage to Mary comes from the assurance that God is with him. And this is central to Matthew’s teaching for us. At the outset of his Gospel account, Matthew highlights that God is doing something new and he invites us to an unpredictable new way of life. Yet Matthew also reminds us that we are deeply accompanied by God on this new and unexpected path.
Next week we’ll explore more of the signature moments that highlight God’s invitation to a new path as we continue our journey together. Plus, we’ll look at the underlying meaning of the unique landscape of Matthew’s Gospel.
In the meantime, remember that when we face significant changes in our lives and everything seems like it is out of balance and off-kilter, God’s deep abiding presence is with us — even as we set off to journey into the unknown. Nothing about our outer events changes the fact that God is with us.
Reflection Questions and Spiritual Practices
- When have you experienced a major life transition that made you feel disoriented? What was that experience like for you? How did you handle your new reality?
- In the midst of that change, did you sense God inviting you into something new? What did you have to let go of from your previous life in order to accept God’s invitation to embrace something new?
- How have you experienced God’s assurance that he is with you even in the midst of difficult or even life-altering transitions?
- Read Matthew 1:18–25. Recreate the scene in your mind and imagine yourself in Joseph’s shoes. What thoughts and feelings do you have? How would you handle the situation he finds himself in? What questions would you want to ask God?
AUTHORING + DESIGN CREDITS
✍️ Credit :: Matt Rhodes
📸 Credit :: Matt Rhodes
🎨 Credit :: Matt Rhodes