01/01/23 – ABA Structure – Elder Alan Willadsen


January 1, 2023
1st Sunday of Christmas
Isaiah 63:7-9; Hebrews 2:10-18; Matthew 2:13–23
Elder Alan Willadsen

There are four Sundays we can predict church attendance with relative ease and accuracy:  Christmas (or Christmas Eve) and Easter will have high attendance.  The Sundays after those two holidays will have low attendance and often a substitute in the pulpit.  It’s part of a familiar cycle in church life in the United States.  Thank you being here today.

The very first sermon I prepared dealt with this passage.  In looking at different translations, the object of Herod’s wrath was translated as “children” (as we have here) and as “boys”.  I asked my brother how he read the Greek text.  He responded by saying, “Alan, it really doesn’t matter.  The point is Herod ordered a terrible thing.”

Music theory includes the study of a piece’s structure.  There are some consistent, predictable, recurring types of structure, but generally there will be a theme, “A” and something contrasting, “B”.  The contrast might be in tempo, time signature, dynamic range, key (major/minor), or some combination of these characteristics.

The simplest basic structure is known as “ABA.”  A piece begins with a musical idea, one which is or will become familiar.  We then listen for or recognize contrast, then experience the return of the first idea.  Many orchestral works and concerti have in common an opening movement in Sonata-Allegro form, in which a composer exposes us to two musical ideas, develops them extensively, then restates them in the final section of the movement, returning to the familiar.

Other structures to a piece include “Theme & Variations” and Rondo.  In Theme & Variations, a composer introduces a particular idea, then restates it using variety—like Ravel’s Bolero, in which variety is introduced using just instrumentation and volume.  In a Rondo, a theme keeps returning and the structure might be ABACADA . . .always coming back to the familiar.  A hymn with a refrain or chorus at the beginning and end could be considered a Rondo, with the text providing variety.  Matthew uses both of these forms in his Gospel.  Jesus is the Messiah, Emmanuel, Chosen One, Son of God (Theme & Variations) and Jesus fulfills God’s promises found in the Hebrew Scriptures (Rondo).

This structural analysis kept coming to mind in reading today’s Gospel passage.  We open with Joseph, travels, death of Herod, and God-inspired dreams (A), contrast in the form of the empire’s awful acts  (B), and conclude with Joseph, travels, death of Herod, and God-inspired dreams (A).  God’s presence is abundantly clear in the A sections while God is nowhere near the empire in the B section.

Chronologically, this passage seems out of place, as the first three verses (13-15) occur after the Magi’s departure.  We’ll hear about them on Epiphany.

Joseph, dreams, angels, leaving during the night, safety in Egypt, warning of the empire’s desire to destroy children.  Are we really reading from Matthew?  This part of the story sure sounds like the end of Genesis and the first part of Exodus, doesn’t it?  Matthew’s use of references to the Hebrew scriptures serves multiple purposes, including support that Jesus is the Messiah in accordance with the prophets’ teachings.

Did you ever think you should read the Bible from start to finish, then quit when getting to the “begats” Genesis 5 or 11?  Remember how Matthew’s Gospel opened?  42 generations of prominent Israelites from Joseph back to Abraham.  Perhaps we’re not as biblically literate as earlier generations so we didn’t catch those references.  Could increasing our familiarity with and knowledge of Scripture be something to work on in 2023?

From the first chapter of Matthew, we know Joseph was a righteous man, someone who was deeply concerned with treating Mary correctly.  We know he was open to suggestion—command(?)—while he slept.  Dreams returned after the Magi left.  Joseph recognized the messenger as from God.  He obeyed the message.  Such openness and obedience seem incredibly difficult to us in the 21st century.

Joseph understood how “We must follow Christ in the rhythm of His own life, the rhythm of solitude and silence, to hear the voice of God, to glorify Him and pray to Him, and then to return to the secular world.  Tragically the West keeps brushing this aside and saying, ‘Yes, that’s basically true—but let’s get down to action!’”[1]  What would it take for me—for us—to be SO OPEN to hearing God tell us to do something, SO OBEDIENT, that we would uproot our family and leave our home, not knowing how long we were to stay?

We were in Cincinnati on Wednesday, visiting Ben.  He talked a lot about his co-worker, Chris, who has become a dear friend of Ben’s.  We were going to be meeting Chris and Chris’s female friend for dinner that night.  While he was driving us around town, Ben talked of the church he’s attending with Chris and asked questions about tithing.  While at dinner, Chris shared a Cliff’s Notes version of his life.  Chris spoke of how blessed he had been since he began tithing.  Just this year he was able to move into a new home with his teenage son.  Obedience helped God provide decent shelter for Chris.  Obedience took Joseph, Mary & Jesus to Egypt.  To what obedience is God calling you?

We know the tasks of the prophet in Scripture are to call us to return to God and to warn us of consequences of disobedience.  Prophets are not always living the most comfortable of lives, nor are they asked to do what is easy.  God told Hosea, “Go, get yourself a wife of whoredom and children of whoredom; for the land will stray from following the Lord.”[2]

Hosea married Gomer and loved her in spite of her infidelity.  “Their life together was an enacted prophecy pointing to the pain God experiences over our sin and the love he feels for us despite it. The words of Hosea’s prophecy concern the wrath of a spurned husband and the forgiveness of true love.”[3]  In Hosea 11:1, God says, “I fell in love with Israel when he was still a child; and I have called [him] My son ever since Egypt.” (JPS)  In quoting this passage Matthew reminds us how great God’s love is for us.

Matthew draws again on his knowledge of the Hebrew scriptures in describing Herod.  Pharoah’s empire had denied life to newborn Hebrew babies, then experienced the death of their own Egyptian children at the Passover.  Fearing a child, born King of the Jews, Herod reacted with vile, vicious hatred and fear, using his power and the power of his empire in a terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad way.  Where does the empire exist today, seeking to destroy those it sees as threats?

God—the omni—omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent.  God does not fear.  God does not hate.  Adam experienced fear when he understood his disobedience.  Pharoah feared the nation of Israel.  Saul feared David.  Herod’s horrible ways were caused by fear and hate.  Herod feared the loss of power until his death around 4 BCE.  What do we fear?  Herod hated being tricked by the Magi.  What do we hate?  How do we counteract the Herod within us?

Again, returning to the Hebrew scriptures, Matthew quotes the prophet who refers to Joseph’s mother Hannah (Joseph, Jacob’s son—not Joseph, Jesus’s father).  Jeremiah, like Hosea, did not relish being called to be a prophet.  He proclaimed the coming destruction of Jerusalem.  His harsh calls for repentance led to death threats against him.  Matthew really is intent on confirming Jesus as Emmanuel proclaimed in scripture.  Jeremiah’s proclamations and role as a prophet foreshadowed and paralleled Jesus’s calls for repentance and anticipated destruction of the temple a second time.

“In our Gospel reading, Rachel’s refusal to be comforted is an unshakable resolve, representing the grief of the mothers of Bethlehem. The pain they face is simply too much to bear. Jesus has been spared, but at what cost? Rachel is not satisfied to trade his life for those of the other toddlers Herod kills. She does not want to hear that everything happens for a reason, nor that God needed more angels. She grieves every precious life, even and especially these unnamed ones barely begun.

Matthew and Jeremiah have already uprooted Rachel’s tears from any literal history, and so her cries continue to be unbound by the constraints of time. That means Rachel still refuses comfort today. She weeps for lost innocents. She weeps for victims of political violence. She weeps for the bereaved. She weeps for refugees and exiles. She weeps at Newtown, at Parkland, at Uvalde. Wherever there is pain, Rachel is weeping. Every suffering parent’s tears become hers. Platitudes cannot console her. She gives grief its due.”[4]

We return now to the “A” theme, in which Joseph encounters again an angel of the Lord in his dreams, he obeys and experiences fulfillment of God’s promises.  This time, though, the angel says, “[F]or those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”  Though the angel clearly was referring to Herod, we know others represented and led the empire throughout Jesus’s lifetime and sought to take His life.  These death-seekers were leaders of both political and religious establishments.  How have we represented Christ in ways the empire might seek our own death?

“Matthew has told us that Jesus is the Messiah. But as the Magi depart, the evangelist begins to unfold the unexpected way that he will fulfill his calling. This Messiah is the man of sorrows, leading a community of lament. This Messiah is Emmanuel, God with us, and so he will be fully with us, experiencing all of what humanity entails. His way will be marked by tears and turmoil. He is acquainted with grief. He will suffer, in body and in spirit. He provides abiding presence, not easy answers.”[5]

Joseph showed his protective paternal instincts when taking his family to Egypt.  He shows them again in returning to the promised land.  Herod was wicked.  His son, Archelaus, did not fall far from that parental tree and is reported to have a reputation even worse than his father’s.  Joseph recognized that evil and sought safety in a different region, Galilee, north of Judea.  What would we do to try to keep our family safe?

In saying by the move to Nazareth “the prophets might be fulfilled,” Matthew quotes from what is probably a lost text, for nowhere in the Hebrew Scriptures do we find this prophecy.  Nazareth was known as “the other side of the tracks.” We may recall how Nathanael asked “Can anything good come out of Nazareth” in John’s Gospel.  In this small town, Jesus “spent His hidden life.  Nazareth, where the days were humdrum and ordinary, where no visible results were forthcoming except tables and chairs.  Nazareth, where the Son of God was simply the son of Mary and Joseph to all the people around him. . . Nazareth, the preparation of His entrance into the desert, which was already a kind of desert situated in a small village of Galilee.”[6]

This section of Matthew can be summed up in this ABA format:  God provides.  Man divides.  God provides.  It’s a familiar Biblical story.  It’s our familiar life’s story.

Today is part of a familiar annual cycle.  It is also a day of firsts—the first Sunday of Christmas, the first day of the week, the month, and the year.  The first of everything.  What themes will we emphasize in our living?  How will we walk with God this year?  How will the empire seduce us?  How will we return to God’s love, again and again, and again?

To God be the glory.  Amen and Amen.

© Elder Alan Willadsen, 2023, All Rights Reserved
Westminster Presbyterian Church | 1420 W. Moss Ave. | Peoria, Illinois 61606
WestminsterPeoria.org  | 309.673.8501

[1] CDP, p. 812.

[2] Hosea 1:2, JPS

[3] Who Were Hosea and Gomer in the Bible? (christianity.com)

[4] Lectionary column for January 1, Christmas 1A (Matthew 2:13-23) (christiancentury.org) – Liddy Barlow

[5] Barlow

[6] CDP, p. 809.