Wednesday, January 17, 2018

December 31, 2017 - 1st Sunday in Christmas - Two Nativity Stories

I have been talking about the virtue of awe and wonder for the past few weeks and have not really talked about the place of scripture and the Christian story within that.  I recently published an article on this topic which I would invite you to read.  Some of you may think it’s great and some may find it challenging.  Part of my thinking in all of this is that when we teach ourselves to find awe and wonder in the everyday, what is naturally going on around us, we are training ourselves to find awe and wonder as a staple of our faith.  We can learn to approach faith and scripture with a sense of curiosity and wonder, something that can be lost when your primary focus is proof.  As some traditions do, if you spend your time trying to prove the accuracy of our ancient stories, you will often miss the point.

                Our nativity stories have in many ways fallen victim to this kind of thinking and, as we are in the Christmas season and are sitting on the Sunday in between the celebration of those two stories (we read Luke’s account on Christmas Eve; we read Matthew’s account around Epiphany), I thought it fitting to look at those two stories and see what each is trying to tell us about Jesus.  Now some of you who are more familiar with the texts might argue that we have third nativity story in John’s prologue to the gospel that begins, “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and Word was God” and ends with the declaration, “The Word became flesh and lived among us.”  That account also has something very important to tell us, but it’s far more theological and you can’t put it around a manger scene, so I’m going to stick with Matthew and Luke today.

                Most Christmas scenes as we imagine them or as we have them installed in our homes or as we have shivered through them in living nativities are some combination of figures and symbols from Matthew and Luke.  There is baby Jesus in his feeding trough/manger.  There are Mary and Joseph.  There are various barn animals, most prominently an ox and a donkey, a reference to a passage in Isaiah, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib,” which was not really part of any predictive writing.  It is part of angry section of Isaiah that compares how farm animals are obedient but Israel has not been loyal to god.  The full text is:  ““The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.”  Yet it was associated with Luke’s nativity early on in the life of the church, and we have the ox and donkey quite early on in images of the nativity.  We will also see shepherds, sheep and angels, references out of Luke, shepherds who see and hear angels who give them the good news of the birth.  But we also have a star in the heavens and three wise men (or kings or magi) which are references to Matthew’s story.

                Now the Matthew story doesn’t actually tell us how many wise men arrived on the scene.  There are three gifts mentioned: gold, frankincense and myrrh, but as far as the text goes there could have been anywhere from two to a think-tank of wise men meeting the infant Jesus.  If you pay attention to Matthew’s text, he sets the meeting of the magi and Jesus in a house as opposed to a stable.  He’s not telling a story that is meant to fit with the stable story.

                So when we put all those figures out and the scene gets very crowded, we lose track of the fact that Matthew and Luke were actually trying to say something important in their stories.  The gospels were not written as history texts, merely to tell you what happened.  To truly find the wonder in these texts, we have to ask a different question from the kinds of questions that we might ask as rational people influenced by the scientific method.  I remember going to a planetarium around Christmas time one year and seeing a presentation that was a series of theories about what the star in the sky in Matthew might have been.  What kind of celestial object could be followed?  One suggestion was a comet, an object that appears only periodically and that an ancient astronomer might follow across the night sky.  While it is an interesting theory it has nothing to do with the story.  The author of Matthew did not understand what a star is.  We hear “star” and we think of huge balls of fiery gas light years away from us.  Ancient Hebrews saw points of light God had installed in the dome of the sky to help mark the days and seasons.  Greeks and Romans saw the vestiges of ancient heroes, forever memorialized in the constellations by the gods.  When hearing this story they didn’t ask, “How did that happen?” or “What was that thing in the sky?”  They asked “What does this mean?”

                Luke and Matthew give two answers to the question, “What does this mean?”  They give answers that are not mutually exclusive, but are quite different.  They give answers that were meaningful to their original audiences and that are reflected in the way they tell the rest of the story.  Keep in mind, all of this was written well before any kind of printing press or simple publication process.  There was a period of years early on in the life of the church when Matthew’s group only knew Matthew’s gospel and Luke’s group only knew Luke’s gospel.  There were Christians who, when they thought of Christ’s birth, they thought of stars and wise men.  There were Christians, who, when they thought of Christ’s birth, they thought of angels and shepherds.

                On Christmas Eve, I talked a little about Luke’s answer to the question of “What does this mean?”  He presents a Jesus who is born as a common Israelite, an unremarkable birth, a story told in opposition to the birth stories of the great and powerful.  In Luke, Jesus is the Messiah for the 99% who challenges and threatens the 1% by his lack of interest in their power and wealth and his deep interest in those in need.  He is a Jesus who suggests that wealth is not a sign of God’s favor and poverty is not a sign of God’s abandonment.  In fact, he will suggest that God is closer to those in need than those in wealth, saying in the sermon on the plain, “Blessed are the poor, for yours in the kingdom of heaven” and “Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.”  So you can see that if you tell that story and then say, “And by the way, some really wealthy guys rode in on camels and elephants to declare him king,” you lose some of the power of Luke’s message.  Jesus is pulled out of his role as one who identifies with the poor and the common and pulled into a role as a superior and tremendous Messiah.

                Matthew gives a different answer to the question of “What does this mean?” in part because he is writing for a different audience.  Most scholars think that Matthew was writing specifically for a Jewish audience.  He quotes Hebrew scripture more than the other authors.  He includes images that will evoke the hopes of first-century Israel.  The magi are such figures.  Whatever label you give them: wise men, kings, magi, what is important about them is that they come from nations beyond Israel and recognize Jesus as an authority.  The star is a part of this theme, an object that can be seen from afar, throughout the world.  It all references an image from Isaiah that had come to represent the coming of the Messiah, “In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it.  Many peoples shall come and say, “Come let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.”  Jesus is going to be the one to begin that process and fulfill that prophecy, an idea that drives King Herod, the puppet king of Israel, into a murderous rage.  So you can see if you tell that story and then say, “And by the way he was born in a stable and nobody thought he mattered,” it confuses what Matthew was trying to do.

                Now this is the kind of delving into the biblical story that I find fascinating but others can find troubling.  It raises questions about how we understand scripture.  It raises questions about whether things happened the way the authors said they happened.  Welcome to the Bible.  It’s not Newsweek nor was it ever intended to be.  The authors are trying to tell a message with the story, and they shape the telling to share the message.  And remember that the fundamental question is "What does this mean?”  What does this mean for me and for my life?  What does this mean for the church?  What does this mean for the world?  Although their images of his birth are quite different, both Matthew and Luke are saying something that is true and important about Jesus.  With Luke Jesus is the one who comes to walk among the common and the forgotten.  He is the one who comes to point out the beauty of every person and point out God’s concern for every person, especially those who are in need.  As Christians and as the church we have to wrestle what that means for our life together and our ministry.

                With Matthew, Jesus is the one who expands God’s promises beyond the story of Israel and throughout the world.  God is the God who reaches beyond borders.  God is the God who includes those who are different and invites those who are not like us.  And again, we as the church need to wrestle with what that means for our life together and our ministry.

                We have to wrestle with both images because both images say something true about Jesus.  And where I will close today is to remind you that the good news is that both these passages imply that Jesus was born for you and those beyond you.  God is a God who reaches beyond your history and ethnicity.  God is a God who reaches beyond your education and social status.  God is a God who reaches beyond your mistakes and bad habits and imperfections, the walls we think should keep God away.  God is a God who often reaches out further than we would want to go.  Both stories of Jesus’ birth are about God entering your reality in a new way, and transforming it, inviting you to see this world as divine, shaped by hope and love.  As we experience the words of scripture on Sunday morning and hopefully, as you experience them on your own, keep asking that ancient question, “What does this mean?”

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