Prayer: In the name of God who creates, who redeems, and who sustains. Amen.
So an angel appeared and told Mary she was to be the virgin mother of the Son of God? Did Herod really slaughter the innocent children in his attempt to remove the threat of a newborn king? Did a star really travel at a pace so slow that wise men could follow it from wherever they came from? Did these magi really offer gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh? Did a heavenly host really sing to the shepherds in the middle of the night? Who was the father of this child?
Did it really happen? I for one do not know. I wasn’t there! But if I can beg your indulgence and allow me a little audacity I would like to propose that the birth narrative of Jesus should not be taken literally. After all, it’s fake news! Of course you’re welcome to disagree with me as many do, depending on where you get your information. I’m sure those shepherds in Bethlehem told you that wonderful story, but if you ask those in Nazareth, they might tell you a different tale. Even the authors of Matthew and Luke don’t exactly agree on the details of this most “historic” occasion. So I only offer this humble perspective for consideration. But I challenge you to see what happens when we begin to separate the mystery from the history.
Every year we are surrounded by Christmas symbols – on TV, in the news, in store windows, and even in our own homes. Some of us may have that elf on the shelf. Some of us decorate our lawns and homes with those symbols that include a manger, a baby, and three magi following a star. And of course we mustn’t forget Santa, the reindeer, or his elves! How many of us at a young age were told the story of Santa and the North Pole? Do we take his list of those who are naughty or nice, literally? And yet even jolly old St. Nicholas is a powerful symbol, but still a symbol. And in that same vein I offer that the birth of Christ is one of the most powerful symbols we have today. A symbol for hope, peace, joy, and love.
The biblical story of Christmas may be the best known story in America. We have seen pageants here in this Sanctuary that tell the story, perhaps you even starred in one, and we’ve seen Hollywood film portrayals on the big screen, so we probably think we know this biblical content quite well. But do we? It can be surprising to read the Bible (as we know it) and discover that almost every Christmas pageant excitedly combines two significantly different versions of Jesus’s birth: One in the first two chapters of the gospel according to Matthew and the other in the first two chapters of the gospel according to Luke, or the Christmas mashup as I like to call it.
For example, let’s play some Nativity Trivia! When the three wise men were following yonder star, what was their mode of transportation? A.) Donkeys B.) Camels or C.) Volkswagen Bus? ….. There actually are no camels recorded in the biblical story. The author of Matthew doesn’t even list the number of Magi. There may have been 2 or even 4. There isn’t even a mention of the infamous Inn Keeper that kept Mary and Joseph out in the cold bleak midwinter. You’re welcome to Google it.
If I asked you where in Bethlehem the birth of Jesus occurred, the familiar and traditional answer would be ‘in a stable surrounded by animals’. But we may be wrong again. There are also no animals mentioned in the story of Jesus’ birth. The first two chapters of Luke is the only place in the Bible where details of his Bethlehem birth are given. There is only one word (translated: crib or manger) around which the stable has been created in our imaginations.
This past Fri night did anyone else see the spectacular spectacle that lit up the night sky? As my FB feed started blowing up with stories of UFO’s and comets, I ran outside to behold what others were exclaiming about. Did you do the same? Did you feel the wonder of that sight? I almost imagined it might look like the fabled Star that led the Magi over 2000 years ago, until I later read the news report that it was just a SpaceX launch of the Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg AFB. But isn’t the truth miraculous in itself? That we are able to reach out into the space where stars exist?
The two conflicting passages in Matthew and Luke are the only accounts of Jesus’ birth found in the entire Bible. There is no mention of a miraculous birth for Jesus in the writings of Paul, in the gospel of Mark, or in the gospel of John. New Testament scholars tell us that Paul wrote between 50 and 64 C.E., and appears to have no knowledge of anything being unusual about Jesus’ birth. All Paul says is that Jesus was “born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4) and was “descended from the House of David” (Romans 1:3). Paul never even mentions the names of Mary or Joseph.
The gospel of Mark is also missing the birth story. Joseph makes no appearance in Mark’s gospel, and Mary as the name of Jesus’ mother appears only once from a critic, who asks of Jesus, “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:3). Is it possible that Mark did not know about the miraculous birth of Jesus?
Again, according to New Testament scholars, the gospel of John, written sometime between 95 and 100 C.E., also does not mention the birth of Jesus. So in the five major sources of New Testament (Paul, Mark, Matthew, Luke, and John) only two of them mention the Virgin Birth. Biblical scholars tell us that both Matthew and Luke, wrote no earlier than the 9th or 10th decade of the Common Era. This would suggest that that early Christianity lived and flourished for about 50 to 60 years before the virgin birth became part of its theology, and further may even suggest that the virgin birth is neither original nor essential to Christianity.
Matthew tells us that Jesus was born when Herod was king in Judea (Matthew 2:1). From other historical records, we know that Herod died in 4 B.C.E. To make things more complicated, Luke’s gospel repeats the Herod story (Luke 1:5) but adds that Jesus was also born when Quirinius was governor of Syria (Luke 2:1). From other historical records, we know that Quirinius did not become governor of Syria until the winter of 6/7 C.E., by that time Jesus would have been at least 10 years old. The stories do not add up.
There are still other discrepancies in the two stories. Matthew appears to believe that Mary and Joseph live in Bethlehem in a house over which a star has parked. So he has to develop a story that will allow Jesus to move from Bethlehem, into Nazareth in Galilee, since Matthew had to deal with the fact that Jesus was known both as a Nazarene and a Galilean. So Matthew tells us that when the holy family returned from Egypt, God in a dream directed them to flee to Galilee, since Herod’s brother was now on the throne and was regarded as a threat to Jesus’ life.
Luke, on the other hand, believes that Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth. But in view of the fact that tradition suggested that the Messiah was to be born in the city of David, which was Bethlehem, he had to develop a story that enabled Mary and Joseph to be in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth. Thus we have the proposed census ordered by Quirinius. The authenticity of this story is also called into question by the fact that there are no indications anywhere in Roman, Syrian, or Jewish records that there ever was an enrollment that required people to return to their ancestral homes. Luke may be stretching his story a bit to make things line up.
John Shelby Spong, theologian and retired American Bishop of the Episcopal Church says there is one other problem with Luke’s narrative. Mary was said to have accompanied Joseph on this journey, even though women in that society were not allowed to participate in the civic activities for which the enrollment was said to be required. Luke describes Mary as being “great with child.” I’m going to use my meager biblical scholarship and translate that to mean she was in her third trimester. According to Google maps Bethlehem is a 96 mile journey from Nazareth. Spong says, under normal circumstances, it would take 7 to 10 days to travel that distance. There were no hotels, restaurants, or toilet facilities along the way. You slept on the side of the road. You carried water, perhaps some figs, olives, and a loaf of bread. It was a hard, dangerous, and grueling journey. You would hardly set off on such a trip with a woman that far along in her pregnancy. As a Feminist Theologian suggested, this story could only have come out of the imagination of a man who had never had a baby!
Spong summarizes by saying, “The facts are that stars do not travel across the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with them; angels do not break through the midnight sky to sing to hillside shepherds; and human beings do not follow stars to pay homage to a newborn king of a foreign nation, especially when the same gospel that tells us that Jesus was the son of a carpenter. To continue this train of thought, no real head of state, including King Herod, would deputize eastern magi that he had never seen before to be his CIA to bring him a report of this threat to his throne.” If Bishop Spong were here, I’d say to him “But these are the treasured stories of my Youth!”
Regardless of whether all the details actually happened, there is often a reason these stories were told and retold — a reason that often has continuing relevance today. Some historians argue that the understanding of truth to the ancient mindset was much broader than ours today. Take the word myth, for example. We have become accustom to equating myth with something that is not true. Yet, the whole purpose of mythological stories is to communicate powerful truths in a symbolic way. Luke’s gospel is a beautiful story filled with meaning, deeply rooted in the Jewish storytelling tradition from which we are culturally separated by literally thousands of years. It is a religious story not unlike the secular story of Santa. Both stories were created to capture a truth that human words cannot fully contain – the truth of the Good News.
Let’s look at some possible alternate meanings for these Christmas symbols. Marcus Borg, American New Testament scholar and a major figure in historical Jesus scholarship asks, What if the Magi represent the Wisdom of the East confronting the Power of the West? Then this birth would perhaps symbolize liberation – liberation from darkness, from bondage, liberation from the Herods, the Pharaohs, and the Caesars who dominate the world. Liberation from the oppressive political systems of the Roman Empire, or the present day institutional empire. Even liberation from death.
As we think about the birth of Jesus in this way, we begin to see the Good News, we see Emmanuel, that God is with us, we see the light in the darkness and we become the light in the darkness. John Dominic Crossan, another major scholar in contemporary historical Jesus research, argues that there are multiple ways that Jesus is symbolically presented as the new Moses. From a Jewish context, the larger hope is that Jesus might show a new way of resistance and resilience under the Roman Empire. Just as Moses and Joshua had led the people from slavery under Pharaoh, and led them to liberate the Promised Land from the Canaanites many centuries earlier.
Today these stories continue to direct us to the ways that resistance and resilience can come from the most unlikely places — even in a child, born in poverty and homelessness, to parents who would soon flee and become refugees. In the case of the birth narratives, the intent of the authors were to communicate the Good News that in Jesus they found the presence of God, and the promised Messiah within the lineage of King David. Matthew’s message in setting forth the conflict between the baby and King Herod is pretty clear: Jesus came to bring a new order of things. He was bringing an end to the demonic and political powers dominating his society. Not the end of the world but the end of an era, the end of political oppression, economic oppression, social oppression, and religious oppression. So though he was “infant lowly,” one of poor estate, Matthew tells us there was something about Jesus that signified a direct affront to the powers and principalities of the world. The Kingdom of Jesus, the Kindom of Jesus would resist the empire of the world.
Therein lies the treasure of the Christmas message. Perhaps the idea that a single human, even one born to a homeless mother, has the potential to teach us about what it means to care for one another and to bring peace to our planet. To teach us what it means to stand up for the marginalized and the oppressed, what it means to work for peace and justice. The word we use for that care is unconditional love. And that love is our Good News! The good news of Love, through Jesus the Christ.
Rev. Traci Blackmon, who is the Executive Minister of Justice and Witness for the United Church of Christ, reminds us that, “We are the Christmas we are waiting for and when we serve, Joy is to be expected.” I wholeheartedly echo her thoughts and add that when we serve, Peace is to be expected. When we serve, Love is to be expected. May we hope for peace on Earth and good will among all creation, and then may we dedicate ourselves to bringing that vision into being. This morning Jesus calls us to go and do likewise. He calls us to be whole, to be loving, to be inclusive. And this is why in John’s Gospel Jesus says, I have but one purpose in coming to this world. It’s that you might have life and have it abundantly. From Redlands to Standing Rock, may we have life abundantly; from Israel to Palestine, may we have life abundantly; from Beverly Hills to Flint, Michigan may we have life abundantly. That through the redeeming and sustaining power of love born this happy morning, we all may have life and have it abundantly. Amen.
May we proclaim that Good News of Christmas through our work and in our lives. The Good News that God is with us, that God stands with the vulnerable, that God stands with the marginalized. May the love born on Christmas morning be born is us every day, and may we be the instruments hope, peace, joy, and love. Amen.