We have all seen a Christmas nativity scene, made popular, complete with animals, by Francis of Assisi. And what do our nativity scenes usually include?
Input from the congregation. . .
There are lots of examples along the back shelf here in the sanctuary. You may want to look at them after church.
Our nativity scenes tend to include many of the same figures but there are actually two stories about Jesus’ birth in the Bible and they are quite different and involve different characters.
A nativity scene that is based on the story of the birth of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew, would have Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, an angel (just one), some wise men (we don’t know how many) bearing gold, frankincense and myrrh. And the scene might even include a key figure, King Herod, and some of his advisors. I don’t know about you, but I have never, ever, seen a Herod in a creche scene. Herod was a violent, insecure tyrant akin to Stalin. I can’t imagine him in a nativity scene. But there he is as a major character in the birth story of Jesus in the gospel of Matthew. And we want to note that in Matthew’s story there is no mention of a stable, no manger, no hosts of singing angels, no shepherds, and no animals, except maybe camels for the wise men.
Then there is the birth story of Jesus in the gospel of Luke. This story includes the angel Gabriel, Mary, Joseph, the baby Jesus, the stable with the manger and the swaddling cloths, shepherds and probably sheep and other animals. No Herod. No wise men. No gifts. No star.
But why are there different stories? In the same Bible? Written in about the same time frame? In the same context?
One fundamental issue of the time was power and authority. Rome was in control. Caesar, the head of the Roman Empire, was referred as Son of God, Lord, Redeemer, God from God, Liberator, Bringer of Peace, Savior of the World, Divine. [See The First Christmas by Marcus J. Borg and John Dominic Crossan, p. 63] These are among the same titles that were used for Jesus. So there was a basic conflict between the authority of Rome and the authority of Jesus as the Messiah of the God of the Jews. The same titles were used but who really had the power?
And there was a big conflict about what it means to be at peace. Rome inflicted peace on the people through fear, intimidation, and threat. And Jesus was symbolic of peace through justice and anti violence. Which kind of peace was it going to be?
So, there were two competing world views influencing the context of the birth stories. And the gospel writers chose to respond to the same reality in different ways. Matthew tells a story that is more about the political power structure and who has the real power. The Matthew story is looking at things more from the top down. Luke is telling a story that lifts up the people who are made poor, forgotten, not important, and of little value; those who are victims of the Roman Empire and its social, political, economic, and ideological power structure. The Luke story is looking at things more from the bottom up. So, the birth stories confront the same reality but are told from differing perspectives.
The gospel writers are also addressing different audiences so they tell their stories in ways that will speak to their readers. Matthew is speaking to a mostly Jewish audience using references to the Hebrew Scriptures and including the wise men to show that Jesus is a universal figure and his reign will include everyone not just Jews. Luke is concerned with addressing an audience of both Jews and non Jews and includes people who are poor and expendable.
Why do we have different stories? People of the first century saw Jesus as an incredibly powerful figure who transformed their reality. They felt that his impact was universal. They saw his significance to all people of all times and cultures. Jesus was experienced as a figure of power sent by God to change the trajectory of human history. Jesus was so special, so important, that the people in the Jesus movement wanted to make sure that everyone heard about him. In a relatable way. So they sought to tell of him in ways that would speak to all different kinds of people so that everyone could see the importance of Jesus.
Yes, there are two different birth stories in the gospels, but in both stories light triumphs over darkness, peace with justice triumphs over oppression and violence and fear. That is the message that both gospel writers want to convey and it comes through in each of their nativity stories. The birth of Jesus is a significant event for people of all times and places. It is as important to us today as it was to the people of the first century. It is about a new reality for all of us where light conquers darkness and peace with justice is stronger than war and violence and greed.
So we can think about how we relate to these nativity stories today. Do we relate to the conflict of power on a societal scale? We sure saw some of that this week during the impeachment debates. Do we relate to the multicultural message of Matthew? This is important in our time of increased hate crimes and anti-immigrant sentiment. Do we find ourselves relating to the story of Luke and the inclusion of those who are made poor, forgotten, and marginalized? That is a problem in our country and world wide with the growing wealth gap. Do we resonate to Luke giving women a more important place in the story? We continue to confront the second class status of women in this country and around the world. Do we relate to Joseph and his dreams encouraging him to resist the power structures around him? What is legal is not necessarily moral. Do we see ourselves in the angels who have good news to share? We need more of that today! Do we relate to the shepherds, low wage workers? There are so many people struggling in the shadow economy where things are not prosperous. Do we feel like bystanders, onlookers, like the animals of the barn? Witnesses with a story to tell. Do we feel called like Mary to birth love into the world? What the world needs now is still love. Are we well educated intellectuals seeking spiritual guidance like the wise men? Churches that respect and encourage scientific thinking are here for us. Do we have gifts to give? They are needed. Do we see our primary focus in parenting and trying to imbue the world with love through our children? There are many ways for us in our life situations to find a place in the nativity stories. Today we are part of birthing God’s love into the world. We, too, have nativity stories to share.
The congregation was invited to be part of forming an impromptu nativity tableau with costumes and props provided.
A reasonable effort has been made to appropriately cite materials referenced in this sermon. For additional information, please contact Lakewood United Church of Christ.