Two Christmas Stories” by Pat Conover

 foolish hope large

13 February 2011

6th Sunday after Epiphany


This sermon grows out of a pet peeve of mine, the mixing together of the two Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke.  So I’m going to take out my irritation on you.  If I’m successful you will all end up feeling irritated.


Maybe if you hear the two stories separately you will actually feel thankful and instead of feeling irritated you will happily never mush them together again.  After all, both are interesting stories, just different stories.


Here are the similarities between the two stories.  They both have Jesus born in Bethlehem but growing up and living in Nazareth in Galilee.  The Galilee part is important and goes along with the rest of Mark’s narrative which places Jesus firmly in Galilee.  Placing the birth in Bethlehmen serves a common purpose, linking Jesus to the lineage of David, the great conquering king in Israel’s history.


The stories both have Mary impregnated by the Holy Spirit, a theme that sounds fantastic to our ears.  But gods making women pregnant was a common theme in Greek mythology and Caesar Augustus, the first Caesar, remembered as the great Caesar, claimed to be a god.  The stories mitigate the disreputability of an out-of-wedlock birth by claiming Mary was betrothed to Joseph, a formal contract that required a divorce to be broken.


Both stories have genealogies that include Joseph, David, and Abraham;  but don’t mesh together very well at all.  I find some humor in Matthew’s tracing the ancestry of Jesus through Joseph and then denying Joseph a role in the conception.  Luke adds the caveat “so the people thought” as to the relevance of the genealogy, probably because he recognized it didn’t fit with a virgin birth.


That’s it.


Mark doesn’t offer either a birth story and the little attempt at a passion and resurrection story is clearly an editor’s add on.  John offers a philosophical poem instead of a Christmas story.  There are a lot of birth and childhood stories in late gospels that didn’t make it into the Protestant Cannon of the Bible, including a story celebrated in Cherry Tree Carol which we sing sometimes.  The story is that Jesus in the womb of Mary shows up a mean Joseph by commanding a cherry tree to bow down so Mary can eat.


Mark’s narrative came first and both Matthew and Luke use that narrative to structure their gospels but add on different stuff not found in Mark, including the Christmas stories.  The best way to think about the Christmas stories is to consider them midrash, stories added to answer questions of the people and to make one point or another.  So let’s look at these two stories and consider the points they are making.


Matthew’s story is much shorter than Luke’s story and Matthew makes his orientation for telling his story quite clear.  Four times, Matthew tells us, that the incidents he relates show that Jesus fulfilled prophecies in Hebrew scripture.  This is a constant theme in Matthew.  Matthew wrote for a Gentile audience that was eager to separate itself from Jews.  His anger at the Jewsish leaders is not tempered.  In the Twenty-third Chapter, he puts the following words in the mouth of Jesus, as part of a diatribe against Scribes and Pharisees, that he names as prophet killers.   “Go on then, finish what your father’s began!  Snakes!  Viper’s brood.  How can you escape being condemned to hell?”  Spencer Burke, a guy I met at the conference I went to in Phoenix last week, told us that when he was reading this story with his nine-year-old daughter she said, “Why was Jesus so mean.  If he said that to me I would kick him in the knee.”


Matthew begins his Christmas story with a genealogy that links Jesus to Abraham and David, a start that fits with his general theme that Christians and not Jews are the true inheritors of Abraham and that God’s covenants rest with them and not with the Jews.  Then comes the virgin birth story… to fulfill scripture.  Born in Jerusalem… as the prophet’s foretold.  After the Herod story they flee to Egypt… to fulfill a prophecy.  Then they go to Nazareth, not return to Nazareth, … to fulfill a prophecy that Jesus would be a Nazarene.  The prophecy, however, was not about Nazareth but about the Nazarene sect of priests who were ascetic holy men sort of like the Essenes during the time of Jesus.


The Herod story is the most interesting part of Matthew’s story.  The Great Herod is a simplistic villain in this story, and his sons were involved in the killing of John the Baptist and Jesus.  The Great Herod was king and chief priest as a puppet of Rome.  He made a good deal with Rome in at least two ways.  He built the temple in Jerusalem and one of the buildings in the temple complex was then the biggest building in the world.  He also sustained the long fought for privilege of Jews to live according to Jewish law.  Matthew paints an enemy picture of Herod as conspiring to kill Jesus and then slaughtering the boys in Bethlehem who were less than two years old.


Three visitors, described in different translations as astrologers, wise men, or kings, come to pay homage to Jesus as a baby not just to give him gifts.  This is a geopolitical act, a recognition of Jesus as king-to-be and an in-your-face rejection of Herod as king of the Jews.  They have a dream and go home without revealing where Jesus is.  The priests and scribes get a bit part in this story as collaborators who tell Herod the prophecy regarding Bethlehem which makes them accessories before the fact in the killing of the little boys.  The killing of the little boys … was to fulfill a prophecy.  A further as pect of the insult to Jews in this story is that the Kingship of Jesus was recognized by non-Jews.


That’s it.  A pretty simple story.  Jesus is the messiah and the inheritor of the Jewish tradition.  It is a political story grounded in the anger of being an oppressed people who are not satisfied with the collusion deal with Rome and want independence, told to a Gentile following that was being actively persecuted by Rome and shunned by many Jews.  It is a story with Maccabean sympathies and it carries the angers that led to rebellion and the destruction of the temple and genocide of Jerusalem in 66 c.e.


Luke’s story is far longer and more complex and includes a positive attitude toward the temple with no picture of Herod as the evil bad guy.  Neither is there any referencing to the fulfillment of prophecies.  Instead, the story is primary based in a series of announcements and prophecies by angels and several holy leaders.  Instead of writing as an attack dog, Luke writes appreciation of opponents, notes their positive qualities, and just makes Jesus better then them.


Luke begins with John the Baptist and when the Christmas story is done he moves straight into the story of John baptizing Jesus.  John is born of Elizabeth who is very old and is impregnated by the Angel Gabriel, perhaps via Elizabeth’s husband.  This is basically a replay of the story of Sarah and Abraham.  Luke’s story strengthens the linkage between Jesus and John by telling us that they were distant cousins.  Luke is very admiring of John the Baptist.  The larger point, however, is that while John’s birth to an old woman is surprising, Jesus’s birth is miraculous.  He is born of a virgin.


Several smaller bits point to the claim that John was good but Jesus was better, including a blessing of Mary by Elizabeth.  “Blessed are you above all women and blessings on the fruit of your womb.”


Lukes main link to King David comes in a speech by Gabriel, “The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor  David, and he will be King over Israel forever; his reign shall never end.”


The primary theme of Luke’s story is most clearly visible in Mary’s speech called the Magnificat.  Mary praises God, not Jesus.


…who has routed the proud and their schemes

…who has brought down monarchs

…who has raised the lowly

…who has fed the hungry and sent the rich away empty

…who has favored Israel and the children of Abraham


The Magnificat compares to a similar speech by Zechariah who prophesies greatness for John …as a forerunner of Jesus.

…to deliver us from enemies

…to fulfill oath to Abraham

…as prophet to the most high

…the Lord’s fore to prepare the way


We usually tell Luke’s story beginning with Chapter Two, which begins with Caesar Augustus proclaiming a census.  This gets the birth story from Galilee to Bethlehem and the link to King David.


Then we get a one sentence story of the birth and the manger because there was no room for him in the Inn.  Instead of rich gifts paid as tribute from kings we get about a lowly image as possible: The shepherd’s story.  The lowly shepherds are the ones who get the announcement of the angels, see the glory of the Heavenly Host, rush to Bethlehem and testify to Jesus in the manger, then go home praising God.


That’s it for Luke’s Christmas story.  In the Third Chapter Luke drops in a genealogy that is significantly different than Matthews.  It is immediately follower by a story of Jesus getting circumcised in the temple, a nod to the Jewish Christian emphasis on circumcision without making it doctrine for Gentiles.  This visit to the temple includes a speech by Simeon, a devoted temple follower that includes both “revelation to Gentiles” and “glory to your people Israel.”


Then Simeon gives a speech linking Luke’s Christmas story with his passion story.  “The child is destined to be a sign that will be rejected; and you (Mary and Joseph) will be pierced to the heart.  Many in Israel will stand or fall because of Jesus; and so the secret thoughts of many will be laid bare.”


There is also a brief speech by the temple prophetess Anna, of Asher, a Northern tribe, who names Jesus as the one who will liberate Jerusalem.


Then we get a story of Jesus growing up to be big and strong and obedient to his parents, a favorite subject for Sunday School superintendents.  The midrash of Jesus as a child closes with Jesus in the temple where the temple teachers are gathered around him.  The questions and answers of Jesus astonish the temple teachers.  When his exasperated parents come to collect him, he tells them “Surely you should have known I would be in my Father’s House.”


Luke’s story is as political as Matthew’s, but instead of hostility and enemy pictures, we get appreciation of John the Baptist and the temple.  Judaism is good but Jesus is better.


I like Luke’s story a lot better than Matthew’s.  It is far more nuanced.  It cares about the poor.  It avoids the problematic and distracting efforts to stretch Hebrew scripture into proof texting for Jesus as Messiah.  It makes more room for a here and now understanding of salvation that doesn’t necessarily lead to political and military revolution.  It offers critique, such as bringing to light the corruption of temple leaders, without attacking the holiness and leadership of temple leaders.  It invites transformation more than military rebellion, without a direct rejection of fighting, a theme picked up again in Luke’s passion story.


My summary image of the Good News in Luke’s story is to focus on the manger and the shepherds.  I like to read it as  a meditation on light breaking in from unexpected and lowly sources.  Jesus shows us a God who routs the schemes of the proud, brings down monarchs and lifts up the lowly, who feeds the poor and sends the rich away hungry.  At this point, you get a partial congruence with Matthew’s story.  Matthew looks through a lens of anger, but sees the same reality as Luke.  He sees and confronts the demonic aspects of the powers and principalities of his day.


Which brings me to my more fundamental rant about the telling of the Christmas story, even the telling of the Christmas stories.  They make a big deal out of Jesus as a baby.  Isn’t he sweet!  Doesn’t cry.  Doesn’t poop.  Doesn’t get asthma.  Just all those baby pheromones that elicit our desire to love and protect our babies.


Don’t get me wrong.  I’ve got nothing against babies.  Most of you know I have a heart for children for who they already are as well as for the potentials they carry.  I could get into talking about babies as wonderful images of potentials, and some of you know how much I like to focus on discerning potentials.


Jesus is important to me, however, not for what he might have become but for the person he did become, not for all the images and concepts we lay on Jesus, project onto the blank slate of a newborn baby.  Jesus is important for what he did with his life not merely because he had a life.


Jesus gets as lost behind Santa Claus as he does behind the Sweet cuddly Easter Bunny, and behind Easter eggs that are again, images of unshaped potential.


The virgin birth part of Christmas doesn’t help either.  Making Jesus special or miraculous draws attention away from what he was able to do and be as a regular human being.


Linking Jesus to David by a spurious genealogy doesn’t help either.  Jesus is decidedly not like David, didn’t try to be like David, didn’t focus on military revolt.  Jesus offers us life in an empire that has its political aspects to be sure, and y’all know that I like to attend that truth.  But we are called to transformation not to  conquest.


Jesus is important to me because he is my savior not because he was born.


We can appreciate the Good News carried in the midrash stories of Matthew and Luke, but it also matters that Jesus was almost certainly born in Galilee, possibly in Nazareth.  More important than the geographic location of his birth, if we want to guess about the formative early influences of Jesus it is helpful to focus on Galilee and we know a lot more about Galilee than when I first started studying the Bible.  He was born in the remnants of Israel, not down in Judea with a culture focused on the temple.  He was born among the remnants of the Northern tribes, among the Jewish Diaspora, among the tribes considered lost tribes by the temple priests who authored most of Hebrew scripture.  He was born where the Pharisees were inventing the beginning of modern Judaism.  He was born where John the Baptist was important, not the temple priests or Herod.  He was born in Galilee near a major trade route between the Roman Empire and the realms of Syria, Babylon, and Persia: a multicultural mixing pot of Greek, Roman, Zoroastrian, and Jewish cultures.  He was born in an area where sympathy with Samaritans makes sense, where John’s spiritual revolution of forgiveness by baptism instead of temple sacrifice could more easily take root.  He was born in Galilee closer to the center of Zealot resistance, closer to where Roman genocide against Jews was a very recent memory.


And Jesus was born as a baby, not as a visitor from some heavenly realm.  What are you going to do with the potentials you carry in the mix of your circumstances and potentials?  Will you take Jesus seriously as a guide who can help you figure that out?

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