December 26, 2009
Sermon for Christmas Morning 2009. Luke 2, 1-20
Children’s nativity plays are often a source of memorable and humorous moments. I treasure the tale of a small boy picked to play ‘first innkeeper’, who was so annoyed at not being given a star part like Joseph or the Angel Gabriel that he resolved to sabotage the whole thing; when ‘Mary’ and ‘Joseph’ knocked at the door of the inn, instead of saying ‘No room!’ he said ‘Come in. I’ve plenty of room!’. Luckily the boy playing Joseph was resourceful enough to look past him and then say ‘No thank you. I wouldn’t bring my wife into an inn like yours!’ and the play continued as normal.
Sometimes there is an unexpected theological moment. A small child playing Mary at the nursery in my previous church, pushed ‘Joseph’ away when he tried to take the Baby Jesus. ‘Go away’ she said. ‘He’s nothing to do with you!’ She had obviously absorbed the doctrine of the Virgin Birth at a very young age!
I am told that at the nativity in my granddaughter’s church toddler’s group, the child playing Mary took the ‘Baby Jesus’ out of the manger, and substituted her own favourite doll instead. She wanted her own version of Jesus, not someone else’s.
And that got me thinking. How often do we do that – create our own version of Jesus, and refuse to allow anyone or anything to change our set ideas?
It is not surprising that we do that, because people have been doing the something similar since the first Christmas Day.
In the Bible, we have three different version of the birth of Jesus. In the Gospel of John, we have a Greek hymn to the Logos or Wisdom (personified in the Old Testament as a female companion of God since the beginning of time) adapted by the Evangelist to provide an explanation of how the Word of God became a human being in the person of Jesus; born through the will of God to bring Light and Truth and the opportunity to become ‘children of God’ to all who believe.
The writer of the gospel of Matthew took themes from the lives of Old Testament leaders such as Moses, Samson, Samuel and David, and from the writings of prophets like Hosea and Isaiah to create the tale of the birth of Jewish Messiah. Born in a house in Bethlehem ( like David) he will become a saviour, like Moses; a judge and a Nazarene, like Samson; coming from the dynasty of David, he will be King of the Jews. As the prophets and psalms predict, the wise and powerful of the pagan world come from afar to pay homage to him. They are drawn to his light in the form of a rising star and offer him gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew’s Jesus is the fulfilment of all these Old Testament traditions. Like the Jews of old he has to flee from persecution to Egypt, before going to live in Nazareth.
As we heard in our reading this morning, we get a very different story of the birth in Luke’s Gospel. Jesus’ parents come from a provincial town, from a region despised as semi-pagan by the religious leaders. They are humble folk, pushed around by the Roman authorities, forced to leave home to register for a census when Mary was heavily pregnant. They were not important or wealthy enough to be given a guest chamber, so her baby was born in the lower part of the house, where the animals were brought in from the cold, and placed in a manger. The news of the birth is given first to more outcasts – shepherds, keeping watch over their flocks on the hills outside Bethlehem ( as King David was doing when Samuel summoned him to be anointed as the next king of Israel). They are the ones who recognise him as King and Messiah, as do other poor and despised people like Elizabeth and Zechariah, Simeon and Anna.
In Luke’s tale, the birth goes unnoticed by the rich and powerful – there are no wise men, no star, no slaughter of babies in his story. After the purification, the family goes peacefully back to Nazareth, and Mary ponders all that has happened in her heart, as Luke means us to do.
There are some themes in common to all three stories; they hint at a virginal conception, to make the point that the birth marks a new spiritual beginning for the whole human race; and they tell us that the people who accepted this child as the Messiah were those outside the religious mainstream: people from the provinces, the poor, shepherds and pagan astrologers.
Over the years, many more have elaborated the story. New Testament writers, theologians, composers of hymns and carols, authors of mediaeval mystery plays and folk stories, all have added their own interpretations, some of which have become part of the main story for us. Even saints have done their bit, like St Francis, who gave us the crib scene, with the stable, the ox and the donkey, none of which are mentioned in the Gospels. The birth of Jesus has been set in every place and time, until we come to the rich tapestry of the Christmas story we enjoy today.
None of this matters. God gave us his son to be born into obscurity, in a time when no official documents, like birth certificates or passports, and no technology like cameras or videos existed to record the exact details for future generations. It was as if God was saying to us: “Here is my gift to you. Take it and make of it what you want. Tell his story in the way that is most meaningful to you and your people.”
The only proviso is – don’t think (like the child in my granddaughter’s nativity) that your Jesus is the only proper one. Read and listen to all the accounts of the birth of Jesus, don’t muddle them up, and try to hear what God is saying to you through the elements of each different story.
Nick Baines, the Bishop of Croydon, has been in big trouble with some sections of the media recently. (That seems to be an occupational hazard of being a C of E bishop these days!) He was accused of saying in his most recent book, ‘Why wish you a Merry Christmas’, that we shouldn’t sing traditional carols or have infants doing nativity plays. If you read his book ( which many who commented hadn’t!) you will find he is not saying that at all. What he did write is: sing carols, enjoy them, but don’t stop there! Some of them are good theology, but some of them are nonsense – especially those that imply that the baby Jesus never cried, or that the birth was beautiful and easy and Mary and Joseph had no problems. Enjoy your children and grandchildren performing the nativity story, but don’t stop there. Don’t leave the birth story as a tale for children, anaemic, tame and a fantasy, like Tinkerbell or Father Christmas, to be rejected when you grow up.
Go back to the Bible and read the accounts in the gospels and think about the characters as real people with real problems. Think how difficult it must have been for Mary and Joseph to accept this child, how their lives were disrupted by his birth, how the religious people missed the point, how the news was given to outcasts and strangers, and that it was not the faithful, but the faithless who came to adore him – and meditate on what that says to us about how God chooses to be present with us in the problems and uncertainties, the disasters and messiness of real life.
Then think about what that says to us as Christians, about where we are meant to be and how we are meant to live, so that we bring light and truth and love to others as Jesus did; and how we can demonstrate what it means to know that, because of this child and the man he became, we have the chance to become children of God – and so does everyone else.
That is amazing and life transforming stuff – and a very good reason to ring bells and decorate our houses and celebrate and wish everyone a very happy Christmas.