Sermon Date: Christmas Eve sermon 2021
By Pastor Elaine Boone
As the familiar carol goes - “tonight is the night of our dear Saviour’s birth”.
But what is the story of that birth? Of our four Gospels we have two that tell the story of Jesus’ birth. Two stories! These are found in Matthew and Luke. And you may be surprised to discover that the stories are very different.
When we hear the Christmas stories they are very powerful. For many of us they are anchored in early childhood memories. And they get harmonized or combined in our carols and in our minds. So what is the story of Jesus’ birth?
Why would the stories be different? The stories of Jesus’ birth were not important to the early Christians. Neither Mark nor Paul (our earliest Christian writers) spoke about it. They did not need to because it was Jesus’ ministry and death that concerned them more.
Matthew and Luke wrote later and for them it was important to tell how Jesus was born. For Matthew and Luke, Jesus was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. Fulfillment - not replacement. And prophecy not prediction. The story of Jesus’ birth was not told to fulfil miraculously specific predictions. And both Matthew and Luke had their own way of telling the story and selected different elements to add to that story.
Matthew wanted to show that Jesus was the new Moses. Luke wanted to show that Jesus was following in David’s line, Jesus would be the new King.
So how do we treat these stories of Jesus’ birth - are they fact or fable? Perhaps a better way to think of them is parable. We are familiar with Parables because this is how Jesus taught. Parables are not concerned with facts. Parables are about meaning. Parables are a form of speech, a way of using language. If we see the birth stories as parables their meaning and truth do not depend on facts. With the parables Jesus taught we do not worry if they were factual - we know Jesus made them up to tell a story and teach about the kingdom of God.
So how do Matthew and Luke differ in their stories of Jesus’ birth ? We can take a very clear example. Where was Jesus born????
Where did Mary and Joseph live before Jesus was born?
In Matthew Jesus was born at home in Bethlehem.
In Luke, Mary and Joseph were living in Nazareth and he had to get them to Bethehem and so we have the story of the trip because of the census. So Luke can get them to Bethlehem and the baby is born in the stable because there was no room for them in the inn.
It’s a great story. It’s familiar and famous and historically not true! But to fulfill the law and the prophets the Messiah had to come from Bethlehem. And be traced through David’s line.
Think for a minute about how we hear about the coming of the baby Jesus. How did the people in our birth stories hear about him? In Matthew the whole story is told from Joseph’s viewpoint. Matthew uses Joseph’s name 8 times and Mary’s 3. In Luke the story is told from Mary’s viewpoint the angel visits her - not Joseph! Luke uses Joseph’s name 3 times and Mary’s 11!
And what about the shepherds and the wise men? Luke has the shepherds hearing about the baby from the angels. Matthew has wise men from the east following a star and he tells of 3 gifts. But he does not say that there were three or that they were kings - later tradition added that.
Our scripture is full of inconsistencies and differences. Sometimes it is impossible to reconcile these differences. Sometimes we gloss over the differences or as in the case of our Christmas stories we create a bit of a mash up. Our scriptures were written by people. Written by people living in different times and places and telling stories for different audiences.
So what do Matthew and Luke have in common? The names of his parents - Mary and Joseph, that he was a historical figure born in Bethlehem near the end of the reign of Herod the Great and his conception by the Holy Spirit.
And both Matthew and Luke see in Jesus the fulfillment of the law and the prophets. The Messiah that the people of Israel had longed for so long.
In “The First Christmas” Borg and Crossan say that “the Christmas stories are not about a spectacular series of miraculous events that happened in the past that we are to believe in for the sake of going to heaven. Rather they are about God’s passion, God’s dream for a transformed earth.
We have taken the stories of Jesus’s birth and done a mash up. We have our pageants and our carols that smush everything together. We have angels and shepherds and inns and stables and stars and people travelling all over the place. Is it worthwhile separating out the strands?
YES! It is important to read the stories separately because when you do you will find them rich indeed.
Do you want to?
Would acknowledging the differences in the stories - some irreconcilable shake your faith?
Or would you discover that the stories are told differently for very good reasons and we can still have our silent night, our joy to the world and we can still have our shepherds watching and our angels singing from the realms of glory!
Emmanuel, Emmanuel has come….God is with us.
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