Today we are going to talk about the Christmas story. Why? Because it is entirely possible that some of you could have made it this far into the Advent/Christmas season without even once having heard the Christmas story. We intend to remedy that today.
To begin with, we note that there are not one but four accounts of the life of Jesus. These are the gospel accounts of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Only two of these accounts mention the birth of Jesus: Matthew and Luke. Mark does not even mention the birth of Jesus. John mentions it but does not say anything about what happened, instead he focuses on why it happened:
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.
First thing to note here: Though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. We have this idea, if you listen to the ways in which evangelicals talk about such things, that the light shines in a room where it’s obvious that we’ve been needing some lightening up around here, and our Christianity has the best bulb for the job. Reality check: Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not understand it.
The other thing to note here is the words “believed in”. This was a combination of two Greek words which had never before been combined. It gave a twist to the idea of belief which had never before been expressed in language: that of belief not as the acceptance of and assent to a set of facts or a body of truth, but rather as trust in an actual person.
At this point, let us say a few words about the “personal relationship with Jesus” thing which is such a big idea in evangelicalism. The idea of a “personal relationship with Jesus” is a flawed and incomplete truth, yet it gets to one of the core distinctives of evangelicalism which is the desire for a vital, meaningful connection with God and experience of His presence in our lives, and the belief that such a connection can be had. Faith is more than just assenting to the statement of belief that is on file down at your church or denomination’s front office; instead it is a personal engagement with and trust in a God who became a person and lived among us.
Now, on to the Christmas story. We go to Luke 1:
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her.
First of all, there are lots of people running around out there saying that they have seen angels. Heads up: If you saw something and the first words out of his/her/its mouth were not “Do not be afraid”, then what you saw was not an angel.
Next: We do not appreciate this yet here it is: Mary’s life was about to be turned completely and totally upside down. She was about to spend nine months carrying a child who was not hers and Joseph’s, when she and Joseph were not married yet.
We go to Matthew:
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
When Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant, of course he is freaked out. Who wouldn’t be? He and Mary were engaged, except that this was more than engaged: This was a legal marital status, meaning that they were promised to be married. In all probability, they had been promised to each other from birth. Now Joseph was a righteous man and he did not want to expose Mary to public ridicule, let alone the death penalty which the Old Testament prescribed for a situation such as this. So he had in mind to break it off quietly–at least as quietly as it could possibly be done, considering that they were legally promised to each other and breaking it off would be a public, legal thing, sort of like a divorce. It took a timely appearance by an angel to keep the whole thing on track.
Now the angel said to Joseph that the baby was to be named Jesus. What Joseph heard was not “Jesus” (an Anglicized translation by way of Latin from Greek), but rather “Yeshua” (Hebrew), the same name as “Joshua”. More than likely this evoked for him memories of the Old Testament stories of Joshua leading the Israelites into the Promised Land and subduing and driving out all Israel’s enemies. More than likely he was thinking “Yeah, there are a lot of enemies here who could use some subduing and driving out”, so the next part of the angel’s message probably didn’t even register with him: He (Jesus) would save his people from their sins. It wasn’t until after Jesus died and rose from the dead that this would register with anyone.
Some decades later Paul would come to faith in Jesus. Paul had been a zealous Pharisee, a persecutor of those who were part of what he considered to be a heretical knockoff Jewish sect. As such, his concerns, like the concerns of most devout Jews of the time, were: Who will save Israel from her present state of slavery and in-our-homeland-but-might-as-well-be-in-exile exile at the hands of her enemies? Who will restore the kingdom and put the son of David back on the throne in Israel? God showed him Jesus, crucified and risen from the dead, as the answer to all these concerns. As Paul reflected on this he began to realize that if that was the solution, then the problems Israel faced were much much deeper and much much worse than just Rome. Indeed, Israel’s trouble extended all the way back to Adam and it affected not just Israel but all of humanity. The true problem at issue here was sin, not just as bad behavior or failure to comply with a set of commands but as a condition of the human heart, a condition which would of necessity lead to complete and absolute separation from anything having to do with God. The only remedy was for God Himself to become one of us, and ultimately to die and rise from the dead.
We now go back to Luke:
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
So Mary and Joseph were all settled in at Nazareth, getting ready to have the baby. Yet the Old Testament prophets said that the Messiah was to come from Bethlehem. So Caesar Augustus (or one of his close advisors) gets it into his head that taking a census of all the known Roman world would be a good idea, and off we go.
Now we have this picture of Joseph and Mary on a donkey, trucking along all by themselves through the Israeli badlands to Bethlehem. Great picture; not a shred of biblical evidence for it. We don’t know what the picture was really like. In all probability it wasn’t just Mary and Joseph; the journey was hard and it was too dangerous for two people to make all by themselves. More than likely they had a bunch of other people along with them for the ride.
So now we get to Bethlehem and the birth goes off. Mary treasures all these things and ponders them in her heart. Of course she does; she can’t really tell anyone else about them because who would understand?
Our first passage came from the gospel of John. Now John and Mary were with Jesus when he died; Jesus commanded John to take her in and take care of her. Tradition has it that that is exactly what he did. So John had several years, decades even, to live with Mary and hear from her all about Jesus’ birth and what it had meant to her and her reflections upon it all. More than likely his account was formed on a deep level by this knowledge.