Writing sermons for Christmas is not the easiest part of a minister’s job. Choosing the carols and the readings for tonight’s service was straight-forward enough, but deciding what to say about them I found to be a little more difficult. It was complicated further in my mind because I’ve been reading some biblical theology lately that questions the historicity of the Christmas stories and challenges the faithful Christian reader to delve deeper into the biblical texts to discover the theological truths contained in the oh-so-familiar stories.
It would be easier to just tell the stories. It would be easier to just sing the carols. And it would be nice too, especially with family and friends gathered around, and candles, and memories of Christmases gone by. But as a modern interpreter of the texts, I need to at least acknowledge that most of the story is unlikely to have been historically true.
The questions might begin with angel appearances and virgin births, and then if you start studying all the historical details, you soon discover all the inaccuracies and problems with the dates of the rulers and the census. And perhaps you might also take a moment to notice that Matthew’s Gospel tells a completely different story about Jesus’ birth and that many of the details are quite contradictory to Luke’s version of the story.
Still, despite all those problems with the accounts of Jesus’ birth into our world, the church believes — and I believe — that these stories are Scripture. They are God’s Word to us. I believe that the Christmas story is true — perhaps not in the sense of conveying historical facts and events — but in the sense that it carries theological truth about the meaning and significance of the person and work of the man called Jesus of Nazareth.
The author of the Gospel of Luke, writing near the end of the first century, included the story of Jesus’ birth — not because he was there to witness the visits of the angels, and the shepherds in the fields, and the baby in the manger. And he didn’t include the birth narrative because the story had been passed on to him by others who were there to see it. Instead, the author wrote this story to try to express the meaning and significance of the life and ministry of the man called Jesus.
The theological truths contained in Luke’s birth narrative are what we are invited to pay attention to. We get to enjoy hearing the familiar story, and we get to have fun singing the carols. But just for a moment, I invite you to consider also what the Gospel writer was trying to get across through such a fanciful tale.
Already tonight, I have drawn your attention to the angels. An angel came to Zechariah to tell him that he would have a son. They weren’t too old after all. And Zechariah and Elizabeth’s son would do amazing things — he would announce the coming of the Messiah, he would prepare the way of the Lord. An angel came to Mary to tell her that she too would have a son. She was just a young girl, not even married yet, but God was going to give her a son and he would reveal God’s presence with us in the world in the most amazing ways. An angel came to some shepherds, out in the fields, watching their sheep. The angel told them that a child had been born. And this child would be their Saviour, their Messiah, their Lord. The angel told them to go and see, and a crowd of angels appeared and sang praises to God and announced peace to all on earth.
All these angels — all these messengers! Could it be that the Gospel writer is trying to tell us that God has things to say to us? Could it be that God is trying to communicate with us? Trying to get us to pay attention?
Of all the things that we do wrong in our lives, I think that one must be the most frustrating for God… the fact that we so rarely pay any attention to God at all. We so often live as if God does not exist. Not only do we fail to praise God in worship and service, but even when we face challenges or tragedies in our lives, we forget that God is with us. We forget that God is our refuge and strength. We forget that God is aching to love and care for us and to help us through our lives. Could it be that all the angels are a really dramatic way of showing that God is trying to communicate with us? “Look! I have something to say. I have a message for you. Won’t you pay attention?”
But it’s more than that, I think. It’s more than God just saying, “Look, I’m here.” Because every angel’s message was about something that God was doing. The angels didn’t just say “God exists”. They said, “Look, God is about to do something amazing! God has already done something amazing!”
A child will be born, and he will prepare the way of the Messiah. A child will be born, and he will be the Messiah — he will reveal God’s love and presence to all the world. A child has been born, and he is born for you and for all, and he will bring peace to all people. The author of Luke’s Gospel didn’t just want to tell us that God exists. He also wanted to show us that God is actively at work in our world.
The early Christian community, of which the author was a part, had come to believe that in Jesus of Nazareth, God was at work in our world. In Jesus of Nazareth, God had come to be in our world. In Jesus of Nazareth, God’s love was made present in the flesh. He didn’t want anyone to go on thinking that God was some far-off, distance being. God had come to be with us. And the Gospel writer wanted everyone to know.
I don’t have time tonight to get into the theological significance of every detail in Luke’s birth narrative. But there are two more things that I would like to mention. First, pay attention to the kind of people that God’s angels appeared and spoke to. The way Luke’s author tells the story, God chose the poor and humble as the venue for the great work of redemption. The old, the poor, the humble, and the insignificant are not to be overlooked; they are God’s chosen people.
Luke points out that God works among ordinary people. The angel Gabriel appeared first to Zechariah, an old priest going about his duties in the Temple, and then to a young girl not yet married. She lived in an insignificant town in an unimportant province in the Roman Empire. Nothing about her circumstances would have led anyone to suspect the role she would play in God’s plan. And then, of course, there were the shepherds. Shepherding was a despised occupation at the time. In the first century, shepherds were scorned as shiftless, dishonest people who grazed their flocks on others’ lands.
But as Luke’s author tells it, the glory of Christmas came about by the willingness of ordinary people to obey God’s claim on their lives. The message is not only that God exists. It’s not only that God is doing something in our world. But the message to ordinary people like Zechariah, like Mary, like shepherds, and like you and me, is that God is doing something amazing in our world, and that God wants us to be involved.
This is good news for us, and it is challenging news. We may feel about it very much like Mary might have felt about the news she got from the angel. God wants to work through us to bring light and love and peace and joy and hope into the world. But of course, it’s not going to be easy for us, just as it wasn’t easy for Mary.
My prayer for each one of us this Christmas, is that we would hear God’s message and respond in faith and obedience. May we have the assurance not only that God exists, not only that God is doing good things in our world, but may we be inspired to respond to God’s invitation to get involved. May God’s Word become flesh in our lives. Amen.