Message given at Durham Friends Meeting, December 15, 2019
You’ve probably noticed it’s the Christmas season. Holiday lights, decorated trees, cookies with icing and sprinkles, advertisements, glitter and glow. The season when couples apparently give each other pick-up trucks.
There’s a lot of bustling about. And somewhere, some of the time, there’s a story about the birth of the person who will be named Jesus, who will be revealed as the son of God, and thirty-some years later will be crucified by some of us at Calvary outside Jerusalem. And three days later he will declare a victory over death and sin through his resurrection. We know this story about the birth of Jesus and about what comes later from the Bible – and the Bible alone. Nowhere else is this story told. There are very few mentions of this person Jesus in any other source than our Bible.
In all the glitter and glow, the pomp and parade of Christmas, we can easily lose sight of the Christmas story. This morning I want to say a very few things about what we might make of the story of Jesus’s birth, the Christmas story. Wallace Stevens wrote a poem called “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” We don’t have that much time and I’m not that good, so let’s call this “Three Ways of Looking at the Christmas Story.”
I. The Bible has four accounts of the life of Jesus, but only two of them have a Christmas story: Matthew and Luke. There is no Christmas story in Mark and none in John. What’s more interesting, to me, is that once the Christmas story is finished, there’s no mention of the miraculous birth of Jesus in the rest of Matthew or in the rest of Luke. The Christmas story becomes irrelevant. No one says to Jesus after he performs a miracle, “oh, you’re the guy born in the manger, with all the angels and animals in attendance.” No one says, “oh, you’re the guy the kings came to honor when you were born.” Not a word, not a whisper. It’s as if everyone forgot about the Christmas story.
Or maybe it was just added later on. Maybe it really isn’t part of the Jesus story that begins with preaching and praying and ends with a triumph over death. Maybe Mark has it right. Maybe the story really starts when Jesus is a young man and John the Baptist announces that Jesus is the one. That story about John the Baptist is in all four gospels.
Miraculous birth stories were a common feature of stories told about heroes back in those days. In the Iliad, Achilles had a goddess for a mother. Roman emperors all had miraculous birth stories told about them, for example: their mother or their father was a god. So maybe Matthew and Luke made up a miraculous birth story and added it to their story of Jesus. ‘You think your guy is special?’ they might be saying. ‘Well ours is even more special. Our miraculous birth story has everything: a manger, animals, shepherds, kings, even a narrow escape from assassins. “Ours Is Just as Big as Yours,” they might be saying, “Maybe Even Bigger.”
This isn’t my favorite way of looking at Christmas, but when we start getting carried away with the pomp and the glitz and pick-up trucks, I start thinking we’re skidding in this direction. When you see the product ads on TV this time of year, ask yourself if this isn’t the story: “Ours Is Even Bigger Than Yours.”
II. Here’s a different way to look at it. Take the four gospels. Each tells a story of a life. For the moment, put the Christmas story, the birth, to one side. And also put to one side the stuff at the end about the end of Jesus’s life: about Jesus coming to Jerusalem where he’s arrested, crucified and resurrected. Now without that beginning and that end, we have the story of a preacher and healer who wanders the countryside doing and saying attention-getting things. Fresh things. World turned upside down things. Be humble. Be so generous as to give away your only coat. Love your enemy no matter what. In that big middle story, Jesus gets crosswise with the religious leaders of his time. He heals on the sabbath, for example. But Jesus really doesn’t encounter a soldier or a policeman. He’s never really in danger. He never gets a ticket or a fine. He never spends a day in jail.
In the middle of the story there’s no mention of the Emperor or the Romans. And they’re in control, we need to remember. The Romans have conquered Israel and Judah and subjugated them. Their Empire is the greatest, the mightiest ever known. At the end of story, when Jesus comes to Jerusalem, Jesus does get in trouble with the authorities. Crucifixion is a Roman penalty for the most serious crimes – for challenging the authority of the Emperor.
If we remember how it ends, that puts the Christmas story in a new light. The Christmas story announces the birth of a king: not just a mighty king, but the mightiest of all. It announces the birth of a king who will sweep away all worldly kings, even the Roman emperor. Born in a stable, laid in a manger. But here is a baby to whom the wisest of kings bow down. Here is a baby attended by angels. Here is baby who is hunted by a wicked king, but a baby who escapes and triumphs. And here triumphant is a new kind of king who triumphs through love not through the sword.
“This is the Anti-Empire,” we might call this story. This is the empire out-empired. The story at the end is the same story told at the beginning. Christmas and Resurrection are versions of the same story.
III. I’m much more drawn to the second way of looking at Christmas than the first. If the first one says Christmas is not really part of the Jesus story, the second one says the Christmas story is a telling of the whole miraculous story of the Christ unfolding in his first days and weeks of His life. It’s concentrated essence of the Jesus story if you really take it all in.
For some people, I know, the whole Jesus story, start to end, is a little too much. Maybe you have friends like this. Miracles aren’t for them. Humility is OK but only in measured doses. Sometimes love can triumph, but sometimes we need the sword. Turning the other cheek doesn’t really work. And so on. Know anyone like that? Know anyone who can only go part of the way with Jesus?
So for them, and for us, too, here’s a third way of looking at Christmas.
The Christmas story is the story of a birth, the birth of a baby. There’s a little pain with this birth, but there always is. And there is also a great deal of hope and anticipation. There’s much more of this. This is a baby born in love – as is almost always the case. Once the baby is born, friends and neighbors crowd around to see the baby. They want to touch the baby; they want to hold the baby. Have you had that experience? I bet most of us have. It is a joyful time, the birth of a baby, wherever the baby is born, whoever are the parents.
Think of what most excites members of this Meeting. Isn’t it the birth of a child or grandchild? Isn’t that the very best story we look forward to hearing? It’s the most universal story. It is a story of love, and an essential one.
The birth of every baby is a fresh beginning. It is a fresh beginning not just for that baby but for the parents, for the siblings, for the friends and neighbors – really for all of us. Who knows what this new child will grow up to be? A scientist? A poet? A leader? a healer? A mother? A stand-up guy? A prophet who challenges the Empire? There are so many wonderful possibilities. Can’t we imagine shepherds and sheep, angels and kings celebrating at every birth?
Call this telling of the Christmas story “Every Child Is a Miracle Beginning.” That’s a story all of us can celebrate.