A Sermon preached on Christmas Day 2014 at St. Augustine’s, WiesbadenIsaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14
Good morning and Merry Christmas! So, what’s missing from the Gospel reading we just heard? The ox and the donkey or ass, which is a pity as those were the roles Douglas and I played at the pageant on Sunday! Yes, I’m afraid that although these figures are beloved of cards, cribs and nativity plays, they are later embellishments. All we know is that Mary “laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” That manger was probably also not in a romantically ramshackle shed such as we have here, but was on the ground floor of a caravansary, where normally animals, camels more than cows, would stay, while the travelers slept in rooms on the upper floor, if there was room of course.
And there are many scholars who think that the two Christmas stories in Luke’s and Matthew’s Gospel are also embellishments. There is no mention in Mark, the oldest gospel, nor in Paul’s letters that predate the gospels, nor in John. Mark just jumps on with Jesus’ baptism. For Paul, Jesus death and resurrection are the much more important events, and John focuses on Jesus’ origins before time and creation: “In the beginning was the word.” Luke it seems builds on – and embellishes – already existing traditions that Joseph and Mary came from Nazareth, while Jesus was born, and according to some Old Testament prophecies had to be born, in Bethlehem.
What all the nativity stories do is embellish the core message of the Gospel, of the Good News. For example in the words we also heard this morning in the Letter to Titus: “For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” (Titus 2:11, 14) I fully understand that that phrasing does not lend itself to Christmas cards as much as stables, oxen, shepherds, even child shepherds, and angels.
But is embellishment, whether adding two animals or whole scenes and events, a problem? That depends on whether it detracts from or enhances the core message about Jesus Christ. Additions can still be true if they illustrate a fundamental theological truth about God, and God’s saving acts. The fundamental truths about Jesus are, in the words of the angels, the good news that to unto us is born “a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” So, does Luke’s Christmas story detract from or enhance that message?
This morning’s passage started with the words, “in those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus.” This was the emperor who claimed divinity for himself, and who, according to inscriptions placed in Roman cities and colonies, also claimed to bring peace and justice to the world. Though I believe the Jews found the Roman peace and justice a little oppressive. Luke’s claim on the other hand is that in fact it is the defenseless and powerless baby who will bring real peace, God’s peace. Jesus’ birth is the beginning of the confrontation between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth are all signposts to Jesus’ identity as the only real Lord, to whom we all owe allegiance.
Luke also emphasizes twice in the passage the importance of Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary went there because he, Joseph was descended from the house and family of David, and the angels make a point of mentioning that the birth took place in the city of David. Why? Because according to many prophecies the Messiah, the anointed one, the one God would send to rescue Israel and return her to her rightful place as source of salvation to the whole world would be descended from the royal house of King David. This story, just like Matthew’s version, underscores that Jesus is that promised Messiah, and it also serves to illustrate another fundamental truth. That God is faithful and that we can trust in God’s promises as documented in Scripture and as revealed by God’s prophets.
Later in the Church Year – in Eastertide – we will focus more on the saving nature of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. But Jesus’ birth also has a salvific effect. According to Luke it’s a lowly birth – perhaps not in a bed of straw surrounded by cute animals, but certainly not in a palace and the first people to come and see him are shepherds, underpaid, smelly hired hands. So God’s salvation is for all, it is not restricted to the rich and the powerful, on the contrary – and in keeping with what God had been saying to Israel for centuries – the poor, needy and the outcasts are the first to know and to profit from it. And according to Luke it is also a very human birth – announced by creatures of heaven, but born to a woman when the time came for her to deliver her child the same way all human children are delivered. God saves humanity by sharing in humanity. I’ve quoted this saying from the 3rd century Christian theologian Athanasius before, and I’ll do it again I’m sure: “He was made human, so that we might be made God” – in the words to Titus: purified and a people of Jesus’ own – our God and Savior.
The peace that this birth promises, in the traditional translation: on earth peace, good will toward men (and women of course) is a key part of that salvation, it is the peace of God, shalom, wholeness, being what we are supposed to be. We are only truly whole when we are in right relationship with God, and that right relationship, that joining together is what the juxtaposition of the very heavenly and divine host, with the very earthly and anything but divine shepherds symbolizes.
So don’t worry, I’m not going to take our nativity scene away – the animals, even if not mentioned in the Bible, serve to remind us that they too are part of God’s creation – and we will have a at least one nativity play next year as well! They are not only fun, and guaranteed to bring a warm fuzzy glow parents’ and grandparents’ hearts, they also illustrate and confirm that the one whose birth we celebrate today, Jesus Christ, is our Savior, the Messiah, and our Lord.