Keeping Our Story Straight

Matthew 2:1-17

What did you think when you saw the picture on the bulletin, Did any of you think, “Isn’t Christmas over with, yet?”

I mean, we’ve been dealing with Christmas decorations and music since Halloween.

But actually, the twelve days of Christmas ended on January 5, and yesterday — January 6 — was the Feast of the Epiphany, like it is every year.

This is not a picture of the Christmas story; it’s a picture of the Epiphany story. Epiphany is actually a more ancient holiday than Christmas. It celebrates the “shining forth” — the epi phanos — of the light of God into the world. The traditional text for Epiphany is the story of the magi and their gifts.

But, typically, everyone conflates the two stories, which is where I want to begin.

Christmas, especially in America, is a mishmash.

It’s a mishmash of characters and symbols and customs and traditions and plot lines,

and keeping the story straight is no trivial matter.

The confusion actually begins in the church.

Just think of the typical Christmas crèche.

You’ve got a barn, made of rough-hewn wood or ceramics.

You’ve got a manger, filled with straw, with the baby Jesus lying on top.

You’ve got Mary and Joseph,

standing behind the manger looking lovingly at their son.

You’ve got cows hanging around, eating; it’s their home, after all.

You’ve got a star, hanging right over the manger

with a few adoring shepherds off to one side with their sheep

and three Magi with their gifts off to the other side.

All of these are elements of the biblical stories,

but when you put them all together in one crèche, you’ve created a mishmash,

because neither Matthew nor Luke ever have all of these together in the same place at the same time.

And then to add to this mishmash are the Christmas traditions of our culture:

the Christmas tree

Santa Claus

Santa’s flying sleigh drawn by eight tiny reindeer

Rudolph, the one in front with the the very, very shiny nose

the little drummer boy, the three French hens, two turtle doves, and of course the partridge in the pear tree.

There’s so much great literature that has grown up around Christmas.

Charles Dickens’s Christmas Carol

O. Henry’s The Gift of the Magi

and that famous poem written by a distinguished classical scholar, Clement Moore,

who’s best known not for his scholarship but for ’Twas the Night Before Christmas

We’ve even got new secular holidays, created in anticipation of the main event:

Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving,

when the faithful wait patiently for hours in front of big box stores

Cyber Monday, a holiday so new they never taught me about it in seminary

So we have this mishmash,

this conflation of stories and symbols and customs,

that began as early as the first century when the gospels were written.

You do know the Bible has two stories about the coming of Jesus.

One is in Matthew; the other is in Luke.

They are as different as two stories about the same person could possibly be.

Frankly, the church has never really paid much attention to their differences.

Instead, we’ve harmonized these stories into one narrative, putting all their elements into one crèche, and basically creating the mishmash.

Let’s see how different these two stories are!

First, there’s Luke’s story.

Humble parents-to-be, Mary and Joseph,

making the long journey to Bethlehem,

Mary riding on a donkey, Joseph walking the whole way on foot,

obeying a bureaucratic decree to be counted in a census,

which inconveniently was timed to coincide with the ninth month of Mary’s pregnancy.

Humble parents. When they get to Bethlehem: there’s no room in the inn.

I suspect had there been a vacant room,

Mary and Joseph would have been too poor to afford it.

So where did she give birth?

Mary’s child was born in a barn and laid in a manger,

the feeding trough for cows.

While outside, on Bethlehem’s hills, angels were singing

their song of peace on earth, goodwill to all. Their audience?

a few poor scraggly shepherds watching their sheep on a cold winter’s night.

So Luke’s Jesus:

born to humble parents, born in a barn, laid in a manger, visited by shepherds and sheep.

It’s easy to romanticize, but Luke’s story is earthy and prophetic.

It makes clear the disparities of wealth and power in our world.

It shows us the hardships of those who live on the margins.

It tells us about a Jesus who identifies with the poor and the powerless.

And then, there’s Matthew’s story.

Jesus’ birth is heralded by what? by a cosmic event:

a new star appears in the sky.

The star is seen by educated astrologers hundreds of miles to the east, the Magi.

They discern its meaning: a new king has been born, the king of the Jews.

They make a long journey to pay homage to this new king.

They assume they’ll find him in Jerusalem, the seat of power,

so that’s where they go.

News of this comes to Herod, the Roman governor.

He hears the Magi are looking for some newborn king of the Jews.

Herod is not amused because, as far as he’s concerned, he is the king of the Jews.

His job description is very simple: to keep his subjects docile.

This new king is a problem. He attempts to stamp out this problem as efficiently as possible.

Herod tries to recruit the Magi in a diabolical plot:

Go. Find the child. And when you find him, come back and tell me where he is,

because, he says, I want to worship him myself.

Do you believe that? Of course not. It’s a lie.

Herod’s only intent is to destroy his infant rival.

Fortunately the Magi see through Herod’s lie,

either in a dream (like the story says)

or because they really were wise men and wise women who weren’t born yesterday.

So the Magi travel to Bethlehem. They find the child.

They present expensive gifts befitting a king: gold, and frankincense, and myrrh.

All this happens, by the way, two years after the birth;

the Magi were never at the manger with the shepherds and the sheep.