Keeping Our Story Straight
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’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.
But then they return home by another route. They bypass Jerusalem.
They avoid Herod. They assume some personal risk in doing so.
They deny him the information he’s been seeking,
and when Herod finds out he’s been tricked, he is enraged.
He gives a terrible order:
He orders the mass murder of every child in Bethlehem, two years old and younger.
Jesus is saved from this massacre
only because Joseph was warned in a dream to take his family to Egypt.
So you’ve got these two stories.
One is about a humble and impoverished Jesus.
The other is about a newborn king who is seen as a rival by the Roman governor.
But when we jumble these stories together, we miss their power.
Keeping our stories straight…
Several years ago, I attended a Christmas Eve service in a very affluent community.
In the minutes before the service, I was sitting in my pew, looking around the sanctuary, taking it all in.
The church was decorated with poinsettias and candles.
There was a beautifully decorated Christmas tree.
The pews were filled. Everyone was nicely dressed.
But then I noticed something that truly surprised me:
I noticed that the ushers were all wearing tuxedos, as were the male choir members, as was the organist.
This was truly a very prosperous congregation, but that’s not my point.
These were Christians who’d come to worship, to hear the story, and celebrate the birth.
But when it came time for the message,
the preacher stood in his pulpit, a radiant smile on his face,
and delivered a most pleasant homily on the prologue to the Gospel of John,
on the miracle of incarnation,
the wonder of the Word made flesh.
He was eloquent. He made splendid eye contact.
He rhapsodized on the beauty of the season, he made everyone feel warm and good.
But there’s something he didn’t do: he didn’t tell the story.
And I thought: what a missed opportunity.
What a fertile congregation who’d come to church on Christmas Eve
to hear the word, to be inspired,
a congregation with the resources, the connections, and the clout
to make a difference in our nation and our world
and in the lives of their neighbors.
But the preacher didn’t tell the story.
He said nothing about the humble parents
who lacked the money to buy their way into that inn that night,
on the very night it would have mattered the most to them,
when their son was born.
Maybe the preacher didn’t have the nerve to tell this story to an affluent congregation
about how God came to us in the person of penniless child.
But it doesn’t really take any nerve. You don’t have to get political.
You don’t need to even talk about poverty. You just have to tell the story,
to a congregation who already knew the story, who’d heard it all their lives, who probably expected to hear it.
They just needed to be reminded of it, like we all do…
They just needed to be reminded
about the baby, born in a stable,
sleeping in a manger, visited by shepherds.
They just needed to be reminded…
that this baby was a subject of the most powerful Empire in the world,
whose leaders were so cruel and uncaring
they tried to murder him when he was just two years old.
They just needed to be reminded…
about a God who so loved the world,
about the angels and their song of peace on earth, good will to all,
to everyone, no exceptions.
They just needed to be reminded of that old, old story with its power to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
You know, they say there’s a war on Christmas.
I don’t believe it. There’s no war on Christmas.
No one is silencing the church.
If anything, the church is silencing itself,
distracting the people with secondary things.
We just need to get the story straight and keep the story straight,
to hold the story in our hearts
and tell the story out loud to the church, to the city, to the nation, to the world.
Like the song says…
Go, tell it on the mountains,
over the hills and everywhere.
Go, tell the story … of how the baby Jesus was born.