Thursday, December 23, 2010
Preachers do not love Christmas. Some, in fact, dislike it very much. In the gloriously difficult and delightful work of preaching, Christmas can become a burden. Most of the preachers I know struggle with Christmas sermons and eventually despise having to write them. Every year for at least one week, sermons are devoted to the birth of Jesus. How can preachers consider it anything but a tremendous privilege to tell Christmas stories?
As I was recently reflecting on how to preach a new Christmas sermon, I began to think of the passages which focus on the birth of Jesus. The list is short. We only find mention of Jesus' birth in Matthew 1-2, Luke 1-2, Romans 1.3, Galatians 4.4, Phil 2.7, John 1.1-18 and Revelation 12.1-17. I was immediately struck by two things.
The first thing I noticed is that passages about Jesus' birth are scarce. Mark's gospel ignores the birth of Jesus altogether. Paul's mention of the birth serves to identify Jesus with the royal line of David (Rom 1.3), describe God's apocalyptic adoption of all humanity through Jesus (Gal 4.4), and highlight his role as a servant being born in "human likeness" (Phil 2.7). Not usually the themes of Christmas sermons. None of Paul's descriptions of Jesus' birth care to mention that Mary was a virgin or even indicate that Paul knew the tradition. While Matthew and Luke devote significant attention to the birth of Jesus, they are unique among the NT writers in doing so.
The second observation that stuck out to me, was that not only are the stories rare but each of them is unique. John's prologue (Jn 1.1-18) is a theological treatise on the incarnation. John ruminates over the significance of the divine Logos, light and life, becoming flesh. The apocalyptic narrative of Revelation 12, is as Mike Bird described it, "the nativity story directed by Quentin Tarantino." In characteristic apocalyptic drama, John's apocalypse unveils the cosmic forces at work in the birth. It is both gruesome and profound. These theological reflections on Jesus' birth are almost un-recognizably different from how we normally think, sing and story Christmas.
Usually, we know the story from Luke. This is probably thanks to Charlie Brown Christmas and a proclivity for Luke's more joyful sing-songy version of the story. Luke's retelling, almost exclusively focused on Mary's perspective, highlights the joy of a new mother coinciding with the arrival of salvation for the world. The male priest Zechariah serves as a narrative foil of foolishness (Lk 1.8-23), highlighting the faithful service of the young virgin Mary (Lk 1.26-38). Mary sings a song about the glorious God who saves (Lk 1.46-55). The lowly shepherds share in the heavenly worship offered to the savior wrapped in swaddling cloth and placed in manger (Lk 2.8-20). The story is overflowing with joy and celebration. It is a story certainly worthy of song.
Matthew's story, focused on Joseph's perspective, is a little more mystical and adult than Luke's. Matthew has Mary almost dismissed by Joseph under the suspicion of infidelity (Mt 1.19), the murderous tyrant Herod kills infants and leaves bereaved mothers wailing (Mt 2.16-18). The baby Jesus barely escapes Herod's death decree with his life (Mt 2.13-15). Mystically, Matthew's birth narrative is filled with angels (Mt 1.20-24; 2.13; 2.19-20), a celestial star-guide (Mt 2.2), prophetic dreams (Mt 1.20-24; 2:12, 13; 2.19-20) and fulfillment of OT scripture (Mt 2.5-6 [Mic 5.2]; 2:15 [Hos 11.1]; 2:17-18 [Jer 31.15]; 2:23 [?]). Matthew's version of the story is much darker and filled with anticipation. It is a story told to people who need the hope of a savior to who comes to a world as dangerous and difficult as theirs.
How could preachers not find plenty of material to retell the old story in a new and exciting way each year? One the one sympathetic hand, I think preachers are constrained by expectations. If there isn't a nativity and carols around Christmas, then congregations feel slighted. It can be difficult for people to see the story from a different angle. Also, it's just not easy to be creative week after week, year after year. On the other (self)-condemning hand, preachers are sometimes too lazy or busy to reflect deeply on the depth and diversity of the story. Why do NT writers describe the birth of Jesus so differently? I think there are quite a few good sermons in that one question. What is the significance of incarnation for Christian theology? I imagine that such a question could occupy a good pulpit for years. I am even willing to guess there is a Christmas sermon from Mark if we're willing to read his opening scene with an OT in hand.
Perhaps what is needed is the flexibility and creativity to tell Christmas stories that speak anew. I wonder, which Christmas story speaks most directly to you this holiday season? Why?