Dec25WedA sermon for Christmas 2019 December 25, 2019
The birth of Jesus.
How do we read these incredible stories about the birth of Jesus?
How do we make sense of them?
While preparing for this sermon,
I started reading in a popular book I’ve wanted to read for some time:
“The First Christmas” by Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan,
famous liberal New Testament Scholars.
And I was inspired and challenged,
and I wanted to share a little of what I read.
I don’t want this sermon to be merely a book report,
but hopefully some of what I share will resonate with you,
perhaps willhelp you understand what Christmas is about, a little more,
and maybe it will challenge you, just like it did for me.
The story of the birth of Jesus as we hear it in the Gospel of Luke,
is full of magical and supernatural occurrences,
that are hard for 21st century Westerners to comprehend.
But Borg and Crossan try a little different approach.
I would guess that many of you,
when confronted with a story about a virgin conceiving a child might say:
“what a load of hogwash.
That’s not biologically possible.
I know about the birds and the bees!
I took 8th grade biology!
Divine sperm… what is that?
A woman conceiving by the power of the Holy Spirit?”
Likewise, when you hear a story about wandering stars,
and radiant men singing and floating in the clouds,
you might say
“that’s just a fairy tale. Things like that just don’t happen.”
How do we read these incredible stories about the birth of Jesus?
Well, I think it’s important to go back to the actual Biblical texts
of the birth of Jesus and see what they say.
We have two Birth Narratives in the Bible,
one from the Gospel of Matthew
and one from Luke, which we read part of today.
Both stories have a lot of differences,
that many people find hard to reconcile.
The other two Gospels, Mark and John,
do not mention Jesus’ birth at all.
They seem to know nothing at all
of any miraculous or out-of-the-ordinary birth.
So, is the story of the birth of Jesus fact or fiction?
Many people want to know.
Let’s leave the debate about fact and fiction aside for a moment,
say Borg and Crossan.
Perhaps there’s a third way of looking at the story:
As a parable and an overture.
It might help to take a step backward and look at
how we perceive the reality of Bible stories.
In the Middle Ages and prior (in the pre-modern era),
the truth of the biblical stories was taken for granted.
“It was part of what everybody knew”
(whether it was the story of the Garden of Eden
or any other story in the Bible).
Yet the Enlightenment changed all that,
and the modern mindset…
with rational thought, and the scientific method
became the overriding principle.
Many people began to “think that truth and factuality are the same.”
That is, if something is a fact, than it must be true,
and if it isn’t a fact than it isn’t true.
Religion scholar Huston Smith calls this extreme version
of the modern viewpoint
In other words,
that if you believe:
“if something isn't factual , it isn't true”,
you are a fact fundamentalist.
Coupled with this,
the modern view of reality holds the scientific space-time universe
as the only thing that is real beyond a doubt,
and everything else to be non-real,
and even the whole concept of God to be unreal.
The modern worldview is necessarily skeptical of all things supernatural,
and this is a good thing in many ways,
as the scientific method has brought us smartphones,
and all the technology and creature comforts of 21st century Western life,
(as we see in the overflowing shopping malls of the Christmas season in the privileged West.)
However, the scientific method also has called into question
“supernatural interventions, virgin births,
special stars, and angelic visitations”
as we hear in our Christmas stories.
Christians have responded to Biblical criticisms in various ways.
Borg and Crossan call the response by modern evangelical or conservative Christians as “conscious literalism” or “insistent literalism.”
“Conscious literalists are aware that the events in these stories are hard to believe and yet insist, with varying degrees of intensity, that they are factual. Conscious literalism is modern, grounded in the
fact fundamentalism of the Enlightenment.” (p31)
The argument of conservative Christians (slightly simplified) goes like this:
if you doubt that anything in the bible is a fact,
then you must think it isn’t true.
Or in other words:
Everything in the Bible must be literally, factually true.
Otherwise it is fiction and should be discarded.
So in a way, as Borg and Crossan point out:
“both biblical literalists and modern skeptics agree:
if these stories aren’t factual, they aren’t true.
And if they aren’t factual, then the Bible and Christianity aren’t true.”
So for many people the Bible stories are either factual, literal and true,
or they are non-factual, and mere fiction.
I think it’s helpful to reject this false duality of fact and fiction
of the modern mindset.
(and adopt a viewpoint some might characterize as post-modern,
which would state that
just because something is not historical doesn’t mean it isn’t true.)
And Borg and Crossan, do precisely that:
they propose a third way of seeing the birth stories of Jesus:
as a parable and an overture.
Now a parable, as a genre of literature,
is about meaning, not primarily about facts.
For example, when we talk about the Parable of the Good Samaritan,
we recognize this is a true story that talks about the importance
of taking care (under difficult circumstances)
of someone who has been hurt and injured.
It is completely irrelevant whether there actually was a historical Samaritan man who helped out a beaten and robbed man
on the way to Jericho, or not.
That’s not the point of the story.
The parable seeks to impart wisdom and greater truth
about the reality in which we live.
The parable of the Good Samaritan is thus a true story,
but not necessarily a historical one.
Jesus told lots of parables
“about God and the coming of God, and the coming of God’s kingdom”,
and so it’s conceivable that the writers of the Gospel of Luke and Matthew
Thought of their birth narratives as parables as well,
parables that illustrated greater points about the reality of Jesus.
So what kind of a parable are these birth stories?
They are subversive history,
they are rebellious, disruptive history,
for they paint an alternate vision of reality.
These birth narratives are a parable that juxtapose
two very different kingdoms.
The Kingdom of God and the Kingdom of Empire (Rome).
Jesus was born in the time of the Roman Empire,
where the Emperor Caesar Augustus was called Son of God,
Saviour of the World, and the one who brought world peace.
>Jesus, a baby born in a backwater town,
is also called the Son of God, Saviour of the World,
the Prince of Peace, the light of the world.
There is the Kingdom of Caesar, the Roman Kingdom,
based on oppression of the weak by the strong,
>and then there is the Kingdom of God,
where the lowly are lifted up,
and the powerful are brought down from their thrones.
Which is right?
Which Kingdom should we support?
Is it the domination of the powerful over the weak through violence,
as demonstrated in the empires of this world, (even today)
or in the peace that comes through social justice, equality,
and the poor being exalted,
seen in the coming of a helpless baby, in deplorable conditions.
Borg and Crossan also see the birth stories as an overture.
Now those of you who know a little about Classical music,
and have gone to a Ballet or an Opera,
know that an overture is a piece of music
that is played at the beginning of the performance,
usually without anybody on stage (whether singers or dancers)
just by the orchestra,
and it sets up the major musical themes of the work,
so that when you hear those themes during the performance later on,
you’ll recognize them.
Overtures also are generally so composed
so they can stand alone and be played just by themselves,
as they often wold be in a concert setting.
(Think of the overture to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker
or the overture to Mozart’s Magic Flute)
They are like a mini-version or summary of the whole opera or ballet,
and are almost always composed last,
after the entire work has been completed.
Many liberal Biblical scholars believe the birth stories were written
in like manner, as the last parts of the Gospels of Matthew and Luke.
Luke’s birth story (that we heard today) functions as an overture,
in that it takes up many of the themes that are present in the entire Gospel:
it’s emphasis on women, on the marginalized, and on the Holy Spirit.
In a way the birth story overture is the Gospel,
the Good News in miniature, a mini-Gospel.
And it’s especially powerful, because, just like with a musical overture,
it is very condensed and brief
(about 5-10 minutes, as opposed to 2-3 hours long).
So I think Borg and Crossan are onto something
when they emphasize that the birth narratives
are parables and overtures.
it deflects away from the divisive and difficult argument of fact and fiction,
and it concentrates on the meaning of Christmas,
which is really the most important thing for us today.
And what is the meaning of Christmas?
The reality is that Jesus was born into horrendous circumstances,
very much like what we hear of in the news in Yemen right now.
In 4 BCE, after the death of King Herod the Great,
a Jewish revolution was put down in brutal fashion by the Roman army.
The city Sepphoris, about 3 miles from Nazareth
was razed to the ground,
most of the men put to death, the women raped,
the children sold to slavery.
Jesus grew up in a world that was dominated by violence,
as a poor day labourer in a small town in a backwater colony,
with the local memory still vivid of “the day the Romans came”,
with community’s context: that the evil empire trumps everything.
The meaning of Christmas comes alive
when we realize the stories of Christmas are not
“just children’s fables”
but they deal with the deepest, most difficult issues of human existence:
-how to respond to horrendous pictures and reports from Yemen , the greatest humanitarian disaster today, according to the UN
-how to treat the marginalized in our society:
LGBTQ, illegal immigrants, refugees,
differently abled, disabled,
-how do we engage in inter-religious dialogue
-how can we as individuals work for justice and peace for all,
for affordable and supportive housing,
-how do we speak out against sexual assault
human trafficking, racism, sexism…
The meaning of Christmas, I feel is this:
We should take care of the marginalized, the poor,
the needy, the orphan, the widow and foreigner, the homeless
because God himself came to us in the most outcast
of all possible situations,
in a displaced poor family in abject conditions.
We should do this because God is love
and true love knows no bounds.
This is what we come to wrestle with week in and out at church,
and esp. at Christmas, which holds these hopes in so poignant hands,…
not just for nostalgia and the childhood memories
of Santa and presents’ sake,
but because we yearn for a world (along with the Biblical prophets)
where war is no more,
where brothers and sisters live together in unity,
where there is enough food for all,
and where God’s presence among us is more tangible
and real than it is today.
As we yearn and dream for these things,
and celebrate the coming of Jesus, Immanuel, God-with-us,
we realize that there are small ways for us to do our part,
with God’s help,
to bring about peace on earth
and joy and light to the world.