Two Christmas Stories

Christmas Eve 2014   Luke 2: 1-14   John 1: 1-14

Rev. Catherine Purves


     We just read two stories of one event that could hardly be more different from one another.  Like night and day, these two Christmas stories reveal the truth about Jesus’ birth but in such different ways.  Both seek to express the meaning of an event that should stretch our imaginations nearly to the breaking point.  But Luke does that by describing what actually happened in Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born.  John does it by interpreting that event in light of God’s overarching plan for humanity and for all creation.  Trying to make sense of what happened on Christmas Day will require us to hold these two Christmas stories together, in spite of the fact that they seem, superficially, so incompatible.  If we don’t, then our understanding of this most sacred event will be incomplete, and we won’t really know what we’re celebrating on Christmas day. 

     Luke’s story is very down-to-earth, apart from the surprising appearance of angels.  He tells about a couple forced to travel at a most inconvenient time (9 months into a pregnancy), because of a tax problem, of all things.  Mary gives birth in an odd place, but that’s not unheard of.  And total strangers will often crowd around a newborn, so the shepherd’s interest isn’t that unusual either.  This is a story – a very familiar story – that we can relate to.  Who hasn’t had tax problems?  Many, if not most of us, could tell an interesting story or two about a strange birth that took place in a taxi, or in some other unexpected location.  And who among us can resist the allure of a newborn baby.  This is a story that connects to our experience, even if it is something that happened long ago, far away, and in a country and culture so different from our own.

     But on the other hand, in John’s Gospel we have a unique story that describes the drama of creation reinterpreted and then somehow repeated in a wholly new way as the Word became flesh.  Here we are dealing with realities completely beyond our grasp.  And rather than ordinary things that we can visualize, like rustic inns and mangers and newborn babies, we are forced to contemplate concepts like the Word (with a capital ‘W’), creation, light and darkness, grace, truth, and glory.  No wonder we might be tempted to opt for the simple story, told by Luke, about a Bethlehem birth, rather than the theological treatise, told by John, about the Word becoming flesh.

     But these two accounts, as different as they are, need to be held together, because that’s what Christmas is all about.  It’s not just about a simple birth, and it’s not just about awesome cosmic happenings.  Christmas is an amazing collision of the ordinary and the extraordinary, the stuff of stables and the stuff of heaven, the most everyday things and the most sublime and world-changing things.  You might think that bringing these things together would result in a colossal train wreck, but this is the only way to describe something that is otherwise indescribable.  In the birth of Jesus, heaven and earth must meet, God and man unite in a helpless infant who is the Word of God.  This should knock us off our pews, because the Son of God, the Prince of Heaven, doesn’t belong in a manger.  Yet, as John tells the story, the glory of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth came into our world, and, as Luke describes it, that happened through an uneventful birth, at an inconvenient time, in an over-booked inn, that was located in a small oppressed Middle Eastern country.

     The fact that we are given these two incompatible stories of Christmas means that we will have to work hard to hold them together.  In truth, the one interprets the other, and we can’t have one without the other or something vital will be lost.  If we just read Luke’s version we are in danger of sentimentalizing and trivializing the birth of Jesus.  How sweet to remember Christmas pageants of years gone by with children dressed as angels and baby doll Jesuses resting silently in hastily constructed wooden mangers, as Mary looks on, dressed in a blue bathrobe.  Candles glow as carols are softly sung.  Peace on earth is proclaimed, and we can even feel at peace ourselves.  It is such a familiar and comforting story. 

     Of course, we may be conveniently overlooking some bits of Luke’s story, elements that might stand out more if John’s story is read too.  Luke takes great pains to locate Jesus’ birth in a very particular political time and circumstance.  That reference to Quirinius, governor of Syria, and Augustus Caesar and his tax registration highlights an amazing contrast in the story, a clash of cultures that we might not notice if we’re just focusing on mangers and shepherds and angels.  This is more obvious if we take John’s broader, more universal view of the story.

     Caesar, as Emperor of Rome, had claimed the title Son of God.  It was he who had established universal peace in the Roman Empire, though his was a peace based on military might and the oppression of conquered peoples.  Luke is hinting that the baby who was born in Bethlehem would challenge those claims and ultimately defeat that power.  The birth of Jesus did not only signal a spiritual rebirth for individual believers.  Luke saw, as John saw, that this Jesus would change everything.  He alone could claim to be Son of God.  He alone was Lord.  He alone would be named Prince of Peace.  And his life would have political consequences, both in his own age and in ours.  

     On this night of all nights we might not want to think about politics, or justice issues, or societal problems like healthcare, or homelessness, or poverty, or violence in our streets, or governments, like Caesar’s, that don’t care for the people.  But Luke is, I think, implying that these things were on the minds of Mary and Joseph as they welcomed their helpless infant into the world.  And his life would challenge those political realities in his 1st century world, as we must in ours. 

     It will not be easy for us to follow Jesus in this down-to-earth work.  As John’s story reminds us, Jesus came to his own world, the world that came into being though him as God’s eternal Word, and the world rejected him; even his own people did not accept him.  His challenge was too threatening, his claims too absolute, his demands too unyielding, his justice, his peace, and his way were too hard.  So it will be for us, if we see that our faith must be down-to-earth like his, and that it must be involved in the harsh realities of this life, political not just spiritual realities, particularly as they are experienced by the poor, the oppressed, and the powerless.  After all, we follow one whose first bed was a manger, whose first visitors were poor shepherds, and whose mother was a peasant girl.

     And yet, if we read and re-read John’s Christmas story, we will be reminded again of the true power that was hidden in that baby in the manger, and that man on the cross, and that risen and ascended Lord.  This was the everlasting God, living in human flesh.  The one who created all things was coming into the world in a completely unexpected way.  He would bring life and light, hope and salvation to all people.  As John says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” 

     Even the dark days of Caesar’s empire, and even our own dark days will not be able to extinguish the light of Christ.  As Christians, we must be bearers of that light in a dark world.  Faith is not just about setting up manger scenes at Christmas.  It is about living in terms of a new social and political reality by claiming the Lordship of Christ in our world.  That sounds like an impossible challenge, but John reassures us with this promise, “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God…”   The hidden power of that newborn baby in the manger is now God’s gift to his church, so that we can take the light and the truth and the grace of Christ into our down-to-earth lives as the empowered children of God.  And this is all part of a far larger drama, as John reminds us.  God is reclaiming his creation.  God is redeeming his people.  God is changing our world, and we are part of that through the power of that same Spirit who brought about the miracle of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem.

     You see how we have now intertwined our two stories so that they are just one Christmas story.  By reading both at once, we have found ourselves in the middle of what God was doing and what God is doing in the world.  We cannot celebrate Jesus’ birth tonight without celebrating our own re-birth.  We cannot give thanks for his life without realizing his claim on our lives.  And the Lord Jesus wants more than just our love and our prayers and our Christmas carols.  He wants our down-to-earth, everyday lives.  He wants us to declare his peace, to call for his justice, and to defend the poor and the powerless in our day.  Jesus came to change everything, and now we too are called to be part of that change, bearing witness to the light and the glory of God that came into the world at Christmas. 

     This is what we celebrate tonight:  “the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”  That Word was born in Bethlehem, wrapped in bands of cloth, and laid in a manger.  This is the one story that changed the world.  Now, it is our story to tell and our story to live.