I thought that as many of the church were away over Christmas and some ill, I would let you all see my Christmas messages to you in this copy of our newsletter. I wanted us to think about continuing with the Christmas message, not only over Christmas, but all through the year. I hope that some of what I have been trying to do over the last month will now make sense.
So our first message was at our morning service, we had the reading from Luke 2:1-7. Last week I talked about how simple and stark this reading was and I make no apology about going back to it this week.
Mathew goes though the genealogy of Jesus in Chapter 1, then talks about Joseph being told that Mary’s child was from the Holy Spirit. In verse 22 he says;
‘All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet’
It is Matthew’s way to look at the prophets, he then moves right on to the visit of the wise men and again compares it to the prophet.
Mark starts his book with some writing from Isaiah then goes straight on with John the Baptist. There is no nativity story here.
John starts his book with the word becoming flesh reading and also then continues with John the Baptist. It is only in Luke that the whole Christmas story is found, but firstly Luke explains that he has collected these stories from people who knew Jesus.
He then proceeds to tell the story of the coming of both John the Baptist and then Jesus but he only goes as far as the shepherds’ coming to visit. Matthew is the only place the wise men are mentioned.
So why am I saying all this, we all know the story it is part of our tradition. My question: is there a critical distinction to be made between the text and the traditional understanding of it?
It is such a familiar story it is difficult to look at it outside the way we have always understood it. But the longer it is unchallenged the deeper it becomes embedded in Christian consciousness. The traditional understanding of the account in Luke 2: 1-8 contains a number of critical flaws.
Firstly Joseph was returning to the village he grew up in. In the Middle East historical memories are long. In this world Joseph could have gone to Bethlehem and told people I am Joseph, son of Heli, son of Mathat, the son of Levi and most homes in the town would have been open to him.
Secondly Joseph was a royal. He was from the family of King David. The family of David was so famous in Bethlehem that local folk called the town the city of David. Now everyone knew the city of David referred to Jerusalem, but locally Bethlehem was called that as well. Joseph would have been welcome anywhere in the town.
Thirdly, in every culture a woman about to give birth is given special attention. Simple rural cultures all over the world always assist a woman in childbirth regardless of the circumstances. Are we to believe that Bethlehem was an exception?
Bethlehem would have had a sense of responsibility to help Joseph find suitable accommodation and Mary the help and care she needed. To turn away a decedent of David in the City of David would be an unspeakable shame on the entire village.
Fourthly, Mary had relations in a nearby village. She visited her cousin Elizabeth ‘in the hill country of Judea.’ Bethlehem is located in the centre of Judea. If Joseph had failed to find shelter in Bethlehem he would have surely gone to Elizabeth and Zachariah’s, but did he have time for those few extra miles?
Fifthly, Joseph had time to make adequate arrangements. Verse 6 in the King James version says;
6 So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.
You see most people think that Jesus was born that first night the holy family arrived. Hence Joseph’s haste to accept the stable. In the text the time is not specified but it was surely time enough to find adequate shelter. So where did our traditional story come from? Well it stems from approximately 200 years after the birth of Christ.
An anonymous Christian wrote an expanded account of the birth of Christ that has survived and is called ‘The Protevanglium of James’. James had nothing to do with it. The author is not a Jew as there is no understanding of Palestine geography or Jewish tradition. Scholars date this particular novel to A.D. 200 and it is full of imaginary detail. It was composed in Greek but translated into many different languages. The author had clearly read the gospel stories but in this version says that Jesus is born before they arrive in Bethlehem, in a cave overshadowed first by a dark cloud and then a bright light. There is a midwife who Joseph fetches but she arrives after the baby is born. A woman, called Salome, appears and is told Mary has given birth and is still a virgin. Her hand turns leprous when she expresses doubt and when Mary’s claim is vindicated she is told by an angel to touch the baby and is cured.
This novel is the earliest known reference to Jesus being born on the night of Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem. However, the average Christian who has never heard of the book is never the less unconsciously influenced by it.
So let’s look at the text
- It says that Mary and Joseph went up from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Well Bethlehem is built on a ridge that is considerable higher than Nazareth.
- The city of David was probably a local name for Bethlehem.
- In the Middle East the house of so and so means the family of so and so. Luke may have added the word lineage to make this clearer.
- Luke mentions the child was wrapped in swaddling clothes. This custom is referred to in Ezekiel 16:4 and is still practised in Syria and Palestine.
In western minds the word manger makes us think of stable or barn but in traditional Middle Eastern villages this is not the case. A simple village home in Palestine often has two rooms, one exclusively for guests. That room would be attached to the end of the house or be a prophets chamber on the roof. As in the story of Elijah in 1 Kings 17:19
The main room would be the family room where the whole family cooked, ate, slept and lived. The end of the room next to the door was either a few feet lower than the rest of the floor or blocked off with heavy timbers. Every night the family cow, donkey and a few sheep or goats would be brought in for safety and warmth for the family. The stall was cleaned each day. Elongated circles were dug out of the lower end of the family room for the cows’ and donkeys’ food and mangers made out of wood were provided for the sheep. Such simple houses can be traced from the time of David until the twentieth century.
So I can hear you saying what about the bit about no room at the Inn? Well it’s all down to the translation of a word. If Luke had wanted his reader to think that Joseph had been turned away from an inn, a commercial building then he would have used the word ‘pandocheion’. But he writes the word ‘katalyma’ which means a place to stay. This word is also used in Luke 22:10-12 where it refers to the upper room where Christ, celebrated the Passover before the crucifixion.
Luke tells us that Jesus was placed in the manger in the family room because the guest room was already full. If we need any more proof then in Matthew the wise men entered the house where they saw Mary and the child. This confirms Luke’s account of the birth in a private house.
With all this in mind Joseph is not the inadequate husband that was obliged to find a commercial inn for Mary to have her son in. He did not upset Mary’s relatives by not turning to them in a crisis. The child was born in the normal surroundings of a peasant home sometime after they arrived in Bethlehem. The people of Bethlehem offered the best that they had and preserved their honour as a community.
Yes, we need to rethink the story, but by stripping away all the mythology that has built up about the birth of our Saviour. I think the story has been enriched not cheapened. Jesus was born into a simple two roomed house such as the Middle East has known for the last three thousand years, placed into a manger not in a cold lonely stable but in a warm friendly home.
Our Carols by Candle light message.
Since the Christmas season began one word has fallen from our lips more than any other. Maybe you haven’t stopped to think about which word that was. I don’t think it’s the word joy or carol or tree or food. I think it’s the word gift.
We have lists of gifts we hope to buy. Some of us have lists of gifts they hope Advent. The tree here is a gift from our Messy Church. We as a church have had gifts over Advent. A Christmas lunch. Sweets in church. We as a church have given gifts to Oasis, Toy box and the children’s society.
Let me read to you a Christmas verse it comes from 2 Corinthians 9:15.
“Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”
It is not found in the nativity scene. We don’t often think of it in light of Christmas. But I think it ought to appear on every Christmas card. Paul describes the gift of God to us.
“Thanks be to God for his indescribable gift!”
Paul’s writings appear in the New Testament more than anyone else and yet he pauses when he comes to this simple four-letter word, “gift,” and says it is indescribable. This man cannot find one word that could explain the word gift. He is suddenly and completely at a loss to express himself. So he simply says it’s indescribable.
Paul chooses a term that is used nowhere else in all of Scripture. Why is it indescribable? Why is this gift too awesome for words? I mean after all, it’s just a baby. Well let me say that if he had been an ordinary infant, there would have been nothing indescribable about him, He would be just like any other baby. But because he was neither Paul says it’s indescribable.
Our reading from Luke 2:6 is just factual, it tells the story. But how amazing! Mary looks at God face to face! And we read she gave birth and placed him in a feeding trough. But first she wrapped him. For some reason this year I have been caught up in the wrapping of God’s gift. My daughter loves wrapping gifts as prettily as possible, lots of ribbon and glitter. But how do you wrap an indescribable gift? What material do you use? Mary wrapped him in cloth.
But God wrapped this gift very differently.
First he wrapped Jesus in prophecy.
God doesn’t just suddenly drop Jesus Christ out of heaven to earth. He prepares man for his coming hundreds of years ahead of time. We heard this prophecy in the Isiah reading. If something indescribable is wrapped in something as powerful as prophecy then you have people anticipating his arrival.
Then baby Jesus comes wrapped in history
It was just the right time, the Romans had made the world accessible for the message of his birth and life and resurrection to spread to everyone. The Bible says Jesus came in the fullness of time and everything was as fully prepared for him as possible. All the pieces of history fell together. God’s preparation was staggering. You wrap an indescribable gift in history and you bring him at just the right time.
Then baby Jesus comes wrapped in mystery
You can’t leave out the mystery. If you took away the mystery there’s nothing indescribable about him. This gift comes in mystery. So what’s the mystery about that baby? Well it’s God becoming visible in human form. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” writes John. God became man. God took upon himself perfect humanity and, linking the two natures together in one, housed in one unique body, the God-man was delivered. No less deity. No less humanity in one person, in one body. That is a mystery. Did anyone ever say it any better than Charles Wesley?
“Christ, by highest heavens adored; Christ the everlasting Lord! Late in time behold him come, offspring of the virgin’s womb. Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity, pleased as man with men to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.”
Jesus strangely wrapped in history, in prophecy, and in mystery. Well, then something this awesome, something this stupendous should have come with trumpets blazing. In this day and age it would have been all over Facebook and the TV news. But No, this baby was silently delivered. The first cries were heard only by a mother who was cleaning him up, a bewildered man who stood in the entrance watching it all happen, and a few animals.
When God finally did decide to make it known he slipped out into the countryside and chose a few Bedouin types. Never once are they even named—a bunch of no-account shepherds—because you see it was to no-account people that Jesus came; to sinners. That’s why the Christmas story is repeated in God’s words time after time after time. Because that’s the only way men and women will believe the prophecy and history and mystery that surrounds that baby.
People today are still waiting for the baby to come? Stop anticipating another gift, another answer, another provision from God for the needs of our lives’. We have him. He’s here. Our problem is that we’ve just rejected him. Just come like a wandering Bedouin out of the field, saying
“The gift has arrived. Take him.” Amen.