If I were to begin this sermon by wishing you a Happy Christmas, I am sure that some of you would think me rather strange! The secular world has now moved on from Christmas: many people will have taken their decorations down this weekend, even though we haven’t yet reached 12th Night; and people are now thinking about the New Year, the January Sales and going back to work or school after the long holiday.
But in the church’s year, we are still in the Christmas Season (which traditionally extends to Candlemas on 2nd February). And today, as we celebrate the Epiphany, what we are actually doing is hearing the Christmas story again – only this time we are hearing a different version from the one we tend to hear on December 25th. Then we mostly hear Luke’s story, with a passage of poetry and theology from John; today we heard Matthew’s version.
Luke’s story has some elements of sadness in it – the long journey to Bethlehem for the pregnant Mary; no comfortable place for them to stay; the baby placed in a manger. But generally Luke’s nativity is a happy story with a poetic feel and rustic charm. The baby is laid in clean hay, is visited by merry shepherds with a chorus of angels directing them and praising God, and the family returns peacefully home. It is a story suitable for telling to all ages, and nowadays, particularly for children.
Matthew’s is a much darker story, and as a consequence we don’t usually get much of it told to us at Christmas. Almost all of his version ends up being ignored in our nativity plays, except for the Wise Men, who get tagged on to Luke’s story, turning up incongruously in the stable amongst the animals and hay to present their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
This merging of the two narratives is fine for children – but as grown-up Christians we really should be trying to keep the two birth stories separate; because only then will we be able to hear clearly what the two evangelists are trying to tell us about Jesus through their narratives.
It must be said that the church calendar doesn’t help us to hear two different stories. It keeps jumping from one to another – we get the annunciation to Mary (Luke) or to Joseph (Matthew) on the last Sunday of Advent, then Luke’s story of the manger and shepherds, or John’s philosophical meditation on the Word on Christmas Day. Then in the Anglican calendar (and only if, as happened this year, December 28th falls on a Sunday) we get the Slaughter of the Innocents, which is part of Matthew’s dark tale of power politics. Then, on 1 January we get the Circumcision and Naming of Christ (Luke) and on the 6th or the Sunday nearest to it, the coming of the Magi (which is at the centre of Matthew’s story); but again, we only hear it on the rare occasions when Epiphany falls on a Sunday or the feast day is moved to the nearest Sunday. Otherwise, it too gets relegated to a midweek celebration. After moving forward to tell of the Baptism of Christ, the Christmas season ends with the presentation of Christ in the Temple or Candlemas, which rounds off Luke’s story (which in some lectionaries is told on the Sunday after Christmas, instead of the flight into Egypt, which is in Matthew).
No wonder we get the stories in a muddle, and prefer the nativity play version which irons out all the contradictions.
Both stories tell us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem – to emphasise that he was descended from David and so is the expected Jewish King Messiah. Both tell us that Mary was found to be pregnant by the Holy Spirit before her marriage, so he is therefore God’s Son (though since his descent from David comes through Joseph, combining the two is somewhat problematical.) Both tell us that at some time after the birth the family settles in Nazareth, and Jesus grew up there. But apart from these facts the two stories are completely different.
How then can they both be true?
They can both be true because the birth stories are not history or biography, let alone science; they are theology: and what they are telling us about is not how and where Jesus was really born, but who Jesus really was, drawing on prophecy in the Old Testament and pointing forward to the events of his adult life, which they reflect. There can be more than one ‘truth’ about who a person is – we are all different people in different circumstances of our lives – and both the pictures the two evangelists give us of Jesus were true for their communities, and are true for us.
Luke’s story is fashioned to emphasise that, from the very beginning, Jesus’ place was among the poor and the despised, those considered unclean by the religious leaders of his time. It is these poor and outcast people people – like Mary, like the shepherds, like Simeon and Anna – who recognise Jesus as God’s Messiah from infancy. Luke is not particularly interested in Jesus as a Jewish Messiah – he often gets the detail of Jewish ceremonial wrong – but he is interested in him as the Saviour of the World. So the characters in his Nativity story are Everyman and Woman. Mary is centre stage in his narrative, and the story is gentle, domestic and intimate.
Matthew’s nativity story is much darker. Women are virtually invisible in it and even Mary plays only a passive role. Joseph makes all the decisions. He is initially concerned only to protect his own reputation and plans to put Mary away when he discovers she is pregnant by someone else – until the angel instructs him otherwise. Matthew’s angels don’t bring good tidings of great joy – they bring warnings of dirty deeds and instructions about how to avoid disaster.
Matthew’s concern is with the Jewish credentials of Jesus. But his Jesus is a challenge to religious Jews (his genealogy contains four women whose sexual purity was dubious, and who were foreign) yet who were key figures in the line of Jewish heroes from Abraham to Solomon.
In his version, the holy family is resident in Bethlehem before the birth and has a house to live in. The visitors to the newborn are not poor and ignorant, but rich and powerful enough to travel, bring costly gifts, and enter palaces unannounced in pursuit of their enquiries. They move among kings and religious experts. They are searching not for a Saviour of the World but for a King of the Jews.
They follow practices that are slightly suspect in orthodox Jewish eyes, reading the stars and perhaps even indulging in magic and they are foreign. Matthew, in his Nativity Story, wants to make clear from the outset that Gentiles recognise Jesus as the Messiah when the Jewish religious and political authorities didn’t – and also that the Jewish political forces represented by the Herod family try to get rid of him.
Herod’s hostility leads to the massacre of the children of Bethlehem, which is unlikely to be a historical event. But through the actions attributed to Herod, Matthew is able to make the infant Jesus relive some of the major events of Jewish history – the massacre of babies in Egypt under the Pharaoh, exile in Egypt and return from exile to a country with mixed populations of Jews and Gentiles. So Matthew’s story looks backward into Jewish history as well as forward into the events of Jesus’ life.
Politics and power are in the background in Luke’s story; they are in the foreground in Matthew’s. His story allows Matthew to move the Holy Family to Egypt as refugees (as many of Matthew’s community may have been forced to become). He comes out of Egypt as Moses did, and grows up in Nazareth in Galilee – known as Galilee of the Gentiles. It is believed that Matthew’s community was a mixed community of Jews and Gentiles; so the magi represent the faith of the Gentiles, as Joseph represents the faith of the Jews among them.
Matthew’s Nativity story shows Jesus as a challenge to the rich and powerful in state and religion. It shows him as both Jewish Messiah and Saviour for the world. It was a nativity story for his first century community – but it is also a nativity story for us and for all ages.
It poses hard questions about sexual morality. It talks about the abuse of power, and its impact upon the poor and innocent, and that is something which is of contemporary concern. It talks about the plight of refugees, not just the poor, but those who are forced to leave houses and jobs and families because of political persecution. It talks about how we cope with relationships with the foreigners who come among us, a situation we now face with increasing frequency in our country. And it faces us with the message that people with customs and belief systems different from our own may possibly have a truer insight into the message of scripture and of our historic faith than we do. The infant Jesus is involved in and affected by all these concerns – as he was in his adult life. Matthew’s story encourages us to be concerned with these problems too, and perhaps to challenge the prevailing responses to them.
Matthew’s is a Nativity Story for the twenty-first century. Pray God we may see and hear it clearly.