Our sermon series this month is taking a step away from our broader theme to consider passages of scripture that get little-to-no air time in our faith tradition. “Danger, Do Not Enter: Sermons That Shouldn’t Be Preached,” captures this pursuit fairly well. It also gives a well-heeded warning to both the proclaimer and the listener (Let’s just hope no one gets seriously injured this month, okay?).
As we will discover, the Bible stories we’ll be looking at in July didn’t make the cut in our faithful imagination because they were boring. Hardly. The stories that we will study on Sunday mornings in July are tales that are difficult to hear, hard to swallow, and taboo in one way or the other. But they all have something to teach us about ourselves and about God.
If, therefore, I spend our Sunday mornings during the month of July looking at scripture that may not crack the ‘Biblical Top 40,’ perhaps it would be a good exercise in the July editions of our Chimes Newsletter to examine a few of the passages that seem to garner so much of the attention in our faith experience. Here’s my contention: I’m not so sure that the most familiar stories from the Bible capture the length and breadth of God’s truth. Perhaps our affection for these well-known stories can teach us something about our own predilections and peccadillos. Maybe, if we’re daring, we can recognize the liabilities of locating the entirety of our religious experience in one particular story or another.
From my vantage point, the most popular and well-known Bible story is contained in the Infancy Narratives from the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. I’m talking about the Christmas Story, y’all. In our setting, even the most novice of religious observers can sketch out the framework for how Jesus was born to a virgin in Bethlehem. Even in our increasingly secularized culture, the trappings of Jesus’ birth still root our economy’s most lucrative holiday. Stars, stables, ‘all-things-babies,’ miracles, hope, love, cute and cuddly farm animals, peace, and ‘Ancient-Near-East-at-Twilight’ scenes all point to the story that Christians claim as the foundation of our faith.
So, what have we gotten wrong about this incredible story?
Answer: Which part? Because, when it comes to the story of Jesus’ birth, we get much of it wrong. Let’s start with the details.
In an effort to accommodate our own ideas for how the birth of Jesus should have occurred, or to tidy a story that seems rough around the edges, much of the story has been stretched. Stories always get pulled in a number of directions when they are retold, but when adherents of a faith cannot sort fact from fiction in a story they claim to be so important, we’ve got a problem.
-Much to the chagrin of would-be children’s book authors, the Bible has no reference to a kindly innkeeper in the story of Jesus’s birth.
-Yet again, unfortunately, there is no reference to barnyard animals surrounding the Holy Family in the stable.
-Mary did not ride a donkey to Bethlehem.
-It didn’t snow that first Christmas, as it was (inconveniently) spring.
-The angels were, according to the Bible, men who did not have wings.
-And, we don’t know how many Wise Men visited Jesus. Furthermore, they most-certainly didn’t find him as a baby, let alone in a stable.
Does any of this matter? Probably not. In all fairness, it’s a story told over two distinct accounts in scripture. Even the best of us mix it up at Christmas. But our inability to parse fact from fiction does not say much for our ability to be trusted on Biblical matters.
The other element that we get wrong about the Christmas story is its respective place in Church history. For much of Christian history, the birth of Jesus as an event was not heralded or celebrated. In fact, the first observance in the early church was the season of Lent…not Easter, and not Christmas. Lent—the faithful’s preparation for Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross—was the first and most celebrated Christian holiday. Let that sink in for a moment. Until the Victorian Era in the late 19th century, church leaders cautioned their parishioners from making much of a fuss at Christmas, lest the holiday become a raucous day of drunkenness and debauchery. Sobriety and an attitude of holy contemplation would win the day for centuries. The most normative Christmas observance through the ages was one where the faithful quietly and humbly acknowledged the arrival of Jesus in our world.
Followers of Jesus and secular observers can all find something lovely to latch on to in the Christmas story. But from the perspective of a circumspect Christian, we’ve got to acknowledge that the Christmas story is but one element in the broader epic between God and God’s people.
Admit it, a cute and cuddly Messiah is preferable to a wild-eyed prophet who calls us on our sin. Of course, we’re going to be drawn to the babe in a manger. We’ll learn soon enough that the Son of God will preach a message that will make him enemies and get him killed. If pressed, I daresay that we’d prefer the image of ‘mother and child’ over a Christ who is beaten and bruised. It’s not hard to see why we love the story of Christ’s birth, but we’ve got to be careful that we don’t adore it to the detriment of Christ’s message and ministry in the heart of his adulthood. My point? We cannot hide behind the manger and an infant Messiah. We’ve got to locate the gravity of our attention to Jesus’s message after his time in diapers.
Our predilection toward ‘Away in a Manger’ over Jesus cursing the fig tree is a dangerous truth to lift up at any time of the year. But, I’m hopeful that our relative distance from the most euphoric and nostalgic of holidays will give us a bit of perspective.
Let there be no doubt, Christmas is the loveliest of Bible stories. But it is one story in a collection of stories that reveals the truth of our sinfulness and our need for a prophetic, truth-speaking Messiah who will lead and save us.
Stories are funny things. We tend to shape them to fit our needs and desires. The Bible is a collection of God’s stories that contains sweeping sagas that run the gamut from hope and defeat to joy and sorrow. But above all, the Bible tells us the truth. As followers of the ‘Way, the Truth and the Life,’ let’s make sure we hear all of it.