21 September 2021
THE BIRTH STORIES OF JESUS
In the stories of Jesus’ birth, we throw together wise men and shepherds and a non existent donkey with gay abandon, [and even that expression has changed its meaning] but in doing so, we risk missing some of the thrust of their message about the identity of this child and to whom we give our allegiance.
The gospels of Matthew and Luke tell the birth stories. Their versions are significantly different and even non compatible for facts, but they are not there to do history. Matthew has the wise men, Luke the shepherds, and each has its own integrity. The stories are targeted to different audiences and there are references to their own times.
They are a rich treasure when we listen seriously to their differences, for these stories are true in a way that is deeper and more significant than reducing them to being provable or not in the historical sense. After all how does one express who Jesus is, and where God is among us and with us?.
Light shining in the darkness is in all the stories. Christmas is after all our FESTIVAL of LIGHT coming into the world. The star of Matthew's Gospel, shines in the night sky and leads the foreign wise ones to the place of Jesus' birth. In Luke there are shining angels lighting up the night skies with more wattage than a hundred sports fields, and we know that God is present.
Also that list of "begats" in Matthew and Luke are different. Why? Both Matthew and Luke trace the whakapapa [lineage] of Jesus -- to King David and beyond. Matthew goes back to Abraham, the father of Israel; Luke takes it back to Adam, the father of the human race. From David forward, Solomon and the kings of Judah are the ancestors of Jesus in Matthew; in Luke, the lineage goes through the prophet Nathan, not King Solomon. Why are different lists recorded?
When we look carefully, we find that the central themes of each birth story reflect the themes of the Gospel of which they are a part. For example, for Matthew, Jesus is "the king of the Jews," and so his ancestry is traced through the kings of Judah. For Luke, Jesus is Spirit -- anointed, a prophet, and so his ancestry includes prophets.
In both accounts there is conflict between two lordships Whom will you serve is being asked of the hearers in their own settings
Matthew goes local. The conflict is between rival claims to be "king of the Jews." Herod the Great saw himself as the king of the Jews, and was the reigning king. But in Matthew, Jesus is "the King of the Jews."
There is subtle political comment, by portraying Herod as acting like Pharaoh , [remember the story of the baby Moses hidden in the bulrushes,] in killing all the baby boys in Bethlehem, Matthew reflects Israel's exodus story of the conflict between the lordship of Pharaoh and the lordship of God. We find that Matthew proclaims that Jesus, not the Herods and Pharaohs of this world, is the true King and Lord.
Luke goes global - the conflict is between the lordship of the mighty Roman Caesar, and the lordship of Christ. Luke signals this clearly in the words spoken by the angel to the shepherds and in the chorus sung by the heavenly host:
“I bring you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah the Lord . Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom God favours.”
In fact Luke’s birth story can’t be understood clearly without knowing something about Augustus Caesar - the Roman ruler at that time. This is how they addressed Caesar, the emperor of Rome. In an inscription from 9 C.E. found in Asia Minor, Caesar is spoken of as "our God" and as a "saviour" who brought "peace" throughout the earth, and whose birth was "good news" to the world. In other texts, he is also spoken of as divine and as descended from a divine/human conception, something not thought of as unusual for prominent figures at that time. By echoing language used about the Roman emperor, Luke affirms subversively that Jesus, not Caesar, is the real Good News, the true Saviour and Son of God who brings peace. The language of Roman sovereignty and domination has been transformed into the language of peace when it encounters Christ.
The birth stories affirm that Jesus is the true lord. They leave us with a question: where are you going to see your lord? In the power and wealth of Herod and Caesar, of kingship and empire? Or in this Galilean Jewish peasant who saw things very differently? Where are you going to see the decisive manifestation of God? In the power systems of the world? Or in Jesus who was executed by those systems?
The important questions from the birth stories are still there for us, "Is Jesus the light of the world? Is he the true Lord? Is what happened in him 'of God'?" Answering these questions lays claim to our whole lives.
We are brought to the child in the manger and invited to kneel there. We find that there are strangers from the east beside us, wise enough to look in a little village for a king, equipped with all the knowledge of the times still able to follow a star to find God.
We find, if we open our eyes and hearts, that God is with us and is accessible as a tiny baby. Gods own self, as vulnerable as we are, is with us in our humanity, waiting for us to recognise God in our own lives, today.
Liberally quoted from Marcus Borg
Rev. Margaret Anne Low
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