Section 1: Opening Prayer
Let us pray. Almighty God, your Holy Spirit equips the church with a rich variety of gifts. We give thanks for the ways these gifts have been shown forth among us through your servants. We praise you for shared joys and accomplishments,
and we commend our work to you. Grant that we may continue to bear witness to Christ in lives that are built on faith and love; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
From Sundays and Seasons.com. Copyright 2014 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #47913.
Section 2: The Story
Jesus’ Birth. Easy. We all know it. Think about how you know it so well.
Every Christmas we tell it, we decorate our house with it.
We put plastic light up Christmas Story thingies in our yard or maybe our neighbors do.
We have a gazillion songs about it.
You may have worked your way through being dressed in a cotton ball covered mess to be a sheep, then a bathrobe to play a shepherd, with coat hanger wings to be an angel, then back to bathrobe to be a wise (person), an older shepherd who was responsible for keeping both the toddlers dressed as sheep and the kindergarten shepherds from running amok at the Christmas program. Maybe you are aging into being a bathrobe innkeeper or innkeepers wife, or even a bathrobe Joseph or Mary. My brother was born December 12th and got to be the Baby Jesus when mom handed him to a very nervous Mary for a minute.
We know the story from pictures like this:
Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem on the donkey. The little grey donkey. Just like the song tells us.
When they got there, the innkeeper turned them away because the hotel was full, but then let them stay in the stable. After all, when I played the innkeeper that was my line. Something about should have called and made reservations.
So Jesus was born in a barn. Some even look like a red barn like on a Midwestern farm.
When they were there, the angel stood on the roof.
The inn was obviously full with shepherds, sheep, wise men and a drummer boy. Again, just like the song says.
But what if I told you…
That in some ways, this nativity might be only a little less accurate than all the ones up above:
Section 3: The Message
Now that we’ve played around some, let’s get to the story.
First, there isn’t a single Christmas story.
Going back to our Intro to The Bible, you may remember that there are four Gospels (stories that tell Jesus’ life): Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. Each of them tells the story in its own way. Much like you and three of your friends might tell a story of what happened at school last week a little differently even though you were at the same event. All four Gospels tell the same story, but might emphasize different things, some leave out different things, some word things differently. It becomes a puzzle. So remember: four versions of the same story. Kind of like how there are a few different versions of some movies. All the same story, just some go about it way differently. Like how the new Cinderella will be different from the old animated one.
Since Christmas is pretty much on e of the two most important church days ever (with Easter), you might figure that all four Gospels would have the Christmas story, and that it would get a lot of room.
In fact, only two even tell it. And it has a total of 40 verses about it if you count when the Angel told Mary about having God’s son. In fact, with Christmas being such a big deal to us today, you might be surprised to know that for the early church, it wasn’t. It wasn’t a Christian holiday at all until almost 400 years after Jesus was born. The first nativity scene wasn’t until the 1200’s For the early church, the resurrection was the main celebration.
In Mark, when we meet Jesus, he is around 30. If you only read Mark, you’d think he bounced down from Heaven at 30. OK, maybe not, but if Mark was all we had, there would be no Christmas.
In John, we don’t get Christmas. If you read the first chapter of John, it starts with a strange poem about Jesus (but it doesn’t say Jesus, it just calls him The Word):
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And 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. (John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Imagine putting that on as a Christmas Program. Kinda weird.
So it is only in Matthew and Luke that we get anything at all like Christmas.
First, go read the two stories. Since Matthew is first in our Bible, let’s start there.
Matthew’s Christmas Story (Matthew 1:18-25)
Write a bit about the following in the comments below:
1. What was in Matthew’s story?
2. What was missing that you expected as part of the Christmas story?
Next, let’s read Luke:
Again, in the comments below, write the following:
1. What was in Luke’s telling that maybe you haven’t heard before?
2. What is missing that you expected?
3. What is not in either one that you figure is part of the story?
One of the big things that you may have noticed that is missing (other than the donkey and drummer boy, which were added by songs and legends way later) is the three wise men.
A couple things:
In the Greek, the words for the people who came and brought gold, frankincense and myrrh aren’t “Wise Men” or “Three Kings”. And it never tells us that there are three. The way a professor of mine put it, “We are very sure that they were not kings, they weren’t necessarily wise, didn’t have to be men, and nothing is there to tell us there were three.” They also never went to the stable. They don’t really belong on December 25th at all.
Read their story:
The word in the original Greek that we usually read in English as “wise men” is “Magi”. It can mean a lot of things. Some Magi might have been advisors to a king. Some were magicians (note the word in there), some were astronomers / astrologers who studied the stars and made predictions about what they meant (like the horoscopes today). So the story isn’t quite like it says. We get the idea that there were three because the Bible names three gifts, but that doesn’t mean three people brought them. The word is plural, so we know there was more than one, but it could have been any number, two or more. It also could have been women or men. It might have been unusual to have a woman in that role at that time, but the wording of the Bible doesn’t rule it out.
But most of all, they don’t belong in the Manger scene because where did they find Jesus? Not in a stable. In a house. The next story, where Herod realizes he was tricked and reacts violently, killing all boys under the age of two, tells us that Jesus would have been about two or so when they came.
What does it all mean?
So, we did some myth-busting. You know a little more about the story now. But is there a point to it we might miss since we are too familiar with the story and not really reading it closely, more looking at how we imagine it from pictures and decorations and songs and the movies?
To me, one of the biggest things about the Christmas story is where it all starts. Nothing about the early stories of Jesus’ life has any origin in what the human characters do. Everyone involved, from Mary to Joseph, to the shepherds and the magi, get pulled into the story quite willingly. God, working in an Angel, or in the history of a census that moved Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem where the Messiah was to be born, or the Shepherds who saw a scary army of angels, or the Magi who felt compelled to follow a star, all of them got the message from God to get in the story. Even the extraordinary way Jesus was born, to a virgin, isn’t just something we tell because it is a nice piece of it. It says that Jesus doesn’t come because of any human action. It is 100% totally a God thing. The only thing the people in the story do is respond.
We don’t know if Mary was the first person God went to. Maybe God went to one or even several first to find someone willing to say “I am the Lord’s servant! Let it happen as you have said.” To me, this is a reminder that God is the beginning of everything, we are just here to say exactly what Mary did: Sure God, I’m game. I don’t see how this is going to happen, but I will trust you.
Section 4: Learn & Engage
Take the quiz online at testmoz.com/441363. Please use code TBFF and your first name.
Section 5: Closing Prayer
Almighty God, your Holy Spirit equips the church with a rich variety of gifts. Grant that we may use them to bear witness to Christ in lives that are built on faith and love. Make us ready to live the gospel and eager to do your will, so that we may share with all your church in the joys of eternal life; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.
Opening and Closing Prayers adapted from Sundays and Seasons.com. Copyright 2017 Augsburg Fortress. All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission under Augsburg Fortress Liturgies Annual License #25165.