Sunday, December 27, 2015

Christmas in the New Testament

Luke 2:1-3 (KJV)
2 And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed… 3 And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city.

What does the New Testament actually tell us about Jesus' birth? I want to make 3 main points with you today.

1. The Stories are DIFFERENT - on Purpose
The first observation we can make is that while we tend to blend and harmonize the stories of the birth of Jesus found in the New Testament - they are actually quite different - and they are different on purpose. The birth of Jesus is told in Matthew and Luke's gospel, Mark doesn't mention it, and John spiritualizes it as only John can do. Each gospel writer has their own purpose in doing so.

Matthew - Matthew was writing mainly to Jews and he wants to present Jesus to his Jewish audience as a King who is better than David, and a teacher who is greater than Moses. Matthew takes great care to show that Jesus fulfills the prophecies made in the Old Testament. Thus Matthew begins his gospel with an elaborate genealogy that traces Jesus back to King David, and then on back to Abraham himself. Jesus is King of the Jews, worthy of our obedience and worship.

Mark - Mark's gospel is likely the first one written and yet it records nothing about the birth of Jesus. The first time we see Jesus in Mark's gospel he is coming to John the Baptist to be baptized. Some argue that where and when Jesus was born is not important to Mark, what is important is that regardless of status, he is a game changer. This was important in the era in which it was written which was highly stratified (Roman culture). Mark never calls Jesus "God", or claims that Jesus existed prior to his earthly life; unlike Matthew and Luke, he never mentions a virgin mother or divine father, and apparently believes that Jesus had a normal human parentage and birth; unlike Matthew and Luke, he makes no attempt to trace Jesus' ancestry back to King David or Adam. Mark presents Jesus as Lord that serves in secret and thus shows a new way, free from the fight for supremacy and status.

Luke - Luke wrote his gospel primarily for a gentile (non-Jewish) audience and focuses on the traditionally marginalized and neglected groups in 1st century Mediterranean culture. Thus Luke's gospel is full of references to women, children, the sick, poor and rejected people groups like the Samaritans. In Luke the angel appears to Mary (not Joseph), and he records the homeless situation of Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem. In Luke's gospel the angels appear to lowly shepherds who are the first to worship the newborn King, not Kings or Wise Men as in Matthew's gospel. Luke shows a compassionate savior that brings good tidings and liberation to the poor, neglected and marginalized.

John - John sets his nativity scene in heaven before the creation of the earth.  Jesus, the Word, was in the beginning and was God himself. John, writing to Greek-speaking Gentiles across the Roman empire takes a philosophical image - the logos - and explains how in Jesus God Himself has become flesh and dwelt among us, shining in the darkness to bring a new beginning to the world.

2. The Church's Reception / View of Celebrating the Birth of Jesus has been Mixed (at best)
Since the birth of Jesus apparently was a celestial-shaking event you would think it made quite a splash at the time, but it doesn't seem to have - even amongst the writers. We hear virtually nothing about the child and young adulthood of Jesus and then suddenly He is on the scene at about age 30 (where Mark starts Him out).

Then, for centuries the church paid no attention to the nativity narrative at all. As mentioned in the Andrew McGowan article I sent to you, there is no mention of birth celebrations from the earliest Christian writers (Irenaeus, Tertullian or Origen). The first mention of the date of Jesus' birth is not until about 200 CE when Clement of Alexandria (Egypt) makes a reference to the date Jesus was born (surprise, it's not Dec. 25th). By the 4th century a couple of dates are mentioned pretty regularly, Dec. 25 in the western church and Jan. 6 in the eastern branch.

Most believe the date of Dec. 25th was borrowed from pagan festivals. Romans had a festival to celebrate the shortest day of the year, because the days would soon become longer (honoring the god Saturn). Some argued that if Christmas looked more like a pagan holiday, more pagans would be open to both the holiday and the God whose birth it celebrated.

Over time, however, the celebrations became pretty much a time to eat, drink and be merry and things got a little too pagan for the church. Thus the church actually banned celebrating Christmas for quite some time. In fact the Puritans who came to America and populated areas like Massachusetts. In fact, from 1659 to 1681, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Boston. You were fined five shillings if you were caught celebrating.

In time things got cozier between the church and Christmas, most evidently in American during the 20th century when Christmas became more of a American event than a religious one.

3. The Passion Narratives Were Considered More Important
It's always been one of those "chicken or egg" conundrums, which is more important, Christmas, when God gave us Jesus, or Easter, when Jesus was sacrificed on the cross? I've heard arguments for both being more important. But what becomes clear if you study the gospels for long at all, is that for the four of them, and apparently for the audiences they were writing too,  the Passion Narratives were of more importance, and probably written down first - and not the birth and infancy accounts. The Passion narratives dominate the gospels.

The death and resurrection of Jesus is the fundamental aspect of our Christian faith. This is evident from the core Gospel as recorded in 1 Cor 15:3–8, which is one of the earliest articulations of the Christian creed as recorded in the New Testament.

The most important fact about Jesus Christ for Paul is the death and resurrection of Jesus. He rarely mentions anything about the life of Jesus in his letters, which are the earliest writings in the New Testament, and which were written years before the Gospels. Probably, the memory of Jesus’ life was still very much alive in the believing community, and did not need to be written about until much later, when the new generation of Christians appeared. However, Paul does not use any other details about Jesus’ life in his theologizing process in his letters. It is safe to assume that for him, the most important thing about Jesus is his death and resurrection.

The Story Itself
Jesus' appearance on earth is known as the Incarnation, or what the Gospel of John calls the God himself "becoming flesh" and dwelling among us.

The Birth Announcement
Of course you could say Jesus' birth was announced seven centuries before it actually happened when Isaiah announced a coming King . In Isaiah 7:14 we read: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” And in Isaiah 9:6: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” And over in the Prophet Micah 5:2: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” There are numerous OT prophecies regarding the coming King.

Moving to the New Testament we read that Jesus' mother is a young woman named Mary. Although being of humble means, Mary and her fiancé, Joseph, are of noble birth, as they are descendants of the great Israelite king, David. This connection to David is important for the New Testament writers, because many Jews during Jesus' time were expecting a Davidic Messiah or king who would deliver them from their enemies (the Romans, during Jesus' day).

Messiah comes from a Hebrew word that means, "anointed one." In Greek, this word is Christos — hence, the name Jesus Christ.

But there is something else about Mary that is exceptional — something that she's not even aware of at first. She is to become pregnant with Jesus while she is still a virgin. Mary finds out about her unusual pregnancy when she is visited by the angel Gabriel, who declares:

"The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the Holy One who is conceived in you will be called the Son of God" (Luke 1:35).

Gabriel's declaration to Mary is known as the Annunciation, which is a fancy word meaning "the birth announcement" (only it is the birth announcement). Today you can visit The Church of the Annunciation in Nazareth, where this event is traditionally thought to have taken place.

Gabriel's announcement to Mary is recorded only in Luke's gospel. According to Matthew, an unnamed angel also appears to Joseph, who is contemplating breaking off his engagement with Mary after finding out she is pregnant. The angel informs Joseph that Mary's pregnancy has been divinely orchestrated, and that he is not only to marry Mary, he is to name their son Jesus, which means "the LORD saves" — a fitting name, since, as the angel tells Joseph, "[Jesus] will save his people from their sins." We also read in Luke (1:36) that after hearing the angel’s news, Mary went to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Mary must have felt that no one in the world could understand what she had been told better than Elizabeth. Both women were given miraculous pregnancies from the Lord. Elizabeth was too old, and Mary was too young and not yet married. Mary hurried to the town where Elizabeth lived. (Luke 1:39-40). Luke tells us that as soon as Elizabeth heard Mary’s voice, the baby inside her jumped for joy! God’s Holy Spirit filled Elizabeth and she spoke. With a loud voice, Elizabeth called out, “God has blessed you more than other women. And blessed is the child you will have!” (Luke 1:42) Elizabeth called Mary, “The mother of my Lord.”

Bethlehem and the manger scene: Jesus' birth
Back in Matthew's gospel we read that as Mary approaches her due date, a most "unfortunate" thing happens. According to Luke, the Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, decrees that a census should be taken of everyone in his empire. In order to accomplish this, people have to go to their ancestral hometown in order to register their names. Because Joseph and Mary trace their lineage to King David, Augustus' decree requires that they make the approximately 80-mile trek from their home in Nazareth to David's hometown of Bethlehem. Yet, this inconvenience is important, because it further connects Jesus' life with the expectations of a coming Davidic Messiah. As the angel Gabriel says to Mary:

The Lord God will give [Jesus] the throne of his ancestor David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever. And his kingdom will never end. -Luke 1:32-33

Upon arriving in Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph cannot find lodging at the inn (actually more like a "guest room someone might rent out." The Greek word kataluma, translated "inn" elsewhere, means the guest room of a house. There were no Holiday Inns in a backwoods town like Bethlehem. Therefore, the couple is forced to stay on the first floor of what was most likely a two story dwelling. The first floor is where the animals were kept (easier than getting them up the stairs!). Thus they stay in an animal stable. Here Mary gives birth to Jesus, and places him in a manger (a feeding trough). 

Moving back to Luke - In keeping with Luke's emphasis on Jesus as the Savior of the whole world, including the poor and seemingly unimportant, he recounts that, upon Jesus' birth, an angel appears to some lowly shepherds in a nearby field, and says,

Behold! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. For today in the city of David is born to you a Savior who is Christ the Lord. -Luke 2:10-11

In this brief announcement, the angel says a lot. Not only does he mention the "good news" or gospel that will be for "all people," he also refers to the messianic expectation surrounding a descendant of David. The angel then tells the shepherds that they will find this Messiah "wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." Suddenly, numerous angels appear in the sky, and begin declaring (not "sweetly singing") praise to God.

The adoration of the shepherds
Quickly, the shepherds make their way to Bethlehem, where they find the infant child and worship him. Mary, who is amazed at hearing the report of the angel's announcement, "treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart." The shepherds then go back to their flocks, but not without telling everyone they encounter about the amazing things they had seen and heard.

Following these events, the gospel of Luke says that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus returned to Nazareth, where Jesus grew up.

The Visit of the Magi (Wise Men)
No manger scene would be complete without the presence of the wise men (or magi, as they are sometimes called) bearing gifts of gold, frankincense (or incense), and myrrh for the newborn Jesus. There's only one problem: The wise men most likely weren't there. To demonstrate that Jesus is the Savior of everyone, whether Jew or gentile, male or female, rich or poor, Luke tells us about the lowly shepherds who come and worship Jesus, but says nothing about the wise men.

Matthew, though not disagreeing with Luke's emphasis, wants to present Jesus as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies concerning the Messiah. Because the Messiah was to be a descendant of David, the great king of Israel, Matthew emphasizes Jesus' royal origins by recounting the story of the wise men, who are royal astrologers who have followed a star that heralds the birth of a king in order to present him with royal gifts. By the way, the Bible never says there were 3 Wise Men - that number was assumed because there were three gifts: Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh.

Yet, Matthew does not seem to present these wise men as arriving at Jesus' birth, but perhaps as much as two years later. That is, even if we combine the accounts of Matthew and Luke, it probably would be inaccurate to place the shepherds and magi side by side in your Manger scene decorations.

The magi eventually make their way to Jerusalem to ask King Herod, the Roman appointed ruler of the Jews, where the king of the Jews has been born. Herod, as you might imagine, is not too happy to hear about this rival claimant to the throne, even if that rival may still be in diapers. When Herod's officials inform him that the Messiah is supposed to be born in Bethlehem, Herod passes this information on to the wise men, and he asks them to return with news of the child's exact whereabouts so he can also worship (read: kill) him.

The Slaughter of the Innocents
The wise men continue on their way to Bethlehem, where they find Jesus. However, after they present their gifts to Jesus, they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod because he only intends to kill this newborn king. When Herod finds out that the wise men have left his territory without reporting back to him, he becomes furious and dispatches his soldiers to kill all male children in the vicinity of Bethlehem who are 2 years old and younger — a choice informed by the time told him by the wise men, which could mean that Jesus is approaching 2 years old when the wise men appear. Although Jesus escapes Herod's henchman unharmed (Joseph had been warned in a dream to flee to Egypt) many youngsters do not. Herod's murderous act is often referred to as "The Slaughter of the Innocents."

Out of Egypt and On to Nazareth
Matthew reports that Jesus and his parents remain in Egypt until Herod's death (4 B.C.E.) after which they set out for their home. Yet, while on their way, Joseph receives word that Herod's son, Archelaus, is now ruler in Judea. Fearing that Archelaus may be seeking Jesus' life, Joseph decides to take his family to Nazareth. According to Matthew, Jesus' journey to Egypt and his subsequent relocation to Nazareth fulfills two prophecies relating to the Messiah:

God would call His son "out of Egypt"— a notice that originally referred to Israel's exodus from Egypt. Joseph, Mary, and Jesus then settle in Nazareth, Jesus' hometown.

Talk About It: Some discussion questions for Sunday:

1. Are the specifics (historicity, genealogies, etc…) of Jesus' birth narrative as given in the New Testament important? Why or why not?

2. Why do you think there are differences among the gospel writers in the nativity story? Why would Mark not think it was important enough to even mention? Why the different emphases by the authors?

3. What is the importance of the Virgin Birth?

4. Why do you think the Passion Narrative trumped the Nativity?

5. How important are all the prophecies about Jesus which were fulfilled according to the birth and infancy narratives?

6. What are some aspects of Christmas as we celebrate it today that aren't in the Bible?

7. If something we do/celebrate about Christmas is not in the Bible, is it "wrong" to celebrate the occasion that way?

I will seldom give "homework" to our traveling band of New Testameters, but this week do yourself a favor and read the New Testament narratives of Jesus' birth from the New Testament:

Matthew 1:1-2:23

Luke 1:1-2:40

John 1:1-14

Try to read these carefully, as if for the first time. See if you notice anything different this time.

Next, I've put links below to four interesting articles you may want to read before Sunday. These are four very different takes on the Christmas story, one from a Roman Catholic Bible Scholar, one from the President of Yale Divinity School, one from the Christian Broadcasting Network (CBN) and finally, one from Dr. Albert Mohler, President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

1. Two Christmas stories: An analysis of New Testament narratives:

Daniel Harrington is a well-respected Catholic biblical scholar

2. How December 25th Became Christmas

Andrew McGowan is Dean and President of the Berkeley Divinity School at Yale and McFaddin Professor of Anglican Studies at Yale Divinity School.

3. Here is a less scholarly, but interesting article from CBN titled The Birth of Jesus in the New Testament: One Event – Four Narratives:

4. Finally, here is an article by Dr. Albert Mohler titled, Where Does the Story of Christmas begin?:

Dr. R. Albert Mohler Jr. is President of Southern Baptist Theological Seminary 

Talk About It: Some discussion questions for Sunday:

1. Are the specifics (historicity, genealogies, etc…) of Jesus' birth narrative as given in the New Testament important? Why or why not?

2. Why do you think there are differences among the gospel writers in the nativity story? Why would Mark not think it was important enough to even mention? Why the different emphases by the authors?

3. What is the importance of the Virgin Birth?

4. Why do you think the Passion Narrative trumped the Nativity?

5. How important are all the prophecies about Jesus which were fulfilled according to the birth and infancy narratives?

6. What are some aspects of Christmas as we celebrate it today that aren't in the Bible?

7. If something we do/celebrate about Christmas is not in the Bible, is it "wrong" to celebrate the occasion that way?

Bonus Material:

Little Known Facts About Christmas

1. Christmas supposedly marks the birth of Jesus Christ on December 25. But there is no mention of December 25 in the Bible and most historians actually believe he was born in the spring.

2. December 25 was probably chosen because it coincided with the ancient pagan festival Saturnalia, which celebrated the agricultural god Saturn with partying, gambling, and gift-giving.

3. Many of the popular Christmas traditions today found their roots in Saturnalia: Branches from evergreen trees were used during winter solstice as a reminder of the green plants that would grow in spring when the sun gods grew strong.

4. These evergreen branches became the foundation of our Christmas tree. Germans are thought to be the first to bring “Christmas trees” into their homes at the holidays and decorate them with cookies and lights.

5. The Christmas tree made its way to America in the 1830s but wasn’t popular until 1846, after Germany’s Prince Albert brought it to England when he married Queen Victoria. The two were sketched in front of a Christmas tree and the tradition instantly became popular. Royal fever was real even back then.

6. The well-known reason we give presents at Christmas is to symbolize the gifts given to baby Jesus by the three wise men. But it may also stem from the Saturnalia tradition that required revelers to offer up rituals to the gods.

7. Because of its roots in pagan festivals, Christmas was not immediately accepted by the religious. In fact, from 1659 to 1681, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Boston. You were fined if you were caught celebrating.

8. Santa Claus comes from St. Nicholas, a Christian bishop living in (what is now) Turkey in the fourth century AD. St. Nicholas had inherited a great deal of wealth and was known for giving it away to help the needy. When sainted, he became the protector of children.

9. After his death, the legend of St. Nicholas spread. St. Nick’s name became Sint-Nicolaas in Dutch, or Sinter Klaas for short. Which is only a hop, skip, and jump to Santa Claus.

10. Santa Claus delivering presents comes from Holland’s celebration of St. Nicholas’ feast day on December 6. Children would leave shoes out the night before and, in the morning, would find little gifts that St. Nicholas would leave them.

11. And stockings come from this story: A poor man with three daughters couldn’t afford the dowry to have them married. One night, St. Nicholas dropped a bag of gold down the man’s chimney so that his oldest daughter would be able to get married, and the bag fell into a stocking that was drying by the fire.

12. One of the reasons we leave milk and cookies for Santa is because Dutch kids would leave food and drink for St. Nicholas on his feast day.

13. And we leave carrots for Santa Claus’ reindeer because, in Norse mythology, people left hay and treats for Odin’s eight-legged horse Sleipnir “in hopes the god would stop by their home during his Yule hunting adventures.” Dutch children adopted this tradition too, and would treats for St. Nick’s horse.

14. The look of Santa Claus we have today was created at an 1804 meeting of the New York Historical Society, where member John Pintard handed out wooden cutouts of jolly old St. Nick in front of stockings filled with toys.

15. Though Santa Claus has worn blue and white and green in the past, his traditional red suit came from a 1930s ad by Coca Cola.

16. And the image of him Santa Claus flying in a sleigh started in 1819...and was dreamt up by the same author who created the Headless Horseman, Washington Irving.

17. Rudolph was actually conceived by a department store, Montgomery Ward, as a marketing gimmick to get kids to buy holiday coloring books.

18. The first batch of eggnog in America was crafted at Captain John Smith’s Jamestown settlement in 1607, and the name eggnog comes from the word “grog,” which refers to any drink made with rum.

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