Old Testament: Isiah (9:2-7)
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts
will do this.
The Response: Psalm 96
1 Sing to the Lord a new song; *
sing to the Lord, all the whole earth.
2 Sing to the Lord and bless his Name; *
proclaim the good news of his salvation from day to day.
3 Declare his glory among the nations *
and his wonders among all peoples.
4 For great is the Lord and greatly to be praised; *
he is more to be feared than all gods.
5 As for all the gods of the nations, they are but idols; *
but it is the Lord who made the heavens.
6 Oh, the majesty and magnificence of his presence! *
Oh, the power and the splendor of his sanctuary!
7 Ascribe to the Lord, you families of the peoples; *
ascribe to the Lord honor and power.
8 Ascribe to the Lord the honor due his Name; *
bring offerings and come into his courts.
9 Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness; *
let the whole earth tremble before him.
10 Tell it out among the nations: “The Lord is King! *
he has made the world so firm that it cannot be moved;
he will judge the peoples with equity.”
11 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
let the sea thunder and all that is in it; *
let the field be joyful and all that is therein.
12 Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy
before the Lord when he comes, *
when he comes to judge the earth.
13 He will judge the world with righteousness *
and the peoples with his truth.
The Epistle: Titus (2:11-14)
The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all, training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior, Jesus Christ. He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
The Gospel: Luke 3(2:1-20)
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
by the Rev. Michael Kreutzer
Since the dawn of history, people seem to have speculated on why God, or the gods, created human beings. Ancient Middle Eastern myths suggest that the gods made our race to serve as slaves: to do their work for them; their gods were very distant and very utilitarian, using people rather than valuing and loving them.
In contrast to that approach, we have the two great creation stories that begin the book of Genesis. The first of those two timeless biblical narratives, the one with which the entire bible begins, affirms that God made an entire race of people, male and female, not as slaves, but in God’s own image and likeness, so that they might exercise dominion and stewardship over all that God had brought into being. The second account, which is actually much older than the first, portrays a very down-to-earth and loving God, reaching down and picking up clay in order to form the first human being, to enjoy and to care for a garden that God had made.
Drawing on his Jewish heritage, Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel offered a different perspective, a different way of thinking about why God made humanity. He suggested, “God made the human race because God loves stories.”
So, of course, do we. A good, well developed, and well told story is a beautiful and powerful thing. It has the ability to lift us up and to carry us to a place where we can view ourselves, the rest of humanity, and the entire world from a different and higher perspective. It can enable us to see and understand and experience reality in a way that cannot be reduced to a mathematical formula or to a mere statement of fact.
We would be hard-pressed to find a more beautiful and powerful and life-giving story than the one that we heard this evening: the story of Jesus’ birth as narrated in the Gospel according to Luke. It is a completely different account from the one told by Matthew: a version that we will be hearing the Sunday after next, on January 6, the feast of the Epiphany. Matthew offers the image of a star and of a mysterious group of magi. Luke presents us with a picture of a manger and of a visit of a choir of angels to a group of shepherds. Luke’s and Matthew’s are two, totally different narratives.
On the surface, the two of them contradict each other – but only if we insist on trying to take them literally. That is not what their original audiences – those who first heard Matthew’s story or Luke’s story – it is not what they would have done. That is not the way that these stories would have touched and moved them. Theirs was a world and a culture that appreciated the value of stories as stories. It is only those of us who live in far more modern times who have imprisoned our hearing and our imaginations, chaining them to a narrow form of interpretation that insists that truth is limited to “what actually happened.” As the great, 20th century, evangelical theologian Karl Barth famously said: “I take the bible far too seriously to take it literally.”
Truth, authentic truth, is far broader and far richer than just “what actually happened.” To try to limit our hearing of these two great Christmas stories, to insist that they have worth only if they somehow tell what actually happened when Jesus was born, would be to rob them of their power to lift us up, and to inspire us, and to fill us with a sense of the wonder in the presence of God and of God’s love for the world. But if we are willing to step outside the prison that we create for ourselves when we insist that stories like these have to be taken as literal accounts of what actually happened, then we might discover that these timeless narratives possess a transcendent ability to touch us in deeper and more life-giving ways.
Amy-Jill Levine, who describes herself as a “Jewish feminist agnostic” is one of the most highly respected New Testament scholars of our time. In a recent commentary on Luke’s gospel (in the New Cambridge Bible Commentary series), written jointly with Ben Witherington, an evangelical Methodist New Testament scholar, Levine reflects (p. 50):
“Belief in supernatural events, especially those reported only by insiders…, has nothing to do with historical proof. Belief is not like Sudoku, in which sufficient logic, and an eraser, will yield the singular and correct answer. Belief is like love. And love has nothing to do with logic. Rather than condemn people for their beliefs, or their loves, the better move is for everyone to read Luke… and see what message occurs to them. For some, it will be the power and graciousness of the divine, who condescends to take on human flesh. For others, it will be the notice that the child of an unwed mother from a backwater village is, like every other child, a child of God.
“For me…, when I read the Lukan infancy accounts, I engage in what is called the ‘willing suspension of disbelief.’ That is, I read Luke as the Evangelist would have any ideal reader read, and so I am moved by the narrative… The text transports me to a different world, not one of my own, and in that world miracles can happen.”
For well over a month now, our viewing media have inundated us with day after day of Christmas specials and Christmas stories of all kinds. Some are able to touch us more deeply than others. But, as we begin tonight the Twelve Days of Christmas, those extending from Luke’s story on Christmas Eve to Matthew’s story on the Epiphany, I invite you to read and re-read these two timeless stories. Allow yourself to enter into them, and allow them to enter into you.
Free yourself from the constraints that imprison your mind and soul when you insist that, to be true, things must have happened exactly this way. Instead, enter into these stories as stories. Let them touch you deep within your being, like love does. Let them fill you with the wonder of a God who loves the world so much as to give an only son. Let the narrative of God’s word made flesh fill you with wonder at the marvel of each child born into the world. Let the image of a newborn, laid gently in a manger, fill you with compassion for those who today live as single mothers or fathers entrusted with the care of a little one, and for those who today find themselves homeless because there is still not a place for them in the inn.
Whether you hear Luke’s and Matthew’s stories told once again in the voice of Linus or of George, let them sink deep into your mind and heart and soul. Let them become, in a sense, part of you. For in doing so, you will allow yourself, not only to hear about the birth of Jesus, but to live his birth and life-giving resurrection every day of the year.