This morning I want to continue preaching on the theme of the biblical Christmas. On December 3rd I talked about Matthew’s Christmas, and this morning will be Luke’s. Mark Forsyth writes,
“There’s no manger in Matthew, no stable, no census and no shepherds. There’s no star in Luke, no Magi, no myrrh and no flight to Egypt.
The way to remember the difference is that Matthew’s is the grand gospel. The second his Jesus is born, the very stars in the sky change. Gentiles arrive, kings are concerned, there’s international travel and massacres.
Luke, [on the other hand] is the poor [person’s] gospel. Shepherds were poor. …They were unclean. Luke’s Jesus comes for the poor, the oppressed, those who sleep in stables and fields, and those who have failed to make hotel reservations.”[i]
Luke’s version of Jesus’ birth was probably written after the rest of his gospel as an introduction to some of his recurrent themes: the centrality of Jerusalem and the Temple; the ‘upside-down’, unexpected ways of God; and the voice given to women
Like with Matthew there was the attempt to weave the story of Israel into the origins of Jesus. Unlike Matthew, Luke does not quote verses from the Torah but rather creates a meditation on the Hebrew Scriptures in the light of the experience of the early Christ communities.
This meditation uses a method called parallelism to compare and contrast [and weave together] the stories of John the Baptist and Jesus. Historically speaking it is highly probable that Jesus was a disciple of John’s, and then later broke away. So in the late 20s in Palestine there were these two prophetic figures – John and Jesus, with two different visions. John preached the Kingdom God was coming with fire and sword and judgement, and Jesus preached the Kingdom of God was among us but not where we expect. The parallelism reflected in the Lukan birth story was part of the attempt of the early Christ communities to say that the two were similar – related even,[ii] but Jesus was the superior. John was the aperitif, Jesus the main dish![iii]
The meditation begins with the elderly and childless Zechariah and Elizabeth; their characters patterned on the patriarch and matriarch, Abraham and Sarah. The angel Gabriel appears to Zechariah in the Temple and tells him the good news: a baby is coming, and not just any baby! Zechariah, stunned, questions the angel, and for his impertinence is struck dumb. This baby will be John the Baptist.
A side note about angels: Luke’s infancy narrative has more angels than entire Christian canon! Angels flew into Judaism from Persia about 600 BCE, and then carried on into Christianity. Angels were a literary device to make the ineffable God more intelligible. So, instead of God speaking, God’s messenger does.
I, of course, like winged angels and all mystical fantastic creatures that stimulate the imagination and inspire us to be more loving, poetic, and open-minded. However that is different than ascribing to the biblical angels a material supernatural existence.
The annunciation of John’s miraculous conception is then paralleled with Jesus. Both stories have an angelic visitor, both parents receive a message from God, and both overcome the odds regarding conception. But the odds for Jesus are far superior: John’s parents might have been old, but Jesus’ parents hadn’t even had sex! And whereas John will be possessed by the spirit Elijah, the forerunner, Jesus will be the “Son of the Most High” – namely the “Son of God”.
This designation of Jesus as “God’s Son” for Luke is not primarily about Jesus being the new Jewish messiah [like it is for Matthew], nor is Luke ascribing to Jesus ‘pre-existence’ as the author of the 4th Gospel does, nor the later idea of a member of the Godhead who took on human flesh, but rather Luke uses the phrase for both Adam[iv] and Jesus to refer to an origin different from other humans through the direct creative action of God’s spirit.[v]
The startling thing though in Luke’s meditation is the prominence of Mary. John’s annunciation is to a respected righteous male patriarch. Jesus’s annunciation is to his young unknown female mother, who has no husband or son to validate her existence. That she is favoured is a paradoxical reversal of normative expectations. The lead actor in this birth narrative is a woman – not a man. Mary is of the gender that is seen as subservient, particularly when poor. Yet it is Mary who voices the radical theology of the Magnificat, a creedal statement of early Christ followers in Jerusalem. It is Mary, like other women later in this gospel, who takes the initiative. While Joseph is a non-entity in Luke - at best an accessory. This indeed is a gospel where the last shall be first, where expectations are turned upside down, and women speak of their own experience – rather than being filtered through a male character or narrator.
In the annunciation scene the Angel Gabriel borrows his script from Zechariah [9:9], Joel [2:21.23], and Zephaniah [3:14-17]. [Plagiarism is not a sin in the Bible]. Note that the ‘Spirit coming upon Mary’ is not a quasi-sexual begetting as if God takes the place of the human male in mating with Mary. Rather, the egg and sperm and their coming together are all God’s doing.
The visit of Mary to Elizabeth reinforces this upside-down, female-centric theme: God has chosen the physically weak [sic] to confound the strong. Elizabeth’s canticle praising Mary has echoes of Deborah’s praise of Jael[vi] and Uzziah’s praise of Judith.[vii] Note none of the songs or canticles in Luke are his compositions.
Mary’s song, the Magnificat, based on Hannah’s song,[viii] is probably one of the earliest hymns we have, coming from the Jerusalem Christ community called the Anawim. These Jewish followers were very poor.[ix] Again the message is that God reverses human, male-centric expectations. The mighty are brought low, the lowly exalted. The reversal theme anticipates the preaching and practice of the Lukan Jesus.
The next piece of parallelism, following the annunciation themes, is the two birth stories. In John’s birth story all is normal until the 8th day when the baby is taken to the Temple, Zechariah names him, and then bursts into song. One happy dad! The song, the Benedictus, like the Magnificat, is a mosaic of Hebrew phrases and ideas reflecting Anawim spirituality. John the Baptiser is to be Luke’s bridge between the traditions and history of Israel and Jesus.
Then we come to Jesus’ birth story, which is far from normal.
Rome enters the meditation; and it’s time to link reversal theology with politics. The message is that this baby is going to rock the world; particularly he [Emperor Augustus] who is known already as the “peaceful saviour”.
Historically speaking there was no census [2:1, 2]. We need to read this census as a literary device to get Joseph and Mary down to Bethlehem, thus concurring with the tradition shared with Matthew that Jesus was born in the time of Herod and a Bethlehem birth was an important messianic credential.
The centre of the Lukan story, unlike Matthew’s, is the angelic annunciation to the shepherds and their reaction. Mary and Joseph are portrayed as amongst the poor of the land, and likewise the shepherds. Although there is an allusion here to King David, he-who-was-once-a-shepherd [itself probably a construct by David’s apologists], what is probably more important is the shepherds’ status as unclean [the ritual cleansing required of a devout Jew did not feature for them], and their status and stigma as both poor and dishonest. Again, Luke’s reversal theme is emphasised. It is not the rich, wise, and famous who will feature in the nativity tableau.
Then [2:9] the heavens opened and choir did their thing - a politically provocative thing! For the core of their message was that Jesus, not Augustus, was the saviour and source of peace. Luke lists three titles important to the Christ communities: Saviour, Messiah [or Christ], and Lord.[x] Luke is telling us that the angels proclaimed at the beginning of Jesus life what the disciples came to know only at the end, namely that Jesus was the saving Messiah.
The presentation of the baby Jesus in the Temple is also part of Luke’s Christmas. It underlines his theme that Jesus and his family were Torah-observant and enmeshed in the traditions of Israel.[xi] An infancy narrative that began with an upright and Torah-observant man and woman, Zechariah and Elizabeth, and a Temple scene, now ends with an upright and Torah-observant man and woman, Simeon and Anna, and a Temple scene. As the song, the Nunc Dimittis says, Jesus will be the glory for Israel before the message about him is proclaimed as a light to the Gentiles.
The whole narrative concludes with a very Hellenistic-style account of ‘the hero’s youth’, which is most likely not part of the original Lukan infancy narrative.
So, in Luke’s Christmas there is no Santa, but lots of songs. There is no leading male called Joseph who gets visits from angels in his dreams, but a leading female called Mary who meets the angel face to face. There are no wise and resourceful Magi from the East, but unclean shepherds who don’t even bring gifts. There is a proclamation of Jesus, not Caesar, as the saving messiah, but there is also a strong message that the ways of this saviour are NOT like Caesar’s. Jesus’ power, his understanding of salvation, is the reverse of Caesar’s and the reverse of our expectations. It is those on the margins of influence and affluence, those overlooked and ignored, those who are unmarried and pregnant, or aged and barren… it is amongst these that we will find the Kingdom of God.
[i] M. Forsyth, A Christmas Cornucopia 2016, p.62.
[ii] Note that only Luke says John and Jesus were related. This of course is hard to reconcile with John 1:33 where the author says that John did not even know Jesus.
[iii] The Christ communities ascribed to John the role of a new Elijah, announcing the coming Messiah.
[iv] Luke 3:38.
[v] ‘The Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary’ [1:35] has echoes of the Israelites wandering in the wilderness [Numbers 10:34], the Ark of the Covenant [Exodus 40:35, Numbers 9:18-22], and Mt Zion [Isaiah 4:5]. The same language is used by Luke later in the transfiguration scene. This language is a way of saying God was conferring that ‘Son’ status at Jesus’ conception.
[vi] Judges 5:24
[vii] Judith 13:18. Note Judith, whose name means ‘Jewess’, was not a historical person; her story was modelled on Jael and the deliverance of Israel at the hand of Moses.
[viii] I Samuel 1:11, 2:1-10.
[ix] Note Paul references the poverty faced by the Jerusalem Christ community in Galatians 2:10, I Corinthians 16:1-4, and Romans 15:25-26.
[x] Note only Luke of the 3 synoptic gospels favours the title Lord, using it 15 times. Mark and Matthew use it once each.
[xi] Note though that Luke mixes up two Jewish traditions – presentation and purification.