O Disrupted Night: Reading the Christmas Story More Carefully
For many of us, Christmas probably evokes feelings of cozy comfort, a mix of family around the tree, warm fires, good food, bright carols, and goodwill. And the Christmas story, whether Matthew’s or Luke’s version, read by a minister at church, or Linus, or mom or dad, speaks beauty and hope and peace to the soul, does it not? I love traditions and enjoy nostalgia, comforting gifts of the season.
Yet, to “get” what is going on as the gospels tell about the birth of Jesus, we need to read more carefully, folding a deeper hearing of the story into our experiences of Christmas.
Once when I had just started university teaching, and had spent an hour leading the class through reading carefully Matthew and Luke’s versions of the birth narratives, an angry, older student approached me at the end of the class period to complain. With tears in her eyes she protested that I had destroyed her nativity scene, since I had pointed out that Matthew’s wisemen almost certainly came to visit Jesus much later than Luke’s shepherds and angels. In Luke Jesus is a newborn; in Matthew 2 he probably is a toddler (2:16). Further, the “manger” of Luke 2:7 may have been “a stable” or even a feeding trough in a lower level of a house where animals were kept, not a detached barn, and the word at times translated as “inn” could have been a “guest room” in that house (the same word as Luke 22:11) rather than a first-century version of a “Comfort,” or “Hampton,” or “Holiday Inn.” In short, our nativity scenes are a composite approximation of the stories, and we can enjoy them as such, allowing the different figurines to remind us of or point us to various, important parts of the telling.
But the real point of reading carefully leads us down to the level of intention—what were the primary messages Matthew, for instance, was wanting to communicate, and how does reading those messages well lead us to a higher level of Christ-following?
For instance, notice first the longings in Matthew 1-2. The genealogy of Matthew 1:1-17 falls into 3 main movements, as explained in 1:17. The covenant with Abraham and the covenant with David embodied promises by God to the people of Israel concerning a Kingdom, land, identity, and mission that seemed to have been wiped out completely with the Exile and which the people of Jesus’ day longed to see fulfilled. They were asking, “How will the blanks in these aspects of our relationship with God be filled in?” And there in the final blank, at the end of all the longing represented by the genealogy, is Jesus.
We also see longing in the quote of Isa. 7:14 at Matt. 1:23: “See, the virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son . . . .” That verse in Isaiah was written in a time of political crisis, when Judah was threatened by a dominant political power. The promise of “Immanuel” was a word of hope in a dark and threatening world, and the fulfillment in Jesus came in the face of the dominant, occupying power of Rome. People longed for freedom from overwhelming world forces that seemed undefeatable. And to Isaiah’s words we could add Micah 5:2, quoted at Matt. 2:6, and Jer. 31:15, each of which also were “crisis” passages that communicate longing for God to put things right in the world, longings answered in Jesus. Hear the deep, aching longing in our Christmas story. For God is addressing our longings for the world, and our lives, to be put to rights. Disciple of Jesus, for what are you longing this Christmas?
Second, notice that God often answers our longings through disruption. Notice how many times fear, or warning, or unsettledness come into this story. It was not a “silent night” during which all was “calm.” Mary probably was about 14 years old and lived in a small town, in a culture oriented to shame and honor. Can you imagine how disruptive her pregnancy was for her and everyone around her, including Joseph? Joseph, described as a “righteous” man, one who did things by the book (the law), would have been deeply embarrassed by the situation. And when he followed through in obedience to the angel's message and married Mary, the broader culture around him would have read his action as an admission of guilt, a “sign on his back” that read, “I am this baby’s father.” Further, notice that he not only would be wrongly accused of having had sex with Mary, he would not have sex with her for months, even after they were married. This young man of perhaps 18 years of age would have slept night-after-night next to his young bride without being able to consummate the marriage. Disruption.
Further, read carefully the major role played by Herod, who was “disturbed” (that is, “emotionally shaken”) when he first heard about the birth of Jesus. Why was all of Jerusalem disturbed along with him? Perhaps because he, in his paranoia about someone trying to supplant him as king, had killed 2 of his sons in 7 BC and another in 5 BC, about the time of Jesus’ birth. When Herod was “disturbed” things got violent, as they did in our Christmas story with the infants in Bethlehem (2:16-18).
When God begins to move in the world, disruption happens, disruption of the “powers,” and disruption of the faithful.
But here is our third point, God disrupts us to save us. Jesus’ name in Hebrew, “Yeshua,” normally rendered in English as “Joshua,” means, “Yahweh saves.” This is what Christ has done for us—is doing for us. He disrupts the world, and our lives, to save us from sin, ourselves, and the powers of this fallen world. How are you being unsettled at present? What might God be up to? He might just be working out your salvation.
So, read the story carefully this Christmas, and sing,
“Disruption to the world,
the Lord has come;
let earth receive her king!”
Let every heart, prepare him room,
and heaven and nature sing
and heaven and nature sing
and heaven, and heaven and nature sing!