Sermon given at Matins on Sunday 4th December 2011
4 December 2011 at 10:00 am
The Reverend Robert Reiss, Canon in Residence
Advent is, among other things, a time of preparation for Christmas, and I want to use the three Matins sermons I have this month to think carefully about the biblical accounts we have of the birth of Jesus, one in St Luke’s Gospel and one in St Matthew’s, to try to understand their meaning and perhaps in the process to ask the question ‘what really happened?’. After all stories of angelic choirs appearing in the sky, stars mysteriously moving and then stopping somewhere, strange visitors from a foreign land arriving to give presents to a newly born baby all leave the impression of being more like legends that grew up rather than historically accurate accounts, and thinking Christian people will want to reflect on those and similar issues.
But all too often adult Christian reflection on those accounts does not happen in parish churches, because the whole celebration of Christmas has been taken over with children in mind. When I was a parish priest we always had every year various nativity plays performed by groups from children in the church or from the church schools, and they always conflated the two Gospel stories as though they were all one, and, quite naturally, made them stories that children could enjoy taking part in. I appreciated those performances as much as anybody, but the danger of them was that it could give the impression that the nativity accounts were children’s stories, when in fact the purposes of Luke and Matthew was anything but child-like. They are both profoundly theological stories, designed to bring out the significance of this child Jesus according to the wider purposes of the two authors. So as the second reading set for today is the beginning of St Luke’s nativity narratives, let me this morning start with his Gospel. What was the point he was trying to make in those stories?
Really to understand that we have to move on nearly seventy years after the birth of Jesus. On the night of what we would now call the 18th July in the year 64 AD a fire broke out in Rome, which burnt for a week and which, according to Tacitus, destroyed half the city. Rumour, spreading like the fire itself, laid the blame at the door of the Emperor Nero, and he, to divert suspicion, looked for a scapegoat and fastened on the Christians. During the legal inquiries that followed the Roman Government learnt to distinguish for the first time Christianity from Judaism; hitherto Christians had been seen as a Jewish sect and therefore benefitted from the tolerance the Romans offered the Jews. But the fire changed that, and not only were the Christians in the city to suffer a grim persecution, but the legal status of Christians throughout the Roman Empire changed as a consequence.
Christians therefore thought that they had to explain themselves to the Roman authorities; they had to show what this religion was that they followed and they had to show its origins. And that was the task that St Luke set himself. Luke was clearly a well educated man, with a very good command of Greek. If he was a Gentile then he had a very good knowledge of Judaism, but if he was a Jew he was certainly well integrated into Gentile society. He wrote his gospel for someone whom he described as ‘most excellent Theophilus’, and it sounds as though Theophilus was a high ranking Greek figure in the Roman Government. Luke wanted to explain to him the figure of Jesus, portraying him as a figure of nobility, grace and charm, and able to reproduce those same qualities in the lives of his followers and to raise to decency and dignity even the outcasts of society.
And he tells Theophilus who his sources were: ‘eyewitness and ministers of the word.’ Now when it comes to eyewitnesses of the nativity there must have been very few around when Luke wrote his gospel, because he was writing some 70 or 80 years after the birth of Jesus. So it was primarily from ‘ministers of the word’ that he got these stories, preachers stories, people who were trying to explain some particular point about Jesus rather than those who were trying to be accurate historians in our twenty-first century sense. And of those stories Luke certainly gave Theophilus an orderly account.
So in Chapter 1, part of which we heard this morning, he gives an account of the birth of John the Baptist, and in Chapter 2 the birth of Jesus, but both in a fairly stylised form, with an angel appearing to say what was happening, and songs that were said or sung in celebration of the annunciations and then the births. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimitis, both sung regularly at evensong throughout the Anglican Communion, and the Benedictus sung at this service after the second lesson, and the beginning of the Gloria that will be sung at the Eucharist that follows this service are all taken from St Luke’s first two chapters, and it is quite possible that they were already being used liturgically by the church when Luke wrote his gospel and he simply incorporated those texts into his nativity stories. But in the case of the Magnificat is bears a striking resemblance to the song sung by Samuel’s mother at Samuel’s birth in the Old Testament story, and there, and in the stories of Zechariah and Elizabeth, and in the story of Simeon and Anna in the Temple at the time of the presentation the infant Jesus there in the second chapter, the point is continually being made that this Jesus was the fulfilment of a long series of hopes, expectations and births on the part of the Jewish people. That point would not have been lost on Theophilus.
But Luke also had at least two other purposes in his nativity story.
Chapter 2 of his Gospel starts with those very familiar words: ‘In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled. This was the first enrolment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be enrolled, each to his own city.’ There are, for the historian, problems with those verses as while Quirinius did indeed carry out a census when he was governor Luke says that all these things happened in Herod’s reign, yet in fact Herod had died ten years before that enrolment took place. And also it was not normally a requirement that people should go to the place where there family came from to be enrolled. But Luke’s purpose was more than trying simply to give a date, he was saying that even the actions of the Roman authorities were made part of God’s purposes. The Romans on the whole believed that history was simply a record of things that happened with no particular plan or purpose behind them. Jews, at least then, and by contrast, believed that God was indeed at work in history, with his controlling hand extending even to the decisions of the Roman authorities. Whether that view can be sustained in quite the same way now is another matter, but it was certainly part of Luke’s purpose then.
But the second other purpose Luke had was to show that this Jesus identified with the poor, the humble and the outcast. That theme runs throughout his gospel and is there in two of the most well known features of his nativity account. For where was Jesus born? It is Luke who says that it was in a stable because there was no room in the inn. Could there be any greater way of identifying with the outcast than that? Interestingly Matthew says nothing about the inn or the stable. And for St Luke, who first recognised significance of this; the great, the mighty, the religious, the powerful? No, for Luke it was quite the opposite, it was a group of people often despised by the orthodox religious authorities because their occupation made it almost impossible to strictly follow religious observance, shepherds.
So what were to become central themes of Luke’s Gospel were there right from the very beginning, in his birth narratives, and most notably expressed in the words of the Magnificat ‘he has raised up the humble and meek.’ This is no children’s story, but a symbolic prefiguring of all that Jesus was to do later in his life. Next week I shall look at Matthew’s purposes.