Winthrop Congregational Church, United Church of Christ
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Luke 2:1-20 The Birth of Jesus
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.
The Shepherds and the Angels
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 Saviour, 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 favours!’
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.
When telling the stories of Jesus’ birth, the Gospels of Matthew and Luke both want to teach you something about God’s leadership by comparing it to Caesar’s leadership. Matthew contrasts God’s Reign from the King’s Reign by showing us a king who is frightened enough by a baby that he will try to harm the baby. Luke shows us that God’s Reign is different than Caesar’s Reign by showing us how very different Jesus’ birth and life are from the lives of the powerful in the era. Jesus’ very pregnant mom has to travel to a whole other town when she is almost ready to give birth, not because she wants to, but because the emperor has the power to force regular people to do things he wants when he wants them done, not when is convenient for them. He wanted them to go to Bethlehem to be counted. So, they had to go. Dr. Melinda Quivik in her commentary on this text, reminds us that royal Roman leaders would have had everything they needed. Jesus wasn’t even born in his own home and he slept in an animal trough in his first hours of life. He could not be more different from Caesar. Thank God for that.
Jesus’ life and the way he wields power will be different, too. Whomever wrote Luke is an excellent storyteller because they pack in a lot of foreshadowing that tell us that Jesus will be different than the military leader many people expected the Messiah to be. One more bit of this foreshadowing is showing us who is entrusted to celebrate his birth. It will not be the wealthy and the powerful. First, Elizabeth, Mary’s cousin, is entrusted with the good news of the pregnancy. She has been similarly blessed with an unlikely pregnancy and Mary knew she could relate to this level of Divine Intervention. Then, after the birth, the shepherds are brought into the story. There are few people farther from Caesar than the shepherds in the fields. The shepherds are the first people outside of family to learn that there is something special about this child who has been born. They will end up not only hearing divine confirmation of the gift of his birth but also become a source of holy affirmation for Mary and Joseph. They received a gift and become a gift in the same night.
According to Dr. Fred Craddock, Roman poets and well-known speakers were known to create works in celebration of a child who was to become emperor. In Luke, it isn’t the well-known and articulate who celebrate the Christ child, but the Divine Wild and common shepherds. The heavens themselves sing forth in celebration. Their audience is not the wealthy patrons, as would have been true of the artists, but the very ordinary shepherds in the fields. Dr. Wesley Allen reminds us in his commentary on the text that these shepherds are likely not the people who own the sheep or own any of the land. They are either slaves or employees who are working the night shift. That’s why the author pointed out that they lived in the fields. They stay with the sheep, guarding them, either because they were ordered to by the people who owned them or because they were paid to do so. They are regular people with a demanding job that required a fair amount of skill to keep animals alive. It was a job that was utterly necessary as sheep provided food and clothing material. It was also a job that wasn’t necessarily well-paid or well-respected. Shepherds don’t usually get to hear the good news first, but they do in this story. They don’t usually hang out with the powerful. But, they will, in this story because God’s power will make space for them. We heard the first inklings of that in Mary’s song, with the lowly lifted and the powerful sent away. In inviting the shepherds to the manger, we are seeing God lift of the lowly as one of the first signs of the presence of the Messiah in the world.
I wonder what the angels looked like for them to have to tell the shepherds that they didn’t have to be afraid. Were they bright enough and loud enough to scare the sheep? Were the angels aware that, in the dark of night, any surprise visits could be interpreted as a possible danger to the flock? Was the instruction “be not afraid” more of a gentle way of preparing them for the incredible next words? “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.” What a message to tell these hard-working, poor men! And, how wonderful it is that these men believed and traveled to find the child.
In reading up on this passage, I noticed that several different scholars are quick to point out that the life histories of Roman rulers never place them near common workers like shepherds, much less show them doing the work of shepherds. It is interesting that ancient Jewish leaders weren’t always so separate from this important and undervalued work. King David was a shepherd long before he was king. Luke tells us that Jesus was part of the line of David through his stepfather Joseph. Jesus was also born in Bethlehem, the city of David. In today’s reading, men who shared David’s earliest work would come to celebrate Jesus and confirm that his parent’s own angelic visions were true. The shepherds told Mary and Joseph what they had heard from the angels about their child. They would confirm the Divine future ahead of him. Everyone who heard the testimony of the shepherds was amazed. But, in particularly, Mary treasured all their words and pondered them in her heart. That means she thought about them, a lot. She considered the words the angels said to her, to her cousin, and now the shepherd, and what it means for her family and the world’s future.
Dr. Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero noted that, in leaving their sheep, the shepherds, too, are transformed, becoming God’s messengers alongside the angels. And, of course, poor, common people would do the work of God. In a couple chapters, when Jesus, as an adult, tells us about his mission with his own words, he will say that the poor will be of special concern for God and for him. Jesus himself comes from a poor family, despite having a royal lineage. God comes into the World through the margins of society, the homes over-full of relatives forced to travel and the darkened fields full of smelly sheep. Maybe you do work that is hard and often unappreciated. May you know that work is good, and that God can move through you, too. On this Christmas day, maybe you can consider what God is revealing to you while you work. And, may you see clearly how you can shepherd Christ into this world anew, in this time and this place. God called the shepherd and is calling us. May we sing out with joy.
Resources consulted to write this sermon:
• Kyle Schiefelbein-Guerrero: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-day-nativity-of-our-lord-ii/commentary-on-luke-21-7-8-20-9
• Fred Craddock, Luke (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1990)
• Melinda Quivik: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/christmas-eve-nativity-of-our-lord/commentary-on-luke-21-14-15-20-18
• O. Wesley Allen Jr. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/shepherds-visit-2/commentary-on-luke-28-20
Rahab and the Spies, Frederick Richard Pickersgill, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=57023.
Ruth: Swanson, John August. Story of Ruth, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=56561.
Mary: Wesley, Frank, 1923-2002. And the Word Became Flesh, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. https://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=59238.
Matthew 1:1-16 The Gospel According to Matthew
The Genealogy of Jesus the Messiah
An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham.
Abraham was the father of Isaac, and Isaac the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Judah and his brothers, and Judah the father of Perez and Zerah by Tamar, and Perez the father of Hezron, and Hezron the father of Aram, and Aram the father of Aminadab, and Aminadab the father of Nahshon, and Nahshon the father of Salmon, and Salmon the father of Boaz by Rahab, and Boaz the father of Obed by Ruth, and Obed the father of Jesse, and Jesse the father of King David.
And David was the father of Solomon by the wife of Uriah, and Solomon the father of Rehoboam, and Rehoboam the father of Abijah, and Abijah the father of Asaph, and Asaph the father of Jehoshaphat, and Jehoshaphat the father of Joram, and Joram the father of Uzziah, and Uzziah the father of Jotham, and Jotham the father of Ahaz, and Ahaz the father of Hezekiah, and Hezekiah the father of Manasseh, and Manasseh the father of Amos, and Amos the father of Josiah, and Josiah the father of Jechoniah and his brothers, at the time of the deportation to Babylon.
And after the deportation to Babylon: Jechoniah was the father of Salathiel, and Salathiel the father of Zerubbabel, and Zerubbabel the father of Abiud, and Abiud the father of Eliakim, and Eliakim the father of Azor, and Azor the father of Zadok, and Zadok the father of Achim, and Achim the father of Eliud, and Eliud the father of Eleazar, and Eleazar the father of Matthan, and Matthan the father of Jacob, and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.
Genesis. The title of the first book of our Bible and the second word of the book of Matthew in the original Greek. βίβλος γενέσεως ἰησοῦ χριστοῦ υἱοῦ δαυὶδ υἱοῦ ἀβραάμ. In her commentary on today’s reading, Mitzi Minor notes that a translation of this first line of Matthew could be “The book of the Genesis of Jesus the Christ.” Genesis is a Greek word that means “origin.” The book of Genesis is about origins: origins of the universe and our little corner of it, of humanity in general, and of the family of Abraham in particular. David Carr calls this the “primeval history” and the “ancestral history” in his introduction to Genesis. The author of Matthew takes great care to situate Jesus in relationship to the ancestral history in particular. In so doing, according to Minor, Jesus is also connected to the primeval history... to all of creation. Because God promised to renew all of creation. And, Jesus, who’s origin reached to David and to Abraham and through Abraham, to creation. The book of the Genesis of Jesus the Christ.
A colleague of mine, E. Carrington Heath, recently pointed something out. The Messiah is supposed to come from the line of David. If we believe what happens in the verses just after today’s reading, the ones where Joseph learns that Mary is pregnant with a child that is not his, then Jesus is not a biological descendant of David and Abraham, but adopted in through Joseph’s love and faith. Dr. Heath says, “In an age when we argue so much based on ‘biology,’ it’s amazing how God’s truth and love sometimes choose other routes.” The genesis of Jesus the Christ is a story about bringing someone into a family as much as it about tracing the origin of one specific family.
I don’t know how often you read the first 16 verses of the first chapter of Matthew. I’ve preached about this genealogy enough that I hope you have decided to read through it at least a few times. As I have said before, many folks skip over the first 16 or 17 verses to get to Joseph’s call story in verse 18. Please don’t skip these names, even if you don’t remember who everyone is. Because the names are here for a reason. Because Jesus’ story is very much about one who is brought into a family, we should likely pay attention to not just the fathers and their biological sons that make up this family tree. We should also attend to the women who are named in this list.
In a genealogy that is nearly all fathers and sons, the inclusion of four women, Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba, stands out. Why would these women in particular be included when so many other women weren’t? Let’s turn to their stories for a moment. While there are a couple of different Tamars in the Hebrew Bible, the one who is mentioned in this genealogy is Tamar from Genesis 38. Tamar was a widow reliant on her father-in-law Judah for care. As was their custom, when her husband died, she married his brother. The first tragedy of her story is the death of her first husband. Then, she marries his brother, who dies. Then another brother who dies.
Judah, upon losing three sons, refuses to allow his fourth son to marry Tamar. This is a different kind of tragedy. In addition to the grief of losing her husbands, Tamar would have been left with no financial or emotional support because Judah refused to live up to his familial responsibilities. So, she devised a plan to save herself, a scandalous plan which implicated Judah in unrighteous behavior. The plan was risky and could have hurt her reputation, leaving her with even fewer options than before. Her plan ended up working. She survived and rebuilt her family, ending up in this list as an ancestor to David.
The second woman listed is Rahab whose story is in Joshua 2. She ran her own business, in the world’s oldest profession, out of her home that was built along the city wall of Jericho. She hid some of the Hebrew leader Joshua’s soldiers when enemy soldiers came searching for them. She even helped them escape to return to their army. Her actions helped Joshua to win the battle for the city and saved her own family from being destroyed in that same battle. She would go on to marry Joshua and convert to his faith. She is still remembered as one with a deep faith in God and as a righteous hero to the faith that she married into.
Ruth was a Moabite married to an Israelite man at a point when Israelite men weren’t supposed to be married to Moabites. Upon the deaths of her husband, father-in-law, and brother-in-law, rather than return to her father’s home, Ruth creates a new family with her Jewish mother-in-law Naomi and Naomi’s distant relative Boaz. Their atypical family helps the women survive in an era where widows had few social safety nets. Ruth, who once said that Naomi’s God had become her God, who risked traveling to a foreign city where the men weren’t even supposed to marry her, would eventually bear her little family a son, Obed. In this act of trust and faith, in building new relationships and bearing new life, she becomes known as a renewer of her family’s hope.
And, Bathsheba? It is not clear when we first meet her in 2nd Samuel if she hoped to become the wife of King David. Kings were pretty free to do what they wanted with women in their vicinity, so her intent may not have mattered to him at all. David sent her husband away and took Bathsheba for his own purposes. While it isn’t clear if she wanted to be in the relationship where she was, but, once she was there, she would take great care of her son, Solomon. Solomon would become king, one of the most famous and wise kings of his people, as a direct result of the intervention of his mother. Her strategic forethought, especially in the face of the nearly unchecked power of King David, would change her people’s history.
I read a quote once by the author Linda Hogan, who was talking about the spiritual practice of listening to nature while out walking. She said, “Walking, I am listening to a deeper way. Suddenly all my ancestors are behind me. Be still, they say. Watch and listen. You are the result of the love of thousands." We don’t know much about Jesus’ childhood. And, all we know about his mother Mary’s is that it was likely disrupted by an unexpected and likely scandalous pregnancy. When Joseph decided to make them his family, to bring them into the line of David and Abraham, did Joseph remember these four women, his forebears? Did the Holy Spirit say, “look at where you came from. This pregnancy does not have to be the end of your and Mary’s story. It can be the beginning.”
And, Mary, knowing the stories of her people, was she bolstered by the intelligence and resilience of these women? Did they help her know that she could fight for a better future? If the love of thousands wasn’t clear to her, was the love of four? Would that help to her be unafraid to become the fifth woman in this genealogy? Maybe it did. Or, maybe that one angelic voice was enough. Perhaps this is one of the lessons of this story. You never know what the origin of your bravery will be. But, renewal is at hand, and each of us has the opportunity to be brave enough to be a part of it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Mitzi Minor: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/genealogy-of-jesus/commentary-on-matthew-11-17-2
David M. Carr, "Genesis," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Tikva S. Frymer-Kensky, "Rahab," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Phyllis A. Bird, "Tamar," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Phyllis Trible, "Ruth," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
Yehoshua Gitay, "Bathsheba," The Harper Collins Bible Dictionary, primary ed. Paul J. Achtemeier (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 1996)
A Greek version of Matthew: https://www.kingjamesbibleonline.org/matthew-1-parallel-kjv-greek/
E. Carrington Heath: https://twitter.com/echeath/status/1598365528258641920?s=20&t=aOIJdj07cPdxRn-reITu4w
Linda Hogan: https://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/book-reviews/excerpts/view/23701
Luke 1:5-17 The Birth of John the Baptist Foretold
In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah. His wife was a descendant of Aaron, and her name was Elizabeth. Both of them were righteous before God, living blamelessly according to all the commandments and regulations of the Lord. But they had no children, because Elizabeth was barren, and both were getting on in years.
Once when he was serving as priest before God and his section was on duty, he was chosen by lot, according to the custom of the priesthood, to enter the sanctuary of the Lord and offer incense. Now at the time of the incense-offering, the whole assembly of the people was praying outside. Then there appeared to him an angel of the Lord, standing at the right side of the altar of incense. When Zechariah saw him, he was terrified; and fear overwhelmed him. But the angel said to him, ‘Do not be afraid, Zechariah, for your prayer has been heard. Your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son, and you will name him John. You will have joy and gladness, and many will rejoice at his birth, for he will be great in the sight of the Lord. He must never drink wine or strong drink; even before his birth he will be filled with the Holy Spirit. He will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord their God. With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him, to turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’
Zechariah has gotten what should be good news. Zechariah is also terrified. It doesn’t even matter that the angel told him not to be afraid. He is still concerned about this whole situation. In this way, Zechariah is one of the most relatable figures we read about in the lead up to Jesus’ birth. Because he was afraid of this wild visitor from God and also couldn’t quite believe that what he was praying for would come true.
Zechariah is a priest. You’d think he’d be primed to recognize God doing a new thing in what is a pretty familiar pattern in the Bible. Can we remember anyone else who got told they would be parents years after they thought they would be able to conceive? Abraham and Sarah! That’s right. In her commentary on this text, Aubrey West notes that Zechariah and his wife Elizabeth have much in common with their ancestors in the faith, Abraham and Sarah. They are faithful. They want children. And, they have reached their elder years without them. According to the scholar Elizabeth Johnson, during the era in which they would have lived, childlessness was often blamed on a woman’s barrenness, as though only her body could be the problem. Some might even take their childlessness to be a sign that God was angry with them. And, yet, even as they certainly grieved their infertility, they also seemed to find comfort in their faith, following the commandments, with God's help, to the best of their abilities.
The Incarnation shows us a vision of God rooted in relationship: the relationship between God and humanity but also relationships among people. Wil Gafney, in her commentary on this text, says that “Luke demonstrates that the Advent of Jesus is a community affair.” And, we know that God is happy to work through folks that the community doesn’t expect. The community might have expected Zechariah and Elizabeth to be faithful. They would have never expected them to have a child. Shoot, Zechariah and Elizabeth likely didn’t expect to have a child. But, the Incarnation will need a community... will need people to let everyone know they were on the way. Who better than this faithful couple to begin making a path in the wilderness that Jesus will one day trod?
Zechariah was already having a meaningful day, even without the angel showing up. He had been chosen to give the offering of incense in the temple. According to Marion Soards’ notes on this text, lighting the incense was a great privilege that was granted only once in a lifetime. This would have been a high point in his calling as a priest. And, then the angel waltzed in or flew or appeared or however they show up. And, his life and Elizabeth’s life was forever changed.
Do not be afraid. That is easy for you to say, Gabriel. In the dark inner room of the temple, with incense smoke swirling around them, the angel Gabriel looked at Zechariah and said, "Do not be afraid... for your prayer has been heard." Do not be afraid for God will keep God's promises. God will provide for you what you have needed. You will have a son and that son will have a great calling. Gabriel tells Zechariah that his boy would be a prophet, following in the footsteps of the prophet Elijah, provided the world with what they needed: a prophet to make way for the Messiah.
That’s where our reading stops for the day, but it is worth considering what else happens to Zechariah, father of John called the Baptist. Because I imagine others might recognize some of their own story within his response to the news that the angel brings. Rather than just say, “I got it from here Gabe! We’re ready for this baby,” Zechariah asks a reasonable question, similar to that of Sarah and Abraham: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man and my wife is getting on in years.” Gabriel will not appreciate this question. Rolf Jacobsen, in a commentary he wrote about parts of this story, describes what happens next as “Gabriel... point[ing] the angel clicker at Zechariah and hitting the mute button.” And, Zechariah will not be able to speak again until he really sees and really believes that God has done what God promised.
It must be noted that Elizabeth takes the good news and runs with it. Though she went into seclusion upon realizing she was pregnant, it doesn’t appear that it was to hide or because she was unsure what was happening. It seems like to was to care for herself and revel in the pregnancy that she thought wouldn’t come. In her solitude, she spoke words of thanksgiving, “This is what the Lord has done for me when he looked favorably on me and took away the disgrace I have endured among my people.” All the while, Zechariah is silent, unable to say aloud whatever was on his heart and mind as he waited to see if his son would be born.
In case this is a new story for you, I’ll offer a few spoilers. Elizabeth’s pregnancy will go well. A healthy boy will be born and she will come out of labor healthy. But even after seeing the baby born safely, Zechariah still will not speak. His fatherly fear will still be too strong, even with his son in his arms. For 8 more days, he will be silent. But, he will perform his fatherly responsibilities, even in his fear and silence. They will take the boy to temple to be circumcised, as was their custom. The officiants will attempt to name the child after his father. Elizabeth says to name the boy John, as they were told. They ask Zechariah for confirmation, and in that moment, Zechariah will live out a faith he hadn’t been able to find nine months earlier. He’ll write on a tablet: “His name is John.” And, at that very moment, his mouth opened and his tongue was freed and he would sing a song praising God.
Zechariah likely knew that a prophet is a difficult calling but he also finally remembered that God empowers humanity to do difficult things all the time. In being faithful through his fear, he could finally believe that God could even do a difficult thing through his family. What a powerful reminder that even as we are afraid, the divine can and will still move within us, connecting us to one another, making way for that which is Holy to move in this world in unexpected ways. Zechariah and Elizabeth made the way for their son. John will make the way for Christ. Thank God Zechariah’s fear couldn’t stop Emmanuel from being with us. May we remember that we can be faithful through our fear, too, even if we aren’t able to sing a song to God just yet. May we be able, just like Zechariah, to find our voice when the world needs it.
Resources consulted while writing this sermon:
Audrey West: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=460
Rolf Jacobsen: https://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2703
Elizabeth Johnson: https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/narrative-lectionary/zechariahs-song-2/commentary-on-luke-15-13-14-25-57-80
Wil Gafney, "Advent 2" A Women's Lectionary for the Whole Church, Year A (New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2021)
Marion Lloyd Soards' introduction to Luke in The New Oxford Annotated Bible: The New Revised Standard Version with Apocryphya, ed. Michael Coogan (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001)
Pastor Chrissy is a native of East Tennessee. She and her wife moved to Maine from Illinois. She is a graduate of the Divinity School at Wake Forest University and Chicago Theological Seminary.