The Work of Christmas
Last Tuesday I was in Kroger and as I walked past the aisle with all the seasonal specials, they were taking down Christmas decor and candy on one side of the aisle and putting up Valentine’s Day decor and candy on the other side of the aisle. This is a really great example of how the US cultural calendar is different from the Christian calendar. Our cultural calendar is driven by retail, by the urge to purchase stuff to be used on a particular holiday. And so once that holiday is over, all the stuff comes down and we put up new stuff to purchase for the next holiday. And so that’s how we think.
The Christian calendar is different. The reason I tell you every week where we are in the Christian calendar is because it helps us to live differently than the world around us. Instead of celebrating the lead up to a holiday, the Christian calendar celebrates the season that begins with the holiday. That’s why we celebrate Advent. Advent is a season with it’s own rituals and traditions. Our cultural season of Christmas ends with Christmas Day. The Christian season of Christmas begins with Christmas Day. Christmas Day inaugurates a whole season of focusing on the meaning of Christmas.
This morning we set our intention for worship with liturgy based on a poem* by Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, who was a black pastor, professor and public theologian in the Civil Rights era. It reminds us that after all the cultural trappings have been put away, the work of Christmas begins.
This morning as we continue through the gospel of Luke, we get that same reminder. This spiritual biography of Jesus contains the most information about Jesus’ early life. It’s where we get the story that we always read on Christmas Eve about shepherds and angels and no room at the inn. We love that story. But that Christmas Eve story is not the end of Luke’s gospel. It’s just the beginning. Because we are going to be studying Luke’s gospel for the next several months, this morning I want to set our intentions for what we can expect to hear and see as we study it. This is not a newspaper account or a Wikipedia entry. This is a story written with an agenda. It has a purpose. Luke is trying to get his readers to see the world from a particular perspective, and he goes about that very deliberately. So let me tell you about what you can expect in this gospel.
The gospel of Luke has this great introduction, the only gospel that has an intro to tell us the purpose of the book. Here it is.
The gospel of Luke starts this way: “Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided, after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.”
You guys, that’s ONE SENTENCE. One long complicated sentence. Let me show you a few interesting things in it:
First, there were apparently already other orderly accounts of Jesus’ life. Most Bible scholars assume that by the time Luke wrote his gospel, the gospel of Mark was already floating around. We don’t know what others Luke may have been referring to. There are six other gospels that supposedly relate other events from the birth and childhood of Jesus, but they were definitely written after Luke’s. They’re not in our Bible. Let’s talk for a second about why not, because it will help us better understand what we are studying.
People often say that the Bible is “authoritative.” But what does that mean? Well there’s a cue in the word: author. Something is authoritative if it has the power to write our story, so to speak. Your boss is an authority because she has the power to sort of write the story of your job. The Bible is authoritative for Christians because we give it the power to write our story. We shape our beliefs and our communities around what we find in the Bible.
So these other texts from the ancient world that also talk about Jesus aren’t in our Bible and so we don’t recognize them as authoritative. We don’t give them the power to write our story. We don’t shape our beliefs and communities around what we find in them. And the reason we don’t is because our ancestors didn’t.
The books in our Bible, particularly the gospels, are included because they are the ones that the most Christians agreed upon as having authority. They are usually the oldest texts. And a few hundred years they were the ones passed from one city to another because people felt that these were the stories and letters that had information Christians needed. They were the texts that were the most inspiring to the most people. And so eventually they are the ones that were kept in the Bible as we know it today.
We don’t have time this morning for me to explain all the details how our ancestors decided which books to keep. But they kept the ones that they felt were the most accurate, the most consistent, and the most inspiring. They others are interesting. You can look them up. But they don’t carry the weight of the approval of our ancestors. They aren’t authoritative. We don’t give them the power to write our story, to shape our beliefs and our communities.
We only give that power to the books we have in our Bibles now. The stories of Jesus life as related in the gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, are the ones we trust and turn to for guidance and inspiration.
The introduction to Luke’s gospel also tells us that the book of Luke was written for people who are already Christians. It’s addressed to a person named Theophilus, which means “God-lover,” and might be a real person or might be a fun way to address all Christians. Either way, the people who read this story were already going to know doctrine and facts about Jesus, so this book must have had a different purpose.
The clue to the purpose is in the final part of the introduction: “so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.” So that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught. So that you may recognize the sure reliability of the things you have been taught. In other words, “You already know and practice the doctrines of Christianity. What I offer you is a story to back them up.”
And that matters, doesn’t it? Because often, mere presentation of the facts is just too dry. It doesn’t move us. It doesn’t help us recognize why the facts are important. And it doesn’t help us interpret and apply those facts for our own lives. So Luke is going to tell a story. And a really good story at that. Luke is a master storyteller. He will use travelogues, trial and courtroom scenes, farewell speeches, wonder stories, and stories within a story, to get his point across. All of these were genres that were well known in the ancient world, and Luke puts them to work in telling the story of Jesus.
By the time Luke is writing, the person Jesus is fading into history. The church is becoming an institution. They recognize that Jesus is probably not coming back in the next five minutes. So as the Jesus movement grows and changes they need to keep being reminded of their core values. And thank God Luke wrote this book because that’s still what we use it for! Here we are more than 2,000 years later looking back at this account to help us hold on to the early values of the church, to try to determine if we’ve wandered from the mission.
So what does Luke focus on? Well there’s a few things:
One is a connection between people’s physical and spiritual selves. Luke goes out of his way to say that physical needs matter. Poverty matters. Hunger matters. Sickness matters. Grief matters. Luke tells a lot of stories about real-life concerns to show that God isn’t interested only in what happens to our souls, but also in what happens to our bodies.
Another thing Luke highlights is God’s inclusion of people who are often excluded, specifically women, people at the margins of society, and non-Jewish people. This book has more stories about women than any of the other gospels. It starts with Mary and Elizabeth. There are no kings or Magi in Luke’s Christmas Eve story. The angels appear to shepherds, who were at the very bottom of the economic system. When Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the temple to dedicate him, they bring the sacrifice that was allowed for the poorest people. And while they are there a man named Simeon prophesies that Jesus will bring about God’s salvation for everyone, not just for the Jews.
Luke emphasizes that Jesus is a devout Jewish man. Luke is not trying to say that Christians are better than Jews or that God has rejected the Jews. When Jesus is 12 his family goes to Jerusalem for the Passover and Jesus sits for das in the Temple learning from the teachers. When he’s grown up, Jesus and his followers spend time in the Temple in Jerusalem and in the synagogues. They keep the Jewish festivals and holy days and quote the Jewish scriptures. There is no anti-Semitism in this book.
And finally, Luke’s story depicts people having to make a decision when they are confronted with truth. When Simeon prophesies at Jesus’ dedication, he says that this baby is destined for the rising AND FALLING of many in Israel, and to be a sign to be opposed. Some people will hear Jesus’ message and witness his work and will choose to turn away. Some people will be so invested in the systems of power and hierarchy that they will not allow themselves to be released. The world has changed and is changing. Some people will rejoice and get on board. And some will dig in their heels. And often in this story it is the wealthy and powerful who dig in their heels, refuse the freedom Jesus offers, and turn away from him.
I hope that I have piqued your curiosity about what’s coming in the next few months. Because frankly, many of you have already heard a lot of these stories. The content isn’t new. The facts aren’t new. But my hope is that together we can uncover new meaning in the stories. New meaning that will help us live as God’s people in our place and our time. Because Luke’s gospel has a lot to say to us about that.
Luke’s gospel begins with the story we read on Christmas Eve. But that’s just the beginning. Christmas is the beginning. Christmas is the kick-off. Christmas sets the stage for everything that comes after it. So don’t feel disappointed this morning that Christmas is over. Feel excited that now the work of Christmas can begin. This book has a lot to teach us about how to live as God’s people in the world. And we know how it ends. We all know how Jesus’ story ends. And don’t you dare say it ends on the cross. The story of Jesus ends in resurrection. But really, that’s not even quite right. Because truly the story of Jesus continues in us. The book of Luke is the first of a series of two books. It’s written to be read together with the book of Acts, which is really Jesus: Part 2. The work of Christmas, the work of Jesus is continued in the church, both the early church and our church.
We’re all part of the same lineage, which is what we celebrate at the Communion table this morning. The Lord’s Supper is the oldest Christian tradition that we know of and so every time we celebrate it, we are connecting to everyone else who has ever celebrated it. Traditions reinforce our identity, they remind us who we are. And so as we celebrate this morning, we remember who we are: we are the people who get to do the work of Christmas. We are the people who are blessed to be a blessing. We are the people who have the privilege of being invited by God to find the lost, to heal the broken, to release the prisoner, to rebuild the nations. We are the people invited by God to participate in God’s work of bringing peace on earth. That’s not easy work. But it is deeply rewarding, which is why our ancestors have insisted for hundreds of years that this tradition, this reminder, is the JOYFUL feast of the people of God, where folks of all ages, races and sexes—people in every type of body— come from the north, south, east and west and are welcomed by Christ, who is the host at all our tables.
* The Work of Christmas
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.
(c) Rev. Dr. Howard Thurman, 1973