Preaching Christmas Eve in the Wake of New Testament Scholarship

the first christmasIn 2008, our little congregation played host to John Dominic Crossan who has been acclaimed as world’s most famous New Testament scholar. Crossan’s visit to our congregation began with a public lecture based on his best-selling book The First Christmas in which he and Marcus Borg provide a splendid historical outline of the development of the birth narratives. I had the dubious honour of standing before his enlightened audience on Christmas Eve to preach in the great man’s wake. What follows is the Christmas Eve sermon I preached just three weeks after Dom’s illuminating visit.

Just a few weeks ago, this congregation was privileged to play host to a man who has the reputation of being the greatest New Testament scholar in the whole world. Dom, (we get to call him “Dom” now) wrote The First Christmas with Marcus Borg who is the guy who is heralded as the world’s leading expert on Jesus and Christianity in the 21st century. During his lecture, Dom provided us with all sorts of marvellous ways to understand the stories surrounding the birth of Jesus.  Ever since that visit, there have been folks who listened very carefully to what Dom had to say and who have been positively gleeful when they’ve asked me what I’m going to do about preaching on Christmas Eve.

I mean what could I possibly say to you after so many of you have just finished hearing from the best in the business! And then there are those of you who bought the book and you’ve read what the experts have to say about the first Christmas. Some of you weren’t able to hide the smirks when you wondered out loud just exactly how I’d go about following the eminent Dr. John Dominic Crossan.

I don’t mind confessing that on several occasions since, I’ve woken up in the middle of the night and wondered what on earth I’d say to you this evening. Even those of you who didn’t manage to hear Dr. Crossan; you’ve probably seen him on TV this week on one of the dozen or so, documentaries on which he appears as the expert scholar who the media turns to in order to unravel the Mysteries of the Bible or to dig up the truth about Jesus. In this the age of information, you can simply go to YOUTUBE  or to ITUNES U and download all sorts of podcasts where you’ll discover what pastors have been learning at seminaries for decades as the academic world has unlocked so many of the secrets of the ancient world in an effort to discover the real truth about what may or may not have happened so very long ago.  Ever since: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.”

Since the end of the first century, some 1900 years now, the story of the nativity has been told. Lately the church has become a little embarrassed by the way in which this story has been told. All sorts of experts have weighed in to tell us that it could never have happened the way we all remember it. Biblical scholars, historians, theologians, bishops, pastors, professors even scientists have cast doubt on the details of the story of the nativity. But even though we know how impossible some of the details may be, we cling to this powerful story.  Despite the wisdom of the experts, regardless of our doubts, this story still has the power to stop us in our tracks. No other story or image is more recognizable to people the world over than the Nativity scene of the birth of Jesus.

Tonight the images of a stable in Bethlehem, with Mary and Joseph gazing fondly at the baby Jesus, while the shepherds look on and the heavenly host sing their praises, these images are crystal clear to all of us. The story is part of us; it’s in our bones. And every year this story causes our lives to shift from the routine of winter, to the marvel of this night, when families are drawn together, and strangers greet one another with kindness and from near and far the hope of peace on earth is a dream shared by us all.

Now I know that somewhere in the deepest darkest recesses of our being, or for some of us, just beneath the surface of this dream,  the wisdom of the experts causes a shiver to run across our spines as we wonder how the hope for peace on earth can possibly lie with such an unbelievable story. That shiver used to haunt me, until the day I recognized the power of the truth that lies in the story of the birth of Christ.

You see truth is an amazing reality. Truth is never simple. And yet truth is quite simple really. At least for those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. But before I tell you about the truth, let me do what I do every Christmas Eve, Let me tell you a story. It’s a true story about a story about a story.

You see, the easiest way I know to reveal the truth about a story is to tell a story that sheds light on a story. It’s the most ancient way to reveal the truth and it’s the way that Jesus used when he wanted to reveal the truth about the scriptures.

This story took place just about two weeks ago. Our Confirmation students had gathered together for our last class before the Christmas break. Their final assignment was due. Each of the students was required to tell a story that revealed something about the nature of God. They were asked to write a gospel according to them.

One by one they got up and from this very pulpit and they told their gospel stories. I asked one of the students for permission to re-tell their gospel story this evening. The student agreed on the condition that I not reveal to you who actually wrote the story. Which is perfect really because despite all our best efforts nobody can really say who actually wrote the four gospels attributed to Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.  So, here I give you the gospel as it was told by one of Holy Cross’ confirmation students and recorded, after a fashion, by me.

It was a cold and snowy night in the town of Newmarket and a homeless couple wandered the streets of Davis and Yong searching for shelter and warmth. They were a strange looking couple; a man and a very, very, very, fat woman.

They were dirty and grubby and they wore layers and layers of clothes trying to macdsxmaskeep warm. They’d been wandering for a very long time and they were very, very, very hungry.

So they trudged up to Wendy’s, hoping to get a warm meal. But when they made their way up to the counter the guy behind the counter shouted at them and said, “Get outta here!  We don’t serve fat people at Wendy’s!”

So the hungry couple headed over to Tim Horton’s, but the woman was so fat that she couldn’t fit through the door so the people told her to go away cause there was no room for fat people at Tim Hortons.

So, on they trudged up to MacDonalds and low and behold the fat woman made it through the door and the man managed to get the servers to provide them with a warm meal and just as they were settling into a booth, there appeared a great flood!

And the very, very, very, fat woman leaped up onto the table, right there in the middle of MacDonalds! And the woman began to scream and moan. Because she wasn’t just some fat homeless person, she was with child. And after a lot of screaming and moaning a baby was born in the city of Newmarket. And all the people rejoiced! For unto us a child was given, a child born in the poverty of MacDonalds. For if God came to earth today, God would come where we least expect God to be. 

The Holy Gospel as it is told by a young person of this congregation. Thanks be to God.

So, if your struggling over some of the details of the nativity story, if the experts have left you perplexed, cynical or worried, do not be afraid, for I bring you tidings of great joy. The story is true, every last word of it is true. For just like Dom so wisely revealed to us, the story of the nativity is a parable and like all parable’s it represents a truth that cannot be fully expressed in words. Like all good parables the truth is not to be found in the details, but rather in the Spirit of God that breathes life into the parable. It’s a parable about so many things, but most of all it is a parable about peace on earth giving glory to God.

Now there are many down through the ages that have tried to weave stories of peace on earth, but none so everlasting as this.  And yes some of us would have rather have had a road map or an expert to set us on the path to peace. But alas, all the experts have failed in their efforts to guide us. The truth that they impart has been rejected. So, once again we are left with this parable.  A story so simple that even a child can understand it.  A parable that depicts the truth that was experienced by those who walked and talked, loved and learned from Jesus. And the truth echoes through the centuries and the message is clear to everyone who has ears to hear.

“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, goodwill among all people.” And we are left wondering at the power of a love great enough to triumph over death and we claim a Christmas Truth greater than any of the tradition it inspires: the truth of the mystical longing of the creature for the creator—the finite for the infinite— the human for the divine. It’s a longing that transcends culture, religion, language and custom—a longing that is represented tonight for us in the baby in the manger—the sudden, amazing and incomprehensible gift of grace: a God who loved us enough to become one of us.

Yes, we embody the wonder of Christmas in the gifts given, the meals shared, the gathering of family and loved ones. But the greater wonder is that the God who is love incarnate comes down to be among us over and over again. Christ comes to show us how to share that love with a world in desperate need of it— to a world yearning for “peace on earth, good will among all people”.           

That shalom—that peace—that unfamiliar hush is the peace on earth I’m praying for this Christmas— the shalom that doesn’t just mean the peace that comes when we’re no longer at war but the shalom that means that all human beings live together at peace with one another and with God, and in right relationship with all of the rest of God’s wondrous creation.        

Shalom, the Hebrew word for what we might describe as “turning the human race into the human family” —the peace on earth that we, are called to be about as followers of Christ, not just at Christmas but all year long.  The truth is that peace is the only way we can truly give Glory to God.

Peace is the only way to insure that every child born into this world will have an opportunity to play, to learn and to grow. To accomplish peace on earth we will all have to go out into this Christmas night and into this New Year and put our faith into action. That means prayers and protests; speaking up and stepping out; offering whenever and wherever possible the Good News of God’s shalom and realizing the truth of the angels chorus. For we are the followers of the one whose birth they herald. Howard Thurman, a fellow follower of Christ, put it best declaring that:

            When the song of the Angel is stilled,

            When the Star in the sky is gone,

            When the kings and the 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 brothers and sisters—

            To make music in the heart.        

            And to radiate the Light of Christ,

            every day, in every way,

            in all that we do and in all that we say.

            The work of Christmas lies before us.

So, dear friends, rejoice and be glad, for unto us a child has been born, a child who is Christ our Saviour. May Christ lead each of us as we go forth to make peace on earth and good will to all.   Amen.


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