When we hear the Christmas story, we normally hear a mix of Matthew and Luke; shepherds and Wise Men tumble over each other in a stable, camels and sheep in the background and possible a donkey that Mary was riding on.
Spoiler Alert – none of the accounts in the Bible mention any animals at all!
Matthew wanted to expand Mark for his congregations who were mostly Jewish converts and needing more.
Luke wants to explain Mark more fully to his congregations who are mostly “Gentile” in origin, that is converts from other faiths and cultures, who know something of the Jewish ways but who live in the cities of the Empire.
So Luke includes an account of the birth of Jesus, and many think Mary may have shared her story with him, because Luke’s birth account is about Mary not Joseph, and it includes the birth of John the Baptist.
Far, far away, in a corner of the Roman Empire, two ordinary women are discussing their remarkable pregnancies. These two ordinary women will have sons who will change the world – John the Baptist and Jesus. Luke’s account of this world-changing moment starts in the ordinary, and then he tells us about the Roman Emperor requiring that all the world should be registered / taxed. Augustus was famous for claiming he had brought peace. He was the one who thought he could manage all the world. Little did he know that these two women would offer a very different understanding of ruling; that the true Prince of Peace was being born in an area just outside his full control.
Luke gently points out to his readers that the true Lord was born in very different circumstances from the emperors.
And the first to see and witness to this baby were shepherds, the ones who were out at night to guard their flocks – so not the wealthy elite, and not the religious elite, but some other very ordinary people. This is not how kings should be born!
Luke goes on to tell us that Jesus was circumcised, and after the 40 days, Mary comes from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to present her first-born. This is all very normal and ordinary, and two older people see this baby and are prompted by the Holy Spirit to speak. Simeon recognises this baby as “God’s Salvation, a light to lighten the Gentiles” – what a message for the gentile readers of the gospel!
And Anna, an elderly prayerful woman also speaks of Jesus, to those who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Actually, the story began in the Temple, where John’s father was a priest and was informed that he would have a son to be called John. Now at the end of the account of their births, we are back in the Temple and Simeon and Anna are confirming that this baby is one greater even than John.
Luke is always keen to show that the gospel comes out of Jerusalem, it comes from the Jewish centre and overflows to the gentiles, to the non-Jews, to people like you and me, as his story continues in Acts (his second volume as it were!).
Luke is telling you and me, and all the gentiles before us, that God has brought salvation – has shone light for the gentiles – in the person and work of Jesus.
The crucifixion that secured our salvation was just outside the city. The disciples were in Jerusalem when the Holy Spirit came on them at Pentecost, and they went out to speak to people from all parts of the world who had come to the city for the Festival. These people were already interested in the Jewish faith, but then the message is taken by Philip, and Peter and Paul and others to Antioch and then to Ephesus, and Colossae, and Philippi, and Thessalonica, and Corinth and Rome – places we know about because Paul wrote to the new churches there.
Our faith is only real because it is linked back to the birth of this Jewish boy to his Jewish parents. And Luke, more than the other gospel-writers, wants to help the non-Jewish peoples discover salvation. Of course he does, not least as he travelled with Paul, who gave his life to sharing the gospel around the Mediterranean, to Jew and Gentile alike.
This Christmas we – like the Gentile Magi – can come and worship, can find salvation and hope, but only in as much as we go to the little town of Bethlehem, and join the shepherds, and don’t get distracted by the big Temple Herod was building, or the grand plans of Augustus.
And we are then called to share this story with others around us. And Mary, Luke says, at the end of the birth narrative, pondered all these things in her heart. May we also ponder deeply on this amazing thing!