At Christmas, fact and fiction, truth and legend, are mixed so thoroughly that even preachers include what they should have left out, and leave out what they should have included.
The late Dick France wrote:-
Steve Matthew has six ‘thou shalt nots’ in connection with preaching from the Bible’s nativity accounts. I summarise:-
- Don’t skip the genealogy in Matthew 1. Even a person with a fairly limited knowledge of the Old Testament will find that many of the names fairly leap off the page: men and woman, saints and sinners, Jews and Gentiles. So many of these characters have a story to tell. And it all adds up to God’s faithfulness in bringing his purposes to fulfilment and in expanding those purposes to reach the whole world.
- Don’t say that Jesus was born in a stable. The text simply doesn’t say that. Focus on what the text really does say (and understand that the word translated ‘inn’ probably means ‘guest room’). Let’s not get sidetracked by a harsh inn-keeper or a husband who couldn’t provide adequately for his wife when the time came for her to give birth to her firstborn. Let’s focus on the fact that Jesus’ birth was, in many ways, very mundane; and what an irony that the King of kings was born in such ordinary circumstances!
- Don’t over-emphasise the questionable character of the shepherds. Poor and humble they may have been, but they were not social outcasts. In addition to pointing out the lowliness, the preacher might also remark on the fact that they were probably guarding their sheep in the spring-time, and tending the lambs that were destined for the Passover sacrifice.
- Don’t refer to the magi as ‘three wise men’. The text doesn’t tell us how many they were (nor does it say that they were ‘kings’). Given the length and hazardous nature of their journey (they likely came from Babylonia or Arabia), there were probably many more than three in the group. They were astrologers rather than sages. Rather than focus on their supposed wisdom, it would be better for the preacher to stress the irony in Matthew’s contrast of “the eagerness of the Magi to worship Jesus, despite their limited knowledge, with the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of Herod’s court—all of whom had the Scriptures to inform them.” (Carson)
- Don’t avoid the story of the slaughter in Matthew 2:16-18. Yes, it’s an horrific story. But ‘by quoting Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew invites us to go back to Jeremiah 31:16–17 to hear the rest of the story: God will act to rescue and restore his people from the terrible situation. Matthew wants us to understand that the hope promised to the mothers who wept for their children taken to Babylon is the hope promised to the mothers in Bethlehem who lost their children—and to all who face horrendous evil and injustice.’
- Don’t assume there’s no Christmas message in Mark’s prologue. Mark teaches that God has come in Christ to rescue his people from bondage and bring them into his kingdom. And that’s what Christmas is all about.
In the same seasonable spirit, Andreas J. Köstenberger and Alexander Stewart have pleaded with the preacher:-
- Don’t add details that aren’t in the text. Details, that is, about ‘the stable’, ‘three kings’, donkey, inn-keeper, and so on.
- Don’t supply spiritual explanations for cultural practices to make them sound biblical. Don’t bless our giving of presents by tying it to God’s gift to the world, or the magi’s gifts to Jesus. Don’t justify decorating an evergreen tree by linking it to God’s gift of eternal life. And we could go on: candles to represent the light of the world, holly as the symbol of the crown of thorns, and so on. When we are unable to distinguish between what is biblical and what is cultural, we diminish the first and elevate the second, and drift further towards syncretism.
- Don’t be embarrassed by the Jewishness of passages related to Jesus’ coming. Think of Mary’s song in Luke 1:46–56 Zechariah’s song in Luke 1:67–79. These are both intensely Jewish hymns, and therefore neglected in Christian circles. But, critically, both of them focus on God’s glorious attributes and on his faithfulness in fulfilling his promises to his ancient people.
- Don’t be swayed by dubious challenges to the biblical witness to Jesus’ birth. The biblical accounts do record a virginal conception and other supernatural elements. But it is irrational to reject them because they are unprecedented. Of course the incarnation of the Son of God was unprecedented: that’s the whole point.
- Don’t get bogged down in trivia and miss the true significance of Jesus’ birth. Questions about the date of Jesus’ birth, the historicity of Quirinius’ census, the nature of the star of Bethlehem, are of some interest and are worth exploring. But don’t neglect the main questions: who was Jesus, and why did he come?
The Christmas story, as told in the Gospels, is quite wonderful enough, without the preacher feeling the need to perpetuate mythical or trivial elements that merely muddy the waters.