Pastor’s pondering

It is that time of year in which we are all making preparations for Christmas.  The decorations are going up. The presents are being purchased and wrapped.  The family meal is being planned and prepared.  All sorts of hustle and bustle here and there to get ready for that fantastic day.  Yet, I wonder, what are we really preparing for?

            This time of year, the season of Advent, is a time of preparation, similar to the season of Lent leading up to Easter; it is a time of reflection and anticipation for what is to come at Christmas.  But what are we reflecting upon and anticipating so very much?  Is it the décor, the presents, and the bountiful meal?  Or is it something else?

            I think we all have our own Christmas stories to tell, don’t we?  Tales of decorating failures, meals gone awry, and presents that just didn’t measure up to our expectations.  After all, think about the movie by that same name.  Therein we recall an unusual lamp and the dangers of cold lampposts just as much as the central theme of a youngster’s deepest Christmas desire.  These are the strange things we remember.

            What do you remember about the real Christmas story?  The one found in the Bible.  I’m sure everyone can recite it nearly by heart, right?  An angel tells a virgin, Mary, that she is going to have a baby.  She and Joseph travel to Bethlehem where they can find no room to spend the night other than a cattle stall, where Mary gives birth and sets the baby, Jesus, in a manger.  Then some angels declare what has happened, summoning shepherds to come and see the newborn child.  Sometime later some wise men, or three “kings,” show up on the scene and offer the family some sacred gifts.  Sound about right?  The Christmas story in a nutshell?

            Now, I challenge you to go find that story in the Bible.  Go and locate that story, scene by scene just as I’ve noted above or as you may recall it.  The overwhelming majority of the story is found in the Gospel according to Luke.  There we find the angel’s appearance to Mary (Lk 1:26-38), the family’s travel to Bethlehem, Jesus’ birth and placement in the manger (Lk 2:1-7), and the angelic declaration among the shepherds (Lk 2:8-20).  Yet, Luke makes no mention of the wise men.  They are only found in the Gospel according to Matthew (Mtw 2:1-12).  Also, Matthew has the angel appearing to Joseph, not Mary (Mtw 1:18-25), and never mentions anything about a manger or shepherds.  John’s Gospel further confuses the story because he only talks about “the Word.”  The Word which was “in the beginning…with God…and…was God” (Jhn 1:1).  The Word which “became flesh and lived among us” (Jhn 1:14).  No angels.  No manger.  No shepherds or wise men.  And, to top it all off, the Gospel of Mark (which scholars have determined to be the foundational document for Matthew and Luke’s Gospels), makes no mention of Jesus’ birth story at all!  Instead, Mark jumps ahead a few decades and begins with talking about Jesus’ baptism.    So, which of them has the right Christmas story?  Which one are we to believe and follow as “the gospel truth?”  How are we to prepare to tell the most wonderful story of the season, when it seems like the Bible can’t even get it straight? 

The time honored and treasured story we tell year after year is a compilation of accounts, isn’t it?  It is a mixture of multiple stories put into one to give us the tale we have come to know and love.  And, if you stop to think about it, all of Christmas is exactly the same way, isn’t it?  Your own Christmas celebrations are a compilation of traditions passed down over the years from generation to generation, which then get mixed up, turned around, and begun anew as new family members with new traditions are added, or new ways of “doing Christmas” are found.

Gift giving at “Christmas” didn’t start until around the fourth century, about the same time as the concept of Santa Claus (as Saint Nicholas) and Dec. 25th becoming the official date to celebrate Jesus’ birth (which is a whole other discussion for another time).  The use of Christmas trees is first recorded in the sixteenth century.  Poinsettias came sometime in the seventeenth century, and no one seems to know for sure when red and green became the official colors of the season.  All of these things have developed over time into the tradition that we now recognize.

And I think that is part of the joy we celebrate this time of year – God working among us in new and unfathomable ways.  God taking elements of the world around us and helping us see God through them. God using our current state of affairs to declare the Christmas story in our midst.  And what is that story?  Emmanuel.  God with us.  Here and now, just as God has always been.  That’s the real Christmas story – that God would willing come to earth and be by our side, taking on human form so that we may have a better way to connect with one another.  And, each of our experiences in this relationship are different, aren’t they?  As such, we each prepare in our own way, with our own traditions.

So, as you hang your stockings, open the doors of an Advent calendar, wrap the gifts, and prepare in whatever time-honored tradition you may have, recognize that your experience is different than someone else’s, just as was the early disciples’ (hence why their Gospels read differently).  Yet, at the heart of it all, the real reason for the season is this – “…I the Lord do not change…” (Mal 3:6a); “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” (Heb 13:8).

                                                Always pondering,

                                                Pastor Steve

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