The “Adults-Only” Nativity Story

Emilie Bouvier, "Springing"(Cowling Arboretum; Northfield, Minn.)Image © Luther Seminary Fine Arts Collection, St. Paul, Minn.

Dear Working Preacher,

There are two ways to tell the story of the three-kings, one shaped for the ears, hearts, and minds of our children, and one better suited to adults. Given how infrequently Epiphany falls on a Sunday, it’s probably wise to share at least a little bit of each this week.

Truth be told, we’re probably better prepared to deliver the message for the kids, as it’s the one we grew up with as well. This is the story of three kings who came from afar bearing gifts for the newborn king. There’s a wonder and magic (no pun intended) about this story of wondering magi led to Jesus from the distant East by a star. It testifies to the far-reaching – indeed, global and cosmic! – implications of Jesus’ birth. Even more, it witnesses to God’s commitment to reach all the world with news of God’s redeeming love.

We love this story – which adults needs to hear again as well – in part because of the mystery these three distant and somewhat exotic guests introduce into the story, and in part because of the beauty and fittingness of their gifts, the source of all our gift-giving at Christmas. It has led to the wonderful Christmas carol “We Three Kings” and “spin-off” carols and stories like that of “The Little Drummer Boy” (which isn’t a bad take, when you think about it, as it draws attention to the fact that we all have something to give.)

And so a sermon on this week’s gospel story could easy focus our attention on the gifts of the kings and invite us to ponder what gifts we might offer as well. What talents, interests, passions might we see as gifts from God that we now can offer to Jesus by giving them to those all around us and especially to those in need? (If you go in this direction, Christina Rossetti’s In The Bleak Mid-Winter would be another wonderful hymn.)

This is, as I said, a story that both our youth and our adults need to hear. But there is also another element to this story that often gets lost in the shuffle of our contemplation of the magi, and that’s the note of fear and opposition that Jesus’ birth occasions right from the start. Herod, after all, does not greet the news of a newborn king with joy, nor does he search for a fit gift to present he messiah. Rather, he is afraid. And not just Herod, but “all Jerusalem with him” (v.3).

Why? Perhaps it is because the one thing the powerful seek more than anything else is to remain in power. Gone from Herod and his court is any notion of the kind of servant leadership prescribed and required by Israel’s prophets. Gone is the memory that God placed them in their positions to serve rather than be served. Herod seeks his own ends and so is immediately threatened by even the mere mention of another – and therefore rival – king.

But perhaps it’s also simply that the presence of these three magi and their quest for God’s messiah announce that the world is changing, that God is approaching, and that nothing can remain the same in the presence of God’s messiah. The arrival of these wondering astrologers signals that the reach of God’s embrace is broadening considerably, that there is no longer “insider” and “outsider,” but that all are included in God’s plan for salvation. This isn’t a new theme in Judaism, as from the very beginning of the story God promises to bless Abraham that he may, in turn, be a blessing from the world. But now it is happening – all distinctions between people of different ethnicities and religions is dissolving. All are becoming one in Christ, and who knows what may change next.

Whatever its various and sundry causes, fear is a powerful thing. In response to their fear, Herod, along with the chief priests and scribes, conspire to find the Messiah and kill him. They will not succeed this time, but much later in the story there will again be an unholy alliance between the political and religious leaders of the day who will not only conspire against Jesus but this time capture and crucify him.

And what about us? What does fear do to us? Do we install more security systems in our homes and cars? Do we build more gates or buy more guns? Do we save even more for retirement, pulling back from charitable contributions to make sure we have enough? Do we close our hearts – and minds – to those who are different? What?

The adult version of Matthew’s nativity moves quickly from the glad moment of the adoration and gifts of the magi to a darker, more ambivalent world of political intrigue, deception, and fear-induced violence. (There’s a reason we read Luke on Christmas Eve!) But if Matthew’s account is more sober, it is also realistic. We live in a world riddled by fear, a world of devastating super-storms and elementary school massacres, a world where innocents die everyday to preventable illness and hunger. In Matthew’s story of the visit of the magi – and the subsequent slaughter of the innocents in the verses to come – Matthew renders an accurate if also difficult picture of the world.

And that is what is at the heart of Matthew’s darker, more adult-oriented story of Jesus’ birth: the promise that is precisely this world that God came to, this people so mastered by fear that we often do the unthinkable to each other and ourselves that God loves, this gaping need that we have and bear that God remedies. Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us, the living, breathing, and vulnerable promise that God chose to come live and die for us, as we are, so that in Christ’s resurrection we, too might experience newness of life.

As Denise Levertov writes in her poem “On the Mystery of the Incarnation”:
It’s when we face for a moment
the worst our kind can do, and shudder to know
the taint in our own selves, that awe
cracks the mind’s shell and enters the heart.

I think Matthew would agree. Indeed, perhaps Matthews sketches his story of Jesus’ birth – and our lives – with darker strokes precisely so that we might perceive the glory and grace of God’s redemption in Christ all the more clearly, kind of like a bright star shining high in the heavens and leading us to greet our savior and Lord.

So preach the invitation to bring all of our gifts to our Lord by sharing them with those in need, Working Preacher, but also preach that even when we don’t – when we hoard or covet or cheat or betray – yet Emmanuel still bears the promise that God has truly seen who and what we are and loves us still. Forever. Through this life…and into the next. Thanks be to God.

And thanks be to God for you and for your willingness to look into the darkness, confident that Jesus – God’s Word made flesh and our Emmanuel – shines on in the darkness and that the darkness has not overcome it.

Blessed Epiphany, Working Preacher!
In Christ,

Notes: 1) You can find Levertov’s complete poem here.
2) I wrote a week or so ago about the Christmas stories and, in particular, the slaughter of the innocents in relation to the shootings at Newtown at the Huffington Post. If you’re interested, you can find it here.
3) Patti Smith sang a powerful version of We Three Kings that brings out the darker side of the story; you can find and listen to a recording of it here.