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  • Kevin Brisbin

Nativity

If you are not familiar with the Advent season of the church, I refer you to the sermon I preached last year on the subject. You can listen to it on our CCF website, Facebook page, or CCF YouTube channel under “December 4, 2022 Service”. The sermon starts at about 54 minutes in. Or you can read it on our blog Pull Up a Chair under “Advent-ture” posted December 6th, 2022. 

 

I confess, I revisited it myself this week. I wanted to remember what I said. I think, so I wouldn’t repeat myself, as if I am ever short on words or new context. But even I was surprised as I teared up three different times, as I heard afresh what I had heard God speaking to us and to me at that time.  


So if you’re curious or if you are already feeling yourself being pulled into the current of the season’s “hustle and bustle”, and you want to slow down, then that may be a resource for you.  

 

But “fear not, I bring you good news of great joy.”  

 

This year, something about Advent has captivated my thoughts and filled me with wonder anew.  And that is the Nativity.  

 

Last year, I’d say we were 50/50 in our familiarity with the tradition called Advent. But when it comes to the Nativity, I have a feeling that we are ALL probably somewhat familiar with it.  

How many of us have a nativity set we bring out during this season?  

 

Ours is a product of over a decade of Christmas gifts from my mom. 1-2 pieces at a time. Accruing it that way helped us appreciate each piece, and every year the ritual of setting it up makes me notice each unique piece anew.  

 

Let's examine the nativity afresh and see what manna there is for us  

 

And like any good theater kid: I think we should start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.  

 

When you sing you begin with Do-Re-Mi... 

 

When you blog you begin with ety-molo-gy! 

 

The etymology (the origin and history of a word) of Nativity is from a Latin verb: nasci (nah-SHE), which means “to be born.” The gestation of the word (pun intended) was a long one.  

 

Merriam-Webster notes that nasci later developed into nativitas (nah-tee-vee-toss), meaning “birth”, which passed through Anglo-French as nativité (nah-tee-vee-TAY) before entering English in the 14th century as nativity

 

Sometimes I better understand a word like this when I can compare it with one having a similar root. In this case, words like native or originate. A “native” being a person who was born there, a person who has local credibility, because they originated there. They came up there. The reference is to a person whose identity is tied to a specific people, place, and collective community. 

 

And yes, Jesus, son of God, Word from the beginning, Trinitarian being of creation, both precedes origin itself AND originated as a native of our world. The timeless one first wrapped in time and then wrapped in swaddling clothes.  

 

It’s crazy… and true… and beautiful… and much, much messier than any of us are comfortable with.  

 

Now, for a bit of fun. Where do we find the Nativity in the Bible? 

 

We first find the story in Matthew. Mark is silent on this front. Second is Luke. John is also silent concerning the story, unless you prefer your nativity expressed as a poem about the Word being with God and identified as God. It's an interesting thought for a nativity, but that was our “advent-ure” last year. 

 

So we begin with narratives in Matthew, chapters 1 and 2 and Luke, chapters 1 and 2. Matthew and Luke are both known as “synoptic” gospels. These two particular gospels share 67% of the same content and yet, the nativity- the MAIN EVENT, is not part of that shared material. Jesus' birth story is actually part of the 33% of completely unique information.  


This is fascinating to me, because we usually understand it as one, cohesive story. I know I do.  

 

But the “cohesive” biblical story we all know and love is anything but.  

 

Intrigued? Let’s dig in. Get comfortable while we allow ourselves to get uncomfortable in our theology, shall we? Just kidding, we’ll all be fine. I promise you, it is “good news of great joy” that's even better than we thought.  

 

Now, that being said, there is some overlap, not necessarily narratively, but at least in the cast of characters, of which the overlap is five. Can you identify them?  

 

Mary  

Joseph 

Jesus 

The Holy Spirit 

The Angel of the Lord 

 

And one shared setting: Bethlehem. The name of the town comes from Beth, Hebrew for house and Lehem, meaning bread. Does that remind you of communion, possibly? 

 

That’s where the similarities end and the stories diverge. 

 

Let’s start with Matthew chapter 1. 

 

First we find a genealogy with 42 generations of fathers begetting sons, tracing Jesus' lineage back through David, back to Abraham.  

 

Then, we get the Joseph perspective:  

 

"This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. 

 

"But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Yeshua, because he will save his people from their sins.'” 

 

Because this is Joseph’s story, let's skip ahead to “After Jesus was born…” in chapter 2 verse 1. 

 

The Magi, the undetermined number of wise men, stargazers or astrologers come to call, first to King Herod the Great, who is the reigning king of Judea and historical reference point in this account.  

 

Based on the intel from the Magi, King Herod calls for a mass genocide of all Bethlehemite baby boys aged 2 years and younger. (And while there is no historical evidence of this genocide, this is Matthew’s story, and we’re going to let him tell it.) 

 

And why does Matthew tell this story?  

 

Because it is an intentional reference to an Old Testament figure. 

 

You guessed it: Moses.  

 

And Matthew’s just getting started with his references to ancient traditions. 

 

Joseph has another dream, and Angel of the Lord tells him to escape to Egypt. Then, after Herod (their pharaoh-like oppressor) had died, Joseph has yet another dream instructing him to return to Nazareth, delivering them out of Egypt. 

 

Did you notice any themes?  

 

Big Moses vibes. Major male vibes. King vibes (David, Herod, even Jesus as King of the Jews). A lot of Hebrew tradition vibes. Matthew is definitely writing to a Jewish audience. He's writing to portray Jesus as the Messiah, the expected King like his ancestral father David. To start his presentation of Jesus as such, he links him with the GOAT, The Israelite hall of famer, MVD (most-valuable-deliverer): Moses. 

 

Then, there’s Luke chapters 1-2. 

 

First, a prophecy that Elizabeth, Mary’s female cousin, will have a baby in her old age, which is Luke's callback to Sarah, the matriarch of Israel. 

 

And this prophecy comes first to the priest Zechariah, who through his disbelief is left speechless. Yes, the patriarch is silenced within sixteen verses.  

 

Then, we get Luke's Mary perspective.  

 

"In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, 'Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.' 

 

"Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, 'Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.' 

 

'How will this be,' Mary asked the angel, 'since I am a virgin?' 

 

"The angel answered, 'The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth, your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.' 

 

'I am the Lord’s servant,' Mary answered. 'May your word to me be fulfilled.' Then the angel left her." 

 

In a nutshell… the Angel of the Lord visits Mary and says, “You’re going to have a baby.” She replies, "Impossible. Virgin.” The angel says, “Possible. Holy Spirit.” And to settle the debate once and for all: Mary, did you know? Yes. The angel just told her.  

 

PS: Your aging cousin Elizabeth is also pregnant.  

 

So, Mary visits her elderly pregnant cousin Elizabeth and finds cousin love on two levels: Mary & Elizabeth on level one, and John the will-be Baptist and Jesus, the will-be Messiah on level two. (note they are blood relations through the mother’s side.) 

 

Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, shouts, “Blessed are you among women. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her.” 

 

Then, Mary sings the Magnificat. (Which is another of Matthew's callbacks, this time to  Matriarch Hannah, the mother of Samuel).  

 

Here's a table showing the commonalities between the two songs: 



Song of Hannah  1 Samuel 2:2-10 

Song of Mary  Luke 1:46-55 

2:1-2 And Hannah prayed and said: “My heart rejoices in the Lord. My horn is exalted in the Lord. I smile at my enemies, because I rejoice in Your salvation 

1:46-47 And Mary said: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior.” 

2:2 No one is holy like the Lord, For there is none beside you, nor is there any rock like our God. 

1:49 For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. 

2:3 Talk no more so very proudly. Let no arrogance come from your mouth. For the Lord is the God of knowledge and by Him actions are weighed. 

1:51 He has shown strength with His arm. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. 

2:4 The bows of mighty men are broken and those who stumbled are girded with strength

1:52 He has put down the mighty from their thrones and exalted the lowly

2:5a Those who were full have hired themselves out for bread, and the hungry have ceased to hunger 

1:53a He has filled the hungry with good things. 

2:9a He will guard the feet of His saints. 

1:50 And his mercy is on those who fear Him. From generation to generation. 

2:9b-10a But the wicked shall be silent in darkness. For by strength no man shall prevail


The adversaries of the Lord shall be broken in pieces. From heaven He will thunder against them. The Lord will judge the ends of the earth. 

1:52a, 53b He has put down the mighty from their thrones… 



And the rich he has sent away empty

2:10b The Lord will judge the ends of the earth. He will give strength to His king, and exalt the horn of His anointed.” 

1:54-55 He has helped His servant Israel, in remembrance of His mercy. As he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his seed forever.” 


Mary stays with Elizabeth for 3 more months. No wonder Joseph was worried! 

 

Elizabeth has her baby. On the eighth day, Elizabeth (NOT the father whose job it is to name the children) names the baby John. All the men say, "I think you mispronounced Zechariah." She says, "Did I stutter? It’s John." They remind her that there’s no one on her entire ancestry.com with that name. 

 

They all turn to Zechariah who finds a tablet and writes, "She said what she said. His name is John." His voice returns and he is filled with the spirit and prophesizes.  

 

Meanwhile, back in Rome… Caesar Augustus orders a census. And folks, there is no historical backup for this either. No record of an Empire-wide census at the time. Nor would there have been a need to travel to one's ancestral town. Rome is interested in where you live at presently and how much land you own today, not where your ancestors used to live.  

 

But this is Luke’s story, and he uses the census to move Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, and since Luke is telling Mary's story, we actually get an account of the birth scene:  

 

"So it was that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered.  And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger under the house, because there was no guest room for them upstairs. 

 

"Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.'" 

 

Then we get the Great Company of Heavenly Hosts singing “Gloria, in excelsis Deo!” 

 

After the final encore, and we have to assume there was an encore, right? The shepherds left the 99 and found the ONE in Bethlehem (see what I did there?). He was wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in that manger - just as the angels had announced. 

 

Eventually we get a genealogy in Luke as well. This one gives us 77 generations and reaches all the way back to God himself, listed as the father of Adam. Some speculate that Luke lists 77 generations as a symbol of the forgiveness of ALL mankind, just as Jesus instructed Peter to forgive not 7 but 77 times. Forgiveness, ALL the way back to the beginning, which is, you know, rather poetic.  

 

As we asked of Matthew, what themes do we detect in Like? 

 

Major female vibes.  

 

Matriarch vibes.  

 

Even the callbacks to tradition are to Sarah and Hannah. There are no expensive gifts for the King of the Jews, rather he's just a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.  

 

Luke is writing to a broader audience- an audience beyond the borders of the Judean homeland. He's addressing those outside the political margins and social margins; the marginalized poor, the oppressed, the Samaritans, the Gentiles and WOMEN. 

 

Matthew traces Jesus' genealogy to Abraham, the Father of Israel,  while Luke traces it all the way to God, the Father of All.  

 

You may be asking: so what? Who cares? Why or how does any of this matter? 

 

For starters, it demonstrates the beauty of diversity.  

 

This is one example of the Bible saying more than one thing about a specific event with two very distinctly different stories of the same incident. And there's no attempt to reconcile the conflict at all. 

 

Is the nativity story intended for the chosen sons of Abraham, the people of Israel, told through the experiences of privileged patriarchs, priests, and kings - elevating the Messiah to a high and holy place?  

 

Or is it the story of mute men and strong women taking center stage with callbacks to the great and aged matriarchs of the faith who knew what it was like to live so much of life on the barren fringe?  

 

The answer is yes.  

 

Is it a story about Magi who hold court with Kings like Herod and bring pricey presents to a child they call the King of the Jews? 

 

Or is it the story of marginalized shepherds, outcasts of society on the outskirts of town, watching their flocks by night, who receive an angelic invitation to visit a baby wrapped in humble swaddling clothes, sleeping in an animal feeding trough? 

 

Yes. 

 

Do you see it? 

 

While we have probably all understood this as one coherent story, if we closely read the texts as written in our Bibles, we find two wildly different stories! 

 

And why do you think this is?  

 

The answer is simple. Because two different people wrote them. 

  

Matthew is not Luke. Luke is not Matthew. And their differences don’t stop there. Sure they share 67% of their content, but how they portray that content is very different. How they portray Jesus is very different. 

 

For Matthew, Jesus was the Messiah that came in the footsteps of Moses to free the people of Israel and retake the throne of his ancestor, King David.  

 

For Luke, Jesus was the divine man that came to get messy in the margins and love those the world has abandoned, excluded, and overlooked. A Friend of sinners.  

 

And they both got it right.  

 

To ask: "Was he holy or was he humble?" Is to miss the mark, because again the answer is yes to both. 

  

Because Jesus was not and is not just one thing only. And he didn’t have just one thing to say. And neither does this Bible we hold to be holy. Diversity in its voices doesn’t dilute it. On the contrary, it enriches it.  

 

When we understand that our scriptures pass to us through people, we understand it to be more native to our world. We see its nativity. And it becomes nearer to us. And I dare say dearer to us.   

 

The light of God passes through every storyteller as light through the many facets of a beautiful cut gemstone, refracting the experience of God in as many unique ways as it has authors. The Bible says many different things, because God speaks them through so many different people.  

 

And GOD HASN’T STOPPED SPEAKING. 

 

So, let’s listen to God. 

  

I have three questions for the reader. Break out those journals and jot these questions down as prompts for future exploration. Follow that star. Listen to that angelic chorus. See where it leads.  

 

What is YOUR nativity story? Where was your story with God born? Maybe it was born in a dorm room with a college roommate. Maybe on the street or in your living room with a friend. Maybe it was at a tiny table in a Sunday School classroom. Or maybe as a Google search or a Facebook live broadcast of a little church in West Chester. Think back. What’s your earliest memory of God?  

 

My next question is: what story is God speaking through you? What is your own message? How do you experience God? How does God's love pass through you, through your life experiences, leaving a unique mark, a unique imago Dei, (God-image), in you? 

 

Your unique story has a unique audience, like both Matthew's and Luke's stories. Who is your audience? Maybe it’s your neighbor… coworker… child… How we love our neighbor really CAN begin someone else’s nativity story. The place where Jesus is born. Where he became native. The place he claims and brings belonging.  

 

Maybe a small act of kindness can be a natal star for a coworker or stranger in an otherwise dark night or season of the soul - guiding them to the place where the light of the world is warm was laid low - for ALL of us.  

 

The Jew AND the Gentile.  

The patriarchy AND the feminist movement.  

The old and barren AND the young, unwed mother.  

Everyone on the gender spectrum AND everyone on the political spectrum.  

The high priests AND the highly oppressed.  

The folks you like AND the folks you don’t.  

The ones looking for the star AND the ones who just happened to be on the hill when heaven opened and made us its home among us. Where God initiated Their nativity with us.  

 

Each of us. Yes, you. Yes, me. Yes, everyone in between.  

Let’s hear that angelic encore one last time:  

 

“Glory to God in the highest, 

And on earth peace, goodwill toward all!” 


 


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