Here’s the story that we have been waiting for!
We finally made it to Luke! For the last three weeks, we have been looking at each of the Gospels and exploring what their Christmas story looks like, and asking what that has to do with us. We have struggled with the bare-bones story of Mark, the deep theology of John, the hard realities of family trauma in Matthew. But now, Luke gives us the Christmas story that we know and love!
For those of you wondering where we get our information about the Christmas story, the vast majority of it comes from Luke. If you look at each of the four Gospels and count the verses that make up their birth narratives (everything leading up to John’s Ministry and Jesus’ baptism), by my count:
Mark: 0 verses
John: 18 verses
Matthew: 30 verses
Luke: 180 verses
In Luke, we get most of the stuff that feels like Christmas. We get the angel’s visit to Zechariah, John’s father, and the story of him being struck mute, as well as John’s birth. We get the angel’s visit to Mary, and her meeting with Elizabeth. We get Mary and Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem, and the birth of Jesus in the stable. We get the shepherds and the heavenly host in the field. We get the baby Jesus presented at the Temple, and Simeon and Anna rejoicing over the coming of the Messiah. We get Zechariah’s song…and Mary’s song…and Simeon’s song. And, for good measure, Luke is the only Gospel who stretches that birth narrative all the way to his older childhood, with the story of the boy Jesus in the Temple confounding the teachers.
This is the Christmas story that we have been waiting for.
With all of that in there, we can get a little lost in the overall message. What is the story that Luke is trying to get across? Why does he include all of this detail, when no one else does?
Ben Witherington, who is actually a Matthew scholar, has a great quote about Luke. He says, Luke’s task was to “relate the micro-history of Jesus to the macro-history of the day.” In other words, Luke was looking at the context and history in which Jesus was born and lived and ministered, and making a statement about what Jesus meant and did in that context. If any of the four Gospels is to be accused of being political…of commenting on the larger secular context in relation to Jesus…it is Luke.
For Luke, Jesus is the Great Disruptor. In both Luke and Acts, two books written by the same author, Jesus is the one that turns everything on its head. He is the counter-cultural, anti-establishment, status-quo fighter, who reversed the current reality from the very beginning. Remember, it is Luke’s Gospel that tells the story of Jesus’ first major act of ministry – his appearance at his hometown synagogue – where he disrupts their worship so fully that they are so angry that they are ready to throw him off the cliff. In Luke, Jesus the Great Disruptor changed the rules…of culture, of society, of nature…even by his birth. His life and message was again and again to turn over everything that is taking place, and has ever taken place, in favor of a new way of being…God’s way of being. And so, we see this disruption in the Christmas story, from his birth and even before it:
- God announces to Elizabeth, not the powerful priest Zechariah, who happens to have his power and authority and even his voice silenced in favor of the over-the-hill woman who hasn’t even been able to do the one thing that she is supposed to be good at (having babies). She tells them his name is John, and even though they don’t believe it until her husband writes it down for them, her voice is the one of power. Disruption of the status quo.
- God announces to Mary, not Matthew’s Joseph, who doesn’t really have much of a role in the story, save to show up and hold his staff in the stable. Mary, meanwhile, has a whole conversation with the angel, listening and even arguing and eventually accepting his words. Not only that, but she sings the song that defines what is happening in this whole story, including the line that sums it all up: “He has brought down the powerful from their thrones…” Disruption of the status quo.
- God announces to the shepherds, not the kings or the rulers or even the wise men, what’s what. God goes out of his way to tell the people who have no power or authority in the story to show up and herald the good news. Disruption of the status quo.
- God paves the way for Simeon and Anna to celebrate the birth of the Messiah. Not the young and powerful, but the weak and old. Disruption.
- Luke goes on to share the story of the boy Jesus, throwing his family and the Temple into an uproar when he simply leads a little Bible study.
The Great Disruptor. From the rumblings that take place before his birth, all the way to the ripples that continue after he leaves (see Acts). God turning things on their heads. Ending the old ways and ushering in the new.
Which sounds great, unless we happen to like the old ways. Unless we happen to benefit from the old ways.
For those of us with any measure of power (and I would argue that most citizens of one of the richest countries in the world at some level fit in that category), Luke’s Christmas story should make us a little uncomfortable. As much as we love the pastoral and peaceful pictures that we have groomed from it, the reality is that Luke’s story is scandal. Every word of it is meant to disrupt and overturn.
I would argue that most of us need to read Luke with a bit of a lump in our throats. How do we benefit from the struggles of others? How are we privileged by our race or our gender or our country of origin or our family’s bank account? Privilege doesn’t mean that we haven’t worked hard, just that our hard work has taken us farther than others’ hard work. And if you think I am starting to sound a little political for Christmas Eve, remember, Luke started it!
If you sit down and read Luke’s Christmas story and only feel cozy and holy inside, you might be reading it wrong.
“He has brought down rulers from their thrones……”
That may be us.
But that isn’t the last word in the story, or even the last word in the verse. From Mary’s song:
“He has brought down the powerful from their thrones but has lifted up the lowly.”
That’s it. That is Luke in a nutshell. Disruption. Reversal. Bringing down and lifting up at the same time. So for Luke, Jesus came not only to bring bad news. But he came to bring good news! And the birth narrative in Luke is a story of good news! It is the ultimate in good news for those who are hurting or afraid:
Perhaps you have a “#metoo” story. Maybe you feel that you have been manipulated or assaulted or abused by those who use their power to coerce and control. Does Luke have a Christmas story for you! He writes of Elizabeth and Mary, powerless women who prove that God’s power is greater.
Perhaps you take a look at your checkbook and realize that you are not in the top 0.6% of earners – who will be helped permanently in the long run by Congress’s latest tax overhaul. Does Luke have a Christmas story for you! For he writes of the shepherds, the bottom of the social and economic barrel who prove that God pays attention to the rich and not the poor.
Perhaps you feel like you have been devalued because you’re “too old.” You feel shrugged off or cast aside because you don’t have anything to contribute anymore. Does Luke have a Christmas story for you! Luke’s Christmas gives you Elizabeth and Simeon and Anna, who were the only ones in the story who understood what was really going on.
Or on the other side of the spectrum, perhaps you feel ignored because you are “too young.” You don’t have enough experience or wisdom or knowledge yet. Does Luke have a Christmas story for you! Luke’s Christmas gives you a 12 year old Jesus in the Temple, dispensing wisdom to the experts, proving that God is lifting up the humble.
Luke’s Christmas story is one of disruption. Of overturning…and thus good news for those who feel hurt or afraid or alone.
But even if you don’t identify with the shepherds or the elderly or the women in the story, there is still good news for you! For Luke’s Christmas story teaches us that we, too, can join in Jesus’ work of disruption. That just because we benefit from our family history or our country of origin doesn’t mean that we have to hoard it in fear, protecting our power and money with tight fists.
In fact, Luke’s Gospel tells us over and over again of the power of opening our hands and opening our hearts to those in need. According to Luke, that is what Christmas is all about, and the good news is that every one of us has the opportunity to share in that work of disruption.
How many of you all practice yoga…or have ever tried it? Perhaps, like me, you all are amazed at the configurations that yoga experts can put their body into, seamlessly and perfectly moving their body. It looks so effortless. But my understanding of yoga is that when experts are doing this, they are actually making a dozen micro-adjustments all at once. Tightening the core. Moving this arm or leg just so. Flaying the fingers to provide stability. All these micro adjustments allow them to do amazing things with their body.
And Luke tells us the same is true of the faith. While we may not become perfect examples of love and grace overnight, we can make these little micro adjustments to our lives. Sit down and read Scripture, even if we don’t have the time. Sit a little longer in the car before work and say a prayer. Give up that morning coffee in order to help someone out. Stand up to a co-worker who is saying hateful things about another person. Micro-adjustments. Moving us toward a more seamless and meaningful life of faith.
Ten years ago, three pastors began a movement that has exploded in the decade since. Advent Conspiracy is a grassroots movement that has as its goal to get back to the real meaning of Christmas. Not getting stuff and crossing off our lists. Instead, they name four goals for the season:
Sounds like Luke. Sounds like Jesus. Sounds like what we should be doing this season.
This year, they released a video that I would like to watch together this morning. A helpful reminder:
“Maybe Christmas doesn’t need to be different, but I need to be different.” Micro-adjustments toward a life of holy disruption.
The good news that Luke gives us is that we can share in the work of disruption! Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me!
Now that’s the story that we have been waiting for!