Last afternoon I was able to make it to the Children's Christmas Service at my folk's church. Pastor Bob Bakke is an excellent speaker, plus he was really good it weaving in the various screams, squeals and antics of toddlers throughout the sermon. The above passage was the basic text for the evening.
It's a pretty ubiquitous passage that most folks, even if they only go to church on Christmas or Easter, are probably familiar with. So familiar that most people miss out on whats being said and what's not being said. To me, that's one of my great frustrations with the American church. We tend to think we have the bible down pat, when in fact we are simply reading it through our cultural lens, or the traditions that we've grown up with. As a result, we miss a lot of what's really going on.
No one in their right mind goes to Home Depot or Menards, picks up a home appliance, then reads the instruction manual and says, "Wow, this is a great history text!," or "Wow, this is a great poem!"
The reason for that is because it's an instruction manual, not a history text or poetry.
So when you read anything, you have to read it in the context that it is...not what you might want it to be.
Furthermore, when you read any type of ancient document written in a different language and to a different culture, you better keep that in mind. The cultural and logistic context is paramount. Every translation is ultimately an interpretation of the text.
People who will not, for what ever reasons, read the bible in it's cultural and linguistic context, are not taking the bible seriously OR literally. That's how you get Dispensationalism, Health & Wealth prosperity scams and Young Earth Creationism.
The bible was written FOR us because it's God's Word. But it wasn't written TO us. It wasn't written with our culture in mind or in view.
So here are some thoughts & questions that popped into my head while I listened to the service last night.
1. That's a really short biography of the birth of Jesus!?!?! I mean, it's only 3 paragraphs. Furthermore, there are no details on how Mary got pregnant by the Holy Spirit. Luke's version goes in more detail. But it's like Matthew didn't think it's all that big a deal.
Then you get the idea that Joseph didn't seem terribly put off by his bride to be being pregnant. Back in that day, the husband to be would be expected to kill his bride if something like that happened. So Joe gets points for being a really kind hearted guy.
2. Dreams. God sure seems to like to use dreams to talk to people. This is long before Freudian dream analysis and the advent of modern psychiatry. Joe gets two dreams from God. One telling him about the Mary situation, and one about getting out of town ahead of Herod. The Magi also get a dream warning from God.
I get a lot of weird dreams. The most common one is me needing to find a place to drop a #2, but not having access to a stall with walls, and lot's of people around. (Frustrating to say the least. 😑) Could any of my dreams be some type of odd message from the Most High?
3. Virgins & Prophets? Matt quotes a verse from Isaiah 7:14 "Look, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call him Emmanuel, which means "God with us." But there is a bit of a problem. In it's context, this is not a prophecy about Jesus. Plus, in Hebrew, they don't use the word for Virgin. (Beulah) Instead, in Hebrew, the word Almah is used...which means "Young Woman." This means that Matt is using the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Which is a little odd, because he was Jewish and writing to other Jews.
For more on this, click the link below.
Don't get me wrong, it was a given back in that day that the average Young Woman would be a virgin until she was married. I'm certain Mary was. Also, even in it's original context, this quote from Isaiah was not about Jesus, neither were the vast majority of so-called prophecies from the O.T. It was Paul and the rest of the early church that viewed Jesus as not the end, but the beginning of a new understanding of Scripture. They looked back through time and re-interpreted the Old Testament in light of this resurrected Messiah. Matthew was the king at this. His Gospel is chock full of prophecies redirected to Jesus.
Warning, warning, Will Robinson!!! Just because the writers of the New Testament...and even Jesus himself, could play a little fast & loose with scripture, doesn't mean that you can too. You are not the Messiah, nor a dude from the time of the early church writing anything inspired by the Holy Spirit, no matter how hot you think you are.
4. Stars & Wise Guys. What star could this have been? Apparently, this star moved. The bible says that the star traveled ahead of the Magi until it "stopped over the place where the child was." You'll notice the text doesn't say baby or infant. It says "child."
This begs even more questions: A) I know that Nativity Scenes will show three guys with gifts in the manger. The bible never says there were 3 people. It only says that some folks brought 3 gifts. Considering that these guys were most likely some type of learned priestly folks from the Persian Empire, there were probably a lot more than 3. (The Persians were the enemies of Rome.)
And that brings up question B). The Magi were not Jews or Romans. They were probably Zoroastrian Astrologers & Magicians...PAGANS. Yet Matt includes them in his account.
Back in that day, Astrology was the "Science" of it's time. You studied the stars to figure out the will of the gods and what not. (Now astrology is simply part of occult practices.) And this is interesting because roughly 500 years before Jesus there was this guy named Daniel who was a captive of the Babylonians. (You may have read his book.) He worked his way up the ranks of the wisemen/advisors of the Babylonians, and later, Persians, until he was apparently the head of that order. Somehow, Daniel planted seeds in their astrological workings that included the future birth of a Jewish king/Messiah. 500 years later, Mary and Joe get some surprise guests.
But Matt gives hardly any details at all about them. Two thousand years later, we are left scratching our heads.
Which still doesn't explain a traveling star. Most people now days figure that it was some alignment of multiple stars in the cosmos. But that still doesn't explain why it moved. I don't know. Maybe it was a slow comet.
C) Baby Jesus? The text doesn't describe Jesus as a baby. It refers to him as a child. It also says that the Magi visited Mary and Jesus in a house not a manger! Furthermore, when Herod figures out that the Magi have tricked him, he has all of the boys two and under in Bethlehem killed. This means that no Magi were there on Christmas, and Jesus was no longer a baby. But Matt, again, offers hardly any details.
He does throw in two more prophecies, taken out of context so as to apply to Jesus, that are to show that this is the way he is going to roll from now on.
On the bright side, historians figure that Herod didn't kill all that many little boys. Bethlehem was a small town. Peter Enns, a scholar I really like, figures that it was maybe two dozen at most. (Not that that makes it okay.) And no other historical writer ever mentions that Herod did this. Which really isn't a big deal in the end. Herod was known for murdering people, including his wives and family members, on a routine basis. Killing kids wouldn't have been worth the mention.
5. Weird History. When we read a classroom history text, we expect it to be fairly neutral. Lots of facts. They didn't write history like that back in the day. Matthew was extremely biased and unapologetic about it. His Gospel was a giant argument that Jesus was the long promised Messiah and heir to David's throne. If you expect it to behave like a modern, Western text, you will be disappointed...or unconsciously let your mind glaze over and not dwell on the oddities in the text.
I love all of the cultural oddities in the bible. The fact that I don't understand the way that a reader from that time would have is fine with me. It makes me want to know more. I'd rather be a person asking questions that might not get answered in this life time, than one sitting in the service thinking about what's for dinner and the presents that follow.
But that's just me.
If you haven't ever seen "A Charlie Brown Christmas," you are a Communist!
My guess is that this passage from Scripture is easily the most known bit from the Christmas story. So it wouldn't be right to leave it out. But what is more interesting is how revolutionary this cartoon is. On December 2nd, 1964, this cartoon debuted for the first time. The network bosses were terrified. They didn't use actors for the voices. They used actual kids. Then there was the jazz music. Finally, there was the overtly religious nature of the show. All were absolute no-no's. Yet, it's gone down in history as the most beloved Christmas show ever.
And then I'll leave you with this. It's completely Secular, but it's probably my favorite Christmas song of all time...provided it's sung by the original singer, Darlene Love. And here is her final performance on David Letterman's final Christmas show.