The Challenges of Advent Preaching
Note: This article is adapted from the introduction of Visser’s book The Birth of Jesus the Messiah: The Stories of Matthew and Luke for Preaching and Teaching, (WestBow Press, 2017).
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah has been on the bookshelf of my mind since I was a young man in seminary, thinking about preaching as a full-time occupation. Not that I was the author—I was always looking for someone to publish a resource book on preaching in Advent. After thirty years, it dawned on me that perhaps I should be the one to write it. The Birth of Jesus the Messiah combines thematic commentary on the birth stories of Matthew and Luke with preaching and teaching ideas. Biblical themes flowing through each birth narrative, set forth by the gospel writers themselves, inspire more than thirty fresh sermon series ideas for the Advent season.
The Birth of Jesus the Messiah:
The Stories of Matthew and Luke for Preaching and Teaching
Edward C. Visser
Also available online at Amazon and Barnes & Noble
Creativity: Connecting the Church with the Story
Through the years, I’ve found that congregations want to hear the Christmas stories during Advent. No matter how creative one might be with different approaches to Christmas, for most it just doesn’t seem the same without angels, shepherds, Magi, Mary and Joseph, and certainly the child born in the manger! I’ve learned from experience (and some ill-advised sermons), to stick with the basic stories during much of the Advent season.
This leaves the preacher with Matthew 1–2 and Luke 1–2 as the primary resources for the season. Preaching from those chapters for three years, much less thirty years, is a challenge. Either we preach the same sermons, sometimes under different titles, or we need to think about preaching Advent creatively.
Why may a preacher take creativity to the pulpit, especially in the traditional season of Advent? In doing so, we are imaging our creative God and connecting his story to the church’s story. In the birth narratives themselves, we find a wide variety of creative ways God helped his people understand who this child was. From genealogies to dreams, from songs to proof texts, with kings and angels and shepherds and Magi, God was creatively shaping our understanding of this child as Matthew and Luke relate the story. While creativity may be applied to the story from outside the narrative, how much better if we can tap God’s creativity from within!
If God uses five women (including Mary) in Jesus’s genealogy, why not use that in a series about how God worked through Israel’s history and ultimately in Mary’s son? If Jesus was born “in the fullness of time,” why was it during the time of Herod? How were the different characters impacted by the king’s presence when Jesus was born? Or with Caesar Augustus in Luke 2? The songs in Luke, the dreams in Matthew, Luke’s contrast between John and Jesus, and Matthew’s use of biblical proof texts all lend themselves to a variety of series that could be used during Advent.
Creativity, however, should not excuse the preacher from theologically sound preaching. Within the creativity of God in the birth of Jesus resides a great variety of theological themes. But overarching the birth narratives is the story of a God who keeps his covenant promises to his people (and to the Gentiles) by carefully guiding history to his desired end. The birth of Jesus is the centerpoint of that history, and our preaching should always keep that theological bearing in mind.
Originality: Letting Matthew and Luke Tell Their Own stories
Matthew and Luke tell very different stories, so it might be helpful to commit two consecutive Advent seasons to preach solely on one of their stories. This will help our congregations hear what each writer is trying to say of his own accord. We wouldn’t read two biographies of Abraham Lincoln at the same time, jumping back and forth as the times and settings changed. Likewise, Matthew and Luke are different authors, each with his own audience, story to tell, and way to tell it. Many Christians have no idea that the stories are very different, or even that they are confined to just two gospels!
Literary Differences: Matthew and Luke structure their stories differently. Their points of view vary, with Matthew using the perspective of Joseph and Luke tapping into Mary’s memories. Matthew appears to structure his story, using genealogy and geography, to prove that Jesus is the Son of David and was born in Bethlehem (though coming from Nazareth). Luke intersperses the stories of John and Jesus, showing the new Elijah subordinate to the Messiah he announces. We also sense a difference in movement, as Luke moves from the Jerusalem Temple to small villages in Judea and Galilee and back to Jerusalem. Matthew’s movement is from Bethlehem to Nazareth, but also from Abraham to Jesus (genealogy).
Historical Differences: The audience of Matthew is a mixed church of Jews and Gentiles, dealing with Jewish neighbors questioning their “new” faith. He connects Jesus’s story with Israel’s: He is her long-awaited Messiah! Luke writes for Theophilus and Gentile Christians needing to know that their newfound faith is historical and true. The main opposition varies: the Edomite Herod on the throne of David (Matthew), and the Caesar of Rome (Luke). Both stories present the challenge of this child with appropriate “fighting words,” whether as “king of the Jews” (Herod’s title) or “Lord” and “Savior,” titles normally used for Caesar.
Differences in Use of the Old Testament (OT): While beginning Jesus’s story within the history of Israel, Matthew and Luke use the Scriptures a little differently. Matthew likes to use proof texts, though his are a bit puzzling since few were considered prophecies of the Messiah. Luke allows Scripture-infused songs to gradually unfold the meaning of this child. Both writers also use a mix of typology and midrash. Matthew’s OT types of Jesus are both overt (son of David and Abraham) and allusive (Moses, Israel), connecting Jesus to covenants and incidents in Israel’s history (exodus and exile in particular). Luke connects Jesus with David too, but he also alludes to the story of Samuel.
Typology occurs for other characters as well, whether connecting the dreaming Joseph of Genesis with the dreaming Joseph father of Jesus, or the Egyptian Pharaoh with King Herod (each with Magi). The women of the genealogy become types of Mary. Luke connects John with Elijah, Mary with Hannah, and Zechariah and Elizabeth with Abraham and Sarah. Each author also uses a different cast. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph are constants, but each has a different odd welcoming party—Magi (Matthew) and shepherds (Luke)—and focuses on a different king—Herod (Matthew) and Caesar (Luke). Luke has contemporary Spirit-inspired prophets, while Matthew relies on the prophets of old. The genealogy is front and center in Matthew, telling Israel’s story, while Luke’s is almost an afterthought.
Thematic Differences: Different casts and typologies arise out of differences in thematic emphasis by the writers. In Matthew, salvation begins with a restoration of Israel from exile (Matt. 1:12–16)—a restoration that incorporates salvation from sins (Matt. 1:21)—before going back to the theme of exodus/restoration from exile in Matthew 2. Luke focuses more on political salvation, a freedom from oppression and reversal of fortunes (Luke 1:46–55) that also includes a spiritual salvation from sins (Luke 1:77) that will be for Gentiles as well (Luke 2:32). Matthew also includes Gentiles from the beginning of his story (women in the genealogy, Magi) as part of what it means for Jesus to be a son of Abraham, that is, “a blessing to the nations” (Gen. 12:3). Both want to prove that Jesus is Messiah, but while Matthew does so from the outset (Matt. 1:1), Luke builds up his Christology by gradually revealing through songs who this child is. Luke also does this through parallelism with John, with “Elijah” giving way to Messiah, while Matthew’s structure is more thematically directed at showing Jesus as the son of David and the new Israel.
Both writers emphasize that God is in control of the entire story, providentially working in every event and prophecy. God is in the background, but also works through angels, whether appearing directly to Zechariah, Mary, and shepherds (Luke), or only to Joseph in dreams (Matthew). In Luke, God most actively works through the Holy Spirit, who inspires several characters to prophesy, moves Simeon to encounter Messiah, and overshadows Mary to conceive Jesus. Matthew mentions the Holy Spirit only in connection with Mary’s conception.
Redemption History: Letting God Tell His Story
Jesus’s story is part of a bigger story of God’s redemptive-historical purposes for his people and the world. We must take care not to make so much of the differences that we lose sight of the big picture—not that the gospel writers will let us, as they also have many things in common. That shouldn’t surprise us, because the Holy Spirit inspired not only the prophets in the gospel writers’ stories but also the authors themselves. Many commonalities are thematic, and both use their birth narratives to foreshadow themes that will recur in the life of Jesus.
God-Centered: The true hero of the story is not Jesus, Mary, or even the holy family, but God. God is faithful to God’s promises, especially the covenants with Israel. God guided history to this point, then providentially guides the events surrounding Jesus’s birth. God initiates the process of the conception itself, using the Spirit to overshadow Mary as it overshadowed creation (Gen. 1:2), now bringing about a “new creation.” Both writers affirm the virgin conception and the role of the Holy Spirit in it. All of this is part of God’s redemptive-historical plan from the beginning.
Messianic: At the climax of God’s redemptive-historical plan is the promised Messiah, whom Matthew and Luke take great pains to identify and connect with prophecy. He is Israel’s Messiah, and more specifically the Son of David—the rightful “king of the Jews” in contrast to Herod, and the Lord and Savior who brings peace in contrast to Caesar. They both add the disturbing note of suffering (the shadow of the cross) to the Christmas story. Luke does so overtly with Simeon’s prophecy, while Matthew more subtly hints at it with the massacre in Bethlehem.
Biblical: Both heavily use Old Testament passages to explain and verify the identity of Jesus. While Matthew uses direct quotes, Luke allows songs saturated with psalms and prophecies to carry the biblical instruction. For both, John is the forerunner of Jesus, the new Elijah (though he comes later in Matthew, in chapter 3). They also capture Old Testament themes—miracle births, exodus, angel appearances, exile—to remind us how God works (and still worked in their day). Old Testament types help gospel readers better understand how to think of Jesus and other characters. At the heart of this biblical history are the covenants God made with Israel, whether connected with Matthew’s three genealogical periods (Abraham, David, and the new covenant during the exile) or Luke’s direct mention in Zechariah’s song of God fulfilling the covenants.
Salvation-Oriented: At the heart of the covenants, prophecies, and God’s actions in history is the theme of salvation. Messiah was thought to be a king who would bring about sociopolitical salvation. Luke presents Jesus as the Savior from the “peace” of Caesar Augustus, a peace that came with oppression. In Mary’s song, he captures the beginning of a reversal of fortunes for the poor and the rich, the humble and the proud. Matthew features salvation by alluding to exodus and exile, and to a rival (to Herod) “king of the Jews.” But both stories insert a hint at a spiritual salvation, the forgiveness of sins (Matt. 1:21; Luke 1:77), which will be more fully explained as their gospels proceed.
Particular, Yet Universal: This salvation is obviously for Israel, toward which the covenants and God’s actions have been pointing. Starting in the middle of Israel’s story, Matthew and Luke show Jesus to be the continuation and climax of Israel’s history—their Messiah, who will bring a new exodus out of their present exile (to Rome and sin). Yet both stories are inclusive: Gentiles will also be included in this salvation, the angels hint (Luke 2:10, 14) and Simeon confirms (Luke 2:32). With Gentile women in the genealogy, Matthew seems to be saying that this has been happening all along, but now in a more stunning fashion (the pagan Magi’s worship).
Historic: Matthew and Luke exhibit clearly historical elements (lacking typical “mythical” elements). Matthew includes a genealogy that fits the line of David biblically and historically. He sets the story in the time of Herod (who acts just as history depicts him) and in known cities such as Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Nazareth. Luke is very serious about his history, mentioning Herod, Caesar Augustus, and a census. His description of the temple and of circumcision rites are historically accurate, and John was known even by the Roman historian Josephus. Mary and Joseph are a very real couple with real problems—and who would invent a virgin conception if it wasn’t historical? And both Matthew and Luke did so independently!
Apologetic: Matthew’s birth narrative may have been written in part to answer through genealogy and geography whether Jesus was truly a son of David and, if so, why he wasn’t from Bethlehem instead of Nazareth
(cf. John 7:41–42). He also instructs the church about the identity of Jesus as Messiah, son of David and Abraham and, ultimately, of God. Luke writes for Theophilus and Gentile Christians, seeking to assure them of the truth of their faith. He connects it with Israel’s story and Scriptures to show that theirs is an ancient religion (important in Roman culture). Both also hint at the future ministry of Jesus and even the suffering he would undergo to bring salvation. God was in control of and guiding the life of Jesus already from the beginning.
Pastoral: Based on the truth of their faith, Matthew and Luke call the churches to assurance and faithfulness. Jesus is Immanuel (“God with us”), Matthew says, a promise he carries to the very end (Matt. 28:20). Luke assures the faithful remnant, typified by Zechariah and Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, and Mary and Joseph, that God is here to vindicate his people, to bring about a great reversal. Both writers show their congregations what a faithful disciple looks like: Mary’s servant heart, Joseph’s obedience, Simeon’s sensitivity to the Spirit, Anna’s perseverance, the shepherds’ witness, and the Magi’s worship. The birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus are not just part of a nice story, but one that calls for a decision that in turn calls for a certain lifestyle despite the Herods and Caesars of the world.
This is a story that impacts our lives—and life itself! It demands our very best efforts to understand how God’s story connects with ours, to capture the way God presents it by his own creativity in Scripture (through the creativity and personalities of two gospel writers), and to allow God to work through our personalities and creativity in order to tell the old, old story in a way that continues to bring “peace to those on whom his favor rests” and, increasingly, “joy to the world.”
Fall Preaching Conference: “Catholics, Protestants, and 500 Years of Preaching” with Dr. Gregory Heile, OP. October 26, 2017, Calvin Theological Seminary, 9:30 am.