Bracket out Luke 2 and what remains of the Christmas story in the gospels is one verse in Matthew 1:25: “But [Joseph] did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.”. Yes, there is also John 1:14 on the Word becoming flesh, not to mention the Revelation 12 story about the woman and the dragon, but those are far from what anyone would define as the Christmas “story.” In the Year B lectionary that begins with Advent 2023, the focus gospel is Mark, but of course the lectionary needs to depart from Mark by the time Christmas rolls around because Mark skips everything in Jesus’ life up until the moment he emerges out of nowhere to be baptized by John. And although the gospel of John gives us a mighty big context in which to consider the incarnation of the Word of God, Christmas in our churches would look a whole lot different if John 1 were all we had to go on each December. Only Luke gives us much grist for the Christmas preaching mill.
As preachers we ought to wonder about that. Does the Bible even give us warrant for making as big a deal out of Advent and Christmas as the church traditionally has done? If Mark is any indication, we know as a fact that we can have a rich and complete gospel without any birth narratives. The same cannot be said of certain other things. Admittedly, John tells us we can learn about Jesus’ ministry without any of Jesus’ hallmark parables. And all four gospels demonstrate that a full picture of Jesus can be presented without reporting every miracle. John is the most up front of the four evangelists in admitting that each of the four writers edited, shaped, and molded the raw material of Jesus’ ministry in order to produce a book aimed at fostering faith in the hearts of readers. But none of them includes everything.
However, you cannot have a gospel without the passion narrative and above all without the resurrection. Since only one gospel reports the ascension, we know we can “get” Jesus without even that story. But death and resurrection are nonnegotiable. It is no wonder that the gospels have been called “passion narratives with long introductions.”
But “Christmas” as we know it turns out to be very negotiable. Nonetheless, the church pours a huge amount of annual energy into Advent and Christmas—probably even more than into Easter. The biggest choir numbers and concerts, the most sustained Sunday school programs, the sheer number of people who show up for church to hear our sermons in December: all of it seems testament to the notion that the church has higher regard for Christmas than does the inspired book on which we preach each week.
Did Ebenezer Scrooge have it right after all, then, with all his “Humbug!” dismissals of the season? Are we putting ourselves through unnecessary homiletical wringers every year in trying to craft sermons that somehow manage to find a fresh take on Advent and Christmas?
Well, no. Or at least not certainly yes. Because, after all, by the inspiration and orchestration of the Holy Spirit, we do have Luke. By God’s divine calling of Luke, we have what Luke self-reports to be diligently researched accounts of not only the events in Bethlehem but a small slew of pre-Bethlehem events in the lives of Elizabeth, Zechariah, Mary, and Joseph. Perhaps the birth narratives are not at the very top of the list of the sine qua non of the gospels’ facts and stories, but the Spirit nevertheless made sure that we do know all those details. As usual, the Spirit has its reasons.
For preachers, wondering about those divine reasons could become a source of ideas for our own Advent and Christmas sermons. Here are just two ideas:
First, it is vital for us to establish the divine nature of Jesus. We sometimes forget that in the world in which the four gospels were written, none of the evangelists and few of the people to whom they wrote had any doubts about the utter humanity of Jesus. That much was a given. The disciples had spent years watching Jesus get drowsy. They’d seen him digging out a piece of parsley from between his incisors, burping after a meal, laughing at a good joke, and becoming weepy with grief.
There is a reason why, even as late as John 14, Philip says to Jesus, “Show us the Father.” When Jesus replies that if they have seen him they have been seeing the Father all along, they probably responded in their hearts, “You’re kidding! I didn’t see that one coming from this ordinary human being we’ve been tagging along with!”
Every December, The New York Times publishes a column from journalist Nicholas Kristof in which he interviews well-known Christian pastors and scholars. And every year, Kristof asks the same question: Is it really necessary to believe in the virgin birth to be a Christian? Every year, people such as Luke Timothy Johnson, Jimmy Carter, Tim Keller, and others have assured Kristof it is necessary, but he remains unconvinced. The Holy Spirit put Luke into the Bible to tell us that it’s vital. The Spirit also gave us Matthew’s clever structuring of his opening genealogy and the grand theology of John 1 to tell us the same thing.
Second, the Christmas story’s lowly and even ignoble birth narrative—shorn of all the glitz and greeting-card sentimentality we have larded onto it—is necessary to establish the basis of the entirety of Jesus’s life, ministry, and the salvation he would bring: humility. As people such as Robert Roberts have written and observed, humility is the core Christian virtue that undergirds every other virtue and every fruit of the Spirit because humility is, hands down, the most Christlike virtue. You cannot be like Jesus without being humble.
The lowliness and commonness of Jesus’ advent into this world sets the stage for our coming to recognize this bedrock moral truth. As such, in Advent and at Christmas and at all times, we cannot talk about the primacy of humility often enough in our sermons because, if we want proof of how vital humility is to Christian character and witness, we need only witness how regularly the church and its leaders fail in this regard. Somebody out there who opposes God seems to know that nothing undercuts the church more than pride, arrogance, high-handed tactics, and taking on superior airs. The fact that the forces of darkness work so regularly to undermine our humility tells us all we need to know about its importance.
Yes, we can have a complete gospel and can learn all we need to know about Jesus without the Christmas story. But with the Christmas story we learn about some powerful and vital matters. Thus, we preachers present all of that each Advent with everything we’ve got!