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Preaching the infancy narratives

Screen Shot 2012-12-03 at 13.34.16In my previous post, I argued that we should be preaching at all our Christmas services, even when there are significant numbers of visitors. But can we find something fresh to say about texts that we know so well?

The last piece Dick France wrote before his untimely death was a chapter in the volume I edited with David Wenham We Proclaim the Word of Life: Preaching the New Testament Today. Following an exploration of questions of historicity and whether we can let the text challenge the traditional accretions to the story, he offers comment on the texts of Matthew and Luke—and suggests there is still a wealth of issues to explore.


There is a significant mismatch between what most Christmas congregations expect to hear and what Matthew and Luke were primarily interested in conveying in their opening chapters. They did not write to tell the story of how Jesus was born. Indeed, Matthew hardly mentions Jesus’ birth, but rather focuses on events that preceded and followed it, while Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is a relatively brief, though central, part in a complex of stories about the families of Elizabeth and Mary. In their different ways, both evangelists present us rather with an extended demonstration that the child born in Bethlehem is the Messiah of Old Testament expectation. Should this then also be the concern of the Christmas preacher, and if so how may it be conveyed today?


Matthew

The plan of the first two chapters of Matthew has been outlined in two different ways, which I believe are complementary rather than in conflict.

  • Krister Stendahl’s article ‘Quis et Unde?’[1] famously argued, on the basis of the content, that chapter 1 answers the question of identity, ‘Who [is Jesus]?’, and chapter 2 the question of geographical origin, ‘Where [did Jesus come] from?’
  • In my commentary I divided these chapters, on the basis of their literary form, into two sections, ‘The “Book of Origin” of the Messiah’ (1:1-17) and ‘A Demonstration that Jesus of Nazareth is the Messiah: Five Scriptural Proofs’ (1:18 – 2:23). The latter section consists of five episodes set before and after Jesus’ birth, each of which is focused on a formula-quotation

The preacher who bases a sermon on an episode in Matthew’s ‘infancy narrative’ should recognise that it is not a free-standing story but part of a carefully constructed complex, and that its purpose in Matthew’s plan was to demonstrate the scriptural credentials of Jesus as Messiah. In practice such a sermon is likely to be on either Joseph’s dilemma (1:18-25) or the visit of the magi (2:1-11); I do not recall hearing (or preaching) many sermons on the escape to Egypt, Herod’s slaughter of the children or the settlement in Nazareth.

But do congregations today either need or want to be convinced from Scripture that Jesus is the Messiah promised to the Jews? And even if they do, how receptive are most modern Gentile congregations likely to be to the extremely creative (some would say fanciful) deductions that Matthew makes (or rather is supposed by commentators to have made) from his odd selection of texts? The formula-quotations of chapters 1-2 are a happy hunting-ground for the exegetical commentator, and call forth an extraordinary range of suggested scriptural connections, with each commentator vying with the next in the rabbinic subtlety deployed. But is this what our Christmas congregations have come for?

So perhaps it is not surprising that Luke, with his greater human interest and more accessible style of story telling, is the more popular quarry for texts for Christmas sermons (together, of course, with the prologue of John, the familiar Christmas reading in which ‘St John unfolds the great mystery of the incarnation’). But I would be sorry to see Matthew abandoned as ‘too difficult’ or too culturally remote.


I don’t think I have ever preached an actual sermon on Matthew’s genealogy, but I have found great interest when it is explained as not simply a list of names but a radical theological statement. Its royal focus is easily grasped, especially when the significance of the two turning-points of the 3×14 structure (David and the Exile, the beginning and end of monarchy) is explained. And while not everyone today is convinced by the numerological significance of the coming of the seventh seven, people can still grasp something of Matthew’s excitement as he discovers the whole pattern of Old Testament history now arriving at its intended climax in the new Son of David. But I suppose most expository attention these days is given to what is for Matthew a very minor part of the genealogy, the presence of the four women in 1:3-6. Their non-Jewish ethnicity and dubious marital status are commonly used as the basis for meditation on God’s unexpected choices, sometimes in explicit relation to the decidedly unconventional means of Jesus’ own arrival. In my experience Michael Goulder’s notorious poem on the subject[2] can be guaranteed to evoke strong reactions (usually, but not always, favourable) from a congregation.

It is failure to appreciate the significance of the genealogy in Matthew’s project that has led to the story of Joseph’s dilemma (1:18-25) often being thoughtlessly labelled as an account of the birth of Jesus. It is nothing of the sort. The genealogy has left a major apologetic problem. Joseph is a descendant of David, a legitimate heir to the kingship, but, as 1:16 has made explicitly clear, Jesus is not his son. It is only as Joseph, Son of David (1:20), submits to divine pressure to adopt and name Jesus as his official son that his genealogy becomes the genealogy of Jesus too. The whole story depends on Joseph’s not being the biological father of Jesus, and it is this that is the focus of the much-debated quotation from Isaiah 7:14 which provides Matthew with the theologically significant title Emmanuel. Most congregations are unlikely to be very interested in the debates over Matthew’s handling of the Isaiah prophecy, but the virgin birth is a central, and controversial, part of the Christmas story, and the preacher might well use this short pericope as a basis for exploring it. The more fully Matthew’s scriptural and apologetic agenda is appreciated, the more obvious it becomes that he and Luke have introduced this theme into their infancy narratives in quite different ways and therefore probably also from independent sources, a point which is not without its importance for Christian apologetics.

Space does not allow us to explore in detail the homiletical possibilities arising from Matthew’s other most memorable story, that of the Magi, with its rich scriptural resonances especially through the Son of David typology which links this story to that of the visit of the Queen of Sheba, and through the echoes of the stories of the birth of Moses and the hostility of Pharaoh. Typology is probably not high on most people’s interpretative agenda, but here is a familiar pericope in which it is close to the surface, and therefore an opportunity for the preacher to introduce people to what was certainly a major element in the New Testament (and especially Matthean) presentation of Jesus as the fulfilment of Israel’s hope.


Luke.

Luke’s infancy chapters are not only significantly longer than Matthew’s, but also present a much more varied range of narrative moments, with a more developed characterisation and human interest that make them more immediately attractive to the preacher. And then there are the wonderful Lucan canticles, which stand in a class of their own. Space does not allow us to go through the pericopes seriatim, so a few sample soundings must suffice. I will confine myself to the sections that deal with Mary and Jesus rather than the parallel story of Elizabeth and John, since the latter, though obviously of great importance to Luke and therefore to exegetes of Luke, is not so likely to be the focus of our Christmas preaching.

The Annunciation to Mary (Luke 1:26-38).

Classical Christian art and frequent repetition at Services of Nine Lessons and Carols have made this one of the most familiar stories of the infancy cycle. Luke places heavy emphasis on the miraculous conception without human sexual intercourse. This pericope and Matthew 1:18-25 are the only places in the New Testament where that issue is directly addressed, and the preacher can hardly avoid making this a central theme of the sermon, with all the apologetic issues it raises in the light of modern scientific understanding and also in relation to the nature of the incarnation (how human is a man without a human father?). But Luke shows no embarrassment on either front, and a sermon that is to do justice to Luke’s concerns will focus primarily on the positive contribution the virgin conception makes to his presentation of the uniqueness of Jesus. The pericope includes a succession of titles or descriptions of Jesus that encapsulate this emphasis: the name Jesus, ‘Son of the Most High’, ‘the throne of David’, ‘of his kingdom there will be no end’, ‘holy’, ‘the Son of God’. The preacher on this pericope faces a christological embarras de richesses.

But it is also a story about Mary, and Christmas is the time of year when one can most naturally focus on Mary herself without provoking controversy over the claims and counter-claims of Catholic and Protestant concerning her status in Christian worship and salvation. God’s surprising choice of a young village girl, and her response to both the honour and the peril of her calling, allow the preacher to explore her role as a model of faith and obedience in extreme circumstances, a worthy recipient of the congratulation (makarismos) which will be pronounced concerning her (vv. 45,48).

The Magnificat (Luke 1:39-56).

The canticles of Luke’s infancy chapters are unique and wonderful, both as poetry and as spiritual meditation. This has made it all too easy to take them out of their context and turn them into free-standing psalms, and they will be familiar as such especially to many whose background is in Catholic or Anglican worship. And of course they richly repay study and exposition on that basis. The Magnificat in particular is one of the most powerful expressions in Scripture of God’s ‘bias to the poor’ and of the subversive principles of his kingdom in which the first are last and the last first.

But it can also be a liberating experience for a congregation who have long been familiar with the Magnificat as a sublime piece of liturgy to be reminded that Luke introduces it as the personal response of a village girl to the overwhelming grace of God in her own life and calling, to be made to read it through her eyes and to reflect on how its universal principles were to apply to her future experience and to the mission of her promised son. The preacher may usefully explore the numerous echoes of the song of Hannah (1 Sam. 2:1-10) and of other Old Testament poetic passages, as a way of entering into the mind of Mary at the moment when God turned her life upside down.[3]

 The Birth of Jesus (Luke 2:1-7).

See the brief comments and suggestions in 1.2 above; space allows no more.

Simeon and the Nunc Dimittis (Luke 2:22-35).

Here we have moved beyond Christmas, but remain within the infancy narratives. Those churches that preserve the ancient feast of Candlemas on February 2 provide the preacher with a welcome opportunity to reflect on the Janus character of the feast, looking back to Christmas in Simeon’s hymn of praise for the coming of the long-awaited Messiah, but also looking forward to Good Friday in his warning to Mary of the heart-piercing sorrows to come. It is a bitter-sweet festival, a stark reminder of the paradox which lies at the heart of the ‘salvation’ that Simeon hailed.

In the atmosphere of Old Testament piety which surrounds this episode, it is important to note in the Nunc Dimittis the theme of ‘light for revelation to the Gentiles’, an aspect of Old Testament expectation (Gen. 12:3; Isa. 49:6 etc) which was apparently not widely recognised in contemporary Judaism, but which is to become one of the key features of Luke’s development of his central theme of ‘salvation’ (as of course it was also in Matthew’s story of the magi). Modern Christian congregations which are predominantly Gentile may need to be reminded of the importance of this aspect of our Jewish heritage.


Conclusion

In my experience people are often surprised and pleased to hear a Christmas sermon which does not simply range again over the familiar themes of family values, peace on earth and goodwill to men, or homelessness and care for refugees. There is much about these gospel narratives which is not as obvious as many people think, and which good expository preaching will bring to light. Someone remarked to me after a service just this week: ‘We do enjoy being taught’–a sad comment, perhaps, on the experience and expectation of routine preaching these days. It is the privilege of the Christmas preacher to be in a position to fulfil that desire for a wider and often less conditioned clientele than usual.


[1] K. Stendahl, ‘Quis et Unde? An Analysis of Matthew 1-2’ in W. Eltester (ed.), Judentum, Urchristentum, Kirche (Berlin: Töpelmann, 1960) 94-105; repr. in G.N. Stanton, The Interpretation of Matthew (London: SPCK, 1995) 69-80.

[2] M.D. Goulder, Midrash and Lection in Matthew (London: SPCK, 1974) 232: ‘Matthew’s Genealogy is a poem, and comment upon it should perhaps be likewise.

Exceedingly odd is the means by which God
Has provided our path to the heavenly shore–
Of the girls from whose line the true light was to shine
There was one an adulteress, one was a whore:
There was Tamar who bore–what we all should deplore–
A fine pair of twins to her father-in-law,
And Rahab the harlot, her sins were as scarlet,
As red as the thread that she hung from the door;
Yet alone of her nation she came to salvation
And lived to be mother of Boaz of yore–
And he married Ruth, a Gentile uncouth,
In a manner quite counter to biblical lore:
And of her there did spring blessed David the King,
Who walked on his palace one evening and saw
The wife of Uriah, from whom he did sire
A baby that died–oh, and princes a score:
And a mother unmarried it was too that carried
God’s son, and him laid in a manger of straw,
That the moral might wait at the heavenly gate
While the sinners and publicans go in before,
Who have not earned their place, but received it by grace,
And have found them a righteousness not of the law.’

[3] There is textual evidence for a tradition in some parts of the early church that the Magnificat was the song not of Mary but of Elizabeth, and some modern scholars have defended that reading (see R.E. Brown, The Birth of the Messiah [New York: Doubleday / London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1977] 334-336). The majority remain convinced that Luke attributed it to Mary.


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12 Responses to Preaching the infancy narratives

  1. Terry Jones December 23, 2015 at 8:51 am #

    Thanks again Ian. Was fascinated to hear the Elizabeth’s song angle defended during a summer Biblical studies week I went on in Cambridge by David Catchpole – who was brilliant by the way. It at least made me look at it closely again and I remain unconvinced even after reading Raymond Brown. Have a blessed Christmas Ian.

    • Ian Paul December 23, 2015 at 10:56 am #

      David Catchpole is very engaging, but in my experience rather wedded to a sceptical criticism which has, at many points, been found wanting in recent years. I think this might be one example of that.

  2. Anne Roberts December 23, 2015 at 10:28 am #

    Thank you, Paul. Very interesting – but then I am already interested. Where the congregation is largely made up of those who ‘love being taught’ there is much here to keep them engaged. But what of those who are not interested/engaged? I think this remains a matter for more thought and creative exploration. The slushily sentimental is of no use, of course, but for many, neither is academic exploration, however fascinating and indeed important it may be. I have rarely felt comfortable on behalf of those who come that once a year. It depends on the demographic I suppose and how ready they are to become engaged if they are not already. Even for those of us who do ‘love being taught’ is this not a time for something on another level?

    • Ian Paul December 23, 2015 at 10:54 am #

      Yes of course. This is the answer to the question ‘Is there anything fresh to say?’ but you are asking a different question.

      Dick does address your question in the first half of the chapter…for which you would need to buy the book! You will find some exploration of this if you search for my other posts tagged with ‘Christmas’ (click on the tag just above here at the foot of this article).

  3. Anne Roberts December 23, 2015 at 11:22 am #

    Got you! Thanks for that! I’m glad this work is being done because there are many who have been and still are pulling these passages to pieces and doing nothing to put them together again as it were . The book is on the list.

  4. Philip Mounstephen December 23, 2015 at 12:50 pm #

    Thanks Ian. Very helpful. I detect though that you’re not a fan of Goulder’s poem. Why not? It seems to me to be an excellent example of the kind of exegesis you’re advocating. I’m also partial to it because it was Dick France who introduced it to me!

  5. Greg Moss December 23, 2015 at 1:11 pm #

    Thanks again Ian. I have found, and will no doubt continue to find, this debate fascinating as it has developed in response to your two blogs. Thanks for starting it! The question that has been bothering me ever since I read Bailey on the birth narratives is at what point it becomes almost dishonest not to seek to re-reveal the Christmas story. It would be a big enough shock to some who do like being taught to hear some of these things but if we are allowing those who only join us occasionally to remain in blissful misunderstanding on one of the few occasions when we have their ear can that be right? I accept of course that there are many things one can take from these stories that are quite true and avoid rocking the traditional boat, but to return to one of the themes on the previous posting does a service of nine lessons and carols on its own do anything other than allow people to continue to view the story through a largely 19th century misty-eyed lens?

  6. Don Benson December 23, 2015 at 5:21 pm #

    Ian, not being a preacher I feel a bit of an interloper on this subject (and many of the others which you speak about); but I think you are absolutely right with this post. I’m sure it is a mistake to assume that occasional visitors (particularly men perhaps) are uninterested in anything which opens up the gut reality and the fundamental significance of the Christmas narrative.

    I’m often humbled and surprised by the real interest that people show about religion in general and Christianity in particular, but of course the source of any knowledge they have these days is most likely to be the DaVinci Code or a debunking program on the telly rather than a good sermon! In any case almost anything with a more meaty content is a welcome antidote to the saccharin ‘Away in a manger’ or ‘Silent night’ which we use to torture men who have been dragged along by the rest of the family. I’ve already had my orders from the vicar to play Silent Night on the organ during the Administration at the Christmas Eve Communion service!

    On another note, I think your blog has been outstanding this year; I cannot imagine how you do it. My only gripe is that you constantly give me insomnia thinking over the vast range of teaching and church and political issues you cover. Many thanks for it all!

  7. pk December 23, 2015 at 9:11 pm #

    I’m glad you mentioned Matthew’s genealogy. I was just preaching on this last week, pointing out the significance of the women as well as the generally mixed bag of characters that are included, and how God can use them to bring about his saving purposes for humankind. Indeed, I think that something of the Gospel message itself is reflected in the genealogy.

  8. Jeremy Moodey December 24, 2015 at 8:48 am #

    Thanks Ian. Insightful as always. Also timely, as contrary to your expectation, I actually have to preach on the flight into Egypt and the slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-23) in my church this coming Sunday. That’s if anyone turns up on the First Sunday after Christmas. I will of course make the point about Matthew demonstrating the Messiah-ship of Jesus to his Jewish audience, but trying to think of a modern-day application of the passage is less easy. Also, what is your take on the Nazarene verse (v23), given that no such OT prophecy exists?

  9. James Byron December 24, 2015 at 4:20 pm #

    From a liberal POV, I get frustrated bigtime with preachers who, lacking the courage of their convictions, treat the whole kit and caboodle as historical in their sermons, when I know full and well that they personally believe it’s a myth. They’re lying by omission.

    I’d love to see more sermons that explore the underlying theology, and popularize the critical scholarship taught in seminaries, even if they end up reaffirming the traditional narrative.

  10. Andrew January 14, 2016 at 5:27 am #

    “But I suppose most expository attention these days is given to what is for Matthew a very minor part of the genealogy, the presence of the four women in 1:3-6.”

    My question is: What is Matthew’s agenda in including them? As you note, they are minor. And yet on four separate occasions he tweaks his 3×14 flow to include the mother, and in all four instances they are not conventional hebrew marriages.

    Is the key purpose softening up his audience so they will accept a fifth unusual but divinely chosen motherhood, or is there an additional lesson he is trying to make?

    (Mary differs slightly from the other four. Up until the moment God declares her pregnant, there’s nothing to suggest she is anything more or less than a faithful Jewish maiden. The four prior women all have something unsavoury about their past or their pregnancy, not always their fault.)

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