The Nativity at our home is like a glorious mix-tape pulling together songs from three Gospel artists. Luke contributes the stable and shepherds; Matthew adds the Magi and the star; John imbues the whole scene with glowing holy light. It is a beautiful blend. However, when we harmonize three unique stories into one Christmas medley, we may not hear Matthew, Luke, or John’s unique voice. Each Gospel originated inside a unique Christian community, bearing witness to Christ with differing styles and voices. Did you know that Mark does not offer a Christmas story at all? Mark begins the Good News with the prophetic words of Isaiah and John the Baptist. Why did the church settle into four Gospels instead of one definitive voice? What does it mean that Luke tells of angels, but in Matthew God works through dreams? Is there a larger lesson for the church about honoring another’s story? Do we all need to understand Christmas or Christianity in the same way? Is there room for diverse voices? Are Christians held together by more than a ‘Good Book’?
Luke gives us Christmas. Luke opens with Mary’s uncle, Zechariah, alone in the Jerusalem temple seeing a vision while making the daily sacrifice. In Luke’s next scene, an angel shares with Mary that she will carry the Christ Child. Mary asks, “How can this be?” Richard Rohr describes Mary’s willingness to house Christ inside her body, enter labor alone in a strange city as humankind’s “universal yes” to God’s calling. Luke shares her iconic line, “I am the Lord’s servant, let it be..” Mary speaks as a prophet, “God scatters the arrogant and proud… lifting up the lowly and filling the hungry with good things.” Perhaps rejected by her family, Mary quickly seeks refuge with her aunt and uncle. Elizabeth embraces Mary saying, “Hail Mary, beloved and blessed, your womb is blessed. Oh Mary, what a blessing that the mother of my Lord visits me!” Elizabeth offers the first Christian confession before Jesus is born! “Mary, as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leapt for joy. Mary, blessed are you for believing God is at work in you.” I imagine Elizabeth’s blessing stuck with Mary even when the “sword of Jesus’ suffering pierced Mary’s heart”! Luke alone gives us beloved Christmas verses: “there was no room in the inn”, “shepherds keeping watch by night”, “angels from the realms of glory”, “shepherds leave your fields”, “haste, haste to bring Christ laude”, “for your bed a cattle stall”, “wrapped in swaddling blankets and lying in the manger”.
Only Matthew portrays Joseph’s struggle once learning of Mary’s pregnancy, deciding to quietly end the courtship, not demanding the little used Levitical punishments. Pondering what to do, Joseph hears from God in the solitary world of dreams: “Joseph, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” Matthew tells us how foreign Magi traveled following a star, and priests and palace missed the sign. After opening their treasures, the Magi “being warned in a dream went home by another route”. Matthew tells us how King Herod raged; Joseph dreamed of danger and carried the holy family across the border as refugees to Egypt. The other three Gospels do not mention any of this.
John adds light and halos. John’s Gospel begins at creation, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was with God in the beginning… And the Word became flesh making God’s home with us. The Light shines in the darkness and the darkness can not overcome it!” John adds more tone than content.
Given the variety of Gospel perspectives around something as essential to Christian faith as the Incarnation, why is the church so slow to accept differing voices and theological insights? Why do some demand a belief in the virgin birth when Mark tells no birth story at all? Do we not understand that the same Spirit that spoke through Moses, Isaiah, Mary, Elizabeth, Mark, Luke, and John is with us today? Does not God still answer prayers, inspire sermons, bring forth new songs, reveal scientific mysteries, change hearts, open minds, and otherwise guide us today?
Despite the Christmas differences, all four Gospels begin by introducing one unifying person and one consistent verse! John the Baptist introduces Jesus in all four Gospels; Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John unanimously included one iconic verse- “a voice shouting out in the wilderness!” Mark opens “the beginning of the good news about Jesus the Christ, the Child of God, as it is written in Isaiah the prophet: I will send my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way- a voice of one shouting in the wilderness, ‘Prepare the way for the Lord, make straight paths for the Christ.’ And so, John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness, preaching.” Skipping Christmas, Mark focuses on the prophetic voice and points us to John and Isaiah. Verses about “making the path straight” appear as early as Exodus. All four Gospels present Jesus, the Christ, as part of a long line of prophetic voices.
We know a lot about John the Baptist. Luke gives us the backstory of John’s birth. We do not know anything about Pope Peter’s birth! We know John’s camp meeting broke out in the wilderness near a blue hole along the Jordan river and of John’s diet of foraged bugs and wild honey. We know John wore a camel skin coat with a leather belt pulling it all together. We know John preached “change your hearts and lives.” We know John hammered the high priests and high steeple preachers. We know John welcomed everyone- outcasts, party people, poor people, and super rich executives. We know John was imprisoned and martyred for preaching about politics. Three Gospels tell us how a drunken misogynistic King Herod beheaded the prophet as a political favor. John’s prophetic voice, crying out from the wilderness, is more than a spinning arrow sign pointing us to Jesus. Yes, John reminds us to “...prepare our hearts, confess our sins, and change our lives.” But John, like every prophet, spoke uncomfortable truths to the systemic injustice, evil, and oppression of those days! The prophetic voice always is shouting out inconvenient hard-to-hear truths. Will we listen?
Jesus warns us that our churches usually try to silence or discount the prophetic challenge to the status quo. “How terrible it will be for you legal experts! Hypocrites! You build tombs for the prophets …you are children of those who murdered the prophets… Look, I’m sending you prophets, wise people, and legal experts. Some of them you will kill and crucify. And some you will beat in your (churches) and chase out of town.” (Matthew 23) God is always sending prophets. “When the Spirit of Truth comes, the Spirit will guide you in all truth.” (John 16) Jesus gives us latitude to change theology and adapt, “I’ll give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven. Anything you fasten on earth will be fastened in heaven. Anything you loosen on earth will be loosened in heaven…. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I’m there with them.” (Matthew 16 & 18). Jesus is still with us! In the early church, The Risen Christ was the Canon and the fruits of living like Jesus measured the authenticity of one’s faith! If God is still with us, will we listen for the voices calling out from the wilderness today?
Now, some think God’s Spirit stopped speaking when the Biblical Canon was set. Now mind you, we do not have a scriptural list of accepted books or even a specific date or official group who fixed the Canon. Some churches did not include Titus, Philemon, 1-2 Thessalonians, or 1-2 Timothy as late as 500 CE. The idea God is done speaking conveniently puts the biblical experts and loudest Bible thumpers in charge of Christian truth. However, ironically it would also mean they are not inspired or spiritual leaders! But we are people of the Spirit, people of the historical cross and the ever-burning Pentecost flame, people the ‘Good Book’ and well-reasoned prayerful new insights! We believe God inspired Francis of Assisi, John Wycliffe, Charles Wesley, Phoebe Palmer, Martin Luther, Dr. King, and Mother Teresa. John Wesley and Richard Rohr call us to remember Paul’s incarnational theology reminding us that we are actually “in Christ Jesus” and that “the law of the Spirit in Christ Jesus has set us free…you are in the Spirit, since the Spirit of God dwells in you…all who are led by the Spirit of God are children of God (and) nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8) The Spirit is still speaking! Are we still listening?
God keeps on sending voice(s) to shout out from the wilderness. The prophetic office did not close sometime between 100-1540 CE. God’s Spirit is living and active, sharper than a surgical scalpel, able to divide the comforting consumer church crapola from the uncomfortable prophetic truths that always call us to change our hearts and lives! John shouted out, “If you have two coats, give one away! If you have extra food, share it with anyone who is hungry!” We resist the prophets, sure that we know all there is to know. Jesus warned “because you say we see, your blindness remains.” (John 9) Smug and self-assured, we resist any theological progress. And yet, God is sending us prophets, wise people, and legal experts. (Matthew 23) If we are wise, we allow the Spirit to speak to us with scientific “revelations”. Today, we understand that the earth has no corners (Psalm 137), and the sun is simply the center of one small galaxy. Will we hear the prophetic/scientific voices calling us to climate justice and full inclusion? Do you hear the prophets calling out, “Let my people go”, “I can’t breathe”, “Me too”, or “All means all.” Could God speak from a cardboard sign, “Please help”? Instead of listening to those truths and allowing God to soften our hearts and open our lives, we often retreat into theological camps and debate if John the Baptist or George Floyd launched a prophetic movement! (Matthew 21) Still, God sends prophets and wise people to us. Where is God Speaking today? What is the Spirit whispering or shouting within you?
Oh, but if we are “in Christ,” “being born of water and the Spirit” then there is enough love to hear some uncomfortable and inconvenient truths. Christ’s love softens our hearts and opens our lives. So we listen for the Spirit and remember God’s Spirit might shout from the least of us. Christ comes to us in the forgotten lives of the hungry, thirsty, naked, sick, uninsured, poor, prisoner, refugee, stranger, immigrant, and our enemies. Risk listening. Be still. Resist self-assurance. Hear God’s message. Let the uncomfortable Good News change you. Hear the Good News we have enough love to share food, offer shelter, welcome strangers, provide healthcare, bring justice, forgive wrongs suffered, give more, heal the planet, and love one another. Oh beloved, somewhere a voice is shouting in the wilderness! And yes, it could be a false prophet, but the false prophets usually reheat old understanding to make us feel good. (Matthew 5 & 23) Let us listen to the hard challenges and discern together, that process gave us Gospels. Oh there is Good News within the prophetic challenge, but before it comes, we must die to our smugness, so that God’s Spirit might bring us new life. Let us, Prepare the way for the Lord: let us listen for the prophets calling our uncomfortable truths from the wilderness. Soften your heart. Change your living. Amen.