Nativity Topical Study

Preaching and Worship Resources about Nativity

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While the term may be used to refer to any birth, "nativity" is almost universally used to refer to the birth of Jesus Christ. His is the nativity. The term also brings to mind a set of images that are biblically associated with Christ's birth: the stable at Bethlehem with Mary, Joseph, and the child, and the shepherds in the fields nearby. Nativity scenes are a common sight in homes and churches at Christmas.

In Scripture

There are several approaches to take to Luke's account of Christ's birth in Luke 2:1 - 21: 1. Luke sets the birth of Christ in the context of world history, naming Caesar Augustus and Quirinius. Luke's barely hidden irony is that the Messiah, the world's true king, slips in under the radar of the most powerful government in the world. At the same time, Luke pictures a couple suffering under the oppression of Roman rule, forced to travel a long distance while pregnant. Homeless and helpless, they end up giving birth to the Son of God in a stable. This historical reference also emphasizes that the gospel is not merely a spiritual reality, but is anchored in historical space and time. 2. The child is born in a stable and laid in a manger. This is at least a signal that the salvation Jesus brings is cosmic in scope and includes all the creatures God has made. 3. Further adding to the irony is that the only announcement of the momentous birth is made not to the religious elite in Jerusalem a few miles up the road, but to some poor, grizzled shepherds in the nearby fields. It is "good news of great joy for all the people." The angels sing of peace, the principal purpose of the one who was born to bring us peace (Isa. 11:6; Eph. 2:14 - 15).

Matthew's story of Jesus's birth (Matt. 1:18 - 24), as well as the story that follows in chapter 2, emphasizes the birth as the fulfillment of Old Testament prophecy (Matt. 1:23), a main theme throughout Matthew. Another important element is how Matthew focuses his attention on Joseph (Luke focuses on Mary, while Joseph seems to be a standby). Joseph is a righteous man who treats Mary in her surprising pregnancy with understanding and kindness. Joseph, like his namesake in the Old Testament, is also guided by dreams.

The gospel of John has no nativity story as such. Its first words, "In the beginning," recall the first words of Genesis and signal that John intends to present the advent of a new creation. However, his conclusion in verse 14, "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us," points us back to the nativity.

Many interpreters have also recognized the nativity story in Revelation 12:1 - 6. The woman "clothed with the Sun" can refer to Eve or to Mary or more likely to both. It emphasizes that the birth of Christ also marks the beginning, or a new chapter, of the cosmic battle between God and Satan.

Points to Ponder

The reality and mystery of the incarnation are at the heart of Christianity. The mantra of the ancient church fathers was that whatever God has not assumed, he cannot redeem. If Jesus of Nazareth is not the incarnate Son of God, truly human, then we cannot be saved. The incarnation also offers the great Christian argument against all forms of Gnosticism, which always seeks to denigrate the physical in favor of the spiritual. God took on human flesh and blood precisely because the material reality of creation and humanity is good, and therefore God seeks to save it. The incarnation can be directly linked to the creation of human beings in the image of God. Humans were created to be God's regents on earth, the kings and priests of the creation. That image was broken and disfigured by sin, but Christ comes as the new and true human being to restore us to our dignity in the image of God by his incarnation, death, and resurrection. One way of describing the meaning of salvation is that God is restoring our true humanity in Jesus Christ.

The virgin Mary is clearly a main character in the nativity. While some Protestants may think her place has been overemphasized in Catholicism and Orthodoxy, more recently many have come to have a deeper appreciation for her. As C. S. Lewis writes, "The whole thing narrows and narrows, until at last it comes down to a little point, small as the point of a spear — a little Jewish girl at her prayers." Her "yes' to the angel's announcement is the great act of discipleship that makes her first among the disciples of Christ. Since the Council at Ephesus in 431 a.d. Mary has been recognized as the Theotokos, or Mother of God. This designation helped support the reality of Christ's human nature.

Joseph often comes across as a nearly silent bit character in the drama of the nativity. However, in the gospel of Matthew he is given a central place. He is, of course, not Jesus's biological father, but as his adoptive father Joseph was obviously a central figure in Jesus's upbringing. Matthew especially describes Joseph as a "righteous" man, which is shown both in his determination at first not to make a public example of Mary's seemingly illicit pregnancy, but finally to take her as his wife in response to a dream.

Philip Yancey: "Yet as I read the birth stories about Jesus I cannot help but conclude that though the world may be tilted toward the rich and powerful, God is tilted toward the underdog." (Philip Yancey. Grace Notes, Zondervan, 2009, p. 19.)

Dietrich Bonhoeffer: "And then, just when everything is bearing down on us to such an extent that we can scarcely withstand it, the Christmas message comes to tell us that all our ideas are wrong, and that what we take to be evil and dark is really good and light because it comes from God. Our eyes are at fault, that is all. God is in the manger, wealth in poverty, light in darkness, succor in abandonment. No evil can befall us; whatever men may do to us, they cannot but serve the God who is secretly revealed as love and rules the world and our lives." (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Selected Writings, Fount, 1995, p. 147.)

N.T. Wright : "Christmas is God lighting a candle; and you don't light a candle in a room that's already full of sunlight. You light a candle in a room that's so murky that the candle, when lit, reveals just how bad things really are. . . . Christmas, then, is not a dream, a moment of escapism. Christmas is the reality, which shows up the rest of `reality.'" (N.T. Wright, For All God's Worth, Eerdmans, 1997, p. 2.)

Leonard Vander Zee: "[Mary] uncovered her baby as much as she could in that chilly, dank space. She examined him from head to toe, caressed his tiny body, touched his perfect fingers and toes. Perhaps it wasn't so amazing to her or to Joseph, but to me the most amazing sight she laid her eyes on was the stub that protruded from his belly, the freshly-cut, already-withering cord that had sustained his life in her womb — the cord through which he received her nourishment, her very life. When you really think about it, this is the amazing thing: This child, the long-promised Son of God, has a belly button. . . . The incarnation means that God now has a belly button. He is bound forever to the human race, and that remnant of an umbilicus proves it." (Leonard Vander Zee, "God's Belly Button," The Banner, Nov. 17, 2012.)

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Scripture quotations are from New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved.