The Gospels of both Matthew and Luke detail the birth of Jesus. Both of these narratives are more the than a mere story, and certainly not a fairy tale. The gospels are theological reflections on the meaning of Jesus as the long awaited Messiah who is revealed to be the universal saviour of all people.
Although there are differences in each of these gospels, they are both giving us the same message. Jesus is not merely a man, although he is entirely human, he is nothing less that than Emmanuel – God-with-us.
The gospel of Luke starts with the story of Zechariah and his wife, Elizabeth. We are told that Zechariah and Elizabeth are very old and have never been able to have children. An angel appears to Zechariah telling him that Elizabeth is going to bear him a son. The angel tells Zechariah to name the child John and then he says that Zechariah’s son is going to fulfill a promise of Israel’s ancient prophets that says that somebody would one day come and prepare Israel to meet their God. So Luke’s gospel has told us that the Messiah is coming.
This part of the story is also familiar. It sounds like another story we’ve heard in the Old Testament. Wasn’t there another elderly couple desperate for a baby? That’s right – Abraham and Sarah were also very old and could never have children, yet God too gave them a son, Isaac. The whole story of Israel began with Isaac. Luke’s gospel is telling us that something this significant is about to happen again.
Luke’s gospel then takes us to a small town called Bethlehem where we meet a young girl named Mary. Mary was engaged to be married to Joseph. Then an angel appears to Mary and tells her she too is going to have a son. She is to name her baby Jesus, which means ‘the Lord saves’. Jesus will be a king who will rule over God’s people forever.
When Mary was really pregnant, she and her fiancé, Joseph, had to travel to Bethlehem.
Here, most of us become very familiar with the story.
When Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem, it is crowded with people who have all travelled there for the same reason – to register in the census. The only place Mary and Joseph can find to stay in is a stable – a place where animals sleep.
Meanwhile, nearby some shepherds are watching their sheep when an angel appears. Of course, this freaks the shepherds out, but they listen to the angel’s message that tonight in Bethlehem, a saviour has been born! The angel tells the shepherds to go and find the baby and they will know it he is the Messiah, because he’ll be wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger (which is an animal food trough).
So the shepherds do exactly as the angel says. They go to Bethlehem and they find the baby Jesus. They are completely amazed at what they see. If this baby really is the Messiah, why is he lying in a dirty manger in an animal stable, born to an unknown teenager girl?
But this is the whole point of Luke’s story!
God’s kingdom was first revealed in the dirtiest places among the poor. Jesus is here to bring salvation by turning our world order upside down. And so Luke’s gospel sets the scene for the rest of the story of Jesus, and God’s plan of salvation.