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But there is another challenge awaiting preachers. The Gospel accounts of Jesus’s birth have been overlaid with centuries of exegetical misunderstandings and legendary elaborations. R. T. France quips:
Most people’s awareness of the Christmas story is derived mainly from school nativity plays, in which Luke’s tea-toweled shepherds rub shoulders with Matthew’s magi (promoted to royal status), and a surly innkeeper and his wife are surrounded by infant angels with tinsel halos. Add to this cocktail an array of Christmas cards depicting a glowing stable surrounded by bleak midwinter snow and populated by a smiling ox and ass, and you have the ingredients for the satisfyingly feel-good Schmaltzfest that is the modern Christmas. And I enjoy it as much as anyone.
I do too. I’m no curmudgeon who gripes every time a retelling of the Christmas story embellishes a small detail or doesn’t get it quite right. But like France, I recognize that our understanding of the gospel story is at stake. Small misunderstandings add up and skew the Gospel writers’ emphases.
There is also an opposite problem. After preaching the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke for so many years, pastors may be so hungry for fresh insights that they embrace novel interpretations that obscure the story as badly as the old misunderstandings.
Six Mistakes to Avoid
Given these concerns, let me offer six mistakes to avoid when preaching the story of Jesus’s birth. My concern is to help you proclaim, in the power of the Spirit, the birth narratives in a way that raises your listeners’ love and affection (and yours) for our Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ.
1. Skipping the genealogy in Matthew 1.
All it takes is a quick glance at Jesus’s family tree to understand why we hurry past it or why Handel didn’t memorialize it in his Messiah. The names sit there like lifeless skeletons. But when you read the genealogy thoughtfully, some names almost leap off the page: Rehoboam, Abijah, Joram, Ahaz, Manasseh, Jehoiachin and his brothers.
The truth is, Jesus came from a dysfunctional family line.
So when the angel tells Joseph to name the baby “Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21), this is undoubtedly a backward glance at Jesus’s family tree.
Even more intriguing is the inclusion of four women (five, counting his mother, Mary). It was rare for women to be listed in Jewish genealogies. These aren’t the women we might expect, either. Instead of Sarah or Rebekah, we get Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and the wife of Uriah. Why? For starters, all four have some past connection to sexual immorality. Tamar seduced her father-in-law, and Rahab was a prostitute. Ruth was part of the Moabites, a people group with origins in incest (Gen. 19). The child born to Uriah's wife was conceived as a result of an adulterous relationship with King David. But there’s more. All four women had Gentile connections. Tamar and Rahab were Canaanites; Ruth was a Moabite; Uriah’s wife was married to a Hittite.
Here we encounter a theme that runs throughout Matthew: the expansion of “his people” (Matt. 1:21) to include Gentiles who join with the godly Jewish remnant (Matt. 3:9; 8:11; 28:19).
So include Matthew 1:1–17 if you preach a series on the birth narrative in Matthew. You might even consider a series on the stories of Tamar (and Judah), Rahab, Ruth, Bathsheba (and David), and Mary centered on how grace is for all people.
2. Declaring Jesus was born in a stable because there was no room in the inn.
First, the problem Joseph and Mary encountered during their stay in Bethlehem wasn’t a lack of room in the inn. While most English versions still translate the Greek term katalyma as “inn” (Luke 2:7), the only other two occurrences of the word in the New Testament refer to a guest room where Jesus and his disciples shared a Passover meal (Mark 14:14; Luke 22:11). Kenneth Bailey rightly asks, “If at the end of Luke’s Gospel the word katalyma means a guest room attached to a private home (22:11), why would it not have the same meaning near the beginning of his Gospel?”
Assuming Joseph was relying on the hospitality of a friend in Bethlehem whose guest room was already taken, what was the alternative? The placement of Jesus in a manger suggests he was born in a stable near the place of lodging, or even in a cave. But there’s another alternative. Since the guest room was full, Joseph and Mary likely stayed in the family room with everyone else. It wasn’t uncommon for animals to stay in the house, since they provided heat in winter and were protected from theft.
Perhaps this seems like much ado about nothing, since any scenario—cave, stable, or family room with animals—reflects the humble circumstances in which Jesus was born. Yet getting the details right can keep us from turning the storyline into something untrue—a story of rejection or a harsh innkeeper or an incompetent husband who didn’t account for a crowded inn. It is the “normalness” of the birth that is so striking. The irony is the King of kings had an ordinary birth in humble circumstances.
3. Overemphasizing the questionable character of the shepherds.
It’s significant that the first witnesses to Jesus’s birth were shepherds (Luke 2:8–20). But is it accurate to portray them as the downtrodden and despised of society, so much so that they weren’t allowed to testify in legal proceedings? Does the fact that shepherds were the first to hear the good news highlight the need for sinners to hear the gospel?
Darrell Bock points out two problems with this understanding. First, the rabbinic evidence is late, dating to the fifth century. Second, the shepherd motif in the Bible is mostly positive (see Ps. 23; Luke 15:4; Mark 6:34; Matt. 18:12; John 10; Eph. 4:11; Heb. 13:20; 1 Pet. 2:25).
Of course, shepherds do represent those from a lower economic class in first-century Palestine. So it’s safe to say they picture the lowly and humble who respond to God’s message of salvation.
Preachers sometimes emphasize the irony of how the announcement first came to shepherds who were guarding lambs which would be slaughtered at Passover. This is striking, they say, because Jesus is the ultimate Passover Lamb who takes away the sin of the world. But Luke doesn’t go out of his way to emphasize this connection. After all, every other shepherd in the vicinity of Jerusalem would’ve been tending lambs destined for Passover sacrifice.
Timothy Laniak points to a couple more promising points of emphasis. First, the selection of shepherds may subtly reflect the newborn child’s identity as the shepherd ruler prophesied in Micah 5. Second, Luke’s presentation of the shepherds “keeping watch over their flocks at night” (Luke 2:8) may portray them “waiting symbolically for the ‘dawn’ of God’s promised redemption (Luke 1:68; 2:38; Isa 63:4).”
4. Referring to the magi as the three wise men.
The problem here is the magi weren’t “wise” in the sense of being sages. Nor were they kings. Nor were there necessarily three. The assumption is that there were three magi since there were three gifts, but this is simply speculation.
I see no reason to expunge “We Three Kings” from the list of Christmas carols we sing. But we will help people see the irony and wonder of the magi’s visit when we point out they were interested in dreams, astrology, magic, and future predictions. Matthew’s readers would’ve viewed the magi negatively.
We do well to avoid popular lines like “wise men still seek him,” a play on words to suggest those truly wise will seek Jesus. Of course, this is true. But the magi weren’t sages—students of wisdom—whose pursuit of wisdom led them to Jesus. It’s better to highlight the irony in Matthew’s contrast of “the eagerness of the Magi to worship Jesus, despite their limited knowledge, with the apathy of the Jewish leaders and the hostility of Herod’s court—all of whom had the Scriptures to inform them.”
5. Avoiding the story of the slaughter of the innocents in Matthew 2:16–18.
Like many pastors, I skipped this story for years. Yet when I first preached it 17 years ago, it stirred me to consider the hope we have in Christ. I also preached it on December 16, 2012—two days after the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.
Yes, I’m horrified that the Savior’s glorious birth resulted in the brutal deaths of several baby boys in Bethlehem. (For the record, there were likely no more than 20, given the population of Bethlehem at the time.)
As if the report of this event isn’t horrific enough, Matthew forces us to linger on it by quoting Jeremiah 31:15 and asserting that the killing of the Bethlehem babies fulfilled Jeremiah’s prophecy about the weeping and great mourning in Ramah. This turns out to be a brilliant strategy. By quoting Jeremiah 31:15, Matthew invites us to go back to Jeremiah 31:16–17 to hear the rest of the story: God will act to rescue and restore his people from the terrible situation. Matthew wants us to understand that the hope promised to the mothers who wept for their children taken to Babylon is the hope promised to the mothers in Bethlehem who lost their children—and to all who face horrendous evil and injustice.
6. Assuming there’s nothing “Christmas-worthy” in Mark’s prologue.
After preaching the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke, some pastors turn to the magnificent prologue of the Gospel of John for a Christmas sermon or series. Yes, John 1:1–18 reveals the significance of Jesus’s incarnation, but so does Mark. While John’s prologue focuses on the revelation of God’s glory and grace in the incarnation, Mark’s prologue highlights Jesus’s arrival as the Messiah and Son of God who carries out Isaiah’s prophesied “new exodus.” Mark’s beginning centers on Isaiah 40:3, with its call for God’s people to prepare the highway for God to deliver them out of Assyria. Earlier, Isaiah 11:15–16 likened this highway to the one God provided when he led his people out of Egypt. Hence, we refer to this as Isaiah’s new exodus. Jesus’s mission is cast as a continuation of this mission.
In light of the reason for Jesus’s coming to earth, Mark concludes the prologue with a call to repent and believe the good news—namely, that God has come to deliver his people from bondage and bring them into a glorious kingdom (Mark 1:14–15). Mark’s prologue, then, has everything to do with Christmas.
Avoiding these six mistakes isn’t about intellectual snobbery. Correcting them may help people hear the story of Christ’s birth in a way that heightens their wonder at the gospel story. Our goal is to preach accurate, clear, compelling expositions of the text that re-reveal the living God and the glory of his gospel as centered in his Son.
By his grace, such preaching will raise the affections of our hearers and spur them on to deeper love for Jesus the King. As the hymnist Elizabeth Prentiss (1818–1878) simply wrote:
More love to Thee, O Christ; More love to Thee!
The potential for this to happen when we proclaim the story of Jesus’s birth makes Christmas one of the most wonderful times of the year to preach.
 Kenneth E. Bailey, Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes: Cultural Studies in the Gospels (IVP Academic, 2008), 29.
 Croteau, Urban Legends of the New Testament, 8.
 Bock, Luke 1:1–9:50, 213.
 Ibid., 214.
 Timothy S. Laniak, Shepherds After My Own Heart: Pastoral Traditions and Leadership in the Bible (InterVarsity, 2006), 198.
 Ibid., 199.
 D. A. Carson, “Matthew,” The Expositor’s Bible Commentary (Zondervan, 2010), 110.
 Carson, “Matthew,” 112.
 France, The Gospel of Matthew, 85.
 For preaching as the “re-revelation” of God’s truth, see D. A. Carson, “Challenges for the 21st-Century Pulpit,” in Preach the Word: Essays on Expository Preaching: In Honor of R. Kent Hughes (Crossway, 2007), 176.