How do we know what we know about Christmas?
As far as human instrumentality goes, we know because of the faithful witness of three men.
Three men who were sensitive to the promptings of the Holy Spirit.
Three men who listened carefully and recorded faithfully.
There were circumstances which could have kept them from writing at all.
We are forever grateful that those inhibiting factors were overcome, because the benefits we continue to receive through their efforts are immeasurable.
The three were named Matthew, Luke and John.
There were four Gospel writers of course.
Mark wrote the shortest gospel, and he has been the most neglected of the Four Evangelists.
It is true that Mark mentions no part of the birth narrative.
But it is also true that he reports certain aspects of the story of Jesus which the three longer Gospels leave out.
For instance he tells us something Jesus said about Mary’s anointing in Bethany a few days before the Crucifixion.
“She has done what she could.” (Mark 14:8)
The reasons Mark makes no mention of Jesus’ birth are not known to us.
There were circumstances in Mark’s background which could have kept him from writing anything at all.
Because he quit the First Missionary Journey before it was completed, the Apostle Paul disqualified Mark as a candidate for the second journey. Barnabas, who took strong exception to the exclusion, took himself off Paul’s team and set out on a journey of his own with Mark (Acts 15:37-39).
Mark’s disqualification was temporary.
The Holy Spirit re-qualified him and deemed him fit to write one of the four Gospels.
Mark could not undo what he had done.
But, like Mary of Bethany, he did what he could.
Matthew’s potential disqualification as a gospel writer was more serious than Mark’s.
Mark was guilty of a youthful lapse in quitting early before the task was finished. Matthew had been a tax collector, probably for many years.
Many of the Jews despised all Gentiles and Samaritans.
Most of the Jews despised tax collectors above all.
That circumstance alone is enough to assure us that the Gospel was not the product of some first century conspiracy to concoct a fable for the purpose of deceiving the world. No conspirator who set out to fabricate accounts would ever recruit Matthew to write a Gospel for the Jews.
Matthew had zero credibility.
The very idea that a tax collector had any chance of being believed was absurd.
The choice of Matthew was a miracle of grace.
Jesus called Matthew to follow him.
Later Matthew discovered that a part of following Jesus was to write the Gospel which became the first book of the New Testament.
Because Matthew followed Jesus we know things about Joseph’s experience, about the star and the Magi and the flight to Egypt – themes which the other Gospel writers leave out – which we would not have known otherwise.
Of course we know most of what we know of Christ’s birth from the research of Luke.
There could have been many reasons to keep Luke from offering his own account.
After all, the job had already been done.
It had been done twice.
It had been done twice perfectly.
It had been done by two people – Matthew and Mark – who knew Jesus personally.
Luke had never met Jesus.
Luke persisted and wrote what he wrote because he committed himself to evangelize (if he were not yet a Christian) or to disciple (if he had already come to faith) someone called Theophilus.
We know nothing about Theophilus except that he was the object of Luke’s great favor.
We owe much to that favor because without it we would know nothing of Mary’s Magnificat, nothing of the manger, or the swaddling clothes or the angels preaching to the shepherds in the sky over Bethlehem.
John gives us but one verse about Christmas.
In a marvel of succinctness John frames the theological core of the nativity.
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” (John 14:6).
The words of the opening prologue of John’s Gospel sound as if they had been written by the profoundest philosopher.
The words are theology not philosophy, and the writer was a fisherman.
What then was the source of this profundity?
John was, after all, a blue-collar worker, someone who worked all night, someone who worked with his hands.
He was deemed to be ignorant and unlearned by the intellectual elite of Israel ( Acts 4:13 ).
But he was by all accounts the one disciple closest to Jesus.
At least once, perhaps often, his head reposed on Jesus’ breast.
Alone among the disciples he witnessed Jesus’ crucifixion.
John could not change the deficit of formal training in his background, but he managed to stay close to Jesus.
Because of that we have our best definition of the Incarnation.
The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.
After 2000 years is there a practical take-away for believers who live at such a distance from the ancient events?
Indeed there is.
None of us will write a canonical gospel.
That work is completed and unrepeatable.
But all of us should do what we can.
And any of us may follow Jesus.
Any of us can evangelize or disciple one person.
Any of us can draw near to Jesus.
If we do, the result, by God’s grace, could be something incalculable.
Merry Christmas everyone.