Dateline Bethlehem


In Saginaw, Michigan where I grew up, The Saginaw News on Christmas morning devoted its front page to covering Jesus' birth. With appropriate headlines and datelines, it reported Jesus' birth as if it had just happened. It was neat, but I don't think it was realistic. They didn't report His birth the way they do the rest of the news. Let me show you how the news would really cover the Christmas story today in order to highlight the real news for us.

They would make only good news, negative. When the angel reported the news to the shepherds, he said, "I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all the people." The news cannot resist making everything negative. If they are reporting on flooding, you can be sure, "More rain is on the way." or "Now the overwhelming task of cleaning up begins." A report on forest fires is going to close with, "The hot, dry, windy conditions are not forecasted to let up any time soon." A story on the booming Christmas season for retailers closes with, "But a slow January is expected to offset those gains," or, "However, a good December can't make up for a dismal 4th quarter." So, this is how today's media would report Christmas: "Thousands Crowd Bethlehem, Woman Forced to Give Birth in a Barn - Disease Feared." "Shepherds Claim to Have Been Sung to By Angels - Drug Use Suspected." "Newborn Found in Manger Wrapped in Strips of Cloth - Child Protection Services Investigating." "Strange Star Appears in Bethlehem Sky - Collision Imminent Astronomers Warn."

The media would make Christ's birth bad, or at least, tainted news. We should expect this. They know not of what they report; Christians do, yet haven't we managed to taint the Good News of Christmas? We have rushed and ran till Christmas has become a Humbug! Let's get it over with. The Good News of God taking on flesh and blood to save us has been tainted by whether Aunt Marge doesn't mind getting a blender. Or by cookies that we didn't get time to bake; traditions that we didn't keep right. Parties that we did or did not go to. Surely the very angels must weep at how shallow and hollow we can make Christmas!

If our media reported on the events of Bethlehem, not only would they negativize the Good News they'd screw up the details. Follow the reportage of any big event. There are discrepancies involving important details such as dates, places, times, ages, names, and numbers. If our media covered the first Christmas, the details would be all over the place. Instead of Christ being born at Bethlehem, they'd have Him born at Bethany. Instead of Christ being placed in a manger they would have Him put to bed in the manager's office. Instead of being wrapped in swaddling clothes they would have Him wrapped in a swede coat.

Well, at least we don't do anything like this. Let's not be too hasty here. We know all the outward facts but do we know the details that matter? For example, I read of a mom who believes she is teaching her kids the real meaning of Christmas by lining the empty manger with the good deeds which her kids have done written on slips of paper. On Christmas morning, she puts Jesus on his "good-deed mattress" and shows her kids what a nice bed their loving deeds have made. This woman has missed the real meaning of Christmas although she has the facts right. But we know better than that! Do we? Do you think A Christmas Carol presents the real meaning of Christmas? Christ came to change us from being uncaring and unloving towards others. The real meaning of Christmas is found in our doing for others because of Baby Jesus. That's what many Christians think, and that's screwing up the details of Christmas no less than thinking Christ was born at the North Pole, wrapped in a Christmas stocking and hung by a chimney.

If today's media reported the Good News of Christmas, they would make it bad news, screw up the details, and pass over the true news. The true news of Christmas is that of a miracle and our news never reports miracles. Well, they do, but the miracles they report will always be based on somebody's believing. News reports on Christmas Day say, "Today Christians celebrate the birth of Jesus who they believe to be the Savior." Or, "Christians believe that a virgin named Mary gave birth to a baby named Jesus." "Christians believe a star appeared over Bethlehem to lead people to Jesus." In the eyes of the news, miracles never objectively happen. They are just what somebody believes.

Can you blame them? I mean I don't want the news reporting that the angel Mordechai appeared to Joseph Smith and translated the Book of Mormon. I don't want CNN reporting how Mohammed is God's prophet. I would hate to see a headline, "Virgin Mary Appears in Skies," without the article saying, "Roman Catholics believe." The news media has to locate the story in the believing. We Christians must not. If we do, we lose the comfort of the objective Good News. Then there is no good news in Christmas unless all of the bases have been touched. If you're in the north, snow is needed for a perfect Christmas. If you have kids, they must be getting along and love their presents otherwise the Good News of Christmas is somehow diminished. And if you have family, work, medical, or personal difficulties at this time of year, you have no hope of finding the good news of Christmas. There is no way you're going to have enough believing to rise above all your problems and make Christmas good news.

The news media being outside the faith sees no miracles. A virgin doesn't give birth, nor do angels announce the birth. This is nothing more than the birth of another baby. God become Man? The Creator of all a helpless babe in the arms of His creatures? The sinless God passing through the blood, the sweat, the tears of a sinner's birth? Get real. Outside the faith the news media can see no miracles, but do not come to the conclusion that believing makes the miracles, makes the Good News, or good feelings! Then you're with Angelus Silesius, 17th century Catholic mystic, who gave us the adage. "Christ could be born a thousand times in Bethlehem but all in vain until He is born in me." The truth is that He could be born 10,000 times in you and it would be all in vain if He hadn't been born once in Bethlehem.

If the shepherds didn't believe the angel's announcement of Good News for all people, the Good News would still be true. If Mary and Joseph didn't feel joyous at the birth of Jesus, He still would have been a great joy for all people. If the shepherds had family, work, medical, or personal problems, this wouldn't have destroyed or diminished the Good News they were told. The Good News of Christmas isn't in what the shepherds believed or did. If it was, the angel would've said If. "If you believe, I bring you Good News of a great Joy which shall be to all the people. " "If you do this, then I have Good News for you." "If you have no bad news or sad feelings, then I have Good News for you."

The Good News is in the facts. The Savior has been born for you and He's nothing less than Yahweh God in flesh and blood. There is comfort here, and the 18th century painting, "Madonna of the Goldfinch" shows it. Mary holds an 8-12 month old Baby Jesus. Perched on His finger, without Him restraining it, is a goldfinch. The finch family is jumpy and scare easily, but the goldfinch sits peacefully on Jesus. Now for the wrenching turn that sets things right. This is not how it was. Birds didn't land on Baby Jesus without fear. Cattle weren't given the gift of speech on Christmas to praise the Christ-Child, neither did sheep curl around Him to make a living wool blanket. But all this could've happened. Both the fact that it could and the fact that it didn't are a comfort to us.

These things could've happened. The Babe in the manger is the Creator and Preserver of all things. He is the One who opens His hands and satisfies the desires of every living thing. He is the One who feeds the young ravens when they call and without whose will even the tiniest of finches doesn't fall to the ground. This Baby is the one who gave Balaam's donkey the gift of speech. If He wanted to, Baby Jesus could have had finches eating out of His hand and full grown lions as His playmates. But that's not the real news story here. The real story is the fact Baby Jesus hid His deity and why He did it. He veiled His divinity, for us and our salvation. He came into the world in the usual way, so that He might take our place. The birds didn't land on Him; no they pooped on Him just like they do us. The cattle didn't start talking, but mooed at him the way they do us. The sheep didn't curl up around Him; the only way they gave Him warmth is the same way they do us. Somebody forced those sheep to give up their wool.

Jesus had all creation regard Him as an ordinary Baby, so that God the Father might regard us as His children. This is the Good News story. The God, who is Man, is regarded as nothing but a Man, so we men who are nothing but sinners might be regarded by God as saints. The God who has no sins, as a Man takes on all the sins of the world, so that we might be relieved of the weight of our sins. The God, who is Man, goes to a cross, so that we men who are far from God might be brought near by the blood He sheds there. The miracle is not that we believe these things but that they happened for us to believe.

And we are to believe them no matter how many our sins, how few our joys, how big our problems, how little our solutions, how tall our sorrow, how short our joy. The Good News of Christmas happens outside of us. It's not in our dreams of a white Christmas or being home for Christmas in our dreams. It's not in whether we have chestnuts roasting by the fire or can hear those sleigh bells ringing. The real news today from Bethlehem is in what God did through Mary and in Christ for us and our salvation, and it's only Good News. Amen.

Rev. Paul R. Harris

Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas

Christmas Day (20191225); Luke 2: 9-11