It may seem to be impossible to misinterpret the birth narratives in our advent sermons. What could be easier to preach at Christmas than the birth of Jesus? What could be harder to misread than these plain, simple stories of Jesus coming into the world?
But when we turn off our interpretational radar, we are likely to crash and burn.
Unfortunately, pastors often substitute secondary applications for the primary interpretation in their Christmas sermons. We sideline the main purpose for these stories – to teach about Jesus – and focus on the incidental actions of the characters instead.
How does that happen? Let’s look at Matthew’s birth narratives and see.
The genealogy of Jesus: a sermon about sinful people?
While the genealogies of the Bible don’t make for scintillating reading, they are fantastic for preaching. The stories behind the names are fascinating. But latching onto these stories is where many preachers go astray with Matthew’s genealogy. They are so quick to investigate “the rest of the story” that they fail to investigate Matthew’s intent for the genealogy.
The result is that the sermon becomes mainly about how sinful people – like Rahab (prostitute), Ruth (idolater), and David (adulterer and murderer) – are included in God’s plan to redeem the world, and how God stands with open arms to welcome anyone into his family today. While it is true that Jesus welcomes shady people into God’s kingdom, which we see aplenty with his ministry to tax collectors and sinners, are we right to think that communicating that idea was Matthew’s primary intention with his genealogy?
The key word in the genealogy is Christ or Messiah (as the translation may be), which is repeated three times in the passage: at the beginning (1:1), at the end of the genealogy (“who is called Messiah,” 1:16), and at the end of the passage (1:17). Recall that Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience who chiefly thinks of the Messiah as a king who comes from the line of David. Matthew’s primary intention is to show that Jesus is offspring of David who will reign on David’s throne forever, and that he is the offspring of Abraham who will bless the nations (see 28:18-20).
It’s not wrong to point out that God uses sinful people to accomplish his plan, but that is not the main point of the passage. Redemptive history reaches its apex at the birth of the Christ, and that should be the main emphasis of a sermon on Matthew’s genealogy.
Jesus’ birth: a sermon about Joseph?
After the genealogy, Matthew describes how Jesus was born, highlighting the response of Joseph. Because he is a focus of these verses, it is easy to slip into preaching more about Joseph than Jesus.
I once heard a Christmas sermon with the main point of how to be righteous like Joseph. Matthew calls Joseph a “righteous man” (1:19), and we’d love to impart his godly qualities to our people. 1) When wronged, respond with gentleness (1:19), 2) when God speaks, listen (1:20-21), 3) respond to God with immediate obedience (1:24), and 4) be sexually pure (1:25). As pastors say, that’ll preach.
But it woefully misses the mark. First of all, Joseph wasn’t technically wronged since Mary didn’t really cheat on him. Second, Joseph’s sexual restraint was actually a sacrifice of holy marital sexuality; he was guarding the validity of Jesus’ virgin birth. But, third, and most importantly, to make this a “be like Joseph” sermon diverts attention from the real main character, Jesus.
Matthew is not answering the question, “What was Jesus’ earthly dad like?” he is answering the question, “How and why did Jesus come?” The how is by the miracle of the virgin birth, which fulfilled Isaiah’s prophecy (1:22-23). The why is to save Jesus’ people from their sins (1:21). These two themes ought to be the main thrust of a sermon on this passage, with Joseph’s godly responses as secondary applications.
Herod and the magi: wise men still seek him?
The last of Matthew’s birth narratives recounts the magi’s search for Jesus, and Jesus’ narrow escape from Herod’s attempt to kill him.
Out of sensitivity to unbelievers in our churches, it’s tempting to latch onto the wise men (could we call them seekers?), and preach a sermon about “finding Jesus.” I can picture a pastor waxing eloquently about the long journeys we have all traversed in life. We may not have found Jesus at our first stop. But if we are faithful to keep seeking him, eventually we will find him, and realize he deserves our worship. Cue the altar call music.
One problem is that this makes the magi analogous to unbelievers who are interested in the things of the Christian faith. But worshipping Jesus (2:11) was not an accidental celebration at the end of their journey, it was the goal from the beginning. They were looking for Jesus, but they weren’t “seekers.”
But the key problem is that it takes the focus off Jesus and the significance of his birth. Matthew just presented Jesus as the Messiah, and already at his birth his heavenly kingdom is confronting the kingdom of this world, as exhibited by Herod’s response. Jesus’ kingship was not welcomed; it was intrusive. The application is not so much “Will you seek Jesus?” but rather “Will you let Jesus’ kingdom intrude into yours? Will you worship him or extinguish him?”
Preach Jesus this Christmas
As you can see, it’s ironically easy to not preach Jesus at Christmastime.
Our Christmas messages must not primarily be about being like Rahab, Ruth, Joseph, Mary, or the magi. They must be about receiving the Savior, the King of the universe, in faith and on bended knee.
Where you come in – whether you preach, teach, or lead a small group – is to make clear what God was doing through Jesus at the first Christmas. Then show how the supporting cast fits in relation to that.