Truth vs. Facts – An Alternative Nativity from the Gospel of James

For this sermon, I told (from heart) the story of the Gospel of James. Included below is my introduction and some of the details from the story that I chose to include (it leaves out others). It’s a fascinating story that’s not included in our Bible, but that helps us imagine Mary and Joseph’s story in more depth. You can read it yourself here: https://www.asu.edu/courses/rel376/total-readings/james.pdf

The key this week is to remember that it’s impossible to know what of the nativity story is “factual.” But every year, we find new Truth within in it. What truth might the Gospel of James add to your understanding of Mary and God?

Text: Luke 1:46-56

The Magnificat is one of the most beautiful texts in the Bible.

I can just imagine Mary, full of fear and anticipation arriving at her cousin Elizabeth’s house and finally hearing a word of good news.

Instead of judging her or asking her just how she ended up pregnant, Elizabeth, full of the Holy Spirit, proclaims, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”

And in response, Mary proclaims:

My soul magnifies the Lord
And my spirit rejoices in God my Savior;
Because He has regarded the lowliness of His handmaid;
For behold, henceforth all generations shall call me blessed;
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich He has sent away empty.

She not only rejoices that she is pregnant, but she rejoices that this child she bears is about to change everything.

Mary is an extraordinary woman, and yet the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tells us very little about who she was.

Most of us think of her as a young woman, but it actually doesn’t say anywhere in our Bible that Mary was young.

Or that Joseph was old.

Those details, along with many others left out of our Bible, come from a book called the Gospel of James.

Gospel of James doesn’t appear in our Bible, but it had a massive impact on the way we understand who Mary was.

It was written in 2nd Century – probably around 145 AD.

(Matthew  – 85/95, Mark 66-70, Luke 80-110, John 90-110)

30 years after the Gospel of John

There are over 130 surviving manuscripts translated into Syria, Ethiopic, Coptic, Georgian, Old Slavonic, Armenian, Arabic, and Latin.

Many believe it was part of the midrash, Jewish commentary on scripture.

It was incredibly popular among early Christians, and it shaped the way Christian teaching came to understand who Mary was.

So today, I want to tell you part of the story.

If you’d like to read the entire thing, there’s a link on our Facebook page. I’ll put it in my sermon post on the website as well. If you want a hard copy, I’ve included some at the back.

Like the scriptures that appear in our Bible, it’s impossible to know whether the story is “factual.” But certainly, it offers truth.

So let’s dive into this fascinating account of the life of Mary and see what truth it has to offer us this Christmas season….

 

The Gospel of James starts not with Mary or Joseph or Jesus, but with Mary’s parents, Joachim and Anna.

 

We learn that Joachim is a rich and generous man who gives twice the offering everyone else does.

 

Despite his generosity, people look down on him, because he has no children.

 

A man named Rueben suggests that Joachim and Anna are cursed and that they must be hiding some secret sinful lifestyle that is leading to their childlessness.

 

After that encounter, Joachim is devastated, and he runs out into the desert, where he says he will not eat or drink until God sends him a message.

 

Meanwhile, Anna is hurt that her husband has vanished into the wilderness, and she prays to God to give her a child. She promises that whether the child is a male or female, she will dedicate it to God.

 

An angel appears to her and says that she will conceive and that her child will be known to the entire world.

 

The angel then appears to Joachim in the desert and tells him the news, at which point he returns to Anna and celebrates that they’ve conceived.

 

Nine months later, Anna gives birth to a child.

 

What is it, she asks the midwife.

 

A girl, the midwife says.

 

And Anna says, “My soul exalts this day.”

 

She names her Mary.

 

As promised, they dedicate Mary to God.

 

They build a sanctuary in their home while she’s still a baby and don’t let anything unclean enter Mary’s room.

 

They don’t let just anyone babysit her either – only the “pure daughters of the Hebrews.”

 

When Mary is 3, they take her to the temple and hand her over to the priests.

 

She grows up living in the holy of holies, the most sacred part of the temple, a place most people are not allowed to enter, especially women.

 

There, she’s fed by the hand of an angel.

 

I imagine it was quite an isolated childhood…

 

When she’s 12, and ready to begin her menses, the priests become worried that she’ll defile the temple. Any bodily discharge was considered unclean, and so women of Mary’s age were necessarily unclean typically once a month.

 

An angel comes to Zechariah with an answer. He invites all of the widowers in Judea to come to the temple and bring their staffs with them.

 

The angel tells him that God will send a sign, and that the man to whom he shows a sign will be the one to take Mary in.

 

When it comes to Joseph, a particularly elderly widower, a dove flies out of his staff, and the priests agree that Joseph should take her in.

 

Joseph is of course reluctant.

 

“I have sons and am old,” he says, “while she is young. I will not be ridiculed among the children of Israel.”

 

The priests remind him of all the stories of what happens to people who disobey God, and they put enough fear in Joseph that he agrees to take Mary in and protect her.

 

Shortly after, he has to leave town to build houses. He promises Mary that God will protect her.

 

While he’s gone, Angel appears to Mary… says she will conceive. She asks – like all women conceive? No, he says, Not like that Mary. The power of God will come over you. Thus, the holy one who is born will be called the son of the most high. And you will call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.

At that point, Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth, who greets her as we read last week. And  in the Gospel of Luke, Mary responds with the Magnificat, which we read today.

When Mary returns home, and Joseph also gets back from his trip, he’s devastated when he sees Mary’s pregnant.

He’s failed.

 

He was supposed to protect her, and now she’s pregnant.

 

She insists she didn’t do anything wrong.

 

To which, Joseph responds, “Then where did this thing in your womb come from then?”

 

That night, Joseph has a dream in which an angel comes to him and says, “The child in Mary is from the Holy Spirit. Call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Joseph wakes up and glorifies God.

 

Next day – a scribe comes to him and says, “Joseph, why haven’t you appeared to our traveling group?”

Joseph – I was tired.

 

Priest sees Mary pregnant – runs at top speed to the high priest and tells on Joseph.

 

Joseph and Mary dragged before the court.

 

Insist that Joseph return Mary to the temple.

 

Joseph weeps.

Priest, moved by his suffering – “give you the water of God’s wrath to drink it and it will make your sin clear in your eyes.”

They both return unharmed, proving to the priest that they were telling the truth, and they are cleared of all charges.

Leave rejoicing and praising God.

Then comes the census…, which show up in our other Gospels.

As they travel, Mary asks to be let down from the donkey – her labor pains are starting.

He finds shelter for in a cave, and he stations his two sons to watch her while he runs into town to find a Hebrew midwife in Bethlehem.

On his way down the mountain, a woman shouts to him – Man, where are you going in such a rush?

To find a midwife…

Explains the whole situation with the Holy Spirit…

She says, “Well, I happen to be a midwife.”

He says, “Come and see”

 

“Joseph finds a midwife, and explains to her Mary’s special impregnation by the Holy Spirit. They make their way back to the cave, where a dark cloud was hovering over. As they approached, a blinding light shone from inside the cave, driving away the cloud, and when the light disappeared baby Jesus was born.”

Midwife proclaims, “My soul glories this day, for today, my eyes have seen a miracle: salvation has come to Israel.”

—-

It’s impossible to know what is “factual” about the Christmas story. But certainly, there is Truth within it.

 

What truth does this text hold for you this Christmas?

What part of Christmas legitimately brings you joy?

What makes you laugh?

What resonates with you?

 

What resonates with me – Elizabeth piece – how Mary, rejected and scorned finds blessing and love in her encounter with the Holy Spirit through Elizabeth.

What resonates with you?

We say in the UCC that “God is still speaking.”

What Truth is God speaking to you this Christmas?