In the opening verses of Luke's gospel, Luke tells Theophilus his reason for writing: "So that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed" (NRSV). As is so often the case with scripture, there is more to this statement than meets the eye. As we race through the final days of Christmas preparations, let us take a few minutes, Mary-like (Luke 2:19), to ponder.
As literal a translation from the Greek as I can make of this Luke 1:4 clause goes something like this: "...in order that, concerning the points on which you have been instructed [catechized], you may know [the truth] with certainty." The Greek word for truth, aletheia, does not appear in the text, but it is clearly implied. The word for instruction or instructed, katekethe, gives us our word, catechesis. Having this additional color to the bare statement helps us get the sense that Luke writes this gospel to help Theophilus - and us - feel the confidence of knowing that we have been well-taught, therefore we have full conviction in the story Luke is about to tell us.
It helps, as well, to look at how other English versions translate this verse:
(English Standard Version) - "...that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught."
(New International Version) - "...so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught."
(Good News Bible) - "...so that you will know the full truth about everything which you have been taught."
(New English Bible) - "...so as to give you authentic knowledge about the matters of which you have been informed."
(And finally, The Message) - "...so you can know beyond the shadow of a doubt the reliability of what you were taught."
Full truth. Real knowledge. Certainty in the subject matter in which Theophilus has been taught. Do we have certain knowledge of what we have been taught? How might our Christmas celebrations give us opportunity to think about how we would answer?
After the introduction to his gospel, Luke then launches into perhaps two of the most famous chapters in all of Holy Scripture. We know the story well. Or do we? Does the full truth, the certainty, the authentic knowledge, about which this opening verse speaks, guard and guide our focus for Christmas? Do we celebrate through what scripture reveals or mainly through the romanticized traditions gaining ever-increasing prominence since the advent of Coca Cola, "It's a Wonderful Life," and various other TV specials? I love these traditions. George Bailey's transformation chokes me up with every viewing. But, in truth, these sentimental cultural accoutrements have precious little to do with the actual Christmas story.
A big part of grasping the true consequence of Christmas is to see that the Savior's coming will put all things to right, all social relations and arrangements and power dynamics. If you read those first two chapters closely, it becomes clear: Israel's king is coming to rule and the consequence is that, integral to the salvation that Christ brings is the meting out of justice. Salvation, which we anticipate with joy, necessarily includes justice. The coming Day of the Lord that Advent scripture readings have been telling us about proclaims that God will rectify all things. Christmas marks the unprecedented acceleration of God's holy plan. Can we, then, like Zechariah and Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, look forward eagerly to this Great Correction? To the righting of all wrongs? To the restoration and renewal of all things, with everything that such restoration and renewal entails?
The Bible consistently confronts us with a beautiful paradox of joyous anticipation and sober understanding of what Christ's coming means. It holds in one hand hopeful longing and in the other honest penitence. We need the whole counsel of God. Dear friends, we need Jesus to come. His birth is not a happy little accessory to our seasonal celebrations. While we joyfully commemorate his coming as the Babe in the manger, we recognize what it means. it means our baptism by the Holy Spirit, our being purified in the refiner's fire.
As I have interacted with church folk across the decades, I often have been distressed at the dearth of basic knowledge of the Christian faith that they confess. Our Christmas cantatas and other services might be telling us more about this condition than we realize. There is no real villain in this scenario. I'm not interested in assigning blame. Rather, I am interested in helping us feel the full weight of the meaning of Jesus' coming. Gentle Jesus is also the king of glory, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, whose eyes are flames of fire, whose word is a sword, who will overcome every resistance - including ours - to the completion of all God's purposes. Jesus is coming to overthrow the powers, to destroy sin, to burn away the dross from our lives.
We need to be ready. We need to get ready. Every Christmas celebration provides the opportunity to prepare. May we be found ready. A blessed, holy Christmas to you. Yes, a full-conviction, joy-filled, Merry Christmas, friends.