Summary of the Text
Rediscovering the Wonder of Jesus’ Birth: It is said that familiarity breeds contempt, but sometimes familiarity breeds something far less intense, but equally as destructive—complacency.
As a child, I attended a parochial school, in which we were required to memorize Luke 2:1-20. The rote memorization became a chore that somewhat clouded the meaning of the text for me. Subsequent years were filled with Christmas pageants, some dull, some humorous, all insipidly reductionistic in the way in which they sucked the wonder out of Luke’s narrative in exchange for a ho-hum, kitsch child’s play. Now, please do not misunderstand me.
Memorization of scripture and the innocent reenactment of such a narrative are in themselves very beautiful and worthy, but for me they became the all-too-familiar that bred complacency, a near cousin to contempt. Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth became a thing of familiarity scrubbed of its poverty, pain, providence, and power.
Luke’s travelogue of trial and triumph should shatter our conceptions of comfort and contentment and lay us vulnerable before an incarnate God. Unfortunately, it is too often domesticated and trivialized by media portrayals and even the church who has canonized the story, but traded in the wonder.
If we are to proclaim this seemingly “tired” story of Luke’s Gospel, we need to be renewed in our awe and wonder of its telling, to discover its beautiful truth afresh.
A Story of Poverty, Pain, Providence, & Power: This narrative has received its fair share of historical head scratching because of Luke’s naming of a census under Publius Suplicius Quirinius, legate of Syria, that does not match other historical records in its dating. While verification of historical renderings may be top of the mind to the modern sentiment, Luke may be spared such scrutiny. He gets certain things right while missing some precision.
Luke’s self-declared overarching literary intent is to give an account of the life of Jesus and his church as he plainly states to his dear Theophilus (Luke 1:3), but an additional desire for this disciple and others who receive the unfolding of the story, is to provide a contrast between the haves and the have-nots, between the haughty and the humble, the powerful and the poor, the striving of man and the sovereignty of God. The divinely inspired events are given a literary structure and intent. Wrangling over the precision of Luke’s chronology leads to more contempt, more complacency and less contemplation. We need more “wondrous” contemplation!
This story is one of poverty, pain, providence, and power. Poverty and pain are precisely the places in which the providence and power manifest themselves most strongly.
POVERTY: Joseph and Mary are nowhere portrayed in the Gospel of Luke as being persons of means. Later in the story, when the couple presents Jesus in the temple, they bring only the minimal sacrifice indicative of their paucity of provisions (cf. Luke 2:23). But, economic poverty is not the only presenting kind of impoverishment.
Joseph and Mary live under foreign rule. Their very autonomy and pride as a people—Joseph as a descendent of kings and Mary of priests—is robbed by their place as a vassal state of Rome ruled by foreign kings and foreign governors. They are under the thumb of an unholy empire that taxes their people and coerces them to commingle with the profane. It is a poverty of liberty and self-rule.
PAIN: There should be no question that a nearly 100 mile journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem for a woman soon-to-give birth would have proved painful, but such physical pain would have been exacerbated by the emotional pain of giving birth in a place that is not your home.
Luke describes Bethlehem as the ancestral home of Joseph, not Mary. The story is silent as to what familial support Mary may have had from either her own family or that of Joseph’s who may have been living in Bethlehem and its surrounding region. What we do know is that to add to the pain of giving birth in a foreign city apart from family, the scarcity of space forced her to labor in a most inhospitable place–the common stall of animals.
If that would appear to be suffering enough, there was an underlying ache for both Mary and Joseph of the scandal which they bore as a betrothed couple with a child not of Joseph’s making. Angelic announcements aside, a parthenogenesis must have still raised questions, doubts, perspiration, and pain in both the hearts and minds of Joseph and Mary.
PROVIDENCE: Truth be told, God accommodates us in the earthiness of life. He comes to us in our most desperate need. Sometimes he comes to us loudly and other times in a still, small voice, but there is not a time in which he does not show up. Mary and Joseph in their poverty and pain were not forsaken by God. In fact, they were chosen by God to be his unique vessels for the unveiling of his plan of redemption for all of humanity. It was not in their way, their time, or their fashion, but rather in God’s providence.
Henry Ward Beecher said, “We are apt to believe in Providence so long as we have our own way; but if things go awry, then we think, if there is a God, then he is in heaven, and not on earth.” The providential reality of the virgin’s labor in the carved out niche of a cattle stall is this: God is very much present when things go awry and when we do not have our way. It is in just that moment that we experience the incarnation. Only God’s providence could create such a story in such a place with such seemingly disastrous elements accompanying it. God becomes one of humanity’s children through the poverty, pain, and homelessness of a broken couple.
POWER: The story speaks of shepherds out in the field watching their flocks in the heart of the night. They were greatly surprised by the appearance of an angel announcing tidings of great joy for the birth of a savior in the city of David. Even greater surprise ensued when the angelic solo became a chorus. Why was God’s power manifest to shepherds? They were in some respects the least of the citizens of Israel. However, why not?
Joseph and Mary, although possessing an impressive pedigree, were themselves some of the last of the least. Perhaps the power of God’s message in the incarnation and in his choice of recipients of the news is that his power is revealed in and to the powerless first and foremost.
At the same time, Israel’s leaders were described by the prophets as the shepherds of Israel who had allowed the sheep to scatter. David, whose kingdom would have no end, was himself a shepherd who most likely knew the fields in which these men tended their sheep. It is only fitting for God to choose to announce the true Shepherd of Israel who would gather the sheep to himself to a group of herders.
God’s power made manifest to the powerless is not a far cry from Paul’s sentiment in 2 Corinthians 12:9, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” The wonder of the nativity is precisely that, in poverty, pain, weakness, and even in the mundane and the familiar, God’s power is made perfect. The Word has become flesh and moved into our neighborhood in all its clutter, clamour, and crisis.
As Frederick Buechner has said, “The incarnation is a kind of vast joke whereby the Creator of the ends of the earth comes to us in diapers…Until we too have taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken.”
May the wonder of the Nativity capture our hearts anew!
Angle for Preaching: The recent refugee crisis in Afghanistan may provide a helpful backdrop for the preacher in considering the idea of displacement from hearth and home that Mary and Joseph endured not simply in the journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, but the greater pressures they felt under the rule of the Romans. I picture an Afghani woman forced from her home by the transfer of power to the Taliban, pregnant and fleeing for her life and that of her unborn baby, displaced from her place of familiarity and comfort. This is akin to the kind of circumstances in which the God of the universe lowered himself to be found among the powerless in order to proclaim the presence of his power.
Scott Bullock is a Board Member and Contributor with The Pastors Workshop. He is an ordained Presbyterian minister who has served churches in Illinois, New Jersey, and California. He holds an MA in New Testament Studies from Wheaton College, an MDiv from Fuller Theological Seminary, and a ThM in New Testament from Princeton Theological Seminary. Scott is married with three teen-aged children.
Home shall men come
To an older place than Eden
And a taller town than Rome.
To the end of the way of the wandering star;
To the things that cannot be and that are,
To the place where God was homeless
And all men are at home.
G.K. Chesterton, The House of Christmas
The Humanity of Jesus’ Birth
By stating that Jesus is “born of woman”—this Mary (as both St. Matthew and St. Luke attest)—St. Paul insists that Jesus is most emphatically human, the “firstborn of all creation. That this Mary is at the same time a virgin prevents the birth of Jesus from being reduced to what we know or can reproduce from our own experience.
Life that is unmistakably human life is before us here, a real baby from an actual mother’s womb; there is also a miracle here, and mystery that cannot be brushed aside in our attempts to bring the operations of God, let alone our own lives, under our control.
The miracle of the virgin birth, maintained from the earliest times in the church and confessed in its creeds, is, in Karl Barth’s straightforward phrase, a “summons to reverence and worship….” Barth maintained that the one-sided views of those who questioned or denied that Jesus was “born of the virgin Mary” are “in the last resort to be understood only as coming from dread of reverence and only as an invitation to a comfortable encounter with an all too near or all too far-off God.”
Taken from Eugene Peterson, God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas ed. Greg Pennoyer & Gregory Wolfe, 2007, p.5.