Jesus who was born
I don’t know about you, but when I was going through a process of belief-deconstruction a while ago, questioning most of the beliefs I’d inherited from my evangelical past, one of the first things to go was any kind of certainty about who Jesus is. I found it much easier to talk about God, and relate to God, than I did to Jesus. I couldn’t affirm any more that Jesus was the Son of God, I didn’t even know what that might mean. And the idea of Jesus being part of a Trinity seemed unnecessarily complex and abstruse. Since then, I’ve been gradually putting things back together, in a slightly different shape than they were before. And I’ve come to appreciate again the centrality of Jesus to Christian faith.
So today, I’m going to embark on another sermon series. This series is about Jesus. I don’t want to convince anyone of anything they find hard to swallow. But I want to offer some ways back in to engaging with the person of Jesus Christ. Christianity is defined by what it says about Jesus. Many people have faith in God, and experience the presence or activity of God in the world. Some of these people engage with God through the other theistic religions, Judaism and Islam. Others have a more generic perspective on God…considering themselves spiritual because of their belief in the reality of a Divine source or being, but not belonging to any particular religion. What makes Christianity distinctive is not so much that we engage with the reality of God, but that we claim that our idea of God and our access to God are mediated through the person of Jesus Christ.
Many people from non-Christian traditions also have respect for Jesus. They may read the gospels, or hear about some of Jesus’ teaching or actions, and they respond positively to him. Islam considers Jesus to be an important prophet. Ghandi brought about change and renewal to his own religion with reference to Jesus’ teachings. Other people include Jesus among their pantheon of spiritual guides or influences, alongside other spiritual figures. I think we can celebrate and affirm these positive responses to Jesus within other faith frameworks. This is a starting place for dialogue. Unfortunately, people’s respect for Jesus is often diminished by their alarm about the behaviour of his followers. But I think as well, that there are some things that the Christian faith wants to say about Jesus, or to Jesus, that are distinctively Christian. And, in fact, I would say that the primary thing that defines Christianity is Jesus.
So over the next few weeks, I’m going to spend some time trying to come to grips with what those things are that are important to affirm about Jesus, not just as a theological exercise, but so that we might be encouraged to seek and follow Jesus more closely, to engage with him with more of our hearts, to be open to his influence in our lives. Because ultimately one of the most important things about the Christian faith is that God becomes present to us most profoundly not in a book, or in a tradition, but in person. And that person not only has a flesh and blood history on this earth, but also a cosmic eternal presence at the heart of God. He knows us and can be known by us, in the midst of the daily round of our lives.
I start today with some reflections on the importance of Jesus’ birth. I’ll look at the birth narratives from the gospels to see what they were attempting to express, and wander briefly in the theological territory of the incarnation. Next week I’ll spend some time with the Jesus who lived among people as a healer, a teacher, a reformer, and a mystic. After that, I’ll devote some time to the significance of Jesus’ death, looking at ways that his death can have meaning for us. And at the end of this wee series I’ll reflect on the Jesus who we proclaim as risen from the dead and who lives now, whose presence can still be encountered by those who seek after him.
So firstly, what did Jesus’ followers think happened at Jesus’ birth? We need to remember that the people who wrote the gospels shaped their narratives to illustrate who they had come to believe Jesus was, and what his life meant. The birth stories of Luke and Matthew are crafted to proclaim that Jesus’ life was intertwined with God’s right from the moment of his conception. Mostly, they described these things in ways that would have communicated meaningfully to Jewish hearers.
Luke has the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth, giving birth to John the Baptist, as a parallel to Mary giving birth to Jesus. This situates the arrival of Jesus into the convention of the barren woman who conceives, a miracle, alongside the virgin who conceives, another miracle. The parallel suggests that God is at work in the birth of Jesus in ways that are new, as well as consistent with the way God has been seen to work in Israel’s past. Mary’s Magnificat is based on the prayer of Hannah, the barren woman who gave birth to Samuel in the First Testament.
The stories of angelic visitation again assert that God was at work from the beginning of this child’s entry into the world. Emperor Augustus’ census required Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem to give birth, rather than staying in Galilee. Bethlehem is the city of David, and so in this way the narrative affirms Jesus’ royal lineage. The angels that turn up at Jesus’ birth proclaim that Jesus is saviour, messiah and Lord, that he is the ‘son of the most high’ and that he will sit on the throne of his ancestor David. These claims are to do with the long awaited hopes of the Jewish people. They assert that the longed for messiah, the one who would renew the line of kings from David, rule justly in Israel and restore the nation has indeed arrived. They are also a direct challenge to the existing rule of Caesar, who claimed the title son of God for himself.
Matthew starts with a genealogy, tracing Jesus’ line back through David to Abraham. Jesus is the fulfilment of the foundational covenant in Israel’s self-understanding. Matthew also has the story of the wise men, a sign that the significance of Jesus’ birth went far beyond just the Jewish people. Entwined with the narrative of the wise men is the story of Herod’s fear, and the slaughter of the innocents. Here we have another instance where the gospel narrative puts Jesus’ identity as messiah in opposition to the ruling power. Herod is depicted as seeing the birth of Jesus as a threat to his kingship, and so he takes drastic measures to kill Jesus. This leads to Joseph, Mary and Jesus fleeing into Egypt. When they return from Egypt, we of course have a parallel with the exodus of the Israelites out of slavery, suggesting that Jesus is the new Moses, or perhaps, the new Israel.
I am not going to insist on the literal fact of any of these events. It seems evident to me that while some of these things undoubtedly happened, there is also some crafting of the narrative along theological lines, in order to proclaim truths about who the writers knew Jesus to be. I can embrace the meaning of these truths without needing to know particularly of the nuts and bolts of what really happened. What I glean from reading these birth narratives is that the people who lived with Jesus, and continued to follow him after his death, experienced in him the fulfilment of the hopes of their people. These hopes unfolded in surprising and unexpected ways. Many of the gospel stories show the disciples trying to come to grips with Jesus teaching and living in ways quite different from what the a messiah would be expected to do. But they saw and heard and felt enough to be able to proclaim that this Jesus was no ordinary man. When they encountered him, they knew that God was in their midst.
The gospel of John takes things a little further. This gospel was written a bit later than the others, and therefore was the product of a longer period of reflecting on the experience of living with Jesus, and also more experiences of the risen Jesus. It’s also written in a different style. John’s gospel is more abstract than the others, and more theological, it goes further in trying to explain who Jesus was, why he came, and what it means to respond to him. John’s gospel starts with the words ‘in the beginning’ which are a reference to the opening words of Genesis. John’s gospel situates Jesus as the Word that was with God ‘in the beginning’, thus tracing Jesus back to pre-existing the creation of the earth. It is this eternal Jesus, this creator Jesus, who came ‘into the world’ as ‘light into darkness’. In John, Jesus comes from outside the world, to dwell in the world. At the end of the first chapter of John we read ‘no-one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the father’s heart, who has made him known.’ So there’s the beginning there of the theology of incarnation, the idea that the creator God came into the world to live among us as a human.
I have gone through a personal cycle of accepting, then rejecting and then accepting again, this notion of the incarnation. For a while there I believed that Jesus was only anointed as the son of God at the point of his baptism, when he was filled with the Holy Spirit and began to do the work of God in the Spirit’s power and presence. I still think that this is true on one level. But I’m willing to accept the paradox of several different descriptions of the same reality all contributing to a deeper truth that sits beyond our language concepts. So I have come back around to valuing the doctrine of incarnation as having something important to offer theologically about the closeness of God, the grace of God, the willingness of God to enter into our situation.
Here’s a story that reflects where I’m coming from at the moment. Earlier this year we spent a weekend at Port Waikato, and one evening I decided that I would walk down to the beach at night, hoping to meet with God there in the waves and the stars and the space and silence. It had been raining and was still spitting a bit, and so as it turned out I couldn’t see any stars except a little fine strip across the sky. The tide was in and was pretty ferocious, and once I’d walked up the beach beyond the spill of the street lights I couldn’t see the tide mark any more, so wasn’t sure if I was going to get hit by a wave. So at a certain point I stopped walking and just stood there and felt how incredibly barren and frightening the environment was, and how absent God was. No comforting sense of presence. No exhilarating sense of God’s power or energy. Just implacable, mindless surf pounding towards me in a darkness that contained no hint of God. I was reminded just how personality-less ocean is. It will kill a person without compunction or feeling. It just goes on. Is this also part of what God is like? I thought to myself. I had my epiphany walking back towards the street lamps, and feeling fondly towards their fake, but warm, yellow light. I found myself feeling profoundly grateful for humans, and for the signs of human contact and human creativity. For signs of personality. And then realising: this is what Jesus is for. While sometimes I can have a sense of God’s benevolence and beauty directly through God’s creation, most of the time, I need the reality of God mediated to me by someone human. The Christian doctrine of the incarnation says that in Jesus Christ, the ineffable, untouchable God was present, revealed through a human life.
So, the Christian doctrine of the incarnation is important to me. That’s probably not a good reason for believing in it as absolute truth. But I think centuries of Christian tradition have found the incarnation to be a deep and resonant symbol, a way of trying to describe the mystery that in some way God comes to dwell among us. I’m not going to attempt to draw out the theology of how Jesus was or wasn’t simultaneously divine and human. But what I do want to say is that those who knew and experienced Jesus both before and after his death, felt that in him they touched God and knew God, even as he lived among them as human as they were. Jesus was a human in whom people recognised and experienced the character and power of God. Jesus was and is a sacrament…a physical person who mediates and reveals God to us. In the words of Marcus Borg, for Christians, Jesus is the decisive disclosure of God in a human life.
More than this, as the early Christians reflected on their experience of Jesus, they began to affirm that the Jesus who was born among us has an eternal reality beyond his earthly life. So we have passages in the Bible that name Jesus as having been part of the process of creation, who continues to be the sustainer of all life, and the revealer of the invisible God, coming into the world, and after his death, returning to be with God.
It’s difficult, heady, abstract stuff. What’s the point of it? What does it all mean?
One thing is that we can be guided by Jesus in describing the character of God, what God is like. As Jesus said, if we have seen him, we have seen the Father, or as Paul puts it in Colossians, Jesus is ‘the image of the invisible God’. So as we meditate on the person and the words of Christ, mediated to us as they are through the voices of early Christian communities, we are engaging with something essential about who God is. As Jesus loved, and healed, and challenged, and spent time with people, so we can know that God is loving, healing, challenging, and engaged with people’s lives.
Another thing is that we don’t have to feel as though God is a completely alien ‘other’, who has no experience or understanding of what it means to be human. As the book of Hebrews affirms, Jesus had to become ‘like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest’. In some way, God has experienced the suffering that Jesus suffered in his life on earth. God is no stranger to human pain.
I’ve said that Jesus is the way we come to know God. But also, Jesus is also the way we come to know what it means to be a real human. Jesus the man lived a life full of God, a life in touch with God from his birth through to his death. In this way he is our example of true humanity. There’s a limit to how far we can absorb this through reading about Jesus. I think that in order to step into our own lives in the same way Jesus did, we also need to encounter him face to face, as his early disciples did. This is where things get mystical, and where our hearts need to be engaged in prayer and worship that has Jesus at its centre. In that way we will come not only to see Jesus, but to see by means of Jesus, through his eyes, and with his spirit.
To conclude today… we know that Jesus was born. Some people recognised in this birth the fulfilment of the hopes of Israel for a messiah. Others, from outside Israel’s religion, recognised in Jesus the presence of the Divine. The gospel writings reach for metaphors and narrative patterns to describe this mystery, of a man who mediated God to other human beings. As Christians, we inherit the experience of the early followers of Jesus, recognising in his birth something more than the birth of any other person who has walked this earth. When we talk about Jesus, I think as Christians it is important to affirm the mystery at the heart of his identity. I don’t think we need to get pedantic about using words like ‘Son of God’ to insist on this mystery. That’s one metaphor among several we could use. But I do think that we need to affirm, along with those who touched him in the flesh, that in his life, more than any other, we see and know and touch the heart of God.
As people who want to follow Christ today, we face a question. Do we accept the testimony of those who experienced God through Jesus roughly 2000 years ago? When we encounter Jesus through the Bible, through other people, or personally in our prayer…will we ‘write him up’ in our lives as one who reveals God, and who therefore claims our engagement and our worship? Jesus asked his disciples ‘who do you say that I am?’ In our lives not just once, but day by day, who are we going to say that Jesus is for us?