In a vain attempt a couple of weeks ago to enter into the Christmas spirit I forced the family to watch Nativity 3. It met with mixed reactions. The strongest of which came from one of my children who said, ‘well that’s two hours of my life I’m not getting back’. He had a point.
But how do you explain the events of the nativity? Not the film this time. The actual events of that first Christmas?
The shepherds, the wise men, the star, the angels and a baby born without the involvement of a human father. We’ve got to have an explanation haven’t we? This is not something that we can simply leave and push to one side as though it was unimportant. It’s not. We’ve got to be able to explain it, surely? I reckon there are four typical explanations to the events of that first ever Christmas. Four attempts to explain what happened.
It’s a myth
What I mean is that some of us think that there’s no truth in it. It just didn’t happen. In other words, it’s invented. Someone one just made it up. If that were true, it wouldn’t be the only invented thing accepted at Christmas, now would it?! It’s like ‘The Snowman’, the book by Raymond Briggs that was made into a film in 1982. The Snowman comes to life and takes a small boy on an adventure to the North Pole to meet Santa Claus. We all know it’s not true. It didn’t happen. The Snowman doesn’t actually exist. But we’re happy for him to reappear every year at Christmas. The problem with thinking that Jesus is a myth is that the historical evidence leads to a different conclusion. He really did exist. No serious contemporary historian really doubts that. The writers of the gospels are keen to locate the events in human history. For example, in our reading from Luke’s Gospel this morning he wanted us to know that Jesus’ birth took place in the time of the Roman Caesar Augustus during the census that he instigated when Quirinius was governor of Syria. That’s a whole heap of historical data that precisely locates Jesus’ birth.
No, we can’t say that these events were invented. Whatever it is, it’s not a myth.
It’s a mistake
What I mean is that some of us think that it probably did happen but that the details have been exaggerated. In other words, it’s inaccurate. There’s some truth in it but it’s been embellished. It’s like Robin Hood. In popular folklore he was an outlaw who stole from the rich to feed the poor, operating in Sherwood Forest near Nottingham during the reign of King John II. Historical documents record several men called Robin Hood. It was a common name. And many of them were on the wrong side of the law even if they were on the right side of the people. But about a century or so later folksongs and ballads began to make reference to the supposed antics of him and his merry band of followers. But the Robin Hood of folklore and the Robin Hood of real history are very different characters. The problem with thinking that our understanding of Jesus is mistaken is that anyone who’d exaggerated any of the claims that Jesus made or exaggerated the things that he did would have been immediately discredited. They’d have been shouted down and shown to be fraudsters by the people who heard Jesus say what he said and saw him do what he did. Those eyewitnesses wouldn’t have let people be mistaken as a church grew through the proclamation of something that they knew to be a lie.
No, we can’t say that these events are inaccurate. Whatever it is, it’s not a mistake.
It’s a mystery
What I mean is that some of us think that it certainly did happen but that we can’t know for certain what it means. In other words, it’s inexplicable. It’s like the Malaysian Airlines plane MH370 that crashed a couple of years ago. We all know that it happened. The plan never landed. Bits of the plane have been found in the southern oceans. But no one knows for certain what took place. It’s an unsolved mystery. And we can think of Jesus’ birth like that. It’s a mystery. We just don’t know what it means. We can’t know what it all means. And we just say that it’s profound. It’s deep. It’s beyond our understanding. But the problem with thinking that we can never know the truth is that the rest of the Bible spends most of its time telling us what the truth is. It helps us to make sense of these events.
No, we can’t say that these events are inexplicable. Whatever it is, it’s not a mystery. So what is it? Honestly.
It’s mind blowing
What I mean is that when you get your head round the truth of it, it’ll blow your mind. Nothing’s ever the same once you’ve got it. In other words, it really is an incarnation. That’s not a word that we commonly hear. But it’s the word used to describe what was happening when Jesus was born. Incarnation literally means ‘taking on flesh’ or ‘becoming embodied’. The Bible’s take on Jesus’ birth is that he is God made flesh. As Wesley’s unsurpassed carol ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’ puts it ‘Veiled in flesh the godhead see, hail the incarnate deity, please as man with man to dwell Jesus our Emmanuel’. The angels in Luke 2 put it this way, ‘Today in the town of David (that is, Bethlehem) a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord’. And just so that we’d be absolutely clear who they were talking about they include this line, ‘this will be a sign to you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger’. Jesus is God with us. He is the Lord of all shrunk down into a body just like ours. But why? Why would God go to so much trouble? The clue is the other two names given to him by the angels. First, he is the Messiah, the much promised long awaited anointed king for God’s people. And so secondly and perhaps more clearly, he is our Saviour. God sent his son to be born as a man so that he could save us. To understand the baby in the manger we must remember that he became the man on the cross. There he swapped places with us. A sinless substitute taking the just punishment for sinners. He was born so that God would treat him as though he were me so that God could treat me as though I am him. It is the most mind blowing exchange that has ever or will ever take place.
It’s not a myth. It’s true truth. It’s not a mistake. It’s plain truth. It’s not a mystery. It’s open truth. It’s mind blowing. It’s transformative truth.
What’s your explanation for the events of Christmas? What are you going to tell your kids? And what are you going to tell yourself?