v.4 “Bethlehem”: Luke never actually says in this passage that any OT prophecy is here being fulfilled. But, just as Malachi 3 and 4 lay behind Gabriel’s message to Zechariah and Isaiah 7 lay behind his message to Mary, without Luke actually saying so, so Micah 5:2‑5 lies unmistakably beneath the history he is reporting here, and it is all the more effective for his understatement of that fact.
Events conspire to ensure that the birth will occur in Bethlehem. There was no reason for the baby to be born in Bethlehem. Children didn’t have to be born in the ancestral city or town of their parents, but even a pagan emperor’s need for revenue is made to contribute to the unfolding of God’s salvation – and, in Bethlehem a mother gives birth to a prince of ancient lineage who will shepherd the scattered flock of Israel and extend his authority to the ends of the earth, proclaiming peace! That pretty well wraps up Micah’s prediction!
v.5 There is debate as to whether “betrothed” means that Joseph and Mary were still not married.
v.7 Now everyone knows what this means because we have seen it depicted in manger scenes a thousand times. Jesus was born in a stable or a barn, the structures we are used to seeing on farms and ranches. I’ve always assumed that myself. I’m quite sure I’ve told you that myself in the past. I remember reading to you Luther’s nativity sermon in which he makes a point of those circumstances. However, it is doubtfully true as recent scholarship, led by men who have lived in the Middle East and know its culture intimately, has shown. Previous scholarship tended to read the text according to the conventions of Western, not oriental life. What this statement almost certainly means is that Jesus was born in a private home. In those days most people – apart from the really wealthy – lived in the same structure as their animals. Either they lived on the top floor with the animals below or together with them on the single floor of the house, a floor that has an upper level for the family and a lower level for the cow, the donkey, and a few sheep. In either case, the manger was in the house. A middle-eastern farmer today would read this narrative and assume that Jesus was born in a private home. There would have been few if any separate structures for animals in a poor village like Bethlehem. [Kenneth Bailey, Through Peasant Eyes, xv-xvi] We have tended historically to condemn the citizens of Bethlehem for failing to provide hospitality to Joseph and his very pregnant wife, but there is no great likelihood that there was any failure of hospitality.
Many of the other traditional features of the nativity story are likewise not present in the biblical narrative: that Jesus was born at night; that the birth occurred virtually upon their arrival in Bethlehem (v. 6 suggests the opposite), and that they tried to find accommodation but were refused for lack of space.
Indeed, the translation “inn” has also recently been challenged by scholars more familiar with ANE practice and vocabulary. The ordinary word for “inn” or “hostel” does not appear here and the word translated “inn” is used elsewhere in the Gospel to refer to a guest room (Luke 22:10-12), indeed it is used to refer to the room where Jesus and his disciples celebrated the Passover and instituted the Lord’s Supper for the first time the night of his betrayal. That room was a guest room of someone’s home and yet it is referred to with the term that is used here and traditionally translated “inn.” So the meaning may well be that the guest room of the home in which Joseph and Mary stayed was already occupied when they arrived.
If Jesus was born in a private home it is likely that Mary had a good deal of help in the childbirth, the women of the home and among the guests also there. Perhaps the village midwife was also called. Not the scene we are used to but very likely what actually happened. It has even been pointed out that when the shepherds got to Bethlehem and found the Christ child in a barn they would immediately have done something about that, taken them to their homes or whatever. But he likely wasn’t in a barn but in a home surrounded by people caring for him and his mother.
Ancient tradition held that Jesus was born in a cave. That is possible. Many village homes began in caves and were enlarged from there. A basilica today stands over the traditional site of the cave in which the Lord Jesus was born in Bethlehem.
In any case, the incarnation has now been manifest, though no one really fully grasped the identity of this baby boy. As Augustine so beautifully reminds us:
“He was created of a mother whom he created. He was carried by hands that he formed. He cried in the manger in wordless infancy, he the Word, without whom all human eloquence is mute.” [Sermons, 188.2]
It is a lesson that young preachers have to learn and that wise preachers often teach. Sermons should be composed and then preached as if the preacher is sure that he has unbelievers in the audience before him. He should choose his words with the unbeliever’s mind and heart in view. He should construct his argument as if trying to win over the skeptic, not simply to assure the already convinced. There are several reasons why this is good advice. First, there often are unbelievers present, even if they are not always known to be unbelievers and do not identify themselves as such. The preacher is more likely to reach them and win them if he is trying to. Second, many Christian believers will understand the argument better and be more helped by it if it is put in the terms that make sense to an unbeliever: simple, direct, requiring no previous knowledge, no acquaintance with technical religious vocabulary, and so on. Third, in this way believers learn to make the case for their faith in ways that are helpful to unbelievers. Christians do not always know how to do this. Their manner often gets in the way of their message. The way they hear the gospel preached should teach them how to declare it themselves. There are other reasons as well, but it is a long-accepted principle of good preaching that the argument of the sermon should be constructed with a view to the unbelievers present. Even when the subject concerns Christians and only Christians – say, how to live the Christian life – it will be more effectively taught, more clearly taught, if the preacher imagines that unbelievers, non-Christians will be listening in.
And if that is true in general, how much more when dealing with the Christmas story, a story that at least to some degree in our culture believers and unbelievers share. This is a part of the Christian message most unbelievers know. Surely that makes it more important to preach about this message as if unbelievers were present and sometimes even to set before us all the meaning of this history as if we were hearing it for the very first time. And perhaps especially at Christmas the sermon is to be preached with a view to not just any unbeliever but the most skeptical, even hostile of unbeliever.
The greatest story ever told begins in obscurity in a small, humble Judean village. It doesn’t finally make any difference whether Jesus was born in a barn or in a house; the circumstances were humble in either case. He was certainly not born in a palace, where we might expect the future king to be born. A young Galilean girl gives birth to her firstborn, a son. She was, so far as anyone could tell no different from any number of other young women who gave birth in their teens in those days and her baby boy no different than a host of others like him. Mary and Joseph knew that something profound was up; but I suspect they told few others of what had happened to them for the very obvious reasons that few would have believed them and that a good many might have taken their story as a rather desperate effort to cover up sexual sin.
But what had happened was to change the world because the baby boy was not, in fact, like every other baby boy born to poor Jewish parents. Micah, who told us 700 years before the birth of Christ that he would be born in Bethlehem, also told us that the one to be born was one who would be ruler in Israel, whose going forth is from of old, from ancient days. Malachi, whose prophecy of both the forerunner and the Messiah figured so largely in the first chapter of Luke, identified Jesus as the Lord. In time it would become clear that he was no one less than God himself, the Maker of heaven and earth, now come in human nature.
This is the admittedly outrageous claim that the Christian faith has made from that time to this, outrageous unless, of course, it is true. If true, it is not so much outrageous as wonderful beyond words, a deep mystery to be sure, but the hope of mankind, all of which Christians believe the incarnation to be: God undertaking what had to be done to rescue us from our sin and the death that was the righteous judgment of our sin. And so coming into the world as a man he lived in our place as our substitute and died in our place on our behalf. And, of course, everything rests upon this. Christians have never denied this. God becoming man, the baby Jesus being in fact both God and man at the same time. There can be no Good Friday, there can be no Easter unless first there is Christmas as Luke and Matthew have described it.
If Christ were not God then, whatever he was, he is of no particular significance to you and me in 2011. If he were a mere man, then the claims that Christians have made for him are genuinely preposterous. He is not the way, the truth, and the life, the only way to the Father, as he once claimed. If there is a God we must discover some other way to find him because the long dead Jesus Christ can hardly help us now. If he was not the incarnate God – God come now also as a human being – the claims that he performed miracles, that he died for the sins of the world, that he rose from the dead as victor over sin and death, that he ascended to the right hand of his Father in heaven, that he is coming again to judge the living and the dead; I don’t think any of us would believe any of it if we didn’t first believe that he came into the world as the God-Man. are all rendered null and void. The incarnation is the foundation of everything else that we will learn about Jesus in the Gospels and the foundation of our faith in him as the Savior of the world and the King of Kings as we are taught in the rest of the NT. He must be both God and Man!
But is it true. We read only the first seven verses of chapter 2, but can we believe that angels announced his birth to shepherds, that magi came from the east following a star in order to worship him, that he would grow up to perform miracles, and after he was crucified rise from the dead? Is this true?
Lots of stories of heroes long ago are charming, beautiful, and elevating in their moral tone like the Christmas story. Think of St. Nicolas, the famous St. Nick of Christmas lore. He lived in what is now Turkey in the 5th century. A host of stories have grown up around his memory including that on the day of his birth, he rose from his bath, joined hands with his father and mother, and sang praise to God for giving him birth. He was apparently a precocious child! Further, as an infant, he only nursed on Wednesdays and Fridays, fasting on the other days. I hope that you children who eat every day are properly ashamed of yourselves! It is from the example of this good and kindly man – who, of course, would have laughed at such ridiculous stories about himself – a man famous for his charity, that we give gifts to others, especially children at Christmas time.
Or we Americans might think of the story of young George Washington, as boys will sometimes do, chopping down his father’s young cherry tree. When his father, as fathers will, confronted George about it, he admitted his guilt in those memorable words: “Father, I cannot tell a lie!” But, charming as that story is, no one thinks it actually happened.
But here is the claim that a host of utterly unprecedented events that beggar human imagination – angelic announcements of miraculous births, the conception of a child in a virgin’s womb – led to another event: the entrance of God into the world as a man, an event that defies all our expectations of what is possible in human life. Can we believe this? Ought we to believe it? You and I have never seen an angel or had one speak to us.. We’ve never seen a miracle, not a miracle such as are reported in Holy Scripture. Should we accept that what we are reading in Luke 2 is real history? If we do it will have massive implications for life. But most university professors don’t believe that Luke is writing real history. Should we? Josephus, the Jewish historian of the first century, certainly no Christian, said of Jesus, whom he apparently had never personally seen or met, but of whom he had heard many things, said that he was a wise man, a worker of amazing deeds, and one accused by leading Jews who condemned him to the cross. [Antiquities 18.3.3] But he didn’t become a follower of Jesus. Should we?
Well, no one doubts that Luke thought he was narrating history in the ordinary sense of the word when he wrote the narrative that we have in Luke 2: giving an account of what happened. He begins by locating the birth of Jesus in time: it happened when Augustine was emperor and in the context of a tax registration – for that was what a Roman census was – a census in some way associated with Quirinius. You may be aware that there is no independent confirmation of this registration. Luke mentions another such registration in Acts that took place some years later and we know about that one from independent sources. But the fact is, if I were to tell give you what we know about Roman practice and about how Herod applied that practice in Judea and about Quirinius and so on, you would conclude that there is nothing at all implausible about this account. Luke has fixed it firmly in the history, the circumstances, the culture of that time. There was a reason why Joseph and Mary made the trip to Bethlehem, the hometown of their clan, even though Mary was heavy with child.
At every place where Luke can be checked he has proven to be a very reliable historian, more reliable than any other historian of the ancient period. Taking his two-volume history together – remember he was an eyewitness of some of the events he records in the book of Acts and consulted eyewitnesses for the rest – it is very difficult to believe that Luke was duped, or that he didn’t care to get his facts right, or that he was easily convinced of the historicity of events that never happened. Indeed, he has told us in his prologue that he took great care to tell the truth about the events he relates, no matter how phenomenal that truth may be. Luke has convinced more than one scholar inclined to doubt his narrative that he is to be trusted down to the details.
There is certainly no mythical character about Luke’s narrative as has often been pointed out. It is a straightforward reporting of events as they occurred. And it is highly unlikely that anyone inventing the story would ever have thought to write it as Luke did: with the King of Kings being born incognito in such humble circumstances in a small village in Judea, at the time utterly unrecognized for what he was by the great men of the world, and then that he would live a quiet boyhood in Galilee and grow up still unrecognized as the Savior of the world. No one was expecting the incarnation. And no Jew would have imagined inventing this story! He would have assumed it would be blasphemous to make God out to be a man.
This past week I have read two accounts by atheists who have admitted – something that is happening more often these days – that much of what is precious to us as human beings (whether our moral discernment or our sense of the significance of our lives) cannot be justified without belief in God. As I mentioned in a previous sermon, people who cannot explain human life as we all know it to be, who cannot account for what is most important to us, and who can give us no hope for the future (for which hope we all have an innate longing) have very little claim on our confidence that they know better than we do what can or cannot happen in the world. Fabulously important things about human life cannot be explained when God is denied and if God is admitted then all sorts of things become possible that were thought impossible before. Is that not the logic of the situation?
I do not mean to suggest that we can prove Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the days of Augustus and Herod. We have plenty of evidence – Christian and non-Christian alike – that he was, but such evidence is not proof in the formal sense. In this sense we can’t prove that Napoleon was the king of France or that Julius Caesar conquered Gaul. Or, for that matter, that we really did land on the moon in 1969 and that the event wasn’t staged in the Nevada desert! But there are a great many things we know that we cannot prove in the sense that we can prove the Pythagorean Theorem. Arguments, however strong can rarely break through man’s native opposition to the truth. As virtually anyone can see who carefully observes human life, we hold opinions because we want to and we refuse to believe other things because they are distasteful to us.
Christopher Hitchens has made a name for himself writing recently in defense of atheism. His brother Peter, who became a Christian in his adulthood, has written eloquently in defense of the Christian faith. Same background, same family culture, same kind of education, same sparkling intelligence, but one is an unbeliever and one a believer; one mocks the idea of God coming into the world as a human baby, the other is sure it happened just as Luke said. For a long time Peter Hitchens was an unbeliever like his brother. He liked being an atheist because it helped him to fit into sophisticated culture. Only later did he realize that his approval of atheism and his disapproval of the Christian message had everything to do with his personal tastes and nothing to do with facts.
In one of his books he quotes from a letter that the English novelist, Virginia Woolf, wrote to her sister. The subject was the poet T.S. Eliot’s conversion to Christianity.
“I have had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot, who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. He has become an Anglo-Catholic [that is, an Anglican of the high church wing], believes in God and immortality, and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to me more credible than he is. I mean, there’s something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God.” [Cited in Rage Against God, 24]
Hitchens notes that there is something frantic in that letter with its ill-tempered vocabulary: “shameful, obscene,” and the like. Only later did Hitchens come to see that such a spiteful screed concealed Woolf’s real emotion: fear; fear that Eliot as well as being a greater talent than she was may also be right about God!
But here is a better example still because we are, after all, reading a portion of Luke’s Gospel. I told you some years ago of Eta Linnemann. Prof. Linnemann was a German biblical scholar of some note. I knew of her in my days as a graduate student in NT. And she was a specialist in the Gospels. In her student days she studied under the best and brightest of the German theological academy, Rudolph Bultmann among them, and completely absorbed their perspective on the Bible which was dismissive of its historicity and un-persuaded by its message. In the age of the light bulb, Bultmann famously said, we can no longer take seriously reports of a virgin birth.
Linnemann accepted this point of view as her own and practiced her considerable scholarship accordingly, searching for the message of the Gospels in, under, around and through what she took to be their mythical and legendary elements. So successful was she at her craft that she became the first woman ever to rise to the coveted position of professor of NT in the German university. (In America everybody is a professor. You can be an assistant professor, an associate professor, or a full professor but you are called “professor” no matter what your full title might be. In Europe there is only one professor. He is the one who is at the top of the heap and everybody is something else; something less. Eta Linnemann was a professor.) All through that time she harbored no doubts that it was necessary to take Luke’s “history” with a large grain of salt when he spoke of a virgin birth or angels singing in the night sky.
And then everything changed. With her it was first the fact that she was too honest and too smart for her own good. She began to realize what the inevitable consequences of her point of view must be and became profoundly disillusioned with life. In her hopelessness – the honest conclusion of her view of life – she began to be addicted to television and to alcohol.
“My bitter personal experience finally convinced me of the truth of the Bible’s assertion: ‘Whoever finds his life will lose it.’ She had found her life. She’d made a tremendous success of her life and now it was lost to her. At that point God led me to vibrant Christians who knew Jesus personally as their Lord and Savior. I heard their testimonies as they reported what God had done in their lives. Finally God himself spoke to my heart by means of a Christian brother’s words. By God’s grace and love I entrusted my life to Jesus.”
Prof. Linnemann goes on to say that coming to know the living Christ completely revolutionized not only her life but her thinking about the Bible and so the Gospels, which were her special area of study.
“I was able to recognize sin clearly as sin rather than merely make excuses for it as was my previous habit. I can still remember the delicious joy I felt when for the first time black was once more black and white was once more white; the two ceased to pool together an indistinguishable gray.
“By God’s grace I experienced Jesus as the one whose name is above all names. I was permitted to realize that Jesus is God’s Son, born of a virgin. He is the Messiah and the Son of Man; such titles not merely conferred on him as the result of human deliberation. [Especially in her day, the titles for the Lord Jesus Christ were an important sub-division of gospel scholarship: Son of Man, Son of God, Messiah and so on. What do these terms mean? What did they mean in that first century? What content did they convey? And that was one area of her study. She’d always thought in a sense that they were made up by the church to express the church’s faith not the historical reality of Jesus of Nazareth. Now she knew differently.] I recognized, first mentally, but then in a vital, experiential way, that Holy Scripture is inspired.”
In an act of repentance Prof. Linnemann took her two books that had made her a worldwide name in NT scholarship and her many journal articles and papers – the product of her professional life – and literally pitched them into the trash. She regards all that she taught about the Gospels in those years before she met Christ as a case of the blind leading the blind. She eventually gave up her cherished position of honor in the German university to become a missionary teacher in Indonesia.
Was Jesus born in Bethlehem to a mother who was still a virgin? Yes, he was and the tentacles of that truth have stretched outward into untold multitudes of human beings, bringing light and life where there was darkness and death before. There are a great many things more difficult to believe than that Jesus was God the Son born to the virgin Mary. Indeed there are a great many things no human being can seem to believe, such as that life has no meaning, there is no right and no wrong, and our lives are going nowhere. No one can believe that; compared to that it’s quite easy to believe the account that Luke has given us here in his gospel. But a great many human beings, including some of the most brilliant among us have concluded that it is not hard at all to believe that the living God might do what Luke says he did, because he loves us and seeks our salvation.
Princeton philosopher Diogenes Allen tells the story of a person who asked him why he should go to church since he had no religious needs. “Because Christianity is true,” was his reply. We are not Christians because Christianity has made us happy or has made our lives easy. It may have made us happy in some respects; it may or may not have made our lives easier. In some respects it makes them much harder. We are not Christians because our Christian faith has solved our personal problems. It may have solved some of them, but it may have added others.
We are Christians because Christianity is true, the Gospels report real history, and the events they record, such as this simple narrative in the opening verses of Luke 2 compel our belief. We cannot help but believe because the baby born in Bethlehem has made himself known to us as the King of Kings and the Savior of the world; our Savior and King.