“The People of the Nativity”
December 16, 2018
The Rev. Dr. Robert S. Rayburn
I could have chosen any number of paragraphs in Luke 1 and 2 or Matthew 1 and 2 as a text for the sermon I am about to preach. The observation I wish to make this morning about the Christmas history is a feature of the that history in every part. But these verses from Luke 2, perhaps the most famous paragraph in the Bible, serves my purpose as well, if not better than any other part of the history.
v.3 It is a point of the greatest conceivable importance that the narrative of the birth of Jesus is as obviously and intentionally rooted in ordinary history as it is. These things happened when Augustus was the emperor and Quirinius was governor of that region of the Empire. And so, it will continue, indeed to the end of the Bible, as it was a feature of the biblical narrative from the beginning. These wonderful things happened in those days, under those rulers, when these other things were happening in the world. Jesus died during the reign of Tiberius, during the governorship of Pontius Pilate, while Caiaphas was high priest. These are all men known to history from other sources than the Bible. Whatever others may sometimes think or say, this is not mythology in any accepted sense of the word. The authors of the Gospels were writing what everyone understands to be history. People will make their judgments about whether these reports faithfully reproduce what happened, but there can be no mistaking the fact that the Gospel writers intended their readers to understand that these events occurred in precisely the same way that Augustus’ imperial reign or Herod’s governorship occurred. Christ’s birth was a real event in the real world in the same way that taxes are real! And we all know how real taxes are! Into the everyday world of that time, into its population, its politics, and into its social currents, came suddenly and unexpectedly from heaven this mighty and wonderful interruption.
v. 7 We now know, as I pointed out to you in Christmas sermons before, that that word “inn” should be translated rather “main room.” It’s the same word used for the “upper room” in Jerusalem where the Lord’s Supper would be held. And what is meant is that there was no room in the main quarters of the house where the family slept, and, as a result, they had to be in the other room of the house where the animals were brought in for the night. Nazareth was so small a village it was not very likely that there was an inn in the town, and only the wealthy had barns in those days.
v. 15 “The Lord” The shepherds instinctively realized the significance of the message word spoken or sung by angels. God had spoken to them.
One of the powers that dramatically separates human beings from all other creatures and one of man’s most stupendous powers, a power that makes possible so much in human life, is the power of imagination. We can visualize in our mind’s eye other people, other places, other times. We can invent a world inside our heads. To be sure, we waste this power far too much of the time, daydreaming merely to entertain ourselves, or to indulge our covetousness or practice our pride. But so much of human creativity originates in the imagination. Einstein’s annus mirabilis, his four papers published in 1905 that were to transform our understanding of mass, energy, space and time, were born in his imagination, his mental visualizing of such things as a stationary light shining through the windows of a passing train. Most of the world’s great inventions were first visualized in the mind before they were ever reduced to blueprints or manufacturing specifications. Human imagination is often a window on the future. But it is just as often a window on the past. Imagination enables us to see what things were once like and how people lived and who and what they were. By imagination we can enter the real story of human life, even those events that occurred long before we were born.
I’m not sure that I understood what a gift the power of imagination actually is and how much it means to human life until I began to encounter it in the work of men with powerful imaginations. C.S. Lewis’ genius was to a significant degree the power of his imagination. The Screwtape Letters, for example, is as much the fruit of his ability to create a different world in his mind’s eye as are the Narnia stories. His fascination with mythology was due in no small part to his ability to imagine those fantastic worlds. But, it will come as no surprise to you, that it was Alexander Whyte who first taught me what imagination can add to understanding and sympathy. People who knew Dr. Whyte and who sat under his preaching frequently recollected his imaginative power. His was a soul “full of eyes.” [J.M.E. Ross, “Preface,” Lord, Teach us to Pray, viii]
When he summoned up a scene either from the Bible or from daily life he made it vivid and startlingly authentic with his imaginative touches. In his sermon on prayer taken from the Lord’s story of the man who knocked on his neighbor’s door at midnight we hear that the man “comes back; he knocks again: ‘Friend! He cries, till the dogs bark at him.” “Till the dogs bark…” is an imaginative touch, but so life-like. Whyte could see the scene unfold and made his hearers see it as well. Or describing an irreverent family at prayer he enables us to hear their creaking chairs, their yawns and coughs, and the conversation that begins before the Amen is fully spoken! [viii-ix]
Not everyone has a powerful imagination. It is a gift and, like all gifts, comes in varying degrees. The Christian philosopher, Gordon Clark, claimed to have neither images in his memory or the ability to create mental pictures, a condition known as aphantasia. Brilliant as he was, he never progressed beyond an adolescent level of mental visualization. A colleague once asked him if it were true that he couldn’t visualize his wife in his mind’s eye. “No,” he said, “he could not.” [Douma, The Presbyterian Philosopher, 231] But, thankfully, most of us have an active imagination. We can see all manner of things in our mind’s eye.
So, this morning, I want us to put our imaginations to work in order to see the people who populate the Christmas history, really to see them as they actually were, to see them as the kind of people they were, their lives as the sort of lives they were. In that we will come to appreciate aspects of this history that are often overlooked but are of great importance.
Imagination is particularly important when we read the biblical narrative, scattered with all manner of characters as it is, because, with few exceptions, we are rarely given much information about them. We would love to have a full biography of some of these folk, but then the Bible would have to be a book far larger than it already is. And so, it is and must be that we know just a little about Joseph, a little bit more about Mary, but very little, indeed almost nothing about the shepherds and the wise men. We know nothing of their stories, of their lives before and after the events that brought them to the attention of the world. In a moment they came and went from the stage of history and even in that moment we see them only in scene or two. Or to put it another way, we know quite a lot about the personal history of Augustus, comparatively little about Quirinius; but a good deal about Herod, the client king of Judea. We read about these men in Roman materials and in the works of Josephus. Their names appear on monuments and so on. In two cases they have cities named after them. Everyone in the Mediterranean world knew who Augustus was; everyone in Judea knew who Quirinius and Herod were.
But there are no biographies, no archival records, not even a mention in some other first century writing of any of the individuals who figure so prominently in the narrative of the birth of Jesus Christ, apart from this information given to us, such as it is, in the pages of the Word of God. They were nobodies. They appear on the stage for a moment and then disappear, most of them never to be heard from again. There are some 53 individuals mentioned in the Bible that are also mentioned in historical materials from the biblical period. But none of the heroes of the Christmas history are among them.
Let’s begin with Zechariah and Elizabeth. He was a rural priest. He lived in a village in the hill country of Judea. He didn’t live in Jerusalem. On the occasion of Gabriel’s appearance, he was serving in the temple because his division had rotated into service and he himself had been chosen by lot to offer incense. There were many priests, and none was ever offered this honor twice; many priests never had the privilege of offering incense. So, it was an old man’s lucky day! Had the angel not appeared, he would have gone home happy that at least once in his life he had been able to enter the Holy Place of the temple and burn incense in that sacred room. His wife was an older woman by this time as well. They were a dear couple, but unremarkable; like many others in the church of God who have lived with the sorrow of having no children. They were godly people, representative of that holiness which, in a time of spiritual deadness survives in the church. But, nobody knew who these people were outside their village. They came to Jerusalem and they left for home and no one in the capital was the wiser. Little people like them came and went all the time.
Or consider Mary and Joseph, the stars in this drama, the two who get top billing in the cast of characters. They came from Nazareth, a village in Galilee so small and so inconsequential that it is not mentioned in the Old Testament, in the Apocrypha, in the writings of Josephus, or in the Talmud. Indeed, had Jesus’ parents not hailed from Nazareth, it is not unlikely that no one would ever have heard of the town. The modern city of Nazareth may well exist today only because Jesus grew up there when it was a small village. Like its inhabitants, such villages came and went in the ancient world.
Joseph was a tradesman. Whether it would be correct to call him a poor man is a question, but he certainly was not a man of means. When it came time for him to consecrate his firstborn son to the Lord in the temple, he qualified to offer the sacrifice of two birds rather than the much more expensive lamb. Mary was his fiancée from the same small town; a maiden among the thousands of other Jewish maidens dreaming of a home and family of her own. No doubt Joseph and Mary had no other plans but of making a life together in Nazareth, raising their children and waiting, like the other faithful people of the land, for the consolation of Israel. They belong most emphatically to that vast multitude of believing people of whom we would know absolutely nothing were it not for their having been chosen to participate in the incarnation of God.
How inconsequential and unremarkable these people were is powerfully illustrated by how little attention the New Testament pays to them after the birth of Jesus. Jesus is several times identified in the Gospels as the son of Joseph, but otherwise, after the birth narratives themselves, Joseph is mentioned by name not once again in the New Testament. Apparently, he died a comparatively young man, after he and Mary had a number of children, because the silence of the Gospels concerning him is most naturally explained by the fact that by the time Jesus began his ministry Joseph was already dead. The fact that mention is made of Mary on several occasions in the Gospels makes that conclusion even more certain. She was a widow and that accounts for her being mentioned but not her husband.
But, fact is, not much is made of Mary either. She appears on a few occasions during the ministry of the Lord Jesus, usually in a group of others, but we are told nothing about her life, nothing of her character, nothing of her personal relationship with her firstborn son, and only once are we told anything about what she thought about Jesus. She seems confused about him at one point, but no explanation is offered. She is mentioned in Acts 1 as being among the disciples in Jerusalem waiting for the descent of the Holy Spirit, but after that she is not so much as even mentioned again in the New Testament. Other women, for example Priscilla, are mentioned several times, but not Mary. Despite the emphasis some would later place upon her, the New Testament itself makes nothing of Mary in its teaching about the Christian faith and life. Her great service was to bear the Savior of the world. Otherwise she was and continued to be an ordinary, unremarkable believing woman. As every other Christian life, Mary’s takes its significance solely from her connection to Jesus.
And the same may be said of the shepherds. The Christmas narrative has cast such an aura of sanctity around this group of shepherds that we tend to idealize them and their occupation. We tend to think that the angels would, of course, have made their announcement to shepherds because nothing would be more appropriately beautiful, nor so fitting on a Christmas card, than that bucolic scene on a hillside outside Bethlehem: men in robes with staffs sitting around a fire, with cute sheep in the background. As a matter of fact, however, in Judea in those days, shepherds were not generally viewed in such a positive light. Their manner of life made strict religious observance difficult or impossible, consequently they were considered unclean by the more seriously religious. More than that, their occupation did not have a reputation for scrupulous honesty. These men are the forerunners of the so-called “sinners” who would fill up the Lord’s congregations when he began to preach and who would hear him gladly when the upright folk found only reasons to criticize. In any case these men too disappeared from history as quickly as they had appeared, first on the hillside outside Bethlehem and then shortly thereafter when they went to see the baby of whom they had been told.
We haven’t time to say much about the magi, the so-called wise men. They were, no doubt, the most prominent people who appear in this history, at least they would have been prominent in their homeland. But we know virtually nothing about them. We don’t know their names. We don’t know how many of them there were (the number three is derived from the gifts that were brought: gold, frankincense, and myrrh). And once having worshipped the new-born king, they left for home never to be heard of again. And similar things might be said of Simeon and Anna who greeted the holy family in the temple. What of Simeon? He was an old man when he saw the Lord as a baby in the temple. He was a good man, a faithful man. It could be said of him what it can be said of every truly good man: his hopes in life would be fulfilled by the coming of the Messiah. But if he had been a priest or a theologian, Luke no doubt would have told us. If he had occupied some significant position in the government of Judea, no doubt that piece of information would have been given to us. Simeon was a common name among the Jews of that time. There are a number of other Simeons in the Bible, as you know. And, like the other actors in this drama, as soon as Simeon comes on stage and speaks his lines – his immortal Nunc Dimittis and his prophecy of the effect of Jesus’ life upon the Jews and upon his mother – he quietly exited the stage never to reappear.
There is the data. There is nothing more. But now what can our imaginations do with the information we have been given? Some of you are familiar with Gian Carlo Menotti’s operetta Amahl and the Night Visitors, a beautiful story, beautifully sung about the three wise men, following the star, who stop to spend the night with a poor Jewish widow and her crippled son, Amahl. They were on their way to visit the newborn king and as the story concludes Amahl, goes with them.
Now, beautiful as that operetta is, it isn’t that sort of imagination that I am talking about. The idea isn’t to make up stories. Instead, consider the shepherds. Here were men who saw what very few human beings had ever seen before them, a company of angels. They heard one of them deliver the most astounding intelligence in their own language and, as I argued in a sermon years ago, I think there is evidence to conclude that they heard the company of them singing their “Glory to God in the highest.” And they didn’t just sit there in stunned amazement. They understood what had been said to them and they hurried to witness for themselves what the angel had told them had happened. And, sure enough, they found everything just as the angel said they would. And they told Joseph and Mary what they had seen and heard. Can you see in your mind’s eye the excited conversation between the shepherds and the holy family? These were some things Mary and Joseph had not been told, and they were hearing them for the first time from the angels through the shepherds. Back and forth the conversation must have gone. The questions must have flown fast and furious. When they next saw their wives and children do you suppose that these men said nothing about what they had seen and heard? Would it have been possible to keep this to themselves? I doubt it ever occurred to them to think that they should keep such extraordinary news to themselves. That night must have changed those men profoundly. They must have spoken about what had happened a great many times through the course of their remaining lives. How could they not! And how do you suppose people responded to the story they told? They were shepherds after all; nobodies. Surely many would have thought that if a king were to be born and angels were to announce the birth, the last people who would have received that announcement would have been a group of shepherds. Perhaps a modern equivalent would be a group of used car salesmen, an occupation whose reputation – deserved or not, and often not at all deserved – is not one of scrupulous honesty and integrity. But perhaps there were others who detected the absolute sincerity of these men as they described that wonderful night. They could see in their eyes and hear in their voices the amazement, the reverence, and the thrill. And, perhaps, they could see in the lives of these men that something wonderful must have happened to change them as it had.
Do you not suppose that these men were curious in the months and years that followed? Was any of them still alive when 30 years later Jesus burst upon the scene? Did anyone put together his amazing works of supernatural power and his fabulous teaching with that wonderful night some thirty years before? And did it occur to anyone that the people who were flocking to hear Jesus of Nazareth were the same sort of ordinary people to whom the news of his birth had been announced years before? These are the fascinating questions that a believing imagination can’t help but ask! We may not be able to answer them with any confidence, but to ask them is to take the history seriously and see it in our mind’s eye.
Or think of Joseph and Mary themselves. It would be some time – we don’t know precisely how long – before they returned to Nazareth. There was some time in Bethlehem after the baby’s birth, then the hurried trip to Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous intentions, and, after some time there, the journey back to Galilee. But what did they tell their family, friends, and neighbors when they reached home? What a story they had to tell: the extraordinary things the angels had told them about the baby in Mary’s arms. He would save his people from their sins. He would be called the Son of the Most High, he would someday sit on the throne of his father David, and his kingdom would be an everlasting kingdom; and he was a child conceived without a human father! Miracle of miracles! All of this meant, and they would have understood it to mean, that this baby was the long-promised Messiah. But he was not only the Christ, he was Christ the Lord! What did they understand that to mean when they first heard it? Could they have understood that the baby boy was God in the flesh? No Jew in those days was expecting the Messiah to be both God and man. What did Joseph and Mary understand Jesus to be?
And as he grew up in their home, a child unlike any other, what did they think, what did they see, what did they observe? They must have told their little boy many times and then their young adult son about those fabulous events that had occurred at the time of his birth. He must have heard that story many times. He must have asked his parents to tell it again and he must has asked many questions. Surely, they would not have kept – they would not have thought it right to keep – the circumstances of his birth a secret from him. Then what did they say to the other children who gradually filled up the home, the Lord’s brothers and sisters? We know that they didn’t believe in Jesus during the days of his ministry. The gospel writers tell us that. As they became young adults themselves, what did they think of the stories their parents told of those days long ago? Did they come to resent their older brother? Admire him? And how did Joseph’s death affect Jesus and his siblings? In those days even more than in our own, the paterfamilias imposed a character on the household. And everything we know about Joseph, admittedly not very much, suggests that he was a godly man. Did his absence from the family circle create a less wholesome atmosphere in the home? Was it a burden that Mary was not entirely capable of bearing? We don’t know, of course, but again, to ask these questions, to strive to see in our mind’s eye the unfolding history of these people whom we meet in the Christmas narrative, is to take this history seriously. It is to treat it as an account of real people in the real world upon whom descended utterly unexpectedly the fulfillment of the ages.
What about the magi? No doubt they had a story to tell when they got home and no doubt they told it. But what did they understand and what was the explanation they gave to their king, to their families, and to their neighbors? How much did they understand of what Joseph and Mary told them? Did they meet any of the shepherds? And what was the result of that first announcement of the gospel to the Gentile world? It was the foretaste of things to come, to be sure; a Pentecost before Pentecost.
Wouldn’t you love to learn that one of the shepherds, now an older man, those thirty years later, heard an early report of the amazing ministry of Jesus of Nazareth and, remembering that name, Jesus, excitedly traveled to find him and see him and listen to him? And wouldn’t it be wonderful to learn that he had introduced himself to Jesus and explained who he was and told him about that wonderful night on the hillside near Bethlehem. That surely would have been an immense encouragement to Jesus himself to hear from another eye-witness the astonishing history of his birth!
Remember, it would be the nobodies who in largest number responded in faith and love to Jesus Christ. The high and the mighty were as uninterested in his ministry as they had been oblivious to his birth. And the Apostle Paul famously reminds us in 1 Corinthians that when the gospel began its march of conquest throughout the Gentile world, only here and there did it capture the hearts of the great and the powerful. It was the ordinary people, people like you and I, who believed in and followed the Lord Jesus. And so it has been ever since. As Jesus once memorably put it, it is harder for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God than for a camel to go through the eye of a needle. But we small-fry are not as distracted by the enticements of this world, the glitter, the celebrity, the creature comforts, the adulation of others. As it was in the first century, so it was in the 20th and so it will be in the 21st.
Simone Weil, the brilliant Frenchwoman, a Marxist atheist who became a follower of Jesus Christ, put it this way:
“Christianity is pre-eminently the religion of slaves; slaves cannot help belonging to it and I among them.” [Cited by Muggeridge, Chronicles of Wasted Time, 416]
Why is that? Because shepherds and tradesmen and poor housewives know that there is, there must be more to life than what they see in this world. The rich and the powerful and the famous are hard-pressed to believe that. And so, a recent biographer of St. Patrick notes that Patrick’s faith and preaching found its warmest reception in Ireland among those on the fringes of society. [Freeman, St. Patrick of Ireland, 105] The indifference and the outright hostility to the incarnate Son of God among the great people of this world has been a constant theme of human history ever since. A 19th century theologian wrote a book in defense of Christianity entitled: On Religion: Speeches to its Cultured Despisers. And a book of that title could have been written in every age of church history and could be written today. But then Augustus, Quirinius, and Herod were not informed about the greatest thing that ever happened. That privilege fell to the little people.
Here is why we ought to invest our imagination in thinking about these people who populate the drama of the birth of the Savior of the world. These are our sort of people. We can see ourselves in them. We can place ourselves back in that history. And viewing their lives in our mind’s eye we can see the birth of the Lord more clearly. We can see it in all its wonder, in all its life-changing power, in all its promise for that life that is worthy to be called life. We weren’t there. But they were! But, we can also see the challenges they faced, the hard work it must have been to hold in their hearts as a living power their recollection of what they had seen and heard years before when nothing else happened for years thereafter. That is our calling too. Lord we believe; help our unbelief.