Moving beyond the facts

When it comes to Bible study, we often have an attitude of—just the facts, please. But even then, the facts cause us some problems. For instance, there are two descriptions of the birth of Jesus—one in Matthew and the other in Luke. The stories are similar in one way—they both involve a man named Joseph and a young woman named Mary.

Matthew’s description is quite brief focusing primarily on Joseph’s problem—he is engaged to a woman who is with child and he is not the father. Joseph has a dream, and goes through with the marriage. There is no visitation by angels, but magi from the east arrive when Jesus is a toddler. These magi create another big problem for Joseph because they stopped by crazy Herod’s palace to ask about the birth of the new king of the Jews. Inspired by another dream, Joseph gets his bride and son out of Bethlehem and takes them down to Egypt where they become refugees.

Luke’s description of the birth of Jesus has many more details to keep up with and focuses on more characters—Zechariah and Elizabeth, Joseph and Mary, angels and shepherds. For Luke, the story of Jesus’ birth is a play with several acts. In Act I, Zechariah encounters Gabriel in the temple in Jerusalem and learns that his barren wife Elizabeth is going to bear him a son. In Act II, Gabriel appears to a young maiden of Nazareth named Mary. The angel informs her that she will be with child conceived by the Holy Spirit. She says, “Let it be with me as you have spoken.” In Act III, Joseph and his very pregnant Mary make a trip to Bethlehem to be registered because Joseph was a descendant of King David and Caesar has made his demands. While there, the time was accomplished that Mary should deliver. She gives birth to her first-born son and wraps him in swaddling clothes and lays him a manger because there is no room for them in the inn. Angels startle shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night telling them of the birth of a Savior in Bethlehem. The shepherds search the city for a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes so they may worship him. They return to their flocks telling anyone that will listen what they have heard and seen that night. The End.

If you want the facts, those are some of the facts. But since the facts can be troubling, we choose to mix all the facts up and create one story out of two stories. We make our one story the gospel story. But it’s not the gospel story, it is a story we have woven together. I really don’t know why we do it, but we do. We believe our version of the birth of Jesus so completely that we are shocked to find that our story of the birth of Jesus is not even in the Bible!

The troubling thing is why we never ask, “What do these stories mean?” We never seem to wonder about what Matthew and Luke are trying to tell us about this divine intervention into the history of the world. There are questions we need to consider. Questions like—“What should we make of the fact that Joseph and Mary are a peasant couple from a village in Galilee?” “What is God trying to say when he arrives as a baby on the earth that he created ?” “If this child is the light to all the world, why does God hide him in a stable in Bethlehem?” “If this baby is truly God’s promised Messiah, why is he so vulnerable?” “Why does he seem to be at the mercy of a crazy politician like Herod.” “What does it mean for us that the Word has become flesh and dwells among us?”

I suspect there are reasons we don’t ponder questions like these. First, no one invited us to ponder questions like these in church. We were into facts. For instance, a Sunday School class is more apt to get mired down in an argument of how many magi visited the toddling Jesus than explore the meaning of their visit. (By the way, in our version of the birth of Jesus, there are three wise men. Matthew doesn’t say how many magi there were.) I have met folks in Sunday School classes who continue to try to make the Biblical facts conform to the facts of their version of the birth of Jesus. (Sorry, the wise men did not meet the shepherds at the stable on the night of Jesus birth.)

Second, we have become reductionists. For our own sake, we have reduced the complex and perplexing story of God’s salvation history into a simple phrase—Jesus came to die for my sins or Jesus came to save me. When we do this, we do a terrible injustice to the incarnation—God becoming a human being like us. We also make the question of becoming faithful and obedient followers of Jesus mute.

Last, I think we are reluctant to embrace the God of the Christmas story. We want a God of power. God, in Jesus, is a powerless, vulnerable baby. We want a God who is in control. The story of the baby Jesus is driven by historical events—a census ordered by the governor and the presence of Herod on the throne in Jerusalem. These stories of the birth of Jesus are trying to tell us something about how God has chosen to engage his children as he seeks to save and redeem all creation. The birth narratives do set us up for the most troubling revelation of God—Jesus dies on a cross. Again, we must ask, “What is there about God and his chosen powerlessness?” It’s a question beyond the facts, and a question worth pondering at Christmas.


Jamie Broome

Jamie Broome began serving Immanuel in 1993. He previously served First Baptist Church in Midway, Kentucky for ten years. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Carson Newman University, where he met his wife, Rita, and his Master of Divinity from the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, where he also did a Th.M. and doctoral work in church history. He is a native of South Carolina, and the Broomes have two sons, Chip and Rusty.