Episode 19 - The Birth of Jesus (part 2) - Opening Up the Gospels

In Episode 18, we looked at some of the practical details of Jesus’ birth – the inn, the manger, the swaddling cloths, and a few more details specifically how the story is told Biblically. I also mentioned how much license either Hollywood or our Christmas plays have taken upon it to condense it and even add details that aren’t actually in Scripture. While many of those productions are well-meaning, in some ways I think they’ve actually caused us to be so overfamiliar with the story that we can sometimes completely miss the overwhelming magnitude and the drama of what is actually happening in the scene. And this really goes for everything in the Gospels – though the birth of Jesus is one of the most radiant. So today in this second episode on the birth of Jesus, I want to talk about just a few of the underlying themes that are often neglected when we think about the Christmas story. The first idea I want to talk about today is how little of the fear of the Lord we have when we come to this scene. I’m including myself in this, so don’t feel like I’m accusing you. I don’t mean the fear of the Lord in relation to our sin and the coming judgment, I just mean the fundamental awe of the terrible majesty of God that we are supposed to have in relation to Him. In our modern Christianity, we’ve tamed and domesticated God in a way that makes Him just our life coach or our good buddy that wants to help us with our problems. We’ve diluted His potency and dumbed Him down and there is almost no trembling and awe that happens in our hearts anymore when we think about God. We talk about Him so flippantly and consider His commandments so casually, and our theological shallowness has little to no room left for awe and reverence. I don’t just mean a “wow God you healed my headache” or “wow Jesus thank you for your provision when I had no money, you’re awesome”. I mean in the sense like the apostles were in awe of Jesus, almost terrified by Him at times. There was no taming Him. He didn’t seem safe. He was unpredictable, and he was challenging and shattering all of their preconceived notions time and time again. So in this scene we’re so familiar with in the little town of Bethlehem, we have to remember we’re looking at the first sinless human since Adam in the garden in Genesis 1. Just thinking about Him in that way brings us beyond our familiarity a little bit. But there’s still more going on. Scripture hems us in and tells us that we are looking at God. I read a quote from Hans Urs von Balthasar back in Episode 6, but it seems appropriate to read again here: “Unless a person is acquainted with trembling awe, reaching down to the very ground of his being, at the thought of God’s nature… he will not be ready for the contemplation of Jesus Christ. At the least, he will need to prepare himself in the school of the Old Covenant. Otherwise he will be in danger of coming to Christ like someone blind and dumb, finding nothing more in him than an example of perfect humanity; such a person would not be contemplating God, but man, i.e., himself. Anyone contemplating the life of Jesus needs to be newly and more deeply aware every day that something impossible, something scandalous has occurred: that God, in his absolute Being, has resolved to manifest himself in a human life”… Now the problem von Balthasar brings to light and that I’m seeking to address in this episode is that when we hear someone say “we’re looking at God in the manger”, it doesn’t cause us to tremble. Why? We’ve brought Him down to our level to make us feel better. The birth of Jesus doesn’t strike us with awe or cause us to brace ourselves because something has just happened that’s jarring and shocking. How could God be manifested in the flesh? Typically the way we try to get into this is through a metaphysical contrast. Like we might say: “The eternal God came into time.” or “the infinite God was limited.” Intellectually, it’s like “whoa, I can’t grasp it, it’s a mystery.” That’s true, but Scripture never uses that and that’s not primarily what we’re supposed to feel when we’re looking at the birth of Jesus. A philosophical or intellectual non-comprehension is not what moves our hearts. So what are we supposed to see? If we were Jews in the first century, we would have been groomed by the revelation of God in the Old Testament, where God is a Person, an identity, an individual, and has a name. We would see the magnitude of that identity as the Creator of everything, as the ruler over the heavens and the earth, as the one who delivered Israel out of slavery in Egypt, as the one who made the covenants with the fathers. Then when we get to the Incarnation and see God taking on flesh and in an animal feed trough, we would be utterly overwhelmed. Not intellectually – again, not like saying “how does a great big God fitting inside of a tiny baby skin?” The Bible never tries to break down any philosophical or metaphysical aspects of the Incarnation. That’s an issue of worldview, and that’s something the New Testament authors never struggle with. Instead, what we see is so simple and yet so deeply profound – the stunning contrast between the glory, the exaltation, and the loftiness of God and how low He came when He took on flesh. That’s what we’re supposed to feel. But do you see how we can’t feel that unless unless we have the fear of the Lord, or as I said a little differently earlier, the awe of God? Think about this – at Sinai in Exodus 19 and 20, the LORD tells Moses that He’s going to come down on the mountain and that he was to consecrate himself and warn the people to not come near the mountain, lest they be put to death. The next day, the LORD descends to the top of Sinai, and the whole mountain is shaking – there’s fire, smoke, and a loud trumpet blast. There’s probably 2 to 3 million Israelites there, and God begins to speak. Check this passage out from Exodus 20: “Now when all the people saw the thunder and the flashes of lightning and the sound of the trumpet and the mountain smoking, the people were afraid and trembled, and they stood far off and said to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, lest we die.”” (Exodus 20:18–19 ESV) This is the voice of the LORD, the Genesis 1 voice that created all things. He’s speaking here and Israel can’t even see him – He’s covered in smoke and fire at the top of the mountain. But His voice is so terrifying that millions of people beg God not to talk anymore. They couldn’t bear it. Think about it – this is the same person that we later find in the feed trough in Bethlehem. Here at Sinai we have just a little bit of a hint of who we’re dealing with. What about Isaiah 6? We know the scene well… Isaiah says: “In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and the train of his robe filled the temple. Above him stood the seraphim… one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And I said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the LORD of hosts!”” (Isaiah 6:1–5 ESV) But who is this? John 12 verses 36-41 makes it clear that it is Jesus that we are seeing. Did you catch that? John said that Isaiah was seeing Jesus in that famous “woe is me, I’m a man of unclean lips” scene in Isaiah 6! And in that scene, all Jesus was doing was sitting there. The doorposts were shaking, the Heavenly Temple was filling with smoke, just from him sitting there. This is the same one we’re dealing with as we look at the babe in the feed trough in Bethlehem. He is altogether terrible, and unless we feel a little bit of that, we can’t even begin to grasp the first part of John 1 where John says that the Word was God. John also says in John 1 verse 10: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” (John 1:10 ESV) Here John is answering the objection that some have had throughout history and that many have even today – is this just a better revelation or a more correct understanding of God? John says “no, the issue wasn’t with His identity or isn’t that he wasn’t who he said he was, or that as a 4 year old or 10 year old or 30 year old His divinity had been mitigated or had been put on a shelf somehow.” Like I said back in episode 4, it’s not like the photograph of God that we saw in the Old Testament was a picture of a different person than what we see in the Gospels and the New Testament – it’s the same God, the same person. He was in the world, the world was made through Him, yet the world didn’t know Him. Other translations say “recognize Him”. In other words, John is saying “don’t try to tame Jesus and the glory of who He is or try to dilute the potency of the Incarnation because of your inability to grasp how God could have lived on the earth almost completely unrecognized. Know this,” I can hear John say, “the problem is with you.” That problem, according to John 3:19, is that “the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil.” A day is coming when everyone will know who Jesus is – the Bible calls that day “the Day of the LORD”. In fact, the entire drama of the end of the age is about revealing to us who Jesus truly is. The Apostle Paul says that the baby we see lying in the feed trough will one day be revealed as more than a humble baby: “God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel” (2 Thessalonians 1:6–8 ESV) If we don’t approach His birth with this understanding… if we don’t tremble even just a little bit… we are setting ourselves up for some measure of disillusionment. We don’t need more intellectual knowledge of the birth story – we need something called revelation that only God can give us by the Holy Spirit. And that revelation is not just going to drop out of the sky – it will only come as we ponder, meditate, and dialog with the Lord about who He is. Well I want to take one more episode and talk about His birth, but I want to talk about His humility and the complete obscurity He was born into. We may have heard much more about those aspects of His birth, but I am convinced with all my heart that we can’t see His humility with the right perspective until we see how high and lofty He was before He came. And that’s why I wanted to talk about what I did today.