Luke 2:1-21, The Birth of the Messiah

[December 27, 2009] Three weeks ago we spoke about God, how God is not just an almighty Being who stands over-against His creation but exists as face-to-face communion, and that this “personal” communion—as each Face of God (the Father, Son and Holy Spirit) pours itself out to the Other in love and receives the love of the Other and dwells in each Other—is the essence of God out of which creation has come into being, of which creation is the expression, and toward which creation is the container. Creation is of such a nature that the incarnation of God is meant to happen: the creation is made for that, and ultimately that is the destiny of creation. As God (this God) became flesh, so that the spirit, soul and even the body of our Lord Jesus is divine without losing any of the sense in which it is human and created, so likewise the destiny of the creation is to become divine. The creation would still be creation but it would be imbued with the glory of God so that divinity and humanity would each be what they are without change and without confusion, but also without division and without separation. In this new creation, created persons would have both natures in the same way that the uncreated Person does in Jesus, one nature being original and the other by participation. God became what we are so that we can become what God is—this is the orthodox understanding of the telos (end or goal) of salvation.

Two weeks ago we came “down to earth” (so to speak) and heard how God’s work of grace in the fallen creation, and in particular the people of Israel, issued in Mary’s “yes” to God and she became the Temple of the Holy One, the One whom the Gospel of John describes as God’s own “I am,” the Face of God facing God in personal communion, but now as one with God’s own creation, so that in Him—in Jesus—creation took on the Face of God that faces God. As Mary held this baby in her arms, her face was to be the face of creation to God. In the moment of His incarnation, creation entered into and began to participate in the personal communion of God’s own three-fold Self. It is true that that participation was limited to His own Person until the resurrection when He breathed into His disciples. But it is also true that the reality of this participation—because what took place in time, considering who He is (in His one Person the two natures participate fully in each other), also took place eternally (inclusive of all time)—was already the basis for God’s prior relationship with creation as it also anticipates the working out of salvation for the whole creation (Ephesians 1:10; 1 Corinthians 15:28). Indeed, as we saw in the prelude to John’s gospel, creation is what it is so that it can be this.

Then last week we considered how when Joseph adopted Jesus into the lineage of King David, Jesus—this One whom we have just described—became the fulfillment of the hope of Israel. That hope was not merely human longing but was created by the work of God’s grace in the people’s history through the presence of the Word—in the words of Moses and the prophets. Humanity is “fallen.” What we mean by that is that there is a rupture in its natural relationship with God, a rupture of its own making. We have turned our backs on God—though God does not abandon us—and have created our own “world” in our collective head, a world that attempts to seal itself off from God. It thinks it does not need God; it tries to be self-sufficient. This world that we exist in is an illusion, though to us it is very real. It is indeed real in the sense that our attachment to it and identification with it alienates us from God, and thus from our true nature. Within this world of ours we have many hopes and dreams, but these are our own and God has no investment in fulfilling them. The hope of Israel that we speak of, that we find in the words of the Scriptures (if we read them from the point of view of revelation and not with our own “eye of flesh”), is the product of God’s grace in the creation, not of human delusions.

Marcion, a second century church leader, was recognized as an arch-heretic because he insisted that Jesus had nothing to do with the hopes of Israel. Jesus’ coming was a rejection of the creation and offered us hope by enabling us to escape the creation. This is also what the Gnostics were accused of. Jesus does not offer humanity hope by rejecting what humanity is but by restoring us to our humanity by healing the rupture and liberating us from the power of the “world” that we have created and which keeps us in our delusion. The Son of David, as the focus of our hope, is very much grounded in the concreteness and particularity of created-ness so that He can save us in our own concreteness and particularity, to redeem us here, and not in an abstraction of our mind.

The incarnation took place within the womb of Mary. Let us now approach the actual birth of our Savior.

Born in Poverty (Luke 2:1-7)

By this time in our story Joseph has taken Mary as his wife but has not consummated their marriage by having sex with her, which is probably all that Luke meant by saying that Mary “was betrothed to him.” Since she gives birth immediately after their arrival in Bethlehem, they left Nazareth when she was already “great with child,” that is, towards the end of her last trimester.

What should impress us, I think, is the difficulty of the family’s situation and the poverty into which Jesus was born. While “Bethlehem,” since it fulfills the prophecy in Micah, might conjure up images of something ideal, in reality this was very down to earth. Mary gave birth to the Son of the Most High, the Son of God (Luke 1:32, 35), on the hay, where animals gave birth to their own young, and she laid Him in a manger, the trough from which animals ate, and His first companions were His teenage parents, the unnamed midwife (if there was one), and the animals in the stable. After that, those who first greeted Him were shepherds, people who took care of animals. The poverty of the holy family meant that Jesus was very close to the creation. If He was born in the luxury of a palace or a modern hospital, He would have been isolated from all these earthy elements. He and His environment would have been sanitized.

The One who will save the whole creation came into the created world very closely connected to it, connected not only to humans in their poverty but also to the animals. Later Jesus will work with wood, the “Son of the carpenter,” and He will draw His parables from the natural world. He will also put Himself on the level with common people, with farmers, fishermen, shepherds and slaves, with the handicapped, sick and virulent, with the hopelessly deranged, and with outcasts such as tax collectors, prostitutes and Gentiles. He will call upon the rich to forsake their wealth and return to their natural condition, and He will warn the powerful that they are competing with God (and will lose).

How contrary to our expectations this is. Our material culture by separating us from creation at the same time separates us from the coming of God into the world, from God-with-us. Culture strives to raise us above the natural world, to disassociate us from the animal world. Poverty is where “culture” fails, but it is also where the Son of God is at home.

But poverty is also hardship. When we lose our job we fear it. The more wealth we have, the more choices we think we have. In our minds wealth is freedom. In a way it is. Mary and Joseph delivered their baby in a stable because they were left with no choices. The angel who visited both of them gave them such a tremendous responsibility—the future of Israel (indeed, of the whole world, if they thought about Isaiah’s prophecies)—was at stake. Yet the best they could do was to have their child delivered in such an unsanitary environment (or so it seems to us). They were apparently alone, without help and without a sympathetic hand. Jesus would also die in poverty—alone and without an advocate, put to death like a slave, or one cursed (Galatians 3:13). While being poor can bring us more in touch with our created-ness (and therefore closer to where God comes into the world), in this fallen world it also brings us into constriction and suffering. Jesus was born not into an idyllic poverty, but into the suffering of actual poverty.

We resist the idea that God works this way. Everything in our culture fights this idea. The god it wants is not this God. Yet this is the God who comes to us in Jesus. This is the Son of David who fulfills the hope in our hearts that grace has planted, a real hope and not the frivolous kinds of hope that our shortsighted greed keeps manufacturing. The hope that Jesus fulfills is the hope of our original nature, of “the face we were born with” (James 1:23). It is this “image of God” in us that grace fills and nurtures. The “world” as an entity that is alienated and hostile to God wants us to disown the real God, the God who comes to us and meets us in the most ordinary and difficult of circumstances. By definition, the “holy” is that which is set apart from the common, but God sanctifies the common and sets it apart from the pretentious.

The Unseen Realm Revealed (2:8-20)

Mary and Joseph might have been discouraged, wondering why things have ended up this way. The visitation by Gabriel was amazing and the conception was miraculous, but the words that the angel said, that God would give this Baby “the throne of His father David and He would reign over the House of Jacob forever,” seemed completely incompatible with the reality of having to give birth to their baby in a stable because there was no room in the inn. If we were in their place, we would probably be very confused.

Yet late at night, or in the wee hours of the morning, shepherds came to visit them and told them of their vision of angels and what the angel had told them. Angels are in the unseen creation and as “messengers” they stand between God and the visible creation. The invisible creation refers to the aspect of creation that is unmeasurable and unquantifiable. It cannot be observed with the “eye of flesh” unless it “reveals” itself. What was revealed to the shepherds was reality no less than the reality of the poverty into which Jesus was born. The reality of the angels is the other side of the reality of the stable. Shepherds, common people who took care of animals and who were regarded with suspicion and a certain amount of disdain, people who were close to the earth, were the ones to whom the angels revealed the Gospel (the good tidings of great joy), the reality of the situation that Mary and Joseph found themselves.

Are we willing to hear the voice of God from such a source? Mary “kept these sayings, pondering them in her heart.” Perhaps if she was not enduring poverty on the same level, she would not have been open to their words. Yet this is how God spoke to Mary and Joseph, and how God often speaks to us. Mary and Joseph possessed an openness to God that was the fruit of humility, not a gullibility toward man that was the result of ignorance. Because of this openness, they were ready to hear God speak in the most ordinary and common, and even in the despised, and to see God act in the hay of the stable that was meant for animals.

The angel brought the good tidings of great joy for all the people that the Savior, Christ the Lord, was born that night. The strangest words follow this announcement. The sign of this event, the sign that would signify that this is the Savior, the Messiah, who is born, is that He would be “wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.” That which might have brought confusion, the poverty and humility of His birth, is the very thing that signifies the reality of who He is. Unless a heavenly messenger revealed this, who would believe it? The poverty and humility—the closeness to earthiness, to created-ness, in our fallen creation—is the very thing that signifies that He is our Savior, the fulfillment of our deepest hope, the One who will transform the whole creation and fill it with the glory of God.

As if to support what the angel announced, for surely it is unbelievable without God’s grace, the host of the angels of heaven explode into sight and praise God—that is, appreciatively reflect back to God what God is—with the words, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, [God’s] good pleasure toward men” (or God’s good will toward human beings). The words, “Glory to God in the highest,” are repeated by the pilgrims who accompanied Jesus when He entered Jerusalem as the true Passover Lamb (Luke 19:38). Jesus will bring “peace” to the earth as all the prophecies describe, and will bring about God’s good pleasure towards humanity by the pathway He will travel to the cross and by His final offering up of His soul in death. Heaven already knows this, and glorifies God.

The reality that heaven sees already includes the cross, and so the manger is completely in sync with this. But while we see poverty and suffering, what they see is the glory of God in the peace of creation—the salvation and glorification of creation.

Can we see what the angels see? The shepherds saw it—for a moment “the glory of the Lord shone round about them”—but we are allowed to see it when the Word is proclaimed to us. We need, however, heaven to open for us (see Luke 3:21) as it opened for them. We need revelation to come to us as we hear the Word so that we can see with the “eye of spirit” and not only with the “eye of flesh,” or better yet, that “the eyes of our heart” may be enlightened (Ephesians 1:18). We need to see the divine in the most ordinary and humble, and difficult and problematic, of circumstances. God comes to us close to creation, not in our wealth but in humility.

The Circumcision (2:21)

Joseph gives Jesus His name, “YYHWH the Savior,” at His circumcision. Circumcision sets Jesus apart as belonging to the covenant that God made with Abraham. It also signifies, as it did for Abraham, the end of self-effort. Abraham tried to fulfill God’s promise by having a child through another woman besides Sarah. It was something he could do. It was not until both Abraham and Sarah were incapable of having children of their own that God gave the covenant of circum-cision, which is the “cutting around” of the masculine member that thrust itself forth when Abraham asserted himself to fulfill God’s promise. After Abraham learned the renunciation in which he took the position of relying on God’s grace alone (this is what faith means), Sarah at last could conceive and bear the child of promise. This is what circumcision signifies, and with this the Child Jesus was marked and given His name as Savior.

May we too be so “circumcised” inwardly, in heart and spirit (Romans 2:29) in the circumcision of Christ (Colossians 2:11). This means that we cut off our reliance on the flesh. Paul uses the word “flesh” to signify the false way we see the body and the physical world, for we see them as separated from God and from spirit, as if they existed independently and had an existence on their own. Ironically, to be free of the “flesh” is to have our bodies back. The “circumcision of Christ” is a life that is lived in spirit, without any delusion, in the utter dependence of soul, which is the condition of a true relationship with God.

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