Friday, November 30, 2007

Telling The Christmas Story

Gospels or Christmas fairy tales? What’s the difference?

Once upon a time, a long, long time ago in a faraway land, there lived a king and his beautiful queen. The queen had everything she wanted, yet she remains desperately unhappy. For she could not conceive and she grows older year by year. At this time of the year, it was customary for the queen’s fairy godmother to visit the royal family…..

We know straight away that this is fairy tale. When we read fairy tales we put our normal, hard nosed, objective, scientific world view aside. To enter into a magical land of princes and princesses, fairy godmothers and evil witches, dragons and goblins. Where magical beings cast spells that make the impossible, possible.

Now read Luke’s account[1] of the birth of Jesus. Doesn’t it sound very much like a fairy tale? A young teenage girl is visited by an angel and she is told that she is to give birth to a son even though she is a virgin. Aren’t angels the Jewish equivalent of Han Christian Andersen’s fairies and fairy godmothers? The fact that the teenage girl is a virgin and yet she is to give birth to a baby seemed to set the scenario for fairy godmothers to cast their spells to make the impossible, possible. Aren’t we asked to put aside reasonable objections and enter into a fantasy world where angelic beings exist and virgins give birth to children?

The gospels are rooted in history

If we compare a typical fairy tell with the gospel records, we immediately see a basic and intrinsic qualitative difference. Fairy tales make no attempt to root their stories in history. In a fairy tale, the year is not specified. The reign of the king cannot be verified historically. The magical kingdom cannot be located on any map.

In contrast the gospels are rooted in history. Consider Luke’s careful introduction in Luke 1:

1Many have undertaken to draw up an account of the things that have been fulfilled[a] among us, 2just as they were handed down to us by those who from the first were eyewitnesses and servants of the word. 3Therefore, since I myself have carefully investigated everything from the beginning, it seemed good also to me to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4so that you may know the certainty of the things you have been taught.

As Luke later records the story of an elderly priest and his wife, notice the rich personal, historical, political and geographical details that he provides:

In the time of Herod king of Judea there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly division of Abijah; his wife Elizabeth was also a descendant of Aaron.

Similarly, Luke tells us that Mary came from the village of Nazareth, in Galilee. Jesus was born during the reign of the Roman Eemperor Augustus, when Quirinius was the governor of Syria. Ultimately Luke records that Jesus was crucified under Pontius Pilate, the Roman governor.

Throughout his Gospel and in Acts, Luke gives us a plethora of specific names of actual persons, towns, countries, political systems. All of which can be checked objectively for accuracy.

The gospel makes a reasonable case for what it records.

The fairy tales make no attempt to convince us through facts or reasoning that fairies exist and they can do magic. The suspension of logic and reasoning is the whole point of fairy tales and fantasies.

Admittedly the angel Gabriel’s prophesy of a virgin birth is difficult to verify. We only have the testimony of Mary and Joseph. Their righteous and upright characters can be attested by those who know them. But the pregnancy of a woman who has yet to be married, must surely work against their testimony. Who will believe their story of a miraculous virgin birth? Surely it cannot be reasonable. For no virgin woman in history has ever given birth. Should we then just believe? Just as when we read fairy tales?

Note however the way Luke tells his story. He does not begin immediately with the virgin birth of Jesus. Instead, Luke begins with Gabriel’s prophesied birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth. An elderly woman way past her ability to conceive and bear a child. With this prophecy, the angel Gabriel broke 400 years of silence. God has spoken again. The proof, that indeed God has spoken and it is not the overworked imagination of an aging senile priest? That lies in the fact that the elderly Elizabeth will give birth to a son. He will be called John. He is to live like a Nazirite, drinking no wine. He will be like an Elijah and prepare the people for their long awaited messiah. And as recorded by Luke, it indeed came to pass. The angel’s prophecy to Zechariah and Elizabeth was authenticated by John the Baptist’s miraculous birth and subsequent ministry.

So when Luke went on to record the angel Gabriel’s prophecy about the virgin birth it is not so incredulous, so fairy tale like after all. If God could make a barren elderly woman give birth miraculously, he could enable a virgin to give birth miraculously too. It is therefore reasonable for us to conclude with Luke that “nothing is impossible with God”. It is possible for a Virgin to give birth.

This was precisely the answer that the angel Gabriel gave to Mary’s perplexed question:

Lk 1. 34"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"

35The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. 36Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. 37For nothing is impossible with God."

Faith and Reason

One of the gospel writers’ chief purpose is to lay reasonable grounds for us to believe that Jesus is the Son of God, the longed for Messiah and our Saviour. Right from the beginning the gospels challenge us to ask, “ who is this man?”. The gospel records show us that Jesus is no ordinary man. Consider, the following facts. The gospels tell us His birth was prophesied. His birth was miraculous. The gospels record that Jesus had authority over the spiritual world. Demons had to obey his commands. The winds and waves, powerful forces of nature were stilled at his word. The sick were healed and the dead came alive again. All these incidents were verified by witnesses who were still living when the gospels were written. In the light of all these, the gospel writers ask us, isn’t it reasonable for us to believe that Jesus is who he says he is. God himself?

Faith and reason are not in antithesis to one another. We are not to put on our critical thinking hats in the seminaries and bible colleges. Only to put that off, and put on our faith hats in church or when speaking to church members.

Don’t get me wrong. Faith is still required. Luke could only put forward a reasonable case for the virgin birth. We still can insist that Mary and Joseph were lying. The numerous recorded miracles of Jesus did not convince the chief priests and religious officials to believe in him and obey him. In fact when confronted with the incontrovertible evidence of authority over demons, these religious figures attribute the miracles to be the work of Beelzebub rather than God!

However Luke and the other biblical writers do not ask us to have a blind, uncritical faith in God. Because the words and deeds of God are rooted in history, we can check their authenticity. The prophecies (Word) can be verified for accuracy and reliability. Likewise physical miracles (deeds). A man born blind can now see. A man lame from birth can now walk.

Therefore as we engage in rigorous, serious and disciplined study of God’s Word, using all our critical thinking faculties, our faith will be strengthened, not weakened. All glory to God!

[1] The gospel of Luke is taken as a representative of the gospels.