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12.18.11 The Mysterious Ways God Works Luke 2:1-7

by on December 19, 2011

The differing accounts of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels make it hard to believe their historical accuracy. But the Gospels aren’t recording history—they’re testifying to God’s presence in the world.

Summary Points

  • Some historical problems with Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth
  • The difference between history and testimony
  • Three things Luke is telling us about God’s presence in our lives

Historically speaking, Jesus came from Nazareth. But according to the popular tradition, the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. Thus each in his own way, Matthew and Luke narrate events to uphold both the history and the tradition. Matthew’s solution is tersely stated in 2:4-6 and 2:22-23. Luke recounts the story of an empire-wide census requiring Joseph to travel with the pregnant Mary to Bethlehem.

Just looking at Luke’s account, there are tensions. There is no Roman record of an empire-wide census being ordered. When such censuses were taken, they required neither that someone travel to one’s homeland, nor did they include women. Most problematic is the reference to “when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Quirinius wasn’t governor of Syria until 6 AD, and Jesus was born around 6 BC.

You can find heroic attempts to resolve such tensions; a good example can be found here. But most modern biblical scholars conclude that the details of this history are mistaken. That’s a problem if you’re looking for the Gospels to primarily record history, but the Gospels’ primary purpose is to testify of God’s presence. From this perspective, we overlook the mistaken historical details to see the larger purpose that the Gospel writers saw God’s providence and plan working out in history.

From this perspective, we see three things Luke is trying to tell us about God’s presence in Christ. First, the particulars of our personal history are less important than who is the Lord of our personal history. Details like where we come from, in Jesus’ case either Bethlehem or Nazareth, take on special significance when we find God present in them. It’s comforting to take time and reflect upon the particulars of your own life, especially those out of your control—when and where you were born, your birth order, your sex, your ethnicity, etc.—and look for the ways God is present in and using those particulars to make you more like Christ.

Second, God’s timing may not always be convenient, but it is perfect. The circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth according to Luke were anything but convenient for anyone involved, but to use Paul’s phrase from Galatians 4:4, Jesus was born “in the fullness of time.” Jesus was apparently acutely aware of God’s timing in his life. According to John, for example, he was reluctant to do any miracles before his time (see John 2:4). In the words of Ecclesiastes 3:11, God makes everything beautiful in his time. This perspective invites us to find gifts from God throughout the circumstances of our lives, even and perhaps especially in the inconvenient ones.

Finally, Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth assure us that whatever God provides, it is sufficient. Mary places the baby in a manger because that’s all that was available for them. This testimony is comforting when we are facing a deficit in our lives, physically or spiritually. Luke is especially concerned in his gospel with people who are poor. When Mary first discovers she is pregnant, she “rejoices in God for blessing her, for God sends the rich away empty but fills the hungry” (Luke 1:46-55). When Jesus preaches his first sermon, he reveals that God’s Spirit has sent him to “proclaim good news to the poor” (Luke 4:18). And in his famous sermon, Jesus says the poor are blessed because the Kingdom of God belongs to them (Luke 6:20).

This Christmas, let us rejoice with Luke that God is present with us in Christ—through all the particulars of our personal history, in every circumstance of our present, and with whatever God has provided us. Amen.

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