Whether you count yourself a christian, hindu, muslim, jew, any, all or none of the above, and whether you call it fact or fiction, a story remains.
It claims to be actual, life changing fact and so demands our full attention, if only for a minute or two of consideration.
I really like this video which we'll use at this evening's carol service. Like the BBC's 'Nativity' series running over the last four evenings, it gives a slightly more 'edgy' retelling of the birth of Jesus than the sweet primary school plays and pictures on christmas cards we might be used to. And rightly so, I think we are quick to forget what an unusual episode the story of Jesus' birth as told in the bible really is.
First off, if I were Mary off of Mary and Joseph and still a virgin I would most certainly be freaked out by this holy mysterious immaculate conception, and much more were I Joseph! Someone said this situation would get laughed off Jermery Kyle. I think I would be much slower to trust the word of the angels (yeah, angels! that's mental in itself, let's not go there..) appearing and God's sovreignty over the situation. Presumably the 90km walk to Joseph's home town Bethlehem to take part in the census didn't make a comfortable journey for Mary, 9 months pregnant. On arrival in the town of Joseph's birth, with no room at the inn, no midwife or hotel room waiting, the baby was born into markedly lowly surroundings, especially for a baby heralded to be a new king, wonderful leader, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace. Whilst Jesus undoubtably did cry as a baby, my least favourite christmas carol ever ('Away in a Manger') is correct to say that the new born baby described to be 'God with us', God in human form, was placed into an animals' feeding trough for a bed.
Meanwhile, shepherds in fields nearby encounter a host of heavenly angels in the sky proclaiming 'Do not be afraid! We bring you good news of great joy. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born, he is Christ the Lord!' they come to visit and worship the baby, telling everyone they meet about this new born saviour.
Wise men from the east will soon come to visit the baby, following a star in the sky leading them exactly to the place where Jesus is On seeing Jesus, they will worship him, presenting gifts of Gold, Frankinsence and Myrrh.
King Herod is fearful of usurption by this new baby, so orders all male children under the age of two in the land to be killed, since the wise men had been warned in a dream not to pass on to him information regarding Jesus' wherabous. (Yeah..they don't put that bit in school plays.)
So Why all the fuss aboout one baby? Why such differing attitutes of worship, fear and hatred? Perhaps more than any living person, there has been ongoing discussion about the identity of this baby born in Bethlehem.
About 30 years later Jesus asks his followers the big question, found in Matthew 16vs15 ; 'Who Do you Say I am?'.
All of the people involved in this story had some level of understanding, based on Jewish scriptures and/or their own experience, about who this new baby was, and the significance of his birth.
The bible makes some bold claims about who Jesus is. If you were around at the time having read jewish scriptures, this was not a baby born out of the blue, but a baby born to fulfill hundreds of years of divine prophecy written down regarding a coming King and Messiah. The more I read and study the old testament the more I marvel at the sheer number of direct unquestionable references to God's direct intervetion into the world by way of sending Jesus Christ, 'a bridge between heaven and earth' as described by BBC1's Magi this week.
For example, Isaiah chapter 7vs14(written ~700BC?) in reference to a coming Saviour says 'Behold, the virgin shall conceive and will give birth to a son and his name shall be called Immanuel- which means God with us'. This prophecy brings a whole new meaning to the nativity story. If the happenings described above and documented in the book of Matthew are true, then this baby is not just a baby but God in human form, with us on earth.
Just a couple of chapters on, (Isaiah 9:6-7) talks about the birth of a child, a son from the lineage of David as the saving hope of the world to come. So come Luke 2vs11, when the angels appear and at first terrify shepherds in the fields, proclaiming good news of great joy that 'Today, in the town of David, a Savior has been born unto you- He is Christ the Lord!' (Luke 2.11)
The bible is full of exciting little gems like this. In my quest to read the whole bible cover to cover I have reached Genesis chapter 26, and despite my slow reading, I am astounded already to find so many moments pointing to the coming and crucifixion of Christ as the centrepoint of our faith.
It impossible to read the bible without recognising it's overarching claim that Jesus was indeed born to be this bridge between heaven and earth. This was God himself coming into the world, leaving the majesty of heaven to be born into the lowest section of society. Not a distant God watching his world from afar, but a God intimately involved with creation.
In accordance with many more instances of OT prophecy, the son of God, God himself in human form, was born into the world to bear our sin, to be oppressed, and silently afflicted and led like a lamb being slaughtered (Isaiah 53.4-7), to death as substitutionary sacrifice for the world's sin. He did not consider equality with God as something to be grasped but became obedient, even to death on a cross (Phillipians 2) In summary, with thanks to John Stott, 'God through Christ substituted himself for us. Divine love triumphed over divine wrath by divine self-sacrifice. The cross was an act simultaneously of punishment and amnesty, severity and grace, justice and mercy.'
The bible's claim about Jesus in the manger can not be separated from it's claim about Jesus on the cross. In response to Jesus' big question (in Matthew 16vs15-16), Simon Peter, one of his followers answers 'You are the Messiah, the Son of the living God'.
Einstein said 'no man can deny the existance of Jesus', leaving us to decide for ourselves the true identity of Jesus Christ. Man or Myth? A good moral teacher and nothing more? Mad, bad, or God?
Happy Christmas! I hope it is wonderful, but I cordially invite you to consider for a minute or two, Jesus' question to us today..
'Who do you say I am?'