This article is adapted from a talk given to Reformation Fellowship on December 22, 2006.
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At Christmas we celebrate Jesus’ birth because no more important human being has ever been born. Jesus is the first-born of all creation, the one individual for whom everything else exists. Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords, who will rule the coming age as our sovereign ruler. Jesus is more than just a man; he is the translation of the very nature and sovereignty of God Himself into human form—the image of the invisible God, the fullness of God dwelling in human form. Jesus is the supreme prophet, the one whom God sent into the world to reveal to us and explain to us the meaning of our own existence, the purposes and promises of God, and the good news of God’s plan to grant Life to undeserving man. Jesus is our true high priest, who alone can enter into the very presence of God and represent us to God, just as he alone can represent God to us. Jesus is our advocate, who will plead with God to extend mercy to us, asking that God not give us what we deserve but instead that He would give us Life in the final age. In this sense, Jesus is Life for us; without him the destiny of every last one of us would be death and destruction. Finally, Jesus is our propitiatory offering, who willingly and heroically allowed God, his Father, to pour upon him the wrath that you and I deserve because of our moral perversity. As Jesus himself put it, he died for our sins. And in so doing, he was giving himself up as a costly offering to God, appealing to God to be merciful toward us who identify with and embrace Jesus’ appeal to God for mercy.
All of this became a reality and entered into history when the baby Jesus was born in a shelter for livestock over two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. I want to focus here, however, on Jesus’ willingness to suffer wrath on our behalf.
Christians speak of the “scandal” of the cross. On the cross, Jesus died the death that a sinner deserves. On the cross, Jesus was presented as unrighteous. On the cross, Jesus was heaped with shame and reproach. On the cross, the King of kings and Lord of lords, the Master over the whole universe, became an ordinary, petty, mean, and disgusting sinner. On the cross, the Son of God became me; he got what I deserve. Herein lies the scandal: on the cross, the King of glory became the epitome of shame and disgrace. And it is in the face of Jesus’ shame and dishonor that I am to confess, acknowledge, and praise him as the King of glory.
How much easier our faith would be if the Son of God had appeared to be what he was. Why didn’t the King of kings come wearing a crown instead of the stitchless, one-piece garment of a peasant? Why didn’t the Son of God come from an aristocratic family in Jerusalem? Why did he come from an obscure family in an obscure village in the least respected region of the Jews? Why did he not come from a rich, famous, and powerful family of influence? And most importantly, why didn’t the Messiah come in victory? Why was his last fully public act a humiliating defeat at the hands of the power of Rome? This is the scandal of the cross: that the most powerful and exalted creature in God’s created reality should appear to end the time of his visit in weakness, shame, and humiliating defeat.
We can only understand such an odd and ironic fact by understanding that our King chose to join us in our shame. The shame of the cross was not Jesus’ shame; it was our shame. But he took it on himself. The humiliation he endured was not his humiliation; it was ours. But he took it on himself. The pain, the sorrow, the punishment, the condemnation—none of it was his; it was ours. But he took it on himself to make an appeal to God for mercy on our behalf. As righteous and pure and perfectly good as Jesus was, he willingly shared the shame and dishonor of our unrighteousness in order that God’s purpose to save us might be fulfilled.
It is interesting, therefore, that the narrative of Jesus’ birth anticipated in a small way Jesus’ act of joining us in our shame. Let me explain.
Probably because of the cultural importance we place on Christmas, seldom do we mention how scandalous the birth of Jesus had to be. Among the many ironies of the incarnation is the irony that the Son of God came into the world in such a way that it could not help but be scandalous. He began his life among us with scandal just as surely as he ended it with scandal. Not only is there the scandal of the cross, but there is also the scandal of the birth.
God did not appear to the whole village of Nazareth—let alone the whole nation of Israel—to announce the miraculous conception of a baby destined to be the Son of God. No, God sent the angel Gabriel with a private message for one young woman’s ears only. Surely God understood the implications of what He was doing and how He was doing it. He was setting Mary up for scandal. What rational person would not justifiably conclude that a young pregnant woman who was betrothed but unmarried had been sexually unrighteous? God could have prevented that. He could have let the whole village in on the secret. He could have vindicated Mary by making it clear to everyone that He, the Creator of the universe, was responsible for her pregnancy. But He did not. He left her in a condition where shame and dishonor in the eyes of her neighbors would be the inevitable result. Why did God do that?
I can only speculate, of course. But I have to wonder whether God was not setting up an act that would anticipate what was to come. To understand this, we have to look at the most neglected figure in the Nativity story: Joseph.
The chronology of the events around Jesus’ birth is incomplete, and so it is difficult to give an exact, detailed account of what happened when. What follows is my best reconciliation of the accounts in Matthew and Luke.
An angel announces to Zacharias that he and his wife Elizabeth will have a son in their old age. Their son will be the forerunner who will prepare the way for the coming Messiah. Six months into Elizabeth’s pregnancy with the baby who would become John the Baptist, the angel comes privately to Elizabeth’s young cousin Mary and informs her that she will supernaturally conceive a child who will be the promised Messiah, the Son of God. Almost immediately, Mary travels to visit Elizabeth for about three months. Probably after the birth of John, Mary, then three months pregnant, returns to her home in Nazareth where her family and Joseph, the man to whom she is betrothed, await her. In all likelihood, none of the people in Nazareth—including Joseph and her own family—are yet aware that Mary is pregnant.
The next thing we know, Joseph and Mary are required by the census of Caesar Augustus to relocate to Bethlehem. Where this move falls in the chronology of events is not clear. The most likely reading of the gospel accounts is that their journey to Bethlehem happens shortly after Mary’s return from Elizabeth’s home. If so, then Mary leaves Nazareth with Joseph before any of her family and neighbors know of her pregnancy. And, indeed, it may very well be that Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem before Joseph knows that Mary is pregnant, four or five months before the baby Jesus will be born. This scenario is different from the one our traditional Christmas cards depict, but it seems to be a likely reading of the two gospel accounts.
If my chronology is right, then Bethlehem is the arena for the scandal surrounding Mary and Joseph. Put yourself in the shoes of Mary and Joseph’s new neighbors. A young couple, betrothed but not yet married, arrives in Bethlehem for the census. Three to four months later—the couple still unmarried—it becomes obvious that the young woman is pregnant. Whatever one might conclude does not look good for Mary. Perhaps both Mary and Joseph have been sexually immoral, but certainly Mary has played the sinner.
At this point, Joseph’s choices and actions become important. We do not know how he learns of Mary’s pregnancy. Perhaps he did not know until Mary could no longer hide it. Perhaps, in anticipation, Mary finally had to tell him. However he found out, now he knew; and he was faced with a choice. I assume that Mary would have tried to tell Joseph the truth, but under the circumstances, believing Mary’s story that she had supernaturally conceived the Son of God was not a rational option for Joseph. It was far more likely that Mary had been sexually immoral than that such a unique miracle had occurred. So, Joseph was left with three rational options. (1) He could publicly accuse Mary of sexual immorality and make a public scene of releasing her from their betrothal contract. This option would have put Mary in great jeopardy because the penalty for adultery was death by stoning. (2) Joseph could join Mary in her shame and dishonor and simply proceed with the marriage. Everyone would assume that the two of them had been sexually inappropriate, even though Joseph knew that he had not been. But he could choose to protect Mary and keep her from harm by joining her in her shame and dishonor. The problem with this second option is that it did not honor righteousness. It would entail Joseph’s winking at sexual immorality, treating it as if it were no big deal, which is something Joseph could not do, for, as Matthew tells us, Joseph was a righteous man. (3) Matthew tells us that Joseph chose the third possible option—namely, he would respect the Law with regard to sexual righteousness while being as kind as possible to Mary. Thus he opted to break his betrothal to a woman who—as far as he knew—had demonstrated herself a Law-breaker; but he opted to do so privately and quietly, in a way that would minimize the negative impact on her.
At least, that is what Joseph had opted to do before God came to him in a dream and verified Mary’s story. Mary had not broken the Law. Mary had not been sexually immoral. God had chosen Mary for a unique and special role: to conceive and give birth to the King of kings while she was still a virgin. The divine instruction to Joseph was to take Mary as his wife. We have to understand, however, what God was asking of Joseph. In effect, God was asking Joseph to join Mary in her shame. She was not to bear the inevitable shame and dishonor alone; he was to join her in bearing it. He was to take Mary as his wife with the inevitable result that their Bethlehem neighbors would believe that the stigma of sexual immorality rested on them both. Joseph had not been sexually immoral; no stigma should justly fall on him. But God asked him to volunteer willingly to bear the perceived sin of Mary on himself, even though it was not his sin. Joseph did just as God instructed. His act was kind, gracious, and heroic. He could have chosen to put his own honor ahead of compassion and separated himself from Mary’s shame. But he did not. He chose to bear willingly and heroically Mary’s shame along with her, even though it did not justly belong to him.
Note how interestingly Joseph’s choice anticipated one of the most heroic choices that Jesus would perform. The father, Joseph, heroically joined Mary in her shame. The son, Jesus, would one day heroically join every one of us in our shame, when he voluntarily chose his death on the cross. God so orchestrated the events surrounding Jesus’ birth that Joseph’s act, in its own small way, anticipated the heroic act that his son would be called upon to perform. In order for God’s saving purposes to be fulfilled, Joseph mercifully had to join a sinner in her shame; he had to bear her shame along with her. Joseph’s act is exactly analogous to the central act of God’s saving purposes in world history: Jesus mercifully joined us sinners in our shame; he bore our shame along with us.
Without Jesus’ heroic act, there would be no salvation. But at the first Christmas, in his own small way, Joseph had to make that same heroic choice first. That is the glory of this season. For at Christmas we celebrate the scandal-shrouded birth of the hero whom God sent into the world to join us in the scandal of our sin so that we might Live and not be destroyed.