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New Testament Stories from the Back Side
By J. Ellsworth Kalas
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2000 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
LUKE 2:22-38: When the time came for their purification according to the law of Moses, they brought him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord (as it is written in the law of the Lord, "Every firstborn male shall be designated as holy to the Lord"), and they offered a sacrifice according to what is stated in the law of the Lord, "a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons."
Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon; this man was righteous and devout, looking forward to the consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit rested on him. It had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord's Messiah. Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying,
"Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel."
And the child's father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, "This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.
At that moment she came, and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.
Many years ago, when I was a young pastor, I knew a man who was probably the proudest grandfather in captivity. He may have done more for Kodak stock than any person other than professional photographers. Almost every Sunday morning, as I came to the back of the church to greet people after worship, he was waiting for me, pictures in hand: the latest developments of his several grandchildren. You've heard of the man who said to his friend, "Have I shown you the most recent pictures of my grandchildren?"—and the friend answers, "No, and I want to thank you." I have a feeling that this long-ago friend of mine was the reason for that story.
Somehow he came to mind not long ago as I was reading the familiar Christmas story. For no particular reason, I asked myself what parents and grandparents did before cameras, before there were baby pictures. What, pray tell, did grandparents do? And what, specifically, did Joseph and Mary do?
And of course the answer came to me rather quickly. Before there were cameras, people took pictures with their eyes, developed them in their brains, and printed them with their tongues. For thousands of years, those were the only baby pictures anyone knew. A father's report in the village store was quite simple: "Our baby came last night. A boy. About so long. Big fellow; must weigh eight, maybe nine pounds. Just a little bit of hair. Got his mother's eyes."
Baby pictures. They're as old as the human race, and, in their own way, more graphic than anything a camera can record, because they leave so much room for the imagination of the one receiving the report.
Fortunately, we have such baby pictures of Jesus of Nazareth. Three, perhaps four, of them.
Luke gives us the earliest picture, one that was taken the night Jesus was born. Joseph and Mary had arrived in Bethlehem when Mary was late in her pregnancy.
They couldn't find a room anywhere. Bethlehem was a one-street town, so the possibilities were always limited; but especially at this time, when people were returning to register for an empire-wide taxation. The town had a small, primitive hotel, but it was full to the limits. So Joseph and Mary found a place for themselves in a cave-stable, and just in time. When the baby was born, they used the only facility they had; they commandeered a manger for the crib.
The news of the birth spread in a remarkable way. Some shepherds who were tending their flocks in a nearby field were visited by an angel who told them of the birth. The shepherds, not surprisingly, decided to see for themselves. What they saw made such an impression on them that they told people all over Bethlehem, and these people were "amazed at what the shepherds told them" (Luke 2:18). Obviously, the shepherds took some good baby pictures. So good, come to think of it, that we still have them today.
The next picture also comes to us from Luke. When Jesus was just over a month old, Joseph and Mary took him to the temple for a special Jewish ritual. I think it is fair to say that what happened that day was much like an infant baptism or dedication in our day. So of course we're not surprised that some pictures were taken. In one of the pictures, an old man, Simeon, is holding the baby in his arms, and he's praying. In another, a devout eighty-four-year-old woman, Anna, is praising God for the child. Of all the grandparents, uncles, aunts, and godparents who have ever been photographed with a baby, none could have been more awestruck than these two who came, providentially, upon the scene.
Matthew took the third picture. I'm not sure where to place it; it was taken either just before the picture I've just described, or very soon after. In any event, when the baby Jesus was still very small, a little company of wise men came to where the family was staying. These wise men had made a remarkable journey to get to the baby. When they saw him, they presented him with gifts—gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Look long at this snapshot, because it is quite impressive: A tiny Jewish baby with a group of learned, rather powerful men from another part of the world. It's a quite different picture from the one where the baby was surrounded by shepherds.
Perhaps by now you've noticed something peculiar about these baby pictures. They don't reveal any of the details we look for in baby pictures, whether those pictures come by camera or by word of mouth or announcement. We don't know how much the baby weighed, or his length in inches. The pictures don't tell us the color of his hair, or anything about his features. The only physical detail we receive is about his wardrobe. We're told that Joseph and Mary wrapped him in a swaddling cloth. This was a large square of cloth with a long strip, like a bandage, coming off one corner. A child was wrapped in the cloth, then the long strip was wound around and around, to secure the covering. And that's the only thing we know about the physical appearance of the baby Jesus—-just the way he was wrapped when the shepherds found him. The astonishing thing is this: As far as we know, that's the way every baby in that part of the world was wrapped in those days. So when the angel told the shepherds that the baby would be wrapped this way, it was like saying, "He will appear entirely ordinary." How will you recognize him? Because he will look the way babies always look!
But Jesus' baby pictures don't tell us if he was little or big, hairy or bald. We don't know if he was cute (that seems to be the question we always ask about babies), or if he appeared rather average.
And, come to think of it, we have no details about Jesus' physical appearance at any point in his life. In numbers of other instances the Bible tells us something of how people looked. We know that Zacchaeus was short, and that King Saul was head and shoulders taller than the average person. We know that the prophet Elisha was bald, and that young David was ruddy and handsome. But we don't know a thing, not a single thing, about the physical appearance of Jesus. Isn't that astonishing? Here is the person who has been depicted by artists more than any other person in human history, yet the Bible doesn't give us the least hint about his physical appearance.
So what do Jesus' baby pictures tell us? Or, for that matter, what do the later pictures tell us?
They tell us not what he looked like, but who he is.
Think of that first picture, the one taken on the night Jesus was born. The angel that came to the shepherds told them, "I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people," because a Savior had been born, and he was "Christ the Lord." And then, a peculiar sort of letdown: you will find him in a manger (Is that any place to find a Savior?), and he will be dressed the way every baby is dressed, in a swaddling cloth! You would think that a Savior, the Christ of God, would be dressed in rays of light, or at least in the extravagance of a king. But God is saying that if Jesus is to be the Savior, he will have to be like every one of us. His most distinguishing feature is that he is not distinguished at all. He is a baby, like every person that was ever born. By this unique ordinariness, he can be the Savior to every person who is ever born.
The second picture has the same quality. Jesus is brought to the temple to have a typical Jewish experience, to be presented before God just as was every Jewish boy born in those days. Again, it was as if the photographer were saying that this is a baby like every other baby, experiencing what every Jewish baby experiences.
And yet, different. Utterly different. Remember that the shepherds get the word of Jesus' birth not through village gossip, but through an angel, and then a whole chorus of angels. So also when Joseph and Mary bring Jesus to the temple for a customary ritual, they are suddenly joined by an old man, Simeon, and an old woman, Anna, who have been waiting years for this very day, although they had no idea what sort of day it would be. Simeon dares to take the child from Joseph and Mary, and prophesies over him. Then Anna begins to give ecstatic thanks for the baby, and to tell everyone about him. So it is that this customary ritual suddenly takes on cosmic proportions. And of course, the visit of the wise men is quite special. It says that this baby— this baby born in such humble circumstances, who doesn't seem especially photogenic—matters to the whole world, so that some rather distinguished foreigners travel for weeks to honor him.
I mentioned earlier that there are three, perhaps four, baby pictures of Jesus. We often miss the fourth. You will find it in John's collection. We miss it because it is so unlike any usual baby pictures. It begins with the moment of conception; not when Jesus was conceived in the womb of Mary, but when the plan itself was conceived. "In the beginning was the Word," John says. And then, the baby picture: "And the Word became flesh and lived among us" (John 1:14). Now there's a picture for your photo album! It's as if a camera had captured a ray of light beyond the reach of the human eye, or a device had recorded a sound outside the reach of a human ear.
So what does all of this have to do with Christmas? Everything, everything! You and I are always looking for baby pictures of Jesus. That is, we want Christmas to be a sentimental time. Now, mind you, there's nothing wrong with sentiment. I'm obligated to say that, because I am myself a prince of sentiment. But sentiment has its place and its limits, and it has gone beyond its place when it begins to fence in the profound wonder and truth of Christmas.
That is, we dare not let Christmas be lost in cards and gifts, in parties and in meeting with old friends, or even in the-whole-family-getting-together-again. Good and wonderful as these things are, they aren't really what Christmas is about. Indeed, we dare not even lose Christmas in music and pageants, and in talk about world peace. For although these things are beautiful and praiseworthy, they are extensions of Christmas, and not its heart.
Because, you see, Jesus didn't come to give us a sentimental holiday; he came to save us from sin. He didn't come because we are nice people, but because we are lost people; and because if he hadn't come, we could never be found. If we let "Merry Christmas" become simply "Season's Greetings," and if the holy day becomes just a holiday—well, it will be as if the shepherds leaving the manger had told their friends, "We've just seen the cutest little baby boy!" and as if the wise men had sent a congratulatory letter rather than traveling weeks in order to bring their gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The baby pictures of Jesus that Matthew, Luke, and John give us don't tell us anything about the way the baby looked—perhaps to our disappointment, because we'd like so much to have a visual image. But they do tell us who Jesus was and is, the very Son of God, and our Savior. And they tell us why he came. He came because you and I, and everyone we know, were absolutely hopeless, and because there wasn't a chance in time or eternity that we could ever be right.
Now in saying that, I may very well have ruined your image of Christmas. Indeed, you may be ready to identify me as something of a Grinch stealing Christmas, because I've delivered some bad news—the fact that, short of God's intervention, we are hopeless—when we prefer at Christmastime to have as many fuzzy and uncomplicated feelings as possible. And yet, in truth, every one of us knows that Christmas is not that simple. Not as we experience it. Because our Christmas celebrations are always intruded upon by some very "unChristmas" feelings—feelings, for some, of bereavement, or lost friends or relationships; and for others, of sickness or loneliness or wistful memories of Christmas past. All of which is to say that our human scene is quite hopeless unless God intervenes to heal it. And that's where Christmas comes in. It is so much more, you see, than a pleasant, passing feeling of sentiment. It is the story of eternal salvation.
That's why I wanted to tell you about Jesus' baby picture. The picture is so much more than the beguiling recital of physical characteristics that we usually look for in our pictures, and so much more than the warm pictures that sentiment tries to paint at the Christmas season. It is not a picture of how Jesus looked, but who he was. And that, of course, is because what you and I need is not a charming or even a dramatically powerful figure; we need a Savior.
Don't settle for less in your Christmas baby picture. Because to settle for less is to miss Christmas altogether.CHAPTER 2
Mary Shouldn 't Have Worried
LUKE 2:39-51: When they had finished everything required by the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favor of God was upon him.
Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travelers, they went a day's journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, "Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety." He said to them, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
Excerpted from New Testament Stories from the Back Side by J. Ellsworth Kalas. Copyright © 2000 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
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