My mom once reminded me how I took encyclopedias on road trips and read them while sitting in the back seat of the car. I loved to browse through the books one page at a time, learning new things. As an elementary-school-aged student I was already a book nerd, solving problems and answering questions I was too young to understand or ask. I had no idea everyone else my age was reading comic books.
Through the years, I searched for God the same way, spending the bulk of my early adult life in a pursuit best described by author Mike McHargue (Finding God in the Waves) as “trying to see God as an equation to be solved instead of a living being who partners with us in His creation.” Mine was a robust square-cornered problem-solving dependable and predictable faith. You could count on me to know the answers.
Today I earn my living pursuing answers to complicated questions. Solving problems is a core motivation for me; it’s how I see the world. So during the Christmas holidays I read lots of blogs about what we get right about Christmas and what we get wrong; how our traditions are influenced, even driven, by western thought, interpretation, and modern terminology. I want to solve the puzzle of the Nativity.
Solving the Nativity
We try to understand what it was like for Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the wise men. We argue over the timeline of the visits, the location of the birth (Was it a cave? A house? A stable?), and the actual time of year when it all took place. We want to know what it was really like, but we can’t possibly know. Even writers who tell the story through Middle Eastern eyes are inescapably tied to the modern ways of living and the current ways of understanding the past.
For some reason none of the original participants in the nativity kept a personal journal, so we can’t read their eyewitness accounts. But what if they had? Would their accounts help us understand the story better? Would more believe? Or would we file it away as something that happened so long ago?
This year our church used videos produced by The Skit Guys as part of our Sunday morning worship. Each week we saw a different video, each with a single individual dressed like you or me, speaking like you or me, as if the birth of Jesus just happened and we are watching a PBS documentary. Those videos have become my favorite nativity presentation of all time, and I’ve seen a lot of them in my 60+ years of church attendance.
I liked them because they didn’t attempt to portray a historical context, but told the story as one-of-us. People are the part of the Nativity story that doesn’t change through time. Geography, climate, customs, language, medical treatment, clothing, all that changes many times through the millennia, but the hopes, fears, pain, or joys of everyday people change very little. We focus on the details of the nativity story because we want to get it right, we want to honor God in our telling, but it is the people themselves, who were more like us that we can know, who own the heart and soul.
Reading from John
So on December 26th, the Second Day of Christmas, my Daily Bible served up the three letters of John. I have written in the margin, “This letter uses the word know at least 37 times. It is not a letter of uncertainty or speculations.” John’s letter is full of things we can know for certain, whether reading it in the first century when he wrote it, or in the twenty-first century when we’re reading it.
Through the years I’ve gradually moved away from solving God (nailing down all the correct answers), and toward knowing God (being comfortable with his contradictions and paradoxes). I didn’t do it intentionally; I wasn’t even aware I was changing. I now long for the complex mysteries of God. Anything easy to explain and understand feels shallow and simple. I want God to be deeper than my own understanding.
God With Us
Like everyone else I still want to understand the nativity. I want to feel what it was like and how they lived, but whether we have all the details exactly correct no longer bothers me. What I know for certain, what the Apostle John reminded us he knew firsthand, is that God, who is from the beginning, has come after us to bring us to himself … Immanuel, God with us, Jesus Christ the Lord. The truth of his coming shines through all the details. That is the real solution to our problems.
“I run in the path of Your commands, for You have set my heart free.” Psalm 119:32