Formations 12.25.2016: God Is Born and Don’t Own a Car

Luke 2:1-20

A Portuguese Nativity scene painted on ceramic tiles.

This week, after a month and some change of waiting, Christ comes. Luke introduces us to the one who brings hope, love, peace, and joy, the one we’ve come to call God, as an infant lying in a feeding trough. Just after his arrival, the news goes out to unskilled laborers working late into the night. And remembering these first moments of the incarnation, as God comes to look more like us, we see just how different God is.

The great theologian Jimmy Buffett makes an incarnational claim similar to Luke’s when he sings that “God don’t own a car.” Such theological statements are easy to dismiss as childish, but the questions still remain—Why would God, who is God, choose to walk or take public transit in the smallish town where he was born? Why wouldn’t God choose to be born in Rome, or at least Jerusalem? Humanity has spent much of its history trying to overcome its limitations, and God, who is already transcendent, chose to live with all the challenges that accompany our condition.

Here we are this week, about as unsure as to why or how God became human as the theologians who have disagreed for nearly two millennia. But having spent time thinking about the world we live in and the one we long for, we are ready to light the Christ candle, to join with those who have come before us and proclaim “yes” to it all.

Every year on Christmas Eve, I’m inclined to think we’ve made it, although I know the day after will more than likely leave us waiting. And yet, the loveliness of Christmas isn’t that the wait and our work are complete, just that they have changed. God doesn’t own a car, not because God doesn’t need one, but because “he’d rather take the bus. He would pay a tourist fare so he could sit with us.” Today we remember that God goes to shepherds and tired parents in Bethlehem because God chooses to.

The stories we tell of Jesus often push us beyond our comfort. While the incarnation tells us that God is here in the world with us, it also shows us that God is there with them too. Today the news goes out that Christ has come to Bethlehem, to tired parents and shepherds who heard the news and traveled to where God was. Like the shepherds, we are called to go see God too.

During Advent, we’ve navigated the tension between waiting in the places we need God to come and rushing to Christmas ignoring whatever pain we might be carrying.

Today it’s Christmas, so let’s celebrate, but not because Advent is over. Instead, let’s celebrate because we can do so with God, who is with us while we wait, look, and work together to bring God’s kingdom in fullness.

Jimmy Buffett and Buzz Cason, “God Don’t Own a Car,” High Cumberland Jubilee, Barnaby 6014.

Discussion

• Where are you still waiting? How does God wait with you?
• In what ways do you experience God with us today?
• How can you respond to God’s coming to be with us? What can you do to experience this coming more fully?
• In what parts of your life does seeing God’s face help you to be more fully human?

Reference Shelf

Peace

Is the peace that Jesus’ birth is said to bring the same as that claimed for Augustus? In the Jewish culture from which Christianity came, peace (shalom in Hebrew; eirēnē in Greek) meant basically wholeness, the normal state of life that corresponds to the will of God. Such wholeness would characterize the basic relations of life: (a) the relation of persons and God, (b) the relation of persons with one another, (c) the relation of persons with the natural world, and (d) one’s relation with oneself. This wholeness meant well being in contrast to evil in any form. It was the gift of God. Given human sin, however, this wholeness was lost. Peace, then, became an eschatological hope (Zech 9:9-10) and the messianic figure the prince of peace (Isa 9:6).

Luke–Acts, with one exception, reflects this context. The messianic salvation is described as the way of peace (1:79). Jesus Christ is said to have preached the good news of peace (Acts 10:36). This peace associated with God’s acts in Jesus involves recovered wholeness in the relation of a person with God (e.g., Luke 7:50), wholeness in the relation with the physical world (8:48), and wholeness in the relations among persons (e.g., Acts 9:31). The absence of any reference to peace with oneself is not surprising in Luke-Acts both because of the evangelist’s focus on the visible and external realities of life, and because the Scriptures on which Luke is so dependent have little concern with peace as an inward feeling. For Jesus’ birth to be connected with the recovery of peace, therefore, was a matter of great joy, meaning the restoration of wholeness to life in every area: with God, with others, with the physical world. It is this peace about which the heavenly choir sings at 2:14.

Charles H. Talbert, Reading Luke: A Literary and Theological Commentary, Reading the New Testament (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2002), 34–35.

Awaited and Unexpected

The angel tells the shepherds how they will pick Jesus out from any other infant in Bethlehem: he will be the one in the feed trough. When they arrive, they find it just as the angel has predicted. This seems to have been enough to convince them that the baby was worth talking about, so like Elizabeth’s relatives, they spread the word around. But unlike the relatives, who speak about what they do not know, the shepherds praise God for what they have seen and heard. The narrator describes them imitating the angels, who likewise give glory and praise to God. Contrary to our usual tableaux, the shepherds do not linger over the manger; they come in haste, and then leave to go spread the news. Like Mary, they seem more than a little unlikely to have been chosen to be first recipients and then bearers of God’s good news, but they take to their job with enthusiasm.

As for Mary, Joseph, and the baby, this story places them in the middle, between Augustus and the shepherds. Augustus decrees, and they move, and all the world with them, and so they find themselves in a place without enough room for them and their baby. Barbara Robinson describes them this way: “They looked like the people you see on the six o’clock news—refugees, sent to wait in some strange ugly place, with all their boxes and sacks around them.” But the shepherds hear the voices of the angels in the night, and go “with haste” to look them up—can you picture this? If the Holy Family is squeezed into some guest room or flophouse, having to resort to putting the baby in the manger, where are the shepherds standing while they look? We need to imagine them crowding in, straining to get a look—at an infant, wrapped in cloth like any other, lying in a makeshift crib and then gasping with wonder, explaining to all the other grumpy lodgers why they are making such a fuss over the newborn. Whose version of the story makes most sense: are Mary, Joseph, and Jesus government-manufactured refugees or the instruments of God’s revelation to the world?

Richard B. Vinson, Luke, Smyth & Helwys Bible Commentary (Macon GA: Smyth & Helwys, 2008), 62–63.

William Scruggs is a graduate of Mercer University. His favorite pastimes are adding music to his listening list, TV shows to his viewing list, and books to his reading list. When he isn’t pretending to check items off these lists, he spends time with friends and plays music. He is excited for the opportunity to continue exploring the rivers of Middle Georgia and to stay in Macon as an associate editor at Smyth & Helwys.

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