Christ in the Stable

This article originally appeared in The Call in the last month of 2013.

__________

And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:)to be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.

Luke 2:1-7

The account in Luke’s Gospel of Mary and Joseph’s arrival in Bethlehem, and their having to be accommodated in a stable because there was no room at the inn, is as familiar a piece of modern culture as any Biblical extract could be. It is difficult to imagine how many schools and steeplehouses will have children acting out the story at this time of year.

It was this very cultural familiarity that made it stand out on the popular British TV show ‘QI’ recently. ‘QI’ is a kind of quiz show that celebrates pedantry. Quizzmaster is the erudite Stephen Fry, and the contestants are usually stand-up comics or other celebrities known for their quick wit. When Stephen asks certain questions, if one of the contestants comes up with an answer that perpetuates, say, a common ‘urban myth’ or wrong assumption, lights flash klaxons sound, and points are deducted for a wrong answer. On this particular occasion, Stephen asked why Mary and Joseph had gone to Bethlehem. One of the panellists said “To take part in a census”, and the lights started flashing and the klaxons sounded. Stephen Fry went on to explain that there had been no such census, and that the story had been included in order to legitimise Jesus as the Messiah, who, according to prophecy, was supposed to be born at Bethlehem.

In short, Stephen Fry said that Luke was a liar.

How likely is that? Gospel writers did not go in for writing their autobiographies, so very little is known of Luke. He was most likely a Greco-Syrian physician from Antioch. It is also possible that he was a Gentile rather than a Jew. If we ascribe to him the writing of the Gospel that carries his name, and also the Acts of the Apostles, it is clear that he was not of the generation that actually saw and met Jesus. Many academics have, however, praised the historical accuracy of his writing, citing his descriptions of towns, cities, and islands, and his correct use of titles. His writing is certainly partisan – he wishes to promote faith in Jesus Christ – and must be viewed through that filter. However, even if he was not a Jew himself, as a close companion of the Apostle Paul, he must have been well aware of the Commandment ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness’. Would someone like this tell an outright lie?

There have always been academic difficulties about the historicity of the Gospels. Luke’s account of the nativity places it at the time of the principate of Augustus, during the Syrian governorship of Quirinius (Cyrenius). This does clash with other Gospel accounts, which mention Herod the Great, who died in 4 BCE. There is no account of a census covering the whole of the Roman world at that time, nor even of a regional registration by a Governor. Most modern scholars give the opinion that Luke was mistaken. A generous interpretation would be that he was recording what he had been told by a source he trusted (scholars referred to this presumably oral origination as the ‘L source). In Western learning, however, oral sources have always been regarded with suspicion – for example, the assumption that because many African peoples had entirely oral histories, their accounts of their own history may be disregarded or treated as legend. Many a Christian has asked, “Why do people treat Jesus worse than they treat Socrates?” when the heritage of both has come down to us from their followers rather than directly.

In 1931, the academics J R R Tolkien and C S Lewis were discussing ‘myths’. At the time Tolkien was a Roman Catholic, and Lewis an agnostic (though he later became an Anglican).

“Myths are lies,” said Lewis.

“Myths are not lies,” replied Tolkien. Materialistic progress, he went on, leads only to the abyss, but the myths we tell reflect a fragment of the true light. The Christ story functions as a myth, just like the Scandinavian myths that he and Lewis loved, with one difference – the Christian myth was true. As Lewis put it later:

“What Tolkien showed me was this. The story of Christ is simply a true myth; a myth working on us in the same way as the others, but with the tremendous difference that it really happened.”

Does this, then, solve the problem of the disputed accuracy of Luke’s nativity account? Should there be a concern that this particular circle should be squared? Let us look at it another way: does anyone reading this article doubt that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the Son of God? Is there any reader to whom this is not a profound and wonderful truth? Is there a reader to whom Christ is not a living presence, Lawgiver, King, Shepherd, Priest, Guide, Saviour, Light? Is there a reader to whom this is not the absolute, undilutable truth?

Luke’s account has Christ born in a stable in as humble circumstances as could possibly be. Shepherds, simple folk, come to see him, and in other Gospels he is visited by philosophers from the East, marking the beginning of his earthly existence with precious gifts. Few confuse the ‘truth’ of these accounts with verifiable ‘fact’, nevertheless they are true, this was the beginning of Christ’s life on earth.

If our focus continues on this, however, will we miss Christ’s heavenly glory? In an epistle to Friends in 1657, our ancient Friend George Fox said this.

“We must not have Christ Jesus, the Lord of life, put any more in a stable among the horses and asses; but he must now have the best chamber, the heart; and the rude, debauched spirit must be turned out. Therefore let him reign whose right it is, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost; by which Holy Ghost you call him Lord, in which Holy Ghost you pray, and have comfort and fellowship with the Father and with the son. Therefore know the triumph in it, and in God and his power, (which the devil is out of), and in the seed which is first and last, the beginning and ending, the top and corner-stone; in which is my love to you, and in which I rest.”

Amen.

Advertisements

Be silent , O all flesh.

This article was first published in The Call in 2011.

__________

Dear Friends,

In the stillness and silence of the power of the Almighty dwell, which never varies, alters, nor changes, but preserveth over and out of all the changeable worships, religions, ministers, churches, teachings, principalities, and powers, with the power of God, which keepeth over all this, to the kingdom of Christ, that is everlasting.”

(George Fox, Epistle 201)

It is unlike us to lead on George Fox. Worthy though our ancient friend was, and though he was both an apostle of Christ in his time and an elder and apostle to us now by his writings, we do not preach George Fox. We preach Christ. We preach the same Christ that Fox preached.

George Fox never founded the practice of silent worship; in fact it could be said that far from founding it he found it! It was the practice of a group known as the Seekers, who came into being in the 1620s, probable influenced by the preaching of the brothers Walter, Thomas, and Bartholomew Legate. This group of people had come out of all the forms and hierarchies of established religion, broken, poor in spirit (that wonderful state in which one realises that nothing, even one’s standing in a church, even one’s piety, even one’s works, even one’s humility, is of any value to God and in realising that takes the first step heavenward; “Blessed are the poor in spirit: for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” Matthew 5:3), and knew that their only hope was Jesus Christ. Their silence was one of waiting and hope – “Be silent, O all flesh, before the LORD: for he is raised up out of his holy habitation.” Zechariah 2:13. It was a silence and a hope that George Fox knew and recognised, and there is no better way to hear this than by his own testimony:

But as I had forsaken the priests, so I left the separate preachers also, and those esteemed the most experienced people; for I saw there was none among them all that could speak to my condition. When all my hopes in them and in all men were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, nor could I tell what to do, then, oh, then, I heard a voice which said, ‘There is one, even Christ Jesus, that can speak to thy condition; and when I heard it, my heart did leap for joy.

Then the Lord let me see why there was none upon the earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I might give Him all the glory. For all are concluded under sin, and shut up in unbelief, as I had been; that Jesus Christ might have the pre-eminence who enlightens, and gives grace, and faith, and power. Thus when God doth work, who shall hinder it? and this I knew experimentally.

My desire after the Lord grew stronger, and zeal in the pure knowledge of God, and of Christ alone, without the help of any man, book, or writing. For though I read the Scriptures that spoke of Christ and of God, yet I knew Him not, but by revelation, as He who hath the key did open, and as the Father of Life drew me to His Son by His Spirit. Then the Lord gently led me along, and let me see His love, which was endless and eternal, surpassing all the knowledge that men have in the natural state, or can obtain from history or books; and that love let me see myself, as I was without Him.” (GF, Journal, Ch1)

To meet in the silence of the flesh in those days was a matter of prophecy. It was prophecy to the sufficiency of Jesus Christ, before whom all things made by human invention are worthless. From that silence before the Lord all other things proceeded – prophesying, praying, preaching, teaching, singing – according to the anointing of the Holy Spirit. “All ye Friends, that wait in that which is pure in itself, which cannot lie, which doth not change, wait upon God, for God doth not change, and let all flesh be silent before the Lord, that the life may speak in all; then the mouth of the Lord is known, and God is exalted and glorified with his own work, which he brings forth.” (GF, Epistle 43).

Fox speaks of “them that are come to silent meetings… to feed there” (Epistle 131), meaning that such things as were broken and blessed by the Lord were to be had as spiritual sustenance at such meetings as observed the commandment “be silent , O all flesh”, but we know that early Quaker meetings, whilst ‘silent’ in that way were far from ‘quiet’ in another. The prophesying, praying, preaching, teaching, and singing all filled the air with sound.

Where does that find us today?

A Friend coined a word for religious proceedings which delighted the senses – he called it ‘religertainment’, a combination of the words ‘religion’ and ‘entertainment’. A second Friend replied with another coining – ‘religaxation’ – a combination of ‘religion’ and ‘relaxation’, by which he meant a meeting in which the silence does nothing more than soothe the senses. Each is a manifestation of the personalisation of religion. The disciples waited with ‘one accord’, taking the words from Acts 1:14 and 2:1.

We are a small and isolated people, our meetings are small and largely quiet. Perhaps that is meant to be so, perhaps we are keeping a particular, if small, candle of prophecy burning to let other professors of Christianity know that Jesus Christ is sufficient. Perhaps we are like a small number of soldiers ‘holding a line’ in the Lamb’s War. Our silence must therefore be the silence of all flesh, and if we are quiet that must be the outward testimony to the inward silence. It must be at the Lord’s command, and must be broken when we are commanded to speak, to prophesy, to preach, to pray, to teach, or to sing.

Someone unused to Friends’ worship recently asked “Why are Friends not more exuberant?” He had been invited to the funeral of a Friend which took the form of a meeting for worship (albeit within the discipline of the liberal body where the name of Christ is rarely heard). He was surprised to find that no one spoke, and at last felt impelled himself to stand and speak about the deceased person. He left at the end somewhat dissatisfied, but perhaps he had not considered that it had been the Lord’s will that he and no one else should speak on that occasion. Who knows?

One last thing about the appeal to the senses in worship. When we are come at last to Jesus Christ and know his love and salvation, the whole world has a different feel and scent to it. It is fresh to our senses, fresh to our intelligence, as it is to be seen with the refreshment of our spirits. There is nothing amiss with what may be given in worship pleasing the sense or the intelligence, but only if that measure of pleasing is according to the Lord and not according to us. There is nothing wrong with singing or with ‘exuberance’ as long as it is in answer to the clear prompting of the Lord. It is not to be an end in itself, either to impress or please a visitor or to delight ourselves. If we sing the words of the Psalmist or of Whittier or of Wesley it should be because the Lord has given us those words to sing. Otherwise we are not in the same spirit as were the Psalmist or Whittier or Wesley when the Lord led them to write their words. Take heed however, Friends, that the prophecy we are given may not always delight us nor be agreeable to the world.

Therefore silence all flesh, and see your own ways be clean.” (GF, Epistle 47)