Monday, December 24, 2012

Literally? Figuratively? Definitely.

The Nativity of Our Lord
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2012
Non-Christians view the Bible as just another book. A very good book, but just a book, nonetheless. There are also those who take issue with the Bible because there are many things in there offensive to them. For Christians, the Bible is a book, but more than a book. It’s the Word of God.

But how does one interpret the Word of God? Literally? Figuratively? Some will take, for example, the six days Genesis tells us in which God created the world, literally, whereas others will take it figuratively. Those who take it literally say that the words say what they mean, but those who take it figuratively say the words are meant to symbolize something else. So how do we take it? Literally? Figuratively?

The Christian Church believes that the Word of God is the written words of God, using language as it is normally used. There is narrative, there is statement, there is exhortation, there is poetry, there is history, and there is metaphor. Different parts of Scripture need to be interpreted according to the kind language that is being used. For example, in the case of the Genesis account of creation, this is language that is used in a straightforward manner, telling us what happened, and even describing what each day consisted of—there was evening and there was morning, the first day. In other words, each day was a twenty-four hour time period.

There’s an example on perhaps a less serious scale and may perhaps take a little of the romance out of your picture of how the Christmas event unfolded. “Hark! The Herald, Angels Sing” is a beloved Christmas hymn. However, this is what the words in the Gospel According to Luke actually say: “And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest.’”

Does that mean we’re wrong in singing in the hymn that the angels sang? Does it, in fact, mean that the angels didn’t sing, but rather spoke? Most people know of the theologian Joseph Ratzinger, although most don’t know him by this name. They know him, rather, as Pope Benedict XVI. Joseph Ratzinger, in a book he has written about Jesus’ birth and infancy, made this wonderful observation: “Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song.”

To be literal is not to be so literal that you miss the point that is being made. An article in the New York Times stated that “most evangelicals describe the Bible as literally true. Yet for many, ‘literally’ often means ‘keep what’s there and add details to make it vivid.’” Some explain how to ‘live the experience’ of Scripture: ‘Smell the sea. Hear the lap of water against the shore. See the crowd. Feel the sun on your head and the hunger in your stomach. Taste the salt in the air. Touch the hem of his garment.’ But is this the point of the words of Scripture?

Language is wonderful and we use it to communicate. That people interpret the Bible in so many different ways shows that it can be tough to understand what someone means when they say something or write something. The Bible is God’s communication to us of who He is and what He has done. While some would take the account of Jesus’ birth as just a story, the way God tells it it is a true story. The details are literally true. The way God works is not mystically but very real and in physical ways. Thus, God came to us as a baby. Mary actually gave birth to a Son. Mary wrapped Him up in actual swaddling cloths. He literally cuddled up in her arms.

The reason all of this happened is because God wanted to actually, literally save us. We, every person, are actually separated from God by our sin. He came to restore us back into an eternal relationship with Him. He came to deal with our sin, to put it away, to forgive us of our sin. The way He did that was by becoming man. And He did it the long, drawn-out way. By being in a womb for nine months. By being born and needing to bed fed and cared for by His mother and by His adoptive father, Joseph. He went through the painful years of adolescence.

He actually traversed places on the map teaching and preaching and healing people. He forgave people of their sins. He taught and called apostles into ministry. At the heart of God’s actions in sending His Son was the cross. Jesus was born, but it was His death thirty-three years later where we see the fruition of God sending His Son. It wasn’t just that He died, He took upon Himself the sin of every person. He died in our place. There is no figurative or metaphorical message here. Jesus actually paid for the sins of the world in His suffering, death, and resurrection.

In the birth of Christ we are shown an important thing about God. That is that the way He comes to us is by actually coming to us. The way He brings salvation to us is by bringing Christ to us. The way He forgives us is by delivering His Son to us.

If all we got were God coming in the flesh, Jesus being born, Jesus going to the cross and walking away from His grave, well, that certainly would have been enough. That would be as much as we need. It would be more than we could ever ask or hope for. But with God, well, He’s not done. It’s not enough for Him. He keeps giving us more Jesus. As He gave His Son at Christmas, He gives Him to us also in our lives. In the same way the birth of Christ, Jesus coming in the flesh, is actual, literal, so is His coming to us in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper.

Rather than attempting to feel the mist of the waves washing up on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, the waters of Baptism flow down our head. Instead of placing ourselves in the shoes of the 5,000 people who sat listening to Jesus and feeling the pains of hunger, we are actually given bread and wine in which our Lord gives to us Himself, His body and blood in and with that bread and wine.

This is the reason for the Gospel. The Gospel is the way God brings His Son to you. The way He did it the first time was through the womb of the Virgin Mary. The way He does it now is by delivering the Gospel to you. When the Gospel is proclaimed, Jesus is delivered to you. When you are Baptized, you are united with Christ. When you receive the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, your Lord comes to you.

There are parts to the Bible that are literal. There are parts that are figurative. We interpret them accordingly. The essential point is that it is all true. It is definite. It is definitely true.

If you want to get a feel for what it felt like that night in Bethlehem, in that stable, what Joseph and Mary were experiencing, consider that you actually experience what they did. Not that you can smell the hay or the animals. But God in the flesh was given to them on that night. They were in His presence, they were given God. In Baptism and the Lord’s Supper it is the same thing, God in the flesh is given to you, you are in the presence of God. When the Gospel is proclaimed and is applied to you in Baptism and the Lord’s Supper, Jesus is delivered to you. The one who was born, who lived, who died, who rose, is the same one who definitely continues to come to you in the means in which He has directed you to.

As for the message of the angels, whether spoken or sung, what they proclaimed is the truth for all time and eternity—that it is the glory of God to bring true peace to you. Peace in the midst of your sins that plague you; peace in the midst of sorrow and pain and hurt. Peace in God’s Son, Jesus Christ. Amen.


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