Wineskins Archive

December 21, 2013

Book Review: God With Us – The Beginning of Renewal (Dec 1992)

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by Larry James
December, 1992

Christmas in the church of my childhood meant no mention of Jesus’ birth, except possibly to set us all straight about the fact that no one knew the actual date and that Scripture authorized no special observance in connection with the blessed event. While the entire world fixed its gaze on Bethlehem, we carefully avoided even a mention of the birth at this sensitive time of the year. While I understand the technical accuracy of the point my hometown church tried to make, I still regret missing out on the joy, as well as the annual opportunity for open-hearted celebration, I observed in every other Christian group in town.

Renewal begins with the incarnation of Jesus, the Messiah. To understand the miracle of Immanuel, “God with us,” we must rush to Bethlehem and linger for a long while. Most of us who grew up in Churches of Christ live with a “Bethlehem deficiency.” Our heritage unwittingly and unintentionally trained us to hurry past the miracle of Christ’s birth to the “more important” facts and events of his life, death, and resurrection. Failure to appreciate the details of the birth blinds us to the larger implications of this most important truth positioned at the very center of our faith system: God loves people out of a heart as huge as all eternity. If the cross displays the depths to which the Creator stoops to rescue his loved ones, the manger of Bethlehem reveals the outer limits of his commitment to identify completely with those he seeks to save. As I face more frequently the inevitability of my own death, I possess unshakable confidence because I walk with a God who entered my world through a birth exactly like my own!

Rubel Shelly assists our understanding and, even more importantly, our appreciation of the miracle of Bethlehem in his new book, What Child Is This? Witnesses to the Birth of Christ (Howard Publishing Company, Inc., 1992, $7.95.) Unashamedly presented as a “devotional look at the characters – both at the center and on the periphery – surrounding this incarnation,” What Child Is This? transports the reader into the world of Jesus’ arrival without losing touch with the world of our present battle. Divided into 12 sections, eight focused on the various personalities present or shortly after the birth, Shelly crafts an inspirational and informative survey of all that transpired when God broke into history with amazing commonness.

Shelly’s subject matter tempers his predictable style of precision and analytical insight. While the book loses nothing in accuracy, careful scholarship, or analysis, its content communicates the power of God’s grace in every chapter. Actually a collection of thematically-connected essays, each chapter stands on its own and, as I’ll suggest below, provides provocative content for personal or group investigation. The character studies form the heart of the book with spotlight attention given with at least two chapters each to Mary, Joseph, the angels, the shepherds, the authorities, and the child himself. Helpful introductory and relevant concluding segments bracket the perceptive and inspirational character sketches.

Possibly because our heritage typically avoids any serious study of Mary (lest we appear to acknowledge the benefit of anything Catholic!), Shelly’s treatment of Mary moved me deeply. Setting the social, religious, and moral climate of Mary’s day in a highly readable, historically plausible chapter, “A Frightened Little Girl,” Shelly moves the reader into the world of the mother of God. Mary, the prototypical Jewish teenager, struggles heroically with her miraculous, atypical encounter with the very God of Israel. Blending biblical text with human imagination (a great way to read any part of Scripture), Shelly details not only the facts as we know them, but also the probable emotions the young virgin experienced as she accepted God’s unusual will for her life. The author’s sensitivity with what we know about the facts of the story opens up for the reader a number of unexpected insights about what may have been going on behind the story the text tells. In the third and final section devoted to Mary, “Some Paradoxes of Motherhood,” Shelly demonstrates the rare ability to move quickly from the world of the first century back into the world of modern mothers to affirm and encourage hearts with unexpected insight surfaced by his careful and imaginative study. The three-part section focusing on Mary justifies the price of the book.

In much the same way “The Devout Carpenter,” a fairly long chapter about Joseph, does a terrific job of “getting into the head” of the confused, about-to-be-married, about-to-be-father. Anyone who preaches about Joseph (another character too often neglected in our churches) in a believable, contemporary manner should read this chapter. Shelly’s style, imagination, and careful scholarship, so evident in much of the background assumptions undergirding the book, help the reader to experience in a new way the credibility of the ancient stories.

The hidden pageantry of the birth of Jesus, complete with all the characters surrounding the newborn king, reveals the radical, new thing God accomplishes with the arrival f his one and only son. The birth narratives require fresh and new attention at this crucial time of renewal and transition among our churches because these stories tell us who God is, about whom he is ultimately concerned, and how he expects us to respond to the world in which we live and serve. In their birth narratives Matthew and Luke present every essential element and aspect of the remainder of the story of Jesus. To understand Jesus in his ministry and death we must begin at Bethlehem. To grasp the expectations of our modern calling we must return to the weeks surrounding his birth and dedication. Throughout the book Shelly assists us in this necessary endeavor. For example, the shepherds directed to the manger by heavenly messengers put us on alert as to how this child will respond to people society rejects:

But God wanted shepherds nearest to his son on the night of his birth. It was as if their presence was meant to signify that God would, from now on, be nearest to the people others despised. he declared himself that night to be not only the Lord Almighty, but also the God of the Outcasts. True to that image, the babe adored by shepherds grew up to be called the Friend of Tax Collectors and Sinners. It was meant to be derision. I understand it as my basis for hope of eternal life (“God Comes to Unlikely People,” page 110).

What Child Is This? provides the reader with practical insights, fresh historical and social sketches, challenging applications of old truths, and helpful new theological perceptions while doing a marvelous job of simply telling again the best story of all time. Because I value the book as essential reading, let me offer a few concluding suggestions as to how its use should be expanded in the church:

1.) Plan to read and study What Child Is This? during the fall quarter of 1993 in your adult or teen Sunday School class. Six to eight weeks spent in this material leading up to Christmas with supplemental information provided about how to get the most out of the season spiritually could bring revival to your group and to families within it.

2.) Make copies available for purchase in your congregation. Develop a personal study guide with a daily Bible reading for use beginning in late October through mid-December. Create the opportunity for personal study and meditation about the birth of our Lord.

3.) Buy a copy for your preacher! Take it from me, he needs some fresh material on the birth narratives. Besides, this book will renew his heart.

4.) Read this book to your children at home during the Christmas season. What wonderful conversations it will undoubtedly spark. Send it to your grown or college-age children and grandchildren. No story is more filled with mystery and wonder than this one. Nothing seems more necessary to health and well being today.

Raymond E. Brown begins his monumental The Birth of the Messiah (Doubleday & Company, 1977) by noting, “In some ways the narratives of Jesus’ birth and infancy are the last frontier to be crossed in the relentless advance of the scientific (critical) approach to the Gospels” (page 7). While Brown and Shelly work with the same material in quite different ways and with vastly different purposes, What Child Is This? propels us far beyond this last, important frontier in our understanding and experience of God’s good news.Wineskins Magazine

Larry James

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