There is more than one way to tell a story.
The New Testament offers us four different accounts of Jesus’ identity as Son of God. They differ so markedly that to the modern ear they can’t all be true. In fact, the modern, factually attuned ear probably will dismiss all of them as fairy stories.
Matthew and Luke both offer birth narrative’s rich in magical realism. These are stories of angels, shepherds, wise men, a genocidal king, and a star. As in our glorious children’s Christmas Pageant, we often combine the cast of characters -angles, shepherds, wise men, and the star appearing in a compilation of Matthew and Luke’s stories -run together as if they are the same story. But there is a different cast of characters in each story.
Matthew highlights the Jewish origin and identity of Jesus as the new Moses. His opening sentence begins –An account of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham. His story focuses on Joseph, and is populated with angels, wise men, a wicked king and a star and ends with a heart-rending (because of the events on our southern border) detail of flight from persecution – And an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain until I tell you”. …Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod.
Luke presents Jesus as God’s son who is the universal savior of humanity. The focus of his story is Mary and the birth of Jesus witnessed not by kings but by the to the ordinary people of the land. Luke’s story locates the birth within the wider context of the Roman world- In those days, a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. Luke’s opening sentence addresses one Theophilus – a Greek or Roman patron? We don’t really know. But Theophilus signifies Luke’s sense that through the birth of Jesus God is speaking to the whole world and not only to Israel.
In John the language of magical realism is replaced by that of a more science-fiction bent. Instead of an infant birth, John’s Jesus enters into the world through a cosmic creation event that harkens back before the dawn of time – in the beginning, already was the Word (Jesus) and the Word was God.
On Christmas Eve I spoke about the Matthew, Luke, and John stories and as I was greeting worshipers after the service a man came up to me and asked why I had omitted to mention Mark’s account? The reason, I explained, is that Mark offers no account of the birth of Jesus at all. His first mention of Jesus is as a fully-grown man – in those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan.
In year three of the Lectionary we read about the baptism of Jesus from Luke’s version of the story which he basically copies from Mark. Challenged on Christmas Eve, I was quick to make justification for omitting Mark. But was I correct in doing so? On deeper examination although neither a birth story nor a cosmic genesis event, the Marcan story of Jesus’ baptism is nevertheless a birth story of sorts; a story of birth through adoption. God’s voice booms from heaven: this is my son in whom I am well pleased.
In what sense is Jesus God’s son? Behind the question of how Jesus becomes God’s son lies the deeper question of identity. What is identity and how does it come about? Is identity – that sense of who we feel ourselves to be and who others recognize us being –the fruit of birth or adoption. Are we born into self-identity or do we become ourselves through adoption -i.e. the choices we make?
On January 4th I went for my U.S. citizenship application interview. I had memorized the answers to all 100 possible questions but only got asked six of the easiest. I’m not complaining mind, but if I am honest, I felt a little short changed by the lack of challenge. Anyway, I am relieved to say my application was approved.
On hearing of the news one Phoenix friend exclaimed: my God, what have you done? I assured him that all I had given up was the right to foreign titles so henceforth he would have to stop addressing me as Viscount.
The point of my relating all this is that when sworn-in, I will hold citizenship of three countries – only one of which is a citizenship conferred by birth. My American citizenship will be by adoption. So, does that make me less of a citizen than any of you who are citizens by birth? In the atmosphere of the current immigration controversy, this is a question that should focus our minds.
For each one of us, the interplay between the significance of being born-into and adoption of identity will vary. I have known a number of persons for whom this interplay is a painful one; resulting from the experience of being adopted by parents other than those who gave birth to them. The experience of infant or child adoption for many raises excruciating questions of identity because for most of us, identity is primarily shaped by factors of birth. For others, and I count myself among this group, the most important aspects of identity flow from processes of adoption.
The story of the baptism of Jesus is a very important one for us. You and I do not aspire to the status of children of God through the accident of our birth. Neither is our claim to be children of God a product of some pre-existent cosmic status. We become the children of God through adoption. Like God’s adoption of Jesus – this is my son on whom my favor rests – it is through baptism that we too become adopted as those in whom God is well pleased.
The writers of the New Testament understood that there is more than one way to tell a story. In fact, they seem to have realized that in order to do justice to the complexity of the confluence of human and divine identities in the human life of Jesus several different, yet overlapping stories were needed. A story of identity through birth alongside a story of identity by adoption remind us that the most significant source of identity is very often not the one we are born into but the one we choose for ourselves, the one we are adopted into.
What he meant was that truth is more than the recording or relating of an event as if it’s only a set of facts awaiting reporting. Truth resides in the enduring quality of a narrative – a story constructed to talk about the meaning of an event. Stories that bear the hallmark of truth are stories that not only align with our experience of the world but encourage in us to be better than the current versions of the people we happen to be.
Birth is an accident from which we can take neither credit nor bear blame. Adoption, now this is another matter! For adoption is always about a conscious choice, a deliberate decision made, a clear direction chosen.