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Jesus: Who do I think he is?

December 21, 2013

There’s a real fashion at the moment for searching your family tree. There are programmes like, “Who do you think you are?”, where celebrities, helped by genealogists, find out about their family’s past. All of them seem to have interesting family histories, and a skeleton or two tucked away in the closet: A few black sheep – Great aunt Maud who left her husband for a handsome soldier, or great great granddad who was a cut-throat.

Then there are the personal stories from world history. Faded pictures of men going away to now distant wars, the First World War, the Boer War or some conflict now almost forgotten by history.

I find all of this interesting but only in so far as it places real people into history and so brings history to life. But my father in law is very keen. Apparently, I have Prussian blood, mixed with Scots and Irish, English and Welsh. I’ve no idea what that says about me. He has traced my wife’s family line all the way back to the time of the Norman Conquest, to a Norman warlord named Fulk the Rude, a great uncle of Elinor of Aquitane and father to one of the early Kings of Jerusalem to reign after the First Crusade.

I may not be excited by genealogy but I do see the attraction of knowing who you are, and where you belong. That is what Matthew is doing in the beginning of his Gospel and what Paul is doing at the beginning of his letter to the Romans. Genealogies may be a bit dull to me but for a king they are essential. That is why Matthew and Paul are so keen to point out the royal earthly lineage of Jesus. Jesus is heir to the promises given to David; particularly the promise that one of David’s descendants would rule forever, the one who would be named Emmanuel (God with us).

That is what all these nativity stories are really about. They were not written as scripts for primary school plays. They were setting the foundations for claims that God had come to earth as a man, Jesus.

I hear this story of the birth of Jesus, the Emmanuel. It is lovely, it makes me smile and takes me way back to when I was tiny. This may sound lovely but it isn’t – far from it. I did not grow up in a Christian household so the Christmas nativity stories were just part of the fable of Christmas. I enjoyed these stories but Mary and Joseph and their baby were no more real people to me than Hansel and Gretel, or the Three Pigs and the Big Bad Wolf. They were far less real than Father Christmas, at least when I was very young. So, I grew up with the ingrained idea that believing in Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus was as silly as believing that Santa Claus really did come down my chimney on Christmas morning. Now I know these stories to be so much more, but it is so hard to get past that view of them as nice fairy stories. I read the nativity story now and part of me deep down inside keeps trying to huff and puff and blow it all down.

It is hard but not impossible and strangely it is all that dry history that really helps. The boring genealogies ground the story in real history. The fairytale figures of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus become real people, ordinary people in extraordinary situations but ordinary people still. They have to be ordinary or they have no hope to offer us ordinary people.

Joseph is just a carpenter and Mary a young Jewish woman, a young couple who have a difficult start to their married life. It is their ordinariness that allows them and their story to come alive for me. I can start to see the shadows of real people, not infants dressed in tea towels. A real Jewish father and mother. Later a family with Jesus and brothers and sisters. Now I can feel the normal human side to Jesus. I can imagine birthday parties, children’s games and pranks. I can imagine Jesus learning with his father how to work wood and earn a living to feed his family. I can imagine the pain and misery of that family following the loss of Joseph. I can imagine Jesus grieving for his human step father who had brought Jesus up as his own.

I know now that Jesus is God. But I need to start with the baby, and the boy before I’m ready to hear about the man. I am just a man and the reality of God is too much for me. God is too big for me to see or ever understand. But Jesus the man I can listen to – at least I can read the little that was written down about him, I can read about the things that he said and did.

As I read about miracles (about walking on water, curing the sick, and raising the dead) I now have a picture in my mind of an ordinary man doing all of this. A man who, like me, started as a baby and grew up in a family: A human being like me. It is because I now have a picture in my mind of a man like me that I can hope to understand what he was trying to say to me and to all people.

Still God is too much for me, but Jesus introduces me to God as a human being. The human Jesus introduces me to a God I can at least hope to comprehend. Jesus is the face of God that I can seek to be like and can hope for at least a little success. I can look to Jesus as God and human and learn something of what it is to be me, filled with the Holy Spirit. That is the power and importance of these simple nativity stories.

These stories of Mary and Joseph are stories of everyday Jewish folk trying to make a living and raise a family. It is into this ordinariness of creation that God came to earth. It is in the ordinariness of my life that God comes to earth today.

Jesus, Emmanuel, God with me, God in me.

  1. Dad told me recently it turns out that Fulke the Rude isn’t my ancestor at all but the result of a wrong turning by another researcher. I’m gutted.

    • Sorry to hear that. I suppose it’s always going to be difficult when you try and trace a family that far back. But ordinary isn’t that bad and we’re in good company!

  2. Ian Stevenson permalink

    The genealogies of Matthew and Luke do not tell the same story. Having said this, to me it does not take away anything from what Jesus taught.

    • I agree on both counts: The genealogies do not match and that this does not take anything away from the teaching of Jesus. In both cases these genealogies emphasise the human context of Jesus life (on the side of his step-father at least) and point to him as the fulfilment of promises made by God to his people.

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