My college church organized a big evangelistic training and event. We went through two nights learning how to “win people to the Lord” using handy little tracts organized around “the four spiritual laws.” (#1 God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life. #2 Man is sinful and separated from God. [Yes, only men.] #3 Jesus Christ is God’s only provision for man’s sin. #4 We must individually receive Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord. – I still remember them after all these years.) Each spiritual law had a verse of Scripture attached to it to give it biblical validity. On the third night we were given the assignment of going out to neighborhoods and college dorms, knocking on doors, and if the person answering the door would allow us, we were to tell him the four spiritual laws. If the person said “yes” to the last law, we were to pray with him, asking for Jesus to enter into his heart. After the prayer, we congratulated him on becoming a Christian, told him to go to church the next Sunday and then off we went to “win” the next person to the Lord.
I remember walking down the hall after sharing the four spiritual laws and praying with that student, thinking to myself, “Something is wrong with all this.”
One of the great dangers and persistent temptations of the Christian life is abstraction and reduction, universalization and generalization. We like platitudes and principles, spiritual laws and high-sounding words like “love” and “grace” or “justice.”
But not with Luke. Not with the New Testament. At Christmas we run up against the Incarnation. Instead of timeless truth we get God in particular: a teenaged mother and young father with their baby in a cattle trough, trying to stay warm in a cow shed on the backside of a dusty overlooked town on the far side of the Roman Empire. We get the specific, the particular, the concrete. None of this “once upon a time,” timeless and eternal we get in fairy stories. This story can be dated – when Quirinius was governor of Syria. We can take a road map and follow Mary and Joseph’s journey from Galilee to Nazareth to Bethlehem. Not four spiritual laws. We get an angel calling Mary. God speaking to Joseph. God coming in the particularity of a baby.
Our preference for abstract principles and spiritual laws means we try to make the gospel into whatever we want. Literary critic Stanley Fish explains how the jury acquitted the policemen accused of beating Rodney King in the famous 1992 trial even though the policemen had been filmed on video of beating King. Fish says that the defense lawyers did two things: (1) They slowed the video down to one frame at a time so that each frame was isolated and stood by itself. (2) They asked the jury, one frozen frame at a time, was this blow excessive force? Did this blow intend to kill or maim? Each moment, each frame, and each blow was abstracted from the overall context, history, and story that gave them meaning. Therefore, the jury could not say of any of them that this did grievous harm to Rodney King (Stanley Fish, The Trouble With Principle, p. 309).
But when we stick with the story of the Incarnation we can’t make it anything we want. We can’t say “yes” to four spiritual laws and hate our neighbors and kill our enemies. We can’t ask an abstract Jesus into our hearts and ignore his life and the life he calls us to. We can’t be “spiritual” and not become a member of his contemporary body, the church. The miracle of the Incarnation says it is this Jesus born in the specifics of Bethlehem in the time when Quirinius was governor of Syria who called us to a particular way of life embodied in his church located in our time and place today. God is particular. Jesus came to be with us right here.
My old teacher Fred Craddock tells the story of a preacher who loved to preach on big subjects and large issues every Sunday. From time to time some of his parishioners would complain of his big sermon topics and say they wanted something that helped them closer to home, helped them to get through the week but the pastor said they needed to learn to think beyond their petty concerns. So one week the pastor had to go to a denominational meeting in a large city and got one of his church members to go with him. When they reached the city, the pastor asked his church member to find a map so they could make their way to the meeting place. The church member reached over in the back seat and pulled up a globe of the world.
The God we worship comes to us in the particularity of this Jesus and in the specifics of his life embodied where we live. Thanks be to God.