Royal Birth, Royal Scandal

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As a Jewish girl in the first century, Mary would have known the punishment for her supposed indiscretions. She could be legally executed. And it was a possibility that might loom larger should the small-town rumor mill suggest that it was a Roman soldier, and not a Hebrew boyfriend, who was behind it. This wasn’t a story for a greeting card. Things looked bad for Mary. In a small town, she would be doomed to a life as the black sheep with the bastard baby.

And with this gritty reality, we glimpse the paradox that marks the beginning of the Jesus chapter: two themes set side by side. We are told first that this event will be a royal birth, the birth of a king. And at the same time, we told also of a royal scandal. This child’s birth will give rise to rumors of the kind that travel faster than a brushfire. Two realities, laid side by side:

Royal birth. Royal scandal.

In Luke’s gospel, the words of the angel hint at both. While Mary sits quivering from the shock of an angelic visitor, God’s messenger delivers a news flash: You will get pregnant before sex and before marriage. You will give birth to a boy and his name will be Jesus:

“He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” (Luke 1:32–33)

His kingdom. There is the reminder. This is to be a royal birth. But it is couched in royal scandal. And as the pregnancy plays out, the two themes continue. The local despot, Herod the Great, hears the royal rumor and acts decisively. Kingly gossip must be quashed, and Herod—who would kill both sons and wives for less—is hardly squeamish. Bethlehem becomes a bloodbath. Royal birth. Royal scandal.

Later, court astrologers (Magi) come from kingdoms in the East. They are looking for a child whose birth has produced the kind of night-sky pyrotechnics usually reserved for Roman Caesars. (Translation: they have seen a star.) And for the ancients, stars did more than twinkle. For the ancients, stars screamed royal messages: “Take heed! The old order is changing! A new King has been born!”

Because this was the meaning of the star, it was only natural to bring gifts, not for a baby shower, but for the coronation of a new crown prince. It was a rogue coronation, like the one the prophet Samuel held for David. It was the kind of baby shower that could get you killed; and for Jesus, it almost does.

Jesus’ family flees to Egypt. But even this road trip serves to underscore the royal birth and scandal. For the family of Abraham, the symbolism was hardly subtle. Egypt was the ancient land of slavery, the land where Yahweh heard his people cry and led them out of bondage. So for all who heard of Jesus’ flight to the nation of the Nile, the meaning was clear: the would-be king was retracing the steps of men like Moses and Joshua. He was reliving Israel’s story, but with fidelity.

The trip to Egypt was an exodus in miniature. It was an exile, followed by return. The crown prince was taking on the role of his ancient forefathers. In time, he would leave Egypt for the promised land, and for all who later heard of this, the next step would seem obvious: first comes exodus; then comes conquest. In other words, there was going to be a fight. For all who heard the tale of the special baby born in Bethlehem, this stark conclusion would remain the overriding take-away. From the manger forward, all the tension builds toward this conclusion. You cannot have two kings. You cannot have two masters.

There was going to be a fight. Shakespeare could have told us this. And, in a way, the beginning of the Jesus chapter reads like a Shakespearian play. It reads a bit like Macbeth or Hamlet. There are rival claims to kingship, and as Shakespeare knew well, rival claims can end in only one way. At the end of the play, someone (or more likely, many someones) must lay dead. At the end of the story, either Caesar, or Herod, or Jesus himself must lie in a pool of cooling blood. That’s how these stories always end. There was going to be a fight.

That’s the dark shadow behind the Christmas story. Yet as we leave the royal birth and scandal of Jesus’ birth, we are left with questions: When will this fight take place? What will it look like? And who will win? These are the crucial questions, but they can be answered only by a look forward into Jesus’ adult life and ministry.

This article is an except from Long Story Short: The Bible in Six Simple Movements by Josh McNall. The study is perfect for: 1) Newcomers classes 2) College or Young Adult Ministry 3) Home groups 4) Neighborhood Bible studies 5) Sunday School. As you walk through this book, you will: Learn the big story of Scripture as a seamless whole; engage with a highly readable book; be challenged to think about familiar stories of the Bible in fresh ways. | “Joshua McNall in his engaging and witty little book Long Story Short, can help you understand the storied world in and of the Bible, and perhaps more importantly help you understand how actually you are in the story, and you must embrace it as yours.” (Dr. Ben Witherington III) Get the book + DVD or streaming from our store here.

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Dr. Joshua McNall is Assistant Professor of Theology at Oklahoma Wesleyan University. He lives in Bartlesville, Oklahoma with his wife Brianna and their four children. In addition to preaching and teaching roles, he blogs regularly at joshuamcnall.com.

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