Verbrugge on the "Dark Side of Christmas" by Mark Strauss
Books on the background to the Bible are all the rage these days. Christians have a real thirst for learning about the social, cultural and religious background of God's Word. Unfortunately, this demand has also produced a supply of inaccurate and sensationalistic material. Some authors, for example, draw on very late rabbinic material, anachronistically assuming it relates to the time of Jesus. Other stories seem to be created from whole cloth, like the supposed "needle's eye gate" in Jerusalem, which camels supposedly could pass through with only the greatest of effort (an attempt to explain away Matt. 19:24).
Most recently, I was sent a silly story from the Internet about how at meals rabbis supposedly folded their napkin carefully if they were planning to return to the dinner table, but crumpled it up if they were finished. The folded "napkin" in the tomb of Jesus therefore indicates that he is coming back! Of course this napkin tradition has no basis in fact, and the whole story is the fabrication of some overzealous preacher (using the KJV, which translates Jesus' burial facecloth as a "napkin"!)
Fortunately, in contrast to this dubious material, a great deal of accurate and valuable background material is available. Zondervan, for example, has the excellent Illustrated Bible Backgrounds Commentary. The four volumes of the New Testament were published in 2002 and the Old Testament was just released this year. Also noteworthy are Gary Burge's Ancient Context, Ancient Faith series (2009), as well as the popular Archeological Study Bible (2005).
I have also just read an excellent little book by Verlyn Verbrugge, A Not-So-Silent Night (Kregel, 2009), which will serve as a helpful resource for pastors contemplating Christmas sermons. Verbrugge, senior editor of academic and professional books as Zondervan, writes about the "dark side" of Christmas. In contrast to the sweet and sentimental Nativity scenes and Christmas carols commonly associated with the birth of Christ, he points out that the Nativity stories in fact paint a stark picture of conflict, shame, and sorrow. Mary's pregnancy would have been a cause of great shame and humiliation for her, Joseph, and their respective families.
The lack of reception at the private "guest room" (not an "inn") in Bethlehem likely resulted from ostracism by Joseph's Bethlehem relatives. Several nativity stories point to coming war and conflict. Simeon predicts division within Israel and heartbreak for Mary at the rejection of her son. This "dark side," however, also reveals the true redemptive power of Christmas. The child born in shame and poverty is destined for a tragic end; yet through his death and resurrection he will bring restoration to a lost world and reconciliation between God and humanity. That is the real meaning of Christmas! Pastors and teachers will find much valuable grist for the preaching mill here.
Mark Strauss (PhD, Aberdeen) is professor of New Testament at Bethel Seminary in San Diego. He has written numerous books, including Four Portraits, One Jesus.
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