The story of Jesus’ birth, as traditionally told, is a charming tale that warms the hearts of parents and children alike. This story brings together elements from the accounts of Matthew and Luke and attempts to blend them into a coherent account. This works if you don’t examine the accounts too carefully, but that is not the most important thing to notice about the accounts as written in the Gospels.
The story of Jesus’ birth has deep roots in the history of the people of Israel, the remnant of whom we now know as the Jewish people. Their first great leader, Moses, prophesied that there would be a prophet like him, who would lead the people of Israel in a similar manner to his own leadership (Deut. 18:14-19).
Moses was born in a time of slavery and oppression of the Israelite people in Egypt. The pharaoh was concerned that there might be an uprising of these people, so he began a program to eliminate Israelite newborn boys. When this did not succeed due to a lack of cooperation by Egyptian midwives, he ordered his troops to seek out and kill all Israelite by children.
When Moses was born, his mother had to take extreme measures to hide him until it became too dangerous. In desperation, she sent him up the Nile, hoping he would be discovered and saved. (His sister followed the basket as a backup, just in case anyone is wondering about child neglect.) Sheltered by an Egyptian princess, he eventually grew up to lead the people out of Egyptian captivity, and into a covenant with God at the base of Mount Sinai. From there, he led them (following God, of course) through the wilderness for 40 years and then to the edge of the Promised Land.
Deuteronomy 18:16, part of the prophecy about the prophet, specifically mentions Moses’ commission as spokesman for God at Mt. Sinai, when God thundered the 10 Commandments from the summit, beginning the Book of the Covenant in Exodus 20-23.
The birth narratives of Jesus were not so much intended to be a heart-warming story as to demonstrate that Jesus is the prophet who is most like Moses in all of Israel’s history.
Like Moses, Jesus is born in a time of Israel’s servitude to and oppression by a foreign nation, Rome. This is demonstrated by the ride to Bethlehem by a very pregnant Mary because of a Roman taxation decree. There is not a great deal of care and concern for conquered people in the Roman system.
Herod’s slaughter of the innocent children and Jesus’ escape from it show a likeness to conditions at Moses’ birth. His rescue by divinely sent dreams, both to the magi and to his parents, demonstrates that God intends world-changing things for this boy, just as He did for Moses.
The point of all of this is not just to add a dimension to the story of Jesus’ birth. The resemblance to Moses sets the stage for Jesus’ mission. Jesus is not just a “newborn king.” He is much, much more.
The history of Israel is defined by the turning point in their history: the Exodus from Egypt. They rebelled against God and were eventually exiled from their land. They had been warned of that possibility by Moses, who also gave them the hope of a new exodus in Deut. 30:1-6. Jeremiah, writing just before Israel’s captivity to Babylon, reminds them of that hope in Jeremiah 31:31-34.
The way the story of Jesus is told in the New Testament shows Jesus as the new Moses who is leading a new Exodus of the remnant of Israel out of captivity. Just as there were many Egyptians who tagged along in what the account calls a “mixed multitude,” Gentile Christians are riding on the coattails of a uniquely Israelite Exodus when they begin to follow Jesus.
With this in mind, the story of the Sermon on the Mount takes on aspects of the Mount Sinai gathering, except that this time, Jesus is on the mountain rather than at its base. He becomes both Moses and the voice of God as He utters the words of the New Covenant, Jesus’ Ten Commandments.
So, why an Exodus? Why not just a spiritual salvation that gets sins forgiven?
Canada is one of the very best countries in the world to live in. Reading the newspaper even once indicates that there are problems in our paradise. Even within our congregations, we see that all is not well with our world. We are affected by the results of our own sin and that of others around us. We are separated from our loved ones by death, whether by natural causes, accident or foul play. Families can be divided by greed and selfishness. Nations lie about other nations in order to gain advantage. There are civil (and uncivil!) wars all over the world.
Underneath it all, the game of empire-building goes on. Whether it is building a secure position in a bureaucracy or literally trying to rule over nations, the power-brokers of the world concentrate power in their hands at the expense of ordinary people who are just trying to get by. Their schemes to get rich and collect power leave many people broken and helpless in their wake. This is a very sick world.
This is not intended as a tirade against the rich and powerful, as such. It is more a comment about human nature as it now stands. The rich and powerful just happen to be better at gaining advantage than the rest of us. It is a quantitative rather than a qualitative difference.
Jesus’ mission is to lead an Exodus out of a broken and corrupt world into a “new heavens and a new earth.” This isn’t a move into a heavenly realm of harps and wings. It isn’t a move from a physical plane to a non-physical, spiritual realm.
Rather, it is a completely fresh start for humanity.
Jesus came to initiate a reboot of the universe, with the bad habits, sin, oppression and empire-building ideologies left behind.
His first coming was to start a harvest: a gathering of the “remnant of Israel” who are scattered around the whole world, along with all who wish to join them in a completely new life. It begins with a new heart now, and will culminate in a new world in which everyone lives by an entirely different motivation.
In summary: The story of Jesus’ birth in the Gospels introduces us to Him as a new, better Moses who has come to set His people free. His first coming initiates us with a new heart. His second coming will settle those with new hearts into a new “promised land,” where they can live forever, freed from destructive and self-destructive impulses, within God’s will.