The devil said to him, “If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.” Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone.’” (Luke 4:4 NIV)
This first temptation of Jesus by Satan immediately raises the question, “if not bread alone, then what else?” Matthew’s account gives the answer, where the whole of the reference to Deuteronomy 8:3 is quoted by Jesus.
Jesus answered, “It is written:‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God. ’” (Matthew 4:4 NIV)
At the time of writing it is Christmas 2015 and as I have heard the familiar Christmas story again and again it has struck me that the whole thing is about God, the supernatural creator of all things, speaking to us humans. This is an amazing concept, that a being so far above us, so much bigger and more powerful, should want to speak to us. That he would even care. But reading the Christmas story again this is what I see – a God who speaks in extraordinary ways into people’s lives.
First, he speaks through angels. The angel Gabriel spoke to Zechariah, to Mary, to Joseph. An angel appeared to a group of shepherds in the hills near Bethlehem and spoke to them, then was joined by a whole host of other angels who sang a worship song to God. An angel of the Lord warned Joseph to flee to Egypt. Nowadays most people regard angels as mythical, fantasy figures. Luke seems to think otherwise, claiming that what he writes is fact, not fiction. If angels are indeed real, what form do they take, and how do we know when we meet one? These are hard questions to be sure, but one thing is certain, they speak about God, his nature, his character, his purposes, his plans. They also worship God, recognising that they are subordinate to Him.
Second, God speaks through dreams, an experience that most people can identify more easily. Matthew’s account of the Christmas story mentions this method of God speaking though Luke does not. Joseph in particular seems to be rather receptive to this expression of God’s voice – in three places in Matthew’s gospel we read of an angel appearing to Joseph in a dream: first, when he is wondering what to do about Mary’s pregnancy, second, after Jesus is born and he is instructed by the angel to flee to Egypt, and third, when he is in Egypt and the angel tells him it is time to go home. Not just Joseph, but also the Magi (who are not mentioned by Luke either) experience guidance through this method: they are warned in a dream not to return to Herod after they see Jesus.
The three wise men were an interesting group. They were astrologers and made a study of reading the signs in the heavens. Astrology is still popular today but is seen by most as being superstitious nonsense, a bit of fun, not to be taken too seriously, even if it is often included in the daily newspapers. It was apparently taken much more seriously in the ancient Orient. On the occasion of the coming to earth of the Son of God, astrology led the three “wise men” to the place of his birth. What are we to make of this? Was God speaking through astrology? These men were not Jews, not believers in the one true God. They did not appear to “hear God.” But within the context of their world view they were led to God. It would appear that God does not just speak to believers, but to anyone willing to listen, and that he speaks not just in orthodox ways, but in any way he wants, adapting his words to the context of those to whom he is speaking.
A fourth way that God speaks in the Christmas story is through prophecy. Prophecy is speaking the words of God, in some cases apparently almost involuntarily. When Elizabeth met Mary she felt the child within her own body jump and she exclaimed suddenly, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear.” According to Luke, prophecy is a supernatural phenomenon which involves being “filled with the Holy Spirit.” For example, when Zechariah started speaking again after the birth of his son John, he was “filled with the Holy Spirit, and prophesied.” A similar thing seemed to happen in the Jerusalem temple when Simeon and the prophetess Anna encountered the baby Jesus. They too were filled with the Holy Spirit and recognised this little child as the Son of God. When a person prophesies it is not him or her speaking, but God.
The Christmas story is a story of God speaking. Another disciple of Jesus, John, takes the whole idea of God speaking at Christmas a step further, though he does not relate the historical Christmas story in his biography of Jesus, but rather records an interpretation of what happened when Jesus was born into the world. John says that that the very phenomenon of Jesus’ birth and life was an expression of God speaking to us humans. He thus claims that if we want to know what God is saying to us we need to look at Jesus, the embodiment of God’s words.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1)
Jesus is a historical figure. He lived and died in Palestine two thousand years ago. The historical records indicate that he rose again, something that non-believers refuse to accept, but which for believers is the cornerstone of their faith. This faith – Christianity – has transformed our world, and now, two thousand years later, the beginning of the Christian story is celebrated all around the world, by believers and non-believers alike, albeit for different reasons. The message of Christmas is simply this – God wants to communicate with humans, and will go to great lengths to do so and use many different techniques. The ultimate and clearest expression of this was in the life of Jesus. The words of God are what give us life.
When the devil tempted Jesus he was attempting to replace the life giving words of God with something else we all need but which ultimately cannot satisfy – food. In the contemporary celebration of Christmas in the Western world the devil attempts to do just the same – to replace the life giving words of God with material possessions which ultimately are a poor substitute. Yet to a large extent it seems the devil has succeeded in his deception. Witness the difference in the throngs of people in the shopping malls at Christmas to the modest numbers attending church during the same weeks.
What do we think gives us life and meaning?