n an earlier age the poet Swinburne bitterly charged:
“Thou hast conquered, O pale Galilean;
The world has grown gray from Thy breath.”
But Swinburne was dead wrong in every respect except one—Jesus was a Galilean.
Jesus was Jewish, not White. He was no weakling, no pasty-faced, monastic figure. His muscles bulged from physical labor; His face was bronzed from a ministry spent in the open, beside the lake, in the fields, walking the dirt roads of Palestine. He stood erect, tall. His eye was keen, His voice strong.
No killjoy, this Man. People liked to have Him around, they enjoyed His company. Early in His ministry we find Him at a wedding; He keeps the party from falling apart when the drink runs out. When He visits Jerusalem, the big shots invite Him to their homes. He enjoys a good meal. When His enemies grasp for something negative to say about Him, they accuse Him of being a glutton and a lush—false, of course, but an insight into the sort of person He was.
But yes, He was a Galilean. He was born in Bethlehem, made Capernaum His base for public ministry. Now and then He visited the south, but the green hills and the beautiful lake of the north country were what He preferred. To the religious leaders in Jerusalem, Jesus was a provincial. To them Galilee represented a backwater where people spoke with an accent, and God was far away.
This Galilean, this strong Galilean, changed the world. He set humankind free to be truly human. In His own time and ever since, where people open their hearts to receive Him, He brings life in its fullness. Paint His picture in bright hues—in blues and yellows and reds and greens—but never in gray.
Swinburne, I think, like current detractors of Christianity, was rebelling more against religion in the name of Jesus than against Jesus Himself. It’s true: Jesus hasn’t been represented well by those who profess His name, nor is He even now well represented. That’s why, especially at this Christmas time, we need to go back to the Gospels and ponder the story of His birth, His life, His ministry, His death—and what came after.
We come face-to-face with mystery in this story. “Without any doubt, the mystery of our religion is great:
He was revealed in flesh,
vindicated in spirit,
seen by angels,
proclaimed among Gentiles,
believed in throughout the world,
taken up in glory” (1 Tim. 3:16, NRSV).*
But it is not a mystery about which we can know nothing. We can know that He was truly God and became truly human; how it happened we cannot know.
In Living Color
And we can know that His coming transformed the world. Read again the story of Bethlehem: it is a light-and-sound event.
Light, lots of light: a star that burns bright over Bethlehem. Night sky lit up by a host of angels.
Sound, lots of sound, sounds of singing, sounds of praise:
Mary sings at the news that she is to bear the Child that will change the world (Luke 1:46-55).
Zachariah sings at the birth of John, the forerunner of the Child of destiny (Luke 1:67–79).
The huge angel choir sings: “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” (Luke 2:14, NRSV).
The old man Simeon bursts into prayer as he encounters the 8-day-old Child (Luke 2:29-31).
Light and sound: these would be the hallmarks of the life and ministry of the strong Galilean. As the prophet Isaiah had foretold:
“Land of Zebulun and land of
the way to the sea, along the Jordan,
Galilee of the Gentiles—
the people living in darkness have
seen a great light;
on those living in the land of the
shadow of death
a light has dawned” (Matt. 4:15, 16).
Everywhere Jesus went He not only preached good news—He was good news. People came to Him broken, helpless, defeated, lost; they went away with hope and joy, praising God for what He had done for them (Luke 19:37, 38).
After He left this earth, the light spread farther, the singing continued. The Master, although no longer physically present, sent the blessed Paraclete, the Holy Spirit, to be with His followers. His story continued as they spread the good news farther and wider, to the corners of the Roman Empire. And everywhere the story came, the result was the same: “There was great joy in that city” (Acts 8:8).
The writings of the New Testament throb with an effervescent, irrepressible joy:
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice!” (Phil. 4:4).
“Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy” (1 Peter 1:8).
And the story continued after the time of the apostles. The good news rolled on and on, farther and farther, and everywhere it went it gave people something to sing about. The documents relating to Christianity from the second century are few and scattered, but among them we find a gem—a letter written by Pliny the Younger, governor of the Roman province of Bithynia (in today’s Turkey) around the year 112.
Pliny wrote to his boss, the Emperor Trajan, about a strange sect that had come to his notice. These people, called Christians, were not guilty of committing crimes, but they had some unusual practices. Among them was the habit of assembling together very early in the morning—to do what? Sing hymns of praise to Jesus Christ as God!
The story of Jesus goes on in our day and still sets boys and girls and men and women singing. Despite the sneers of unbelievers and their learned discourses, the story will not die, cannot die, because wherever it goes and people open their hearts to receive it, it brings what it brought in the beginning—hope, new life, peace, forgiveness, healing, and joy. The song of believers, whether they be educated or illiterate, is to them the irrefutable argument for the existence of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. It is a simple song, a personal song, but nevertheless a profound song. Think of what it means:
First, we are not alone.
Modern man struggles under the crushing burden of feeling alone in the universe. He looks up at the stars; they are beautiful, but cold. He points his Hubbles into the heavens and finds an immensity, a vastness that numbs his mind. In this void, is anyone out there? He builds his listening devices and turns them on, wondering, hoping that a voice will come from the Great Beyond.
But the birth of Jesus, the God-man, shows us that there is Someone out there. We are not alone. There is a God and He has come to us.
Second, God loves and cares for us.
We know this because of what Jesus taught us about God, and especially from what He demonstrated. Jesus’ favorite topic was the paternal love of God. “When you pray,” He taught us, “say: Our Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:9). “Do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear,” “for your heavenly Father knows that you need them” (verses 25, 32). He feeds the birds of the air and clothes the hillside with wild flowers; how much more will He take care of you?
These ideas are incredible, but we know they are true because that is just how Jesus lived. He went about doing good, always caring, always compassionate, always bringing a song. And He said, “Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9).
This means, third, that we are special to God.
More than 6 billion people walk this planet; how can God be aware of every one, let alone take interest in them? But, said Jesus, that is just what God can and does do. He sees even the sparrow that falls to the earth; He counts the hairs on our heads. Nothing is too big or too small for His attention. Everyone—every one—counts with Him.
Friend of mine, believe it. You are loved. You are special. Believe it because of the Man who came from the Great Beyond.
Fourth, we have dignity.
We have messed up, but God loves to forgive. He is the God of new beginnings, of second chances, and third, and seventh, and . . .
God came to us in a human body. Our bodies are not inherently evil. God made us in His image; He created the body. We are His sons and daughters; we aren’t worms. We were created for a glorious destiny and, in spite of our failings and brokenness, God came in human flesh to enable us to fulfill that destiny.
Finally, we have a future bright with hope.
Jesus’ departure from this world corresponded with His arrival: it was overshadowed by the divine. No human agency brought about His birth, and no human agency raised Him from the dead. Jesus was resurrected, not resuscitated.
But the Man Jesus did die. He drank the bitter cup; He passed through the icy waters of nothingness. And by dying He broke death’s chains and defeated the one who holds the power of death, that is, the devil. So we no longer spend our days in bondage to the fear of death. Jesus has been there, done that. He promises us: “Because I live, you also will live” (John 14:19).
A Season of Hope
At this Christmastide, come to the manger. Look at the Baby in the straw, the One in whom “the hopes and fears of all the years” are met. Come, look at Him, and burst out in grateful song to the newborn King, the strong Galilean:
Thou hast conquered, O strong Galilean; The world has grown bright at Thy breath.
*Bible texts credited to NRSV are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, copyright ” 1989 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. Used by permission.
A former editor of the Adventist Review, William G. Johnsson now serves as assistant to the General Conference president for interfaith relations. This article was printed December 24, 2009.