Where does your worldview come from? The Christmas story might seem like a surprising place to go to explore that question. But it’s my conviction that these familiar passages actually contain great challenges for the way we approach life and faith.
Take Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55. Mary has a lot to think about. She is pregnant, by means of the Holy Spirit, with a son she’s been told is the Son of God (v 35). Now her relative Elizabeth has greeted her with the exclamation, “Blessed are you among women!” (v 42). Mary’s response offers her own interpretation of what is going on.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty. (v 50-53)
What extraordinary things to say! It’s not just that Mary has the emotional and spiritual maturity to respond humbly and worshipfully. (That is of course amazing in itself. I’d be stressed out of my mind.) No, it’s the way Mary understands the gift of Jesus. It really doesn’t seem very Christmassy! “He has scattered those who are proud”? “He has brought down rulers from their thrones”? What’s any of this got to do with Jesus’ birth?
An Ancient Story
The end of the song explains it:
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors. (v 54-55)
Mary is talking about the history of Israel. For her, Jesus’ birth is a continuation of what God has been doing for generations—the latest installment in his faithful and merciful behavior towards his people. The whole way she understands what God is doing is based on the narratives of the Old Testament.
I remember as a child standing up on stage at church one Christmas and reading the lines, “Of the greatness of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isaiah 9:7). The words were almost meaningless to me. Why? Because I didn’t see what David—or governments—had to do with Jesus. Raised in an individualistic age, this was my understanding of faith: Jesus was my friend; he had died for me; I had a relationship with him. That was all true—and remains so. But it was a very different way of expressing it to Mary’s, and a much more limited one.
Of course, one reason for the difference is the New Testament. Mary didn’t know that Jesus would die. She didn’t have the benefit of reading the explanations of it we have today in the New Testament epistles. We can understand the details of God’s salvation plan and its implications in a way Mary couldn’t.
But how I wish that I had learned as a child to have a worldview like hers—an understanding of the great sweep of the story of God’s chosen people and his faithfulness to them. The coming of Jesus changed the course of history, but it was also the continuation of a far older story. If only I had understood that if I had a relationship with God, it was only as part of his people, as a new shoot grafted onto the old tree. If only I had seen what it meant that Jesus was a king like David—and one who would reign with perfect justice and peace.
If only I had seen beyond myself.
Then, like Mary, I would have truly glorified the Lord, mindful as I would have been at last of my own humble state (Luke 1:47-48). I would have seen how big God is, and how utterly extraordinary it is that he should step down to earth at all, never mind dying or choosing anyone to be part of his people. I would have stopped taking Jesus, my friend, for granted.
A Worldview Shaped By Old Testament Promises
Once you start seeing it, you can’t stop: the writers of the New Testament, especially in the Gospels, have a worldview shaped by the Old Testament. They constantly refer to the history of God’s people; their whole understanding of God comes from there. People around Jesus made sense of him by referring back to what God had always been like and what he had always promised.
So let’s teach these Old Testament stories the way that people in Jesus’ time would have taught them. Let’s point out how they figure Christ, illustrating what he is like (David the king, Boaz the redeemer, Moses the rescuer). Let’s seek to understand their concepts and categories—clean and unclean, work and rest, holiness, redemption. Let’s notice how they lead up to Christ—how the overarching narrative of the Old Testament can’t find its conclusion until it reaches Jesus.
Above all, let’s read the Old Testament, even where it’s strange or complicated. It’s the best way I can think of to get a right view of ourselves, our world, and our God.