Good Questions: Why did Jesus come when and where he did?

Reflections from Dr. Howell

In our Good Questions series, we asked a common question: Why did God wait so long to come? To that we can add: why come in such an obscure place and time?

Hard to ask God these questions… Of course, if God’s eternal strategy to save the world was to do it through the Jewish people, Bethlehem, hometown of their first and great king David. I love that it’s just out in the country from the big capital city of Jerusalem – sort of God’s typical joke on powerful insiders, using the diminutive, unlikely outsiders. The village’s name means “house of bread,” so fitting – maybe better than Montezuma or Schenectady. Bethlehem is situated at the crossroads of the continents, not playing favorites, and perched to fan out to all people.

The time? God had taken seemingly forever to create the world; I admire physicist John Polkinghorne’s wisdom: that billions of years are involved “discourages any thought of a God who works by magic. God is not in a hurry. God is patient and subtle; God has largely allowed the world to make itself. There is unlikely any other way in which love would choose to work.” Or as physicist and pastor David Wilkinson explained it (in my podcast), he buys his wife a birthday cake, but for his she bakes; it takes longer, is way messier, and there’s more love.

I can’t believe it’s accidental that Jesus was born under Augustus, the greatest emperor of the greatest empire in history. You’d think it would’ve been safer and easier to sneak in under the impotent Galba or the weakling Otho. But just as God made a dramatic point by delivering Israel from Egypt under the greatest of all their pharaohs, Rameses II, how clever and subversive of God to show up under Augustus – not to mention Herod, arguably the most impressive and vicious of all regional kings ever.

Then we have Judas’s question in Jesus Christ Superstar: “Why’d you choose such a backward time and such a strange land? If you’d come today you could have reached a whole nation; Israel in 4 BC had no mass communication.” I for one am grateful Jesus did not arrive in the middle of modern media culture. We’d sure muck things up – and Jesus has already and clearly been subjected to more than enough nonsense in modern culture! I’m also grateful we have centuries between us and Jesus: the lives of so many saints and Christian heroes, the lessons of the dumb stuff the Church has bumbled into, and the beauty of a worldwide church that is awe-inspiring in its resilience and diversity.