Christmas! What a magical time! We decorate our homes with trees, candles, wreaths. We put out a nativity set and hang up an angel or two. We plan gatherings with family and friends where there will be presents and lots of delicious food to eat. Everything is so neat and tidy – so beautiful. It’s truly a joyous time as we celebrate our Savior’s birth and greet one another with “Merry Christmas!”
Our Christmas cards show scenes of Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus and they look so beautiful and so peaceful. Many of the cards show bright lights shining above the heads of Mary and Joseph and Baby Jesus. Even our Christmas carols speak of a little baby who makes no crying.
But how far from that first Christmas have we come? Was it really beautiful, calm and peaceful to Mary and Joseph and those who played a role in that first Christmas?
How must Mary have first felt when the angel appeared to her with those amazing words: “Don’t be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be very great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. And he will reign over Israel forever; his Kingdom will never end!” Name Him Jesus – “Savior”
Because we know how the story ends, we think “What a honor to be chosen to bear the Son of God. What great news this was.”
But put yourself in Mary’s place for a moment. How frightening it would be to say, ‘Hey Mom and Dad, I’m pregnant but I’m still a virgin. This child I bear has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.”
And how would she face Joseph? He would know he was not the father. What would he say? Would he still marry her? Would he bring her before the community to be stoned?
What about the child? Would gossip follow him as he played and grew in the village?
Mary’s dream of marriage to Joseph and a wonderful life suddenly looked as if it would be shattered. Mary had to decide – “Do I trust God?”
Her decision was a matter of trust. She responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” Later Mary expressed how blessed she realized she was as she spoke to her cousin Elizabeth and said, ” “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me.
And what about Joseph? A simple carpenter engaged to a young woman in the village, Joseph no doubt was making plans for his soon-to-be bride and the family they would someday have. Looking forward with anticipation to their wedding, he is suddenly hit with the news that his future bride is pregnant.
What sorrow he must have felt as he believed Mary had been unfaithful to him. What agony as he struggled with the decision he faced. Should he publicly denounce her – maybe even see her stoned? Should he, could he forgive her ? Although his heart was breaking, all his hopes and dreams were crushed, he was a godly and kind man.
As he thought about what to do, an angel appeared to him and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet: “Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’”
While no doubt Joseph rejoiced at this news, he had to have also been filled with thoughts of great apprehension. What a tremendous responsibility he was given – to raise the Son of God! Like Mary, he had to make a decision to totally trust God and welcome Emmanuel into his home.
And then the journey to Bethlehem. How appropriate that the One who would say “I am Bread of Life” would be born in a city whose meaning is “house of bread.” And in Micah, 5 the prophet foretold that the Messiah would come from this small and insignificant town of Bethlehem.
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf.
Luke tells us: “At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant.
Imagine traveling 90 miles over unpaved, hilly trails with Mary in the late weeks of her pregnancy riding on a donkey and Joseph leading on foot. Bible scholars estimate that they would have probably only been able to make 10 miles a day because of Mary’s impending delivery. There could be threats of bandits along the trail. They had to carry their own provisions.
The hardships did not end when they arrived in Bethlehem. We think of Mary and Joseph alone in the stable but it is possible that they shared that stable with others. In an overcrowded Bethlehem they were probably not the only ones who could find no room in the inn.
And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manager, because there was no lodging available for them.
The Shepherds’ Story
And what of the shepherds? If you had been given the responsibility to announce the birth of the Messiah, who would you have chosen to tell? Would you have selected a group of people who spent most of their days in the fields with the sheep and had no influence with society? Shepherds were the blue-collar workers largely unnoticed by those in authority.
That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. See the excitement with which the shepherds received this news and hurried to find the child.
The Wise Men’s Story
And what of the wise men. Matthew tells us
“About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship Him. King Herod was deeply disturbed when he heard this, as was everyone in Jerusalem. He called a meeting of the leading priests and teachers of religious law and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?” “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote: ‘And you, O Bethlehem in the land of Judah, are not least among the ruling cities of Judah, for a ruler will come from you who will be the shepherd for my people Israel.’” After this interview the wise men went their way. And the star they had seen in the east guided them to Bethlehem. It went ahead of them and stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw the star, they were filled with joy! They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasure chests and gave him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
The Wise Men traveled many miles to worship the King of the Jews. They did not hop a plane and arrive at Bethlehem in a few hours. They did not pack their SUV with food and drink and drive a few days across the interstate. Their journey required many days riding through the desert on the back of camels, stopping to sleep at night in their tents. It was not an easy journey, but they came eagerly seeking to worship the King.
What is the real purpose of Christmas?
Now we come to the real purpose of Christmas. The story of Christmas is only the beginning – unless it leads us to the cross and the empty tomb, it has lost its real purpose.
“Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human! Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death—and the worst kind of death at that—a crucifixion.
Because of that obedience, God lifted him high and honored him far beyond anyone or anything, ever, so that all created beings in heaven and on earth—even those long ago dead and buried—will bow in worship before this Jesus Christ, and call out in praise that he is the Master of all, to the glorious honor of God the Father.
First Christmas – and our Christmas now!
- That first Christmas required Mary and Joseph to totally trust God and accept His plans for their lives. To believe the words of the angel, Gabriel, and accept God’s will for their lives. This Christmas, are you trusting God, are you willing to accept His plans for your life?
- That first Christmas the shepherds received the good news of the child’s birth with great joy and hurried to find the child. Today is our excitement at Christmas more focused on the presents, the decorations, the meals, the parties? Are we still excited about the good news that “unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counselor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace?
- That first Christmas the leading priests and teachers knew the prophecy….knew God’s Word. Yet, they made no effort to go to Bethlehem to check out this story of the Messiah. The Wise Men traveled a great distance – but the religious leaders could not be bothered to travel the six miles from Jerusalem to Bethlehem. As we enjoy this Christmas season with all our decorations, food and gatherings with family and friends, let us be sure that we take time to really seek the Messiah. Let’s ask God to return us to the simple but awesome truth of that first Christmas in a dark, possibly cold, stable where two young people faced the awesome challenge of raising the Son of God without money, fame or lots of support simply trusting and obeying the Father.