Man’s chapter has ended (see last chapter). Yet the story is not over. Part 2 has begun. Just as the time-line of the world is divided into two parts: ‘Before Christ’ (B.C.) and ‘In the Year of our Lord’ (Anno Domini), and just as any story has a inciting incident that leads to the actual story, history itself starts now. The true story begins, all the pieces have been set, the board laid out – now the action that has been planed all along unfolds. All the pagan beliefs, philosophies, come to a head and either become mere head games or acknowledge that the Truth has arrived.
Part 1 (On the Creature Called Man) has ended, part 2 (On the Man Called Christ) has begun.
Overview of Chapter:
These two parts both start in the same way: in a cave. Just as the only thing we know about ‘the caveman’ is through his art, the only thing we know about Christ (remember that the scriptures were wither not written or they were kept secret only open to the Jewish people – as they were the only ones who found value there) is through the art in the cave where he was born. The Christmas story is too close to us, we must stop back and marvel and what happened. It was no peaceful assembly, no little drummer boy, no peaceful onlooking animals – just the ordinary aspects of a dirty cave with dirt and dung everywhere. It was true humility, and yet it brought both division and unity to the world.
Outline of Chapter:
We left the world in despondency and apathy, it gave up the search for truth and started making it’s own answers up. There is an event that has been burned into mankind, although how extremely paradoxical and contradictory it is; that the God of the universe, one of infinite power would become the most helpless creature in all of creation. Not a demigod of Herculean stature who maintained great power, nor a Prometheus who was punished by giving man power, but someone who was powerless.
“Any agnostic or atheist whose childhood has known a real Christmas has ever afterward, whether he likes it or not, an association in his mind between two ideas that most of mankind must regard as remote from each other; the idea of a baby and the idea of unknown strength that sustains the stars. His instincts and imagination can still connect them, when his reason can no longer see the need of the connection; for him there will always be some savor of religion about the mere picture of a mother and a baby; some hint of mercy and softening about the mere mention of the dreadful name of God. But the two ideas are not naturally or necessarily combined. They would not be necessarily combined for an ancient Greek or a Chinaman, even for Aristotle or Confucius. It is no more inevitable to connect God with an infant than to connect gravitation with a kitten. It has been created in our minds by Christmas because we are Christians, because we are psychological Christians even when we are not theological ones. In other words, this combination of ideas has emphatically, in the much disputed phrase, altered human nature.”
Part of the story of the Birth of Christ contains a unique element. The first people to be told were the common people: the lowly, the outcasts, the shepherds. It seems that Christ always attracted the searchers (and still does). For the people who truly search do not find solace in abstract concepts but in the real, not in empty words but in Truth.
“Men of the people, like the shepherds, men of the popular tradition, had everywhere been the makers of the mythologies. It was they who had felt most directly, with least check or chill from philosophy or the corrupt cults of civilization, the need we have already considered; the images that were adventures of the imagination; the mythology that was a sort of search; the tempting and tantalizing hints of something half-human in nature; the dumb significance of seasons and special places. They had best understood that the soul of a landscape is a story and the soul of a story is a personality. But rationalism had already begun to rot away these really irrational though imaginative treasures of the peasant; even as systematic slavery had eaten the peasant out of house and home. Upon all such peasantries everywhere there was descending a dusk and twilight of disappointment, in the hour when these few men discovered what they sought. Everywhere else Arcadia was fading from the forest. Pan was dead and the shepherds were scattered like sheep. And though no man knew it, the hour was near which was to end and to fulfill all things; and though no man heard it, there was one far-off cry in an unknown tongue upon the heaving wilderness of the mountains. The shepherds had found their Shepherd. […] The populace had been wrong in many things; but they had not been wrong in believing that holy things could have a habitation and that divinity need not disdain the limits of time and space. And the barbarian who conceived the crudest fancy about the sun being stolen and hidden in a box, or the wildest myth about the god being rescued and his enemy deceived with a stone, was nearer to the secret of the cave and knew more about the crisis of the world, than all those in the circle of cities round the Mediterranean who had become content with cold abstractions or cosmopolitan generalizations; than all those who were spinning thinner and thinner threads of thought out of the transcendentalism of Plato or the orientalism of Pythagoras. The place that the shepherds found was not an academy or an abstract republic, it was not a place of myths allegorised or dissected or explained or explained away. It was a place of dreams come true. Since that hour no mythologies have been made in the world. Mythology is a search.”
Another group of people, another group of searchers heard the call. They also sought. It seems that all of mankind is in a quest – searching for truth and meaning. In the past people found temporary relief in mythology, but then realized it was empty, some people found numbing relief in embracing nothingness but then found that what they were searching for was actually something, some people found anger and hostility toward the ignorant, fighting and railing against all belief but then found that they were not brave enough for a belief. Yet the wise men still keep searching, they are never content until they find the true answer – one that is not man-made.
“The philosophers had also heard. It is still a strange story, though an old one, how they came out of orient lands, crowned with the majesty of kings and clothed with something of the mystery of magicians. That truth that is tradition has wisely remembered them almost as unknown quantities, as mysterious as their mysterious and melodious names; Melchior, Caspar, Balthazar. But there came with them all that world of wisdom that had watched the stars in Chaldea and the sun in Persia; and we shall not be wrong if we see in them the same curiosity that moves all the sages. They would stand for the same human ideal if their names had really been Confucius or Pythagoras or Plato. They were those who sought not tales but the truth of things, and since their thirst for truth was itself a thirst for God, they also have had their reward. But even in order to understand that reward, we must understand that for philosophy as much as mythology, that reward was the completion of the incomplete. […] Here it is the important point that the Magi, who stand for mysticism and philosophy, are truly conceived as seeking something new and even as finding something unexpected. That tense sense of crisis which still tingles in the Christmas story and even in every Christmas celebration, accentuates the idea of a search and a discovery. The discovery is, in this case, truly a scientific discovery. For the other mystical figures in the miracle play; for the angel and the mother, the shepherds and the soldiers of Herod, there may be aspects both simpler and more supernatural, more elemental or more emotional. But the wise Men must be seeking wisdom, and for them there must be a light also in the intellect. And this is the light; that the Catholic creed is catholic and that nothing else is catholic. The philosophy of the Church is universal. The philosophy of the philosophers was not universal. Had Plato and Pythagoras and Aristotle stood for an instant in the light that came out of that little cave, they would have known that their own light was not universal. It is far from certain, indeed, that they did not know it already. Philosophy also, like mythology, had very much the air of a search.”
There is still a third part to the story. One that does not fit into our neat, sterile, and comfortable view of the birth of Christ. Right at the start Christ was attacked. The world always tries to destroy things that threaten to turn it ‘right-side-up. The Church makes things real, makes things true, and it makes things fight.
“Herod had his place, therefore, in the miracle play of Bethlehem because he is the menace to the Church Militant and shows it from the first as under persecution and fighting for its life. For those who think this a discord, it is a discord that sounds simultaneously with the Christmas bells. For those who think the idea of the Crusade is one that spoils the idea of the Cross, we can only say that for them the idea of the Cross is spoiled; the idea of the cross is spoiled quite literally in the cradle. It is not here to the purpose to argue with them on the abstract ethics of fighting; the purpose in this place is merely to sum up the combination of ideas that make up the Christian and Catholic idea, and to note that all of them are already crystallized in the first Christmas story. They are three distinct and commonly contrasted things which are nevertheless one thing; but this is the only thing which can make them one. The first is the human instinct for a heaven that shall be as literal and almost as local as a home. It is the idea pursued by all poets and pagans making myths; that a particular place must be the shrine of the god or the abode of the blest; that fairyland is a land; or that the return of the ghost must be the resurrection of the body. I do not here reason about the refusal of rationalism to satisfy this need. I only say that if the rationalists refuse to satisfy it, the pagans will not be satisfied. This is present in the story of Bethlehem and Jerusalem as it is present in the story of Delos and Delphi; and as it is not present in the whole universe of Lucretius or the whole universe of Herbert Spencer. The second element is a philosophy larger than other philosophies; larger than that of Lucretius and infinitely larger than that of Herbert Spencer. It looks at the world through a hundred windows where the ancient stoic or the modern agnostic only looks through one. It sees life with thousands of eyes belonging to thousands of different sorts of people, where the other is only the individual standpoint of a stoic or an agnostic. It has something for all moods of man, it finds work for all kinds of men, it understands secrets of psychology, it is aware of depths of evil, it is able to distinguish between ideal and unreal marvels and miraculous exceptions, it trains itself in tact about hard cases, all with a multiplicity and subtlety and imagination about the varieties of life which is far beyond the bald or breezy platitudes of most ancient or modern moral philosophy. In a word, there is more in it; it finds more in existence to think about; it gets more out of life. Masses of this material about our many-sided life have been added since the time of St. Thomas Aquinas. But St. Thomas Aquinas alone would have found himself limited in the world of Confucius or of Comte.The third point is this; that while it is local enough for poetry and larger than any other philosophy, it is also a challenge and a fight. While it is deliberately broadened to embrace every aspect of truth, it is still stiffly embattled against every mode of error. It gets every kind of man to fight for it, it gets every kind of weapon to fight with, it widens its knowledge of the things that are fought for and against with every art of curiosity or sympathy; but it never forgets that it is fighting. It proclaims peace on earth and never forgets why there was war in heaven.” (emphasis mine)
This is what make Christianity unique. It at the same time is something that was foretold, but also never expected. It shows us that God has the amazing sense to surprise us with brilliant subtlety. I think that is why Christmas is besieged by images of fat fen sliding down chimneys (besides St. Nick is a more amazing Godly person that Santa Claus), flying reindeer, Snowmen who come to life – because these are easier to believe in than the divine humor of the incarnation. We still don’t know what to do with Christ…
“This is the trinity of truths symbolized here by the three types in the old Christmas story; the shepherds and the kings and that other king who warred upon the children. It is simply not true to say that other religions and philosophies are in this respect its rivals. It is not true to say that any one of them combines these characters; it is not true to say that any one of them pretends to combine them. Buddhism may profess to be equally mystical; it does not even profess to be equally military. Islam may profess to be equally military; it does not even profess to be equally metaphysical and subtle. Confucianism may profess to satisfy the need of the philosophers for order and reason; it does not even profess to satisfy the need of the mystics for miracle and sacrament and the consecration of concrete things. There are many evidences of this presence of a spirit at once universal and unique. One will serve here which is the symbol of the subject of this chapter; that no other story, no pagan legend or philosophical anecdote or historical event, does in fact affect any of us with that peculiar and even poignant impression produced on us by the word Bethlehem. No other birth of a god or childhood of a sage seems to us to be Christmas or anything like Christmas. It is either too cold or too frivolous, or too formal and classical, or too simple and savage, or too occult and complicated. Not one of us, whatever his opinions, would ever go to such a scene with the sense that he was going home. He might admire it because it was poetical, or because it was philosophical, or any number of other things in separation; but not because it was itself. The truth is that there is a quite peculiar and individual character about the hold of this story on human nature; it is not in its psychological substance at all like a mere legend or the life of a great man. It does not exactly in the ordinary sense turn our minds to greatness; to those extensions and exaggerations of humanity which are turned into gods and heroes, even by the healthiest sort of hero-worship. It does not exactly work outwards, adventurously, to the wonders to be found at the ends of the earth. It is rather something that surprises us from behind, from the hidden and personal part of our being; like that which can some times take us off our guard in the pathos of small objects or the blind pieties of the poor. It is rather as if a man had found an inner room in the very heart of his own house, which he had never suspected; and seen a light from within. It is as if he found something at the back of his own heart that betrayed him into good.”
1. The search for Truth. It seems to me that we can never find truth. Truth comes to the searchers. Just as both the common man (shepherds) and the king makers (wise men) both came to worship, we must also worship the one who makes all men the same.
2. That Truth come not from the destruction of the past. We confuse progress with destruction. It is the wrong approach to burn our ships and then forget where the ships came from. If we forget why we ‘sailed to the new world’ then we have no progress. The novel “The Ball and the Cross: confronts this false perspective of progress in this discourse.
“I begin to understand one or two of your dogmas, Mr. Turnbull,” he had said emphatically as they ploughed heavily up a wooded hill. “And every one that I understand I deny. Take any one of them you like. You hold that your heretics and skeptics have helped the world forward and handed on a lamp of progress. I deny it. Nothing is plainer from real history than that each of your heretics invented a complete cosmos of his own which the next heretic smashed entirely to pieces. Who knows now exactly what Nestorius taught? Who cares? There are only two things that we know for certain about it. The first is that Nestorius, as a heretic, taught something quite opposite to the teaching of Arius, the heretic who came before him, and something quite useless to James Turnbull, the heretic who comes after. I defy you to go back to the Free-thinkers of the past and find any habitation for yourself at all. I defy you to read Godwin or Shelley or the deists of the eighteenth century of the nature-worshiping humanists of the Renaissance, without discovering that you differ from them twice as much as you differ from the Pope. You are a nineteenth-century skeptic, and you are always telling me that I ignore the cruelty of nature. If you had been an eighteenth-century skeptic you would have told me that I ignore the kindness and benevolence of nature. You are an atheist, and you praise the deists of the eighteenth century. Read them instead of praising them, and you will find that their whole universe stands or falls with the deity. You are a materialist, and you think Bruno a scientific hero. See what he said and you will think him an insane mystic. No, the great Free-thinker, with his genuine ability and honesty, does not in practice destroy Christianity. What he does destroy is the Free-thinker who went before. Free-thought may be suggestive, it may be inspiriting, it may have as much as you please of the merits that come from vivacity and variety. But there is one thing Free-thought can never be by any possibility—Free-thought can never be progressive. It can never be progressive because it will accept nothing from the past; it begins every time again from the beginning; and it goes every time in a different direction. All the rational philosophers have gone along different roads, so it is impossible to say which has gone farthest. Who can discuss whether Emerson was a better optimist than Schopenhauer was pessimist? It is like asking if this corn is as yellow as that hill is steep. No; there are only two things that really progress; and they both accept accumulations of authority. They may be progressing uphill and down; they may be growing steadily better or steadily worse; but they have steadily increased in certain definable matters; they have steadily advanced in a certain definable direction; they are the only two things, it seems, that ever can progress. The first is strictly physical science. The second is the Catholic Church.”
3. Truth was Given to us. My father wrote this essay a long time ago – and yet it still rings true:
The Truth Behind the Tinsel
by Robert Bishop
“In the book, God With Us, John MacArthur gives two philosophies that are stealing Christmas. One danger is the tendency to secularize Christmas; to make it an excuse for parties and self-indulgence and not consider at all the significance. The other danger is the effort to mythologize Christmas by embellishing the simple Christmas story with legends of talking animals and confusing fantasy. If you were from a foreign land or from another planet, what message would you gather on the meaning of Christmas? Could you get the story straight, even from Christians?
We must remember that Joseph, Mary, the shepherds, Herod, and the Magi were real people. They were real people playing significant roles in the story of God becoming man. But truth has always been more surprising than fiction or fantasy. The truth behind the tinsel of Christmas is that the best gift was wrapped in an unexpected package. Behind the tinsel of Christmas is the simple truth that amidst the noisy shoppers, past the glitter, beneath the candy canes and colored stockings, under the printed foil wrappings, shadowed by the jolly smile of Santa and even behind the spirit of giving behind the tinsel is the truth of a simple story of a child born in a straw-littered stable.
The truth is profound in its simplicity. Within it lies the miracle that all our hearts yearn. God chose to visit us in a form that we could understand. God revealed Himself in a human being. God revealed the secrets of heaven and accomplished the mission of salvation in an unexpected way. God visited us in an unexpected way (in a manger) and accomplished salvation in unexpected way (on a cross). God came as a child. He humbly left His throne to die to be our Savior. This is the simple and profound truth behind the tinsel.
What if we could return to that first Christmas to the time of the birth of Jesus? Would we be disappointed? We can piece a lot of the story together from Scripture and other historians. From the books of Matthew and Luke and other historians I would like to share the simple story of Christmas. You may be surprised that the truth could be more exciting and profound than the tinsel.
Listen to the truth behind the tinsel . . .
The labor pangs of pregnancy were at their final stages. The long awaited arrival was causing anxiety. It was the fullness of time time itself was pregnant. God has prepared the whole of history like the stage of a cosmic theater production for His own physical birth. God chose the time He would be born on earth. He chose the proper time when history was ready. The language was common, travel was easy, peace ruled but hearts were begging for a Redeemer to save them from the hollowness of pagan religions. And so it was that God had set the stage to prepare for the curtain to open and for God Himself to make His entrance.
The Roman Empire had stretched its control to become one of the largest empires this world had ever seen. It had proudly announced that all the known world was within its grasp. This powerful empire had little concern about a little finger of land on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, the land of Palestine. The only concern was to make this land called Judea part of the Empire to swallow it up into the power of Rome. Two of the most important steps to take Judea into the grip of the Emperor Caesar Augustus were these:
The first was that Caesar would heavily tax the people to press them in line with the rest of the Empire.
The second was to transfer the power of judicial execution (the power of life and death) from the Jews to the Roman Empire.
To the world these steps seemed unfair or perhaps insignificant. But from the decrees of this godless emperor, God’s plan would be accomplished. Because of those two decrees Christ would be born in a prophesied city and would die in a prophesied way. Caesar had no way to knowing that his decrees would fulfill the 800-year-old prophecy that Bethlehem was the city where the Messiah would be born and crucifixion on a cross would be the manner in which this Messiah would die.
History would take a peculiar twist. Few would remember Caesar Augustus who was worshiped as a god in Rome. His name would forever be shadowed by a child to be born during his reign, in a rundown section of his more obscure providence behind an old inn among some cow flops and moldy hay.
So Caesar Augustus sent his decree from Rome to the distant land of Palestine which was governed by the self-acclaimed Herod the Great. Now this was a strange sort of man. He called himself a Jew, but he hated the Jews and the Jews hated him. He had an extravagant hobby of architecture and even had the great Jewish temple rebuilt in Jerusalem. This was to promote himself rather than the Jews, and obviously not God. He probably reinterpreted Caesar’s edict of taxation to make it sound like a patriotic duty instead of a foreign order. To return to one’s hometown and see relatives was probably Herod’s idea to make the order more attractive and more easily obeyed.
So it was that the roads were busily crowded with travelers returning to their hometown. A poor carpenter and his pregnant fiancee traveling from Nazareth now enter the story. It was a three-day journey to Jerusalem and then a two-hour walk to the obscure town of Bethlehem.
If you were Joseph, what might be on your mind?
Joseph had endured a deep inner struggle. He had just finished making the most difficult decision of his life. The sequence of events is unclear from Scripture as to whether Joseph heard that his fiancée was pregnant before or after her visit to her cousin, Elizabeth. The shock was the same his fiancée, the woman he loved, was pregnant. He must have thought the story of a Holy Spirit causing conception was a bit too much!
Joseph was a righteous man and this whole situation was a very embarrassing dilemma. To marry her now would dishonor God. The ancient law in Deuteronomy prescribed that a woman pregnant outside of marriage should be put to death by stoning. Had they been living in the time of Moses, Mary would have been immediately stoned. But because of the laxness in the Jewish theocracy and the infiltration of Roman law, Joseph had two other options. He could make her an example in a public court. Thus, she would be shamed and have a destroyed reputation the rest of her life. The other choice was to quietly write a bill of divorce.
You see, every Jewish couple desiring marriage would be betrothed for a 12-month period to prove their fidelity. If any unfaithfulness or problems surfaced, these problems could be resolved before the marriage was consummated. Evidently Joseph had discovered Mary’s unfaithfulness but still deeply loved her. Joseph chose the more merciful way to sever the relationship a quiet divorce.
And then an angel appeared to Joseph and gave him an unexpected and unheard of command. A command that would break tradition and probably cause both Mary and Joseph to be the brunt of mockery for the rest of their lives.
The angel said to take Mary as his wife because what was conceived in her was from the Holy Spirit. The angel even told him the child would be a boy, what the child’s name would be, and what this child would do with His life.
If you were Mary, what might be on your mind?
Mary had just returned from a three-month visit with her cousin, Elizabeth. Both Mary and Elizabeth had a common situation. Elizabeth was a barren old woman disgraced and humiliated all her life and suspected of some hidden sin because she could not have children. As you can imagine Mary was also the object of gossip.
You see, they both had something in common. Both were surrounded by the chatter of gossip and both were miraculously pregnant.
The writer, Doctor Luke, tells of their time together. It was a time of consoling each other, praising God and waiting for their husbands to understand that the Lord works in unconventional ways. To make matters more unbelievable, to the Jewish mind God did not work through women.
But God’s plan weaved four other surprising women into the genealogic listing of the Messiah:
Tamar – who dressed as a prostitute and conceived two sons (Perez & Zerah) from a shameful act of harlotry and incest.
Rahab – a Canaanite prostitute who helped Joshua win the battle of Jericho.
Ruth – A Moabite who became a Jew.
Bathsheba – the woman who David committed adultery with.
And now Elizabeth is pregnant with the one who will announce the coming of the Messiah. And Mary, a pregnant fiancee of a poor carpenter, is ready to give birth to the Son of God. God is saying, Watch out, for I work in unexpected ways.
But strangely enough, the prophet Isaiah spelled out how the Messiah would enter this world. Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and His name shall be called . . . Emmanuel.
This was a clarification of a previous prophecy made outside of the garden of Eden. God pronounced the curse on the serpent by saying, AI will put enmity between you and the woman and between your seed and her seed. The only time in Scripture where the seed of a woman is mentioned hinting something special.
Perhaps Mary and Joseph were mulling and pondering these events as they traveled the road to Bethlehem. We do not know how they traveled. Tradition says she was on a borrowed donkey as he walked. It would be common for a poor family to borrow a donkey, especially for a woman almost in her labor.
But the irony of this is that a few hours before birth Jesus would humbly enter the city of Jerusalem on a borrowed donkey and that a few days before death Jesus would enter triumphantly into Jerusalem on another borrowed donkey.
So this couple with hearts filled with wonder passed through Jerusalem and then south to Bethlehem.
Yes, it was the decree by the proud emperor in Rome reinterpreted by the Jew-hating Herod. Possibly Joseph and Mary desired to escape the gossiping tongues of the people of Nazareth. But more it was to fulfill an obscure prophecy made eight centuries earlier in the book of Micah foretelling that this was the place the Messiah would be born.
Bethlehem means house of bread. And Bethlehem was as insignificant as a dry loaf of bread. But this unexpected town was the place God chose to accomplish His will. Without knowing it, all these people were running an errand for God the most important errand for the Lord of Heaven.
Ironically, 1500 years later this small village would run an insane asylum at the Monastery of St. Mary’s. For a small admission price people would actually go to heckle the inmates. In time, the name St. Mary of Bethlehem would be shortened to Bethlehem and pronounced bedlam. And in time the word Abedlam came to refer to the noise and confusion that symbolized the insane asylum. The name that once explained the peaceful village where Jesus was born now described the anxiety, stress and mindless scurrying around people feel at Christmastime.
It might have been bedlam in Bethlehem that night since many travelers crowded the streets. As Joseph and Mary entered Bethlehem, Joseph’s hometown, why did they seek an inn? There is a possibility that Joseph had rented out his house or that his family had died or could not be found in all the bedlam.
But most likely Mary was in her final stage of labor and they needed a place quickly.
An inn during that time was most undesirable. It was a low-class tavern and flop house. It could have just been a house opened by its owner to take advantage of all the census travelers. The Bible makes no mention of an innkeeper, but apparently Joseph asked someone. Perhaps the owner thought a woman giving birth was not good for inn business. In any case, the couple was rejected. There was no room for the presence of God. It should not strike us strange because even today most people do not have room for God in their preoccupied lives.
They found refuge in a nearby stable a rough wooden lean-to or small cave just basic protection from the elements, fit for animals. No hot water, no heat, no light, no pain killers, no doctors, no midwife. While most in the city were enjoying the reunion of families, Joseph sat in a corral which reeked of manure. As most were rejoicing, Mary was suffering in a hay-filled stable giving birth to a baby.
Then in the darkness of the stable a new sound was heard. For the first time deity expressed sounds directly through a human body. The sound of crying is the natural sound from a baby that is fully human. It was the sound of a baby that God chose to speak through. And those hands that had fashioned the universe were now the tiny helpless hands of a newborn baby. God packed in a baby. God in a manger. They laid Him in swaddling clothes. Those strips of cloth were probably one of the few comforts this child had as the couple laid there on coarse straw.
If you were a mother you may wonder why Mary stopped holding her newborn. In a dark, smelly stable one might have held the newborn. But the reason why she put Him in a feeding trough was to be a sign -a clue-for a group of people soon to enter the scene.
You see, that same night there were shepherds watching their sheep. The sheep near town were raised for only one purpose for sacrifices. Little did they know that a baby born that night would be The Sacrificial Lamb that would take away the sins of the world. This would fulfill their hearts desire and also ruin their occupation. You see, raising sacrificial sheep was the most worthy activity shepherds could do. Otherwise shepherds were seen as despised, untrustworthy, incompetent, and personified filth. To buy wool, milk or anything from them was forbidden because it was assumed it was stolen. They were unclean people. The rabbis constantly struggled with the dilemma of the despicable nature of shepherds and why God was called My Shepherd in Psalm 23.
But it was to these outcasts, in the context of religious snobbery and class prejudice that God again broke his 400-year silence. God spoke to Zechariah to tell him of the son he would have; God spoke to Mary, to Joseph and now to shepherds. And fitting it was to have shepherds first hear of the birth of the Savior. For the Prophet Micah foretold that out of Bethlehem would come a ruler who would shepherd His flock in the strength of the Lord and in the majesty of the name of the Lord.
And so it was that an angel appeared to these shepherds and told them the Savior had just been born. The angel was joined by a heavenly army of angels who praised God by saying, Glory to God in the Highest and on earth peace to all with whom His favor rests.
The Scripture does not say a word about angels singing here. In fact only twice in the Word do angels sing. They sang at creation before Adam sinned (Job 38:7) and they will sing again in Revelation. They sang before the Fall and will sing after the curse is removed. Presently people now have that privilege of singing for the Lord that angels do not.
The angel gave the shepherds only one clue to find the Christ He would be wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger. The shepherds were so excited they left their flock and hurried off to find this treasure.
Could it be that these filthy people disgusted the city people? Or could they have just blended in the crowd? But they entered the city seeking their Savior with little thought of what they left behind and what people thought. How they found the infant with the clues they received is difficult to imagine. But they found Mary and Joseph and the baby. They found what they sought because they sought with their whole heart.
The shepherds left and spread the word around the city of what they had found. They praised God, excited about what they had seen. But Mary treasured theses things in her heart. That little town of Bethlehem was probably so busy in their activities that even the voices of the shepherds were given no mind to.
Eight days later, when it was time to circumcise the child, He was properly named. It was then that He was given the name that Joseph had been told to give Him. The name was a testimony to God’s salvation. He was called Joshua, Jehoshua (Jehovah will save) . . . Jesus. This child would save the people from their sins and would restore fellowship with God.
Joseph and Mary were devoted Jews who followed all the legal customs of the Law. Perhaps it was because they had a high priest and a godly woman like Elizabeth in the family. So about a month later they traveled to Jerusalem for Mary to be purified after giving birth and to offer a sacrifice as a consecration of their first-born.
It was then that two elderly people spotted Him. Years before, Simeon was told that he would not die till he had seen the Messiah, and time was running out. When the moment came, one look through his cataract lenses was all it took. He saw in this child the fulfillment of the promised salvation . . . and pain. The old widow, Anna, also recognized this Messiah wrapped in a baby.
While most did not realize what was happening, two devout people recognized and worshiped God even when He was packaged as a baby. And there were others yet to come.
Mary and Joseph and the God-child journeyed back to Bethlehem and found lodging in a house. Little did they know that an incredible incident was about to happen in Jerusalem.
About two years later a parade of Magi entered the city of Jerusalem. These men were masters of science, religious disciples, and astrology. Their teachings became known as Athe law of the Medes and the Persians. They were the mathematicians, philosophers, doctors and legal authorities of their culture. From their name, Magi, comes the term magic (representing the wizardry, sorcery and soothsaying they performed) and the term magistrate (representing the authority and power they had). These Magi, government officers from Persia, had the duty to choose and elect the King of the realm. These Magi were not kings but, rather, King-makers. They entered the city on Persian steeds or Arabian horses with the force of all the imaginable oriental pomp and adequate calvary escort.
Herod’s small army was probably still on duty with the census so this was no time for an invasion. And worse, Herod was on his deathbed. He had long feared that the oriental forces were planning a revolt against the Empire. All of Jerusalem was probably alarmed by their presence.
They came to see Herod to ask him a question. Where is the One who has been born King of the Jews? We saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him. Being wise astrologers and knowledgeable in Jewish Scripture they followed the star. No one knows what this star was, but it was most likely a manifestation of the Shekinah glory of God directing these Magi just as Moses was led by a pillar of fire to the Promised Land.
Herod’s paranoia was legendary. He had killed two of his ten wives, three of his sons, and a brother for fear they desired to steal the throne from him. Herod was insulted that another would seek to take his throne. In agitation he asked all the Jewish priests
where this Messiah King was supposed to be born. It took a crazed pagan King to get these so-called holy priests to search the Scriptures. They discovered that Bethlehem was the place. He told the Magi to check things out so he could worship this king. Even the priests could see through this lie.
These Magi entered Bethlehem and found the house where the child was. They gave Him gifts strange gifts for a child and strange for a king.
Gold – something valuable, showing great honor.
Frankincense – incense used in medicine, healing, and to preserve the potency of other perfumes.
Myrrh – a liquid used for embalming purposes.
The gold for the valued life, the frankincense for the healing He would bring, the myrrh would be given again later mixed with vinegar when He would die on a cross and also to use as glue in the burying process.
Amazingly this King was recognized and worshiped by foreign astrologers and rejected by His own. When the Magi did not return to Herod, he was angered. He sent an edict to slaughter all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old or younger. Fortunately Joseph had a dream that warned them to flee to Egypt which would yet fulfill another prophecy made hundreds of years earlier.
The streets were filled with tears and wailing as children were slaughtered to please the desperate, paranoid Herod. Little did Herod know that he again fulfilled the words of the prophet Jeremiah when he spoke of the Babylonians who captured the people of Jerusalem and marched them past Rachel’s tomb in the area called Ramah. There was great sorrow in each incident. Rachael died giving birth to Benjamin, but her death was not without purpose Israel would rise again. There was hope even during this time of sorrow.
These slaughtered children in Bethlehem were the first casualties of a cosmic war that would focus around one person the person of Jesus Christ. It would be 30 years later that Herod’s son would meet this Christ face to face. But again God’s purpose would be accomplished when Jesus would die and rise again to become the Savior.
After Herod the Great died, Joseph and Mary returned to Nazareth. Nazareth was a crude, small town which had the reputation that nothing good could come from it. The Messiah was raised here to further lace Him under the scorn of His own people and thus fulfill the prophecy that said He was despised by His own.
So behind the tinsel of Christmas is the truth of…..
A peasant carpenter father
A woman pregnant out of wedlock
A moldy shelter as a birthing room
A motley group of despised shepherds
An army of pagan astrologers
A fugitive family running from a crazed King
A child raised in the slums of Nazareth
But God chose to enter history as a fragile human child who later, in the prime of life, would suffer and die for the sins of the world. It all started in a manger, a surprise package C the love of God wrapped in a baby named Jesus. Matthew says, AYou shall call Him Immanuel which means God with us
So you see, the truth behind the tinsel is not the presents under a brightly lit tree, but God’s presence in a dim-lit stable. The truth behind the tinsel is that the secret of Christmas is not giving but receiving the gift of salvation.
Truth has always been more surprising than fiction. But for some reason we are tempted to cover the truth with tinsel. Here are some tidbits that may tantalize your quest to look behind the tinsel. Did you hear the truth . . .
That one of the greatest mysteries of Sherlock Holmes is that Holmes never once said, “Elementary, my dear Watson”?
That you can watch Casablanca time after time and never hear the words, “Play it again, Sam”?
That Uncola, the drink with no artificial ingredients, once contained lithium which was useful for treating mental disorders?
That the phrases ‘cleanliness is next to Godliness’, ‘Know thyself’, and ‘God helps those who help themselves’ are not in the Bible?
Just interesting facts? Perhaps they should be reminders that behind the tinsel of Christmas is the simple truth . . . that amidst the noisy shoppers, past the glitter, beneath the candy canes and colored stockings, under the printed foil wrappings, shadowed by the jolly smile of Santa and even behind the Christmas spirit of philanthropy . . . that behind the tinsel is the truth of a simple story of a child born in a straw-littered stable.
The story is that the most valuable gift mankind has even been given was wrapped in an unexpected package.
The untinseled truth is that God worked in an unexpected way. Unlike the Hollywood glitter, God’s program had greater impact. You see, when God enters a scene, He often comes unobtrusively to catch us off-guard and to show us that He is not limited by convention or humility. He uses unexpected methods like . . . a peasant carpenter father, a woman pregnant out of wedlock, a moldy shelter in Bethlehem, a motley group of despised shepherds, some Gentile astrologers, a fugitive family running from a crazed king and a child raised in the slums of Nazareth.
Perhaps as we clean up the wrappings and take the tinsel off our Christmas trees we will remember that the greatest gift came in an unexpected package. Perhaps if we were a Director we would have filmed it differently. But God chose to enter history as a fragile human being who later, in the prime of life, would suffer and die for the sins of the world. And it all started in a manger a surprise package you might say the love of God wrapped in a baby named Jesus. You might remember the words of Matthew, AYou shall call Him Immanuel which means God with us. So you see, the truth behind the tinsel is not the presents under a brightly lit tree, but God’s presence in a dim-lighted stable. It was the truth behind the tinsel that changed history and continues to change human hearts.”