The Very Messy Story of Christmas!
Christmas, for most of us in western culture, is a time when we think of decorations, gifts, and a nice, peaceful, clean manger scene in a quaint little town. We picture a glorious scene with lovable shepherds and regal wise men…a time of incredible celebration for Mary and Joseph to be remembered for all time.
But the real picture was quite different. Caesar Augustus was the Roman emperor at the time and was the most powerful man in the world. His father died when he was only four years old. Later, his uncle, Julius Caesar, adopted him. After Julius Caesar died, there was a great cosmic event that occurred. A very large comet streaked across the sky. Augustus declared it was proof Julius Caesar had ascended to heaven and become a god, thus declaring himself as “Son of God.” Coins were minted with a picture of a comet and the inscription, “Divine Julius.”
The Roman empire was massive, having conquered the lands from England to Asia and south into parts of Africa. For each territory conquered, Augustus would place a king over them, thus making Augustus the king of all the kings. Herod was declared “King of the Jews” after the Holy Land was conquered and served at the pleasure of Augustus. Even though there were many kings of the various territories, everyone understood who was the “king of kings,” and people across the lands would sing out in the streets, “Glory to Caesar in the highest and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Augustus publicly declared himself to the High Priest. Later, in 9 B.C. on his birthday, he stated, “the birthday of the God Augustus has been for the whole world the beginning of good news concerning him.” Are any of these documented facts and phrases causing you to snicker just a little? After all, many of the same phrases were used for Jesus and his father.
Enter Mary and Joseph, who were from Nazareth. Nazareth was considered to be a town of hicks, red-necks, and blue-collar workers. They were betrothed to be married. In that culture betrothal was legally tantamount to being married, except they had to wait a year to consummate the marriage. To get out of a betrothal, the couple would have to legally divorce. It was during this time of betrothal that Mary became pregnant…before the marriage was consummated. This would have brought great shame to her family. Joseph had decided to quietly divorce her so as not to disgrace her and subject her to the punishment of death. But an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream and convinced him to follow through with the betrothal period and subsequent marriage.
Mary and Joseph traveled about 90 miles from Nazareth, arriving in Bethlehem for a required census being taken. They didn’t have much money as we know they could not afford a lamb to be offered as a sacrifice, but only two birds, the cheapest sacrifice available to Jews. It would have been a difficult journey with Mary being due very soon and Joseph having little money. Upon arriving, there was no room at any of the inns in town. Most inns at that time were brothels, and most travelers stayed with relatives or friends. Hospitality was everything at that time in history. The few reputable inns filled quickly with those pouring in for the census.
Our traditional holiday stories depict the baby being born in a stable surrounded by cattle and other animals. But all we are really told is that after the baby was born, he was placed in a manger. A manger was a feeding trough for animals, usually made of stone at that time. The deduction was that Jesus must have been born in a stable. However, most animals were kept in caves or brought into the lower level of the home while people lived in the upper levels.
It wouldn’t have been very hygienic by today’s standards. The stench of dung probably hung in the air, and the baby was wrapped in swaddling clothes, which were actually rags that shepherds wrapped spotless, newborn sheep who were destined to be slaughtered for sacrifice. In Jewish tradition, a lamb used for sacrifice had to be spotless, without defect. When the shepherds arrived, here was this newborn wrapped up like a spotless lamb ready for slaughter.
And the shepherds…that’s another strange event! In those days, shepherds were the lowest dreg of society. They were often despised and thought of as thieves. They were not allowed to testify in court because it was presumed they would lie. Yet it was to the night-shift shepherds in the fields that the angels appeared and said, “Do not be afraid. I give you good news of a great joy which shall be to all people; for today in the city of David there has been born to you a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Jesus’ first visitors would have been the lowest of the low. God still chooses every day, rough around the edge people to send a message to the world! Sleepy shepherds who were awakened by a glorious light and a choir of angels set out to find a tiny little “lamb” born in Bethlehem that night.
Eight days after his birth, Jesus was taken from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to be dedicated at the temple. Simeon, a righteous Jew who is rarely portrayed in any Christmas play, had received a revelation from God that he would see the Messiah in his lifetime. So, to ensure he didn’t miss it, the devout Simeon waited at the temple for many, many years. He had no idea exactly who he was looking for but was certain God would reveal the long sought-after Messiah when he arrived.
When Mary and Joseph arrived with the baby, Simeon, now an old man, took the boy, raised him in the air and pronounced a blessing on him as the dedication proceeded. But then Simeon turned to Mary and said, “Behold this Child is appointed for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and for a sign to be opposed; and a sword will pierce even your own soul…” (Luke 2:34)
Whoa! What mother wants to hear that prophecy? Your baby is going to change the world, but he’s also going to rip your heart and pierce your soul! This was Simeon’s message that Mary would recall each birthday for 33 years! How could she even begin to understand this message?
Sometime after the birth of Jesus, scholarly magi from the east (most likely Gentiles) set out to follow an unusually bright star in search of a new king. Generally, magi were advisers to kings who were looking for wisdom, dream interpretation, and astrology. They studied science, agriculture, old literature, and sorcery.
Tradition has placed three wise men following the star, but in truth it is unknown how many there were. The number three was attributed to them because of the three valuable gifts they gave to the baby as they worshipped him: gold for earthly wealth and its association with a proper gift for royalty; frankincense, an expensive aromatic gum from the bark of trees that when dried was burned and used as holy incense for worshiping deities; myrrh, a fragrant spice used for anointing priests, burial preparation, and preparing the altar for sacrifices.
They traveled many miles to Jerusalem looking for the King of the Jews. Upon arriving, they inquired of Herod, “Where is this King of the Jews?” Herod, knowing nothing about this, asked the magi to tell him everything they knew. He then sent them on their way with strict instructions to come back and tell him where this child was after they found him. But the magi were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, but to go home a different way.
Keep in mind that Herod was a particularly protective man about his power. He had his favorite wife, three sons, his mother-in-law, and his uncle executed for fear they might threaten his reign. So, when the magi did not return, Herod had all baby boys two years old and under killed in Bethlehem and the surrounding areas. I’ve never seen this genocide depicted in any Christmas play. The death of many was caused by the birth of one. Later, the death of one would save many.
An angel warned Joseph in a dream to flee with his family to Egypt. The gold the magi gifted would come in handy as Joseph, Mary, and the baby escaped to Egypt before Herod’s death sentence could be carried out. They would live in the land where the Jews had previously been enslaved for 400 years until Herod died.
Life in those days was messy for the family of Jesus. Each year on the birthday of Jesus, his parents could remember the hundreds of children that were killed because of his birth. Life is often messy for us as well. It’s not easy. Sometimes we have to wait like Simeon. Sometimes we have to follow with trust like the magi. Sometimes there is danger and hatred and jealousy. Sometimes there is betrayal. Sometimes we need to flee to our safe haven. Maneuvering through life is like a construction zone…it’s a work in progress. We can’t give up. We can’t lose hope, especially when we feel lost and alone…especially when life puts detours in our way.
Billy Graham’s wife, Ruth, aptly has these words written on her tombstone: “End of construction. Thank you for your patience.” Our lives are absolutely as messy as a construction zone. Pain, depression, guilt, regret, heartbreak, and uncertainty can rob us of hope. God meets us right where we are…in the midst of our weakness, our loss, our pain, our joy, our waiting, our loneliness, our stress, and our vulnerabilities! This is the Christmas story…Emanuel, God is with us. What a love!
Have a wonderful holiday season! Feel free to forward or post to your social media!
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