The traditional telling of the story of Christmas saddens me now. Or, maybe "disappoints me" might be a better way to describe how I feel. What bothers me is that half the message is omitted, so it falls short of passing on the great value of the full story! This writing has nothing to do with gripes about Santa Claus, cutting down trees from the forest, the commercial nature of the season or erroneous calendar dating. I'd like to share something personal with you about what brought me to this place of understanding before I share the story of Christmas that should be told, so you know where I'm coming from.
A few years ago, my wife (now, ex-) and I had hoped to have another child, but were very disappointed with a miscarriage that had quite an emotional impact on both of us. It was not long after that, while I was in a definite season of grieving, that I was led in my studies into the record of Matthew 2. I had read that chapter many, many times before, which gives an account of the decree made by Herod to put the young boys around Bethlehem to death in an attempt to eliminate the threat of competition for his position as King in Judea. On this particular day I began to consider how the execution of that decree must have impacted the community and in particular the mothers and fathers of the slain toddlers. Quite unexpectedly, the grieving I knew very personally for my own recent loss was replaced or displaced with something else. By a kind of transference, a deep and heavy grief with weeping came upon me as I identified with those parents. I was aware it was not a natural emotional kind of experience, but supernatural. The spirit of God was upon me. It was like an intercessory substitution because it was not for my loss but for theirs. In this state of having this open wound, I poured out my heart to the Lord about why these boys were allowed to be killed - about why He permitted such a tragedy. It was very intense and very personal. This experience continued for several minutes, and then, I was struck with a chilling conviction. The answer was given; I understood the reason why. I had never considered it before - but I immediately knew it to be true, and, that God was just. This is how the Lord led me to what I'm about to share with you; the story of Christmas that should be told.
About the traditional telling of the story of Christmas, to clarify my feeling about it, I am not wholly ungrateful, for the hearers will at least receive the testimony that there was born in the city of David a saviour, which is Christ the Lord. I am glad the message is brought forth that good tidings were proclaimed of great joy that shall be for all people, and that the angelic host gave glory to God and declared peace on earth to men on whom His favor rests. These truths still bring joy and hope, but yet, the balance of the message must be brought forth as its complement. There are two sides to this story, and the other side is one of justice and judgment. May the Lord of Glory grant you spiritual insight, understanding and conviction as His love unfolds in the telling of this precious and powerful story as it should be told.
The Christmas Story
The sun was sinking low in the darkening autumn sky over Israel. The sun was doing what it had been appointed to do, marking the close of one day and the beginning of the next. It was also marking the transition into the first month on the Hebrew civil calendar, in a time now over 2000 years past, as the thin crescent of the new moon appeared out of the dusk above the western horizon. Every new moon signals a Feast day, but this new moon was more rare, marking the arrival of Yom Teruah, Rosh HaShanah! This day would be celebrated as in years past with the blowing of trumpets, the shofar and the shouting of praise throughout the land! This was a special day, but yet the arrival of the festival of the first day of the first month comes around each and every year. That's not so rare, but yet, there are two more features of this particular day that make it stand out. This was a pivotal day in the accounting of the passage of the years from Adam. The fourth millennium came to an end and the fifth began! That was noteworthy, yes, but what was most special about that night was this: The Messiah of Israel, the savior of all the world was being brought forth!
On this night, a gift of great magnitude would be given to the people of the world! Now, what might seem like a small detail is really very, very important to note. Those in the vicinity of that fabled little town of Bethlehem would receive an additional blessing; the invitation to come and celebrate in the presence of the holy one of Israel would be proclaimed in their very midst! It is the exclusivity of this opportunity that distinguished the locals from all others in Israel. It is this feature that allows us to peer into the scriptural account and discern the sobering lesson that I pray will speak to your heart today.
Friends, it is a fact that with every gift given to men by the Creator of heaven and earth comes a responsibility to use it. According to our savior's own declaration, an accounting will be made in accordance with what has been given.
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.Luke 12:48(b)
Even small children can judge such a matter as just and fair. This element of justice, my dear brothers and sisters, is not to be taken lightly. In the telling of this story about what the Bethlehemites received that night, if you will consider the magnitude of that gift and their accountability as its recipients, you may discern by the working of the holy spirit that what followed must be seen as a consequence of their response.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” 15 when the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.Luke 2:1-16
Isn't that wonderful! What an awesome privilege for those humble shepherds to receive such a blessing! It seems likely that, of all those living in that day, an angel of the Lord and a great company of the heavenly host made a special appearance to these particular men. They responded to this great honor in the appropriate manner. They hurried off and found the baby, the Savior, as they had been told. The character of these men may be seen in something you may never have considered. Shepherds were responsible for the flocks they tended. Leaving their flocks in the field meant putting their own lives in jeopardy because they were liable for the safety of the sheep! If sheep were lost due to their negligence, they didn't risk merely being fired, they might be executed! Yet, these men counted obedience and the privilege offered them worth the risk.
Now, pay close attention to what these men of faith did next.
When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,Luke 2:17
After finding Mary, Joseph and the baby, they broadcast the news, sharing the good news of great joy with the neighborhood! They excitedly proclaimed the word that had been given, that, on this very night, in that very town, a Savior had been born to them, and that he was their Messiah and Lord! Remember, this testimony was given on the holy day Yom Teruah, so the people of the land were at that very moment caught up in celebrating the traditions they were commanded to keep. This was no "sleepy little town," as you may have been taught. People were awake and actively celebrating with great blowing of trumpets and praise according as was their custom! Now, I want to bring to your attention the fact that the very event for which that festival had been appointed was being fulfilled in their midst! The occasion for which they had actually been rehearsing every year for nearly 15 centuries had finally arrived! But, dear listener - they were not ready. The people of Bethlehem were tragically missing the point! What irony! "How is that"? you may ask. "How do you know"? Consider the biblical record, my dear friend, and hear what the holy spirit is speaking to you today.
When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.Luke 2:17-20
We are given an account of two kinds of response to the shepherd's testimony in verses 18 and 19. The response of "all who heard it" is contrasted with Mary's. They were amazed, and we may infer they neither treasured up all those things nor pondered them in their hearts like Mary did. With this key observation, we are about to turn to the book of Matthew to continue developing the story.
I have brought to your attention the fact that the people of Bethlehem and its vicinity were given a very special gift, in that they, alone, of all Israel, received the testimony of the shepherds. I have pointed out their response, which is simply that they were amazed. Was their response appropriate for what they had been given, or, according as we are warned in Luke 12, would more be demanded of them?
On the night of the Messiah's birth, the heavens themselves bore testimony of the wondrous events taking place in Bethlehem, shining forth for the whole world to see. Certain men faithfully observed the season's celestial signs and, with confidence in their understanding of this testimony that was further validated by angelic visitation, began a long journey westward. Magi from the East sought out the one foretold, traveling by caravan to Jerusalem with gifts in anticipation of finding and worshiping the child. As the shepherds before them, these men of extraordinary faith came to be honored with that very privilege!
After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2) and asked, "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."Matthew 2:1-2
After they had heard the king, (Herod) they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.Matthew 2:9-12
When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."Matthew 2:16-18
If you know your biblical history, you know Rachel was the favored wife of Jacob. She bore him two children: Joseph and Benjamin. When the land of Caanan was distributed among the sons of Jacob, Bethlehem was among those appointed to Benjamin. Those in the vicinity of Bethlehem were Benjamites. What was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled at that time because the Benjamite children of Rachel "were no more"; Herod's decree had just been carried out!
And so it happened that, within two years of Jesus' birth, a grievous act was visited upon the very same people who had received the shepherd's testimony! Coincidence? No! Consequence! It was only after I was brought into identification with the grief those mothers and fathers had felt that I knew the reason why their God and mine would allow such a tragedy to be visited upon them. While you may have previously considered this event only with regard to the logic in jealous Herod's attempt to kill Jesus, consider this new perspective with sobriety. Remember, with every gift from God comes an accounting for its stewardship.
On the night that the fathers and mothers of Bethlehem received the news of the birth of God's only begotten son, did they even go visit the child? The shepherds were glorifying and praising God. Mary treasured up those things she had heard and pondered them in her heart. But the people, all others in the neighborhood who heard, were amazed. Merely amazed. In other popular translations, the texts read: "wondered at." If you consider other scriptures where the same Greek word is used, you see there is no further action indicated. Could such a response have been adequate? Would there not have been a higher expectation given the magnitude of the gift they received? Could it have been merely coincidental that those affected by Herod's decree were the very same who had received the shepherd's testimony on the night of God's only begotten son's birth? Could there be no connection between their feeble response and the slaughter of their sons, whose ages at that time were directly related to the age of God's Son? The decree that brought the tragedy was directly related to the birth of that Son! Oh, there is a connection, friend. Cause and effect. In having received much by way of the special opportunity they received, according to the Lord's own words, much was demanded of them.
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.Luke 12:48(b)
The penalty was severe but just, and, swiftly executed, as the Roman tetrarch Herod unwittingly became God's agent in the visitation of judgment upon His people.
Here is a revelation of truth: As it was, so it will be. This story of the distant past and its people is for the present; for us! Our day and theirs are not so different, and neither are we so different from they. There was at that time an eager anticipation and heightened expectancy among God's people about the arrival of the Messiah, and so it is today. Few in number had been given the message directly, and so it is once again as a timely and important message goes forth falling upon the ears of a people small in number. Why do I say that? Because, the lesson of the inadequate response of the Bethlehemites and the justice poured out upon them is not so broad as to speak to every person and every gift. This lesson is more narrow, more specific to a particular season, people and message. No, another child savior will not be born in Bethlehem with shepherds broadcasting the news. But the son has come as judge already, and the news has been widely broadcast. Many are amazed. And few receive it with faith. The revelation is to us an example and a warning. Let me say to you - do not make the same mistake they made!
You know as well as I that the hearts of most people today are unprepared to receive what tremendous blessings the Lord longs to give.
This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. 20 Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.John 3:19-20
Light has come into the world, and Jesus, Y'shua, is that light. If you prefer the darkness over the light, you are like the Bethlehemites of old who could not accept the invitation extended to come into His presence and worship Him.
Meditate on these words:
It's like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with his assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. 35 "Therefore keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back--whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. 36 If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. 37 What I say to you, I say to everyone: 'Watch!"Mark 13:34-37
Those servants the Master has placed in charge with the assigned task of keeping watch at the door are giving you and I good news of great joy. You have been hearing from those who "walk in the footsteps" of the Bethlehemite shepherds that the return of that same small child - now grown to a full age and appointed as judge of all mankind - is near. We are on the threshold of His coming in glory! Are we amazed, idle and skeptical - are we asleep? Or, are we watching as He commanded?
Are you willing to bet you and I will be spared the consequences of neglecting the gift we have received, who reject the message of His appointed watchmen? God forbid! Unto whom much is given, much is demanded.
The one who listens to you listens to Me, and the one who rejects you rejects Me; and he who rejects Me rejects the One who sent Me.Luke 20:16
Lest we think skepticism is safe and excuses might be able to be offered on our behalf, let me bring this story to a close with a comment about signs. What do we watch for but signs? Confirming signs are always given by the Lord who loves mercy. The problem is and always has been that most choose to disregard them. Consider what had been declared to the shepherds:
This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.Luke 2:12
They paid heed, at great personal risk. I say to you, many confirming signs have been given for which to watch in our day. Have you really paid heed? Are willing to risk losing what has been so dear, to gain what reward the Lord has appointed for those precious few? I pray you will!
Search me, O God, and know my heart; Try me and know my anxious thoughts; 24 And see if there be any hurtful way in me, And lead me in the everlasting way.Psalm 139:23-24