The traditional telling of the story of Christmas fails miserably in communicating the message that really needs to be heard. The dramatic version reenacted in your local church compares to a banquet that offers only dinner rolls and pudding. It's not very satisfying, and sickening, really. The church's familiar interpretation of the historical drama surrounding the birth of Christ neglects an essential message about judgment and accountability. The real story is a far more poignant one, piercing even, but most find it quite unpalatable because it confronts us with the harsh reality that our God is just, and reminds us that we too will be held accountable for our own words and deeds.
While I'm grateful for an annual reminder that there was born in the city of David a saviour, which is Christ the Lord, those who might otherwise be drawn to know Him are repelled by the hypocrisy of the half-truth telling sponsors of the message.
16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.” ~ John 3:16-21
When the biblical account of the birth of our Lord is considered in a mature fashion it becomes apparent that our hypocrisy will be dealt with, and that's very sobering. Yet, if we repent, and this is my hopeful expectation, it will be well with us!
Because the way I discovered what I'm going to present is very relevant, I'm going to preface the telling of the story by sharing my testimony. This is all very personal to me.
Several 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 while I was in a definite season of grieving that I was led in my studies into the record of Matthew 2, which I had read many times before. That passage gives an account of the decree made by King Herod, who put young boys around Bethlehem to death in an apparent attempt to eliminate the threat of competition for his throne. On this particular day, I began to consider very deeply 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 became identified with those parents. I was aware how this very intense experience was not of a natural emotional kind but rather supernatural. The spirit of God was upon me. This was not for my recent loss but for theirs, then. In this state of having an open wound I poured out my heart before the Lord, inquiring about why these boys were allowed to be killed, about why He permitted such a tragedy. It was very intense and very personal. This expression continued for several minutes until I was struck with a chilling conviction. The answer was received. I understood the reason why. I had never considered it before but I immediately knew it to be true. God is just. This is how the Lord revealed to me what I'm about to share with you; the story of Christmas that should be told.
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 I believe it should be told..
The Christmas Story
The sun was sinking low in the darkening autumn sky over Israel, signaling those in the land of the close of one day and the beginning of the next. On this particular day the darkening western sky was very likely watched closely by specially appointed observers at their hilltop and desert posts, who looked expectantly for the first visible crescent of the new moon. Upon sighting it, the report would have been sent throughout the land that the seventh month had begun, signaling the start of a holy day that was noisily celebrated with shouting and the blowing of trumpets. Yom Teruah had arrived, Rosh HaShanah!
This particular day was more special yet, because the count of time marked off from Adam was passing from the fourth millennium into the fifth. What made that memorable night even more notable was this; the Messiah of Israel, the savior of all the world, was being born!
On this night, a gift of great magnitude would be given to all the people of the world, then and for all time! 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 because the invitation to come and celebrate in the presence of the holy one of Israel would be announced in their very midst! It is the exclusivity of this opportunity that distinguished the locals from all others, in Israel and elsewhere. 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 there comes with it the responsibility to use it wisely. According to our savior's own declaration, an accounting will be made that is commensurate with what is received.
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 is not to be taken lightly. It may be seen that those in the area of Bethlehem were given “much” on that night. I'm convinced that what followed in the historical scenario, what is sometimes referred to as “the slaughter of the innocents,” is directly connected as cause and effect. I believe making that connection illustrates from the perspective of justice how the gruesome slaughter decreed by the King was a consequence, the accounting of a deficiency in the response returned by the community of parents. With a view to the principle of “much given, much demanded,” I invite you to consider whether their response was commensurate with the magnitude of what they were given, and whether this lesson is for our benefit, yours and mine, today.
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 may be that, of all those living on the earth in that day, an angel of the Lord and a great company of the heavenly host made a special appearance to just these particular men. They responded to this great honor in an 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, there was more at risk than having their pay docked, being placed on administrative leave or being fired - they would have been executed! Yet, these men deemed it 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." 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 crucial 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 yet, 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
In verses 18 and 19 of Luke 2 we find there are two kinds of response to the shepherd's testimony. The response of "all who heard it" is contrasted with Mary's. They were amazed, and we may infer by comparison that they neither treasured up all those things nor pondered them in their hearts. Having made this key observation, we are about to turn to the book of Matthew to continue the story's development.
I have brought to your attention the fact that the people of Bethlehem and its vicinity were given a unique gift. They, alone, received the testimony of the shepherds. I have pointed out their response, which is simply that they were amazed. Was that appropriate for what they had been given; was it enough?
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, they began a long journey westward. Magi from the East sought out the one foretold, traveling by caravan to Jerusalem with lavish 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 already know that Rachel was the favored wife of Jacob. She bore him two children: Joseph and Benjamin. When the land of Canaan was distributed among the sons of Jacob, Bethlehem was among those appointed to Benjamin. Those in the vicinity of Bethlehem were Benjamites, and this observation must be worth noting because the "census" responsible for the presence of Joseph and Mary brought many others to their ancestral home. 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!
A probable location of Rachel's tomb is associated with today's Bethlehem. It is identified with the territory of Benjamin in 1 Samuel.
1 Then Samuel took the flask of oil, poured it on his head, kissed him and said, “Has not the Lord anointed you a ruler over His inheritance? 2 When you go from me today, then you will find two men close to Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah...”’ ~ 1 Samuel 10:1-2a
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 felt by those mothers and fathers and then poured my heart out before the Lord that I came to know the reason for the tragic loss. This was an accounting. Justice was not long delayed.
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 sam“”e 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 subject to 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 pathetically 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, 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 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. A timely and important message falls now upon the ears of a people small in number. The lesson of the inadequate response of the Bethlehemites and the justice meted out is not so widely broadcast as to speak to every person and every gift. This lesson is more narrow, more specific to a particular season and people. Are you going to be merely amazed?
If the story of Christmas that should be told was proclaimed in the big donor-fests that pander to “Chreasters” it would empty the coffers of their ill-gotten booty. I count that as a good thing. Christmas pageants are not a marketing opportunity, or at least they shouldn't be. Christmas should not be looked at as the season to exploit the economic windfall as purse strings are loosed in the frenzy of giving encouraged by commercialism.
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
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 legitimate servants assigned the task of keeping watch at the door are giving a sound report. Are we amazed, idle and skeptical - asleep? Will you and I will be spared the consequences of neglecting such a gift? Unto whom much is given, much is demanded. Rise up my dear brothers and sisters. Seek to be found worthy of praise and all reward as a faithful steward.
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
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