A dramatic Christmas reading. We all love a good story. In fact, we love all kinds of stories. Television and movies tell stories; dramas and plays tell stories; songs tell stories. Before TV, people gathered in living rooms to hear stories on radio. For centuries before that people listened in fascination to stories told by older family members sitting by a fire burning on the hearth or to traveling story tellers in some village gathering place. Technology may have changed, but our love for stories remains the same as ever.
Jesus-the master story-teller!
Jesus knew that people respond to stories in ways that they don’t respond to other kinds of teaching, so he told dozens of them. We know the stories Jesus told as parables. We can still marvel at their insight into human nature and their power for communicating truths about God, his ways and his Kingdom. The right kind of stories, told in the right way, and correctly applied are very powerful things.
Has the Christmas story lost its punch?
What happens when we come to that season of the year when we tell the Christmas story? The story is full of hope and grace and joy. Yet it can lose its punch for many of us who have heard that story dozens of times. We hear the words read from Matthew and Luke (where the pieces of the story are found), they fall into the familiar grooves in our memories and we often walk away mostly untouched by the wonder of it all. So, let’s see if we can re-tell this story in a way that holds true to the facts as God’s word gives them to us, and yet is different enough so that our minds don’t go into neutral and the impact is lost. That is the commitment from this side. But I want you to make a commitment from your side as well. Your commitment is to try to hear this story in a fresh way—with new ears so to speak. I believe as we do that, God’s Spirit will touch us and do things in us that perhaps haven’t happened in years.
From time to time, Hollywood taps into the story of Christ’s birth. Some efforts are better than others. But let me say that, left to themselves, no scriptwriter could ever come up with a drama so amazing, so improbable, so riveting. Not in the wildest imagination. The story of Christ’s birth has all the elements of a blockbuster: an exotic culture, political upheaval, romance, misunderstanding and heartbreak, an evil villain, the intervention of God himself and a happy ending as the servants of God are spared and God triumphs over evil. What a drama! Are you ready?
The Dramatic Background
Let’s look at the Dramatic Background. First, John 1 introduces The main character. In verse 1: The main character is called the Word (logos). Words are what we use to make things known. God desires to make himself known to people, and he did that through the Word. In verses 1-2 we find out that the Word is a person – it is God himself, not just a sound or idea representing God. Vs. 3 tells us that the Word is the agent through whom all Creation came to be (“And God said…”). Vs. 4 informs us that the Word is the source of all life. Vs. 5 shows the Word as the source of all truth (or light in Greek philosophical terminology). Then, vs. 14 reveals that the Word entered time and space and became human. How? By emptying himself down so small that he was the size of the head of a pin inside the womb of a teenage girl.
The main character’s persona is foreshadowed in the Old Testament: Isaiah 7:14 gives the nature of Messiah’s birth: “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Micah 5:2 foreshadows the place of Messiah’s birth: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.” The purpose of Messiah’s birth is shown in Isaiah 9:6-7: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the LORD Almighty will accomplish this.” This is the backdrop for this great and very real-life drama.
Scene One: The Big Choice
So now the Drama Unfolds. The passage is Luke 1:26-38. Enter a Jewish girl. Her name is Miriam (we know her as Mary). She is young—just a teenager. She lives in a small, kind of out-of-the-way town called Nazareth far from sophisticated places like Rome or Athens or even Jerusalem. She is a very admirable girl: morally pure; a sincere believer in the true God; living a life which all who know her agree is as it should be. Though she is from the noble line of King David, for many generations her family have been simple, working class people. She is betrothed (we can say engaged) to a man significantly older than she is. Joseph is perhaps 10 years her senior or even older—not an uncommon thing in that culture. The marriage is to take place in the near future.
She is excited—planning and working for the big day when she can be with the man she is growing to love and begin her life as an adult woman, wife and mother. But in the middle of all this, as Mary is going about her business, everything is turned upside down. It happens when she is alone. The messenger of God, an angel named Gabriel, suddenly appears to her. She is understandably terrified. Some versions use the words perplexed or troubled. She was far more than perplexed: she was startled, deeply afraid, confused and, for a moment, almost undone by the experience. Gabriel tells her things that ruin everything she has been working for. He tells her that she is highly favored (chosen by God for a special place in his plan of redemption). She is to bear a child. An unusual child. A unique child. The child of all the prophecies. The implication is that this pregnancy is to happen immediately.
So she asks a very natural and practical question: How? Joseph and I aren’t married yet. These things don’t happen by themselves—there has to be a father. The answer: this birth is to be a one-of-a-kind event: God will do a miracle in your womb. The Holy Spirit will supernaturally conceive God’s Son in her. Now comes that moment of choice. Though God’s plan has been set from the foundation of the world, and though God’s obviously has no doubt of the outcome, still Mary has a very real choice before her: either she can say, “Yes. I’ll allow my plans to be put aside and the course of my life to be suddenly and completely changed to suit God’s purposes.” or, “No. Find someone else. I don’t want my life ruined by this unfair intrusion of God into my business.” Luke simply records Mary’s choice as “Behold the handmaiden of the Lord.” I am at God’s disposal because the bottom line is I am his servant. Gabriel goes back to God with Mary’s answer and she soon finds the growing signs of pregnancy in her body.
Scene Two: Oops. What about Poor Joseph?
Matthew 1:18-25 tells us Joseph’s side of the story. OK, what about Joseph? Did God forget to tell him? It is obvious that a certain amount of time goes by during which Joseph is out of the loop. Either Mary has to summon the courage to tell him she is pregnant, or Mary’s relatives find out she is pregnant and they break the news to him, or enough time goes by that he sees for himself. It doesn’t seem that he has heard anything about angels or supernatural pregnancies. All he knows is that his fiancée is pregnant and that he had nothing to do with it. Joseph is clearly heartbroken. He probably asks himself how he could have misjudged Mary. She seemed so trustworthy, so honest, so pure. “How could I be so wrong about her?” Yet, he couldn’t bring himself to invoke the provision in the Law of Moses to have her stoned to death for adultery. That didn’t seem right in this case. What should he do? He finally decides to “put her away quietly”: annual the engagement; not make a big deal out of it and just walk away.
Joseph receives insight
At this point, an angel told Joseph in a dream what God is doing. The child has been supernaturally conceived by God. He is to go ahead and fulfill the marriage contract. The child will be born and he is to act as the father by naming him Yeshua, a name that means God himself will save us. So Joseph marries a girl obviously pregnant. He does so in a small town where everybody is always in everyone else’s business and the wagging tongues of the village gossips follow them the rest of their lives (John 8:48, Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan…?). What an amazing step of faith by Joseph. Everyone either pities him as a dupe, or laughs at him as a fool behind his back. Poor Joseph! Things looked pretty dark. But this is not the end of the story. The story continues to unfold —-
Scene Three: The Late-Term Catastrophe
In Luke 2:1-7, the couple has just begun to get on their feet when the emperor in far-away Rome decides to take a census of all people within his empire and tax them. This means that people have to go to their ancestral towns in order to be accurately counted. They must take time away from their occupations and pay the expenses to make whatever journey was required. In Mary and Joseph’s case, it meant a journey of 100 miles or so either on foot, donkey or cart up and down mountains to Bethlehem, the ancestral city of David. They make the trip along with hundreds of other descendants of David. Mary is at the end of her pregnancy—due any time. The journey must have been brutal. Ladies- imagine going for a long, difficult hike in your final month of pregnancy.
No place to go
When they arrive, little Bethlehem is overrun with people. The inns are full. The private homes are full. How long will they be there? They don’t know for sure. It could take awhile. Will they have enough money? If they run out, can Joseph find employment? There is no mention of family along on the journey. As far as we know, they are bone-weary, hard up, at the mercy of merchants, officials and fellow travelers, and very much alone. They are facing giving birth in a campsite beside the road or in the open fields. They finally find a place that is still available. Its not much, but it will get them in out of the weather where they will have the warmth of farm animals. It is not ideal—(some think a cave made into an animal shelter). There Mary gives birth, whether with the help of local women or with only Joseph to be there we don’t know. She wraps her baby in swaddling cloths and puts him to sleep in a feeding trough.
God arranged all this?
The desperation of these people almost makes you weep. And remember: this is all God’s doing. He chose Mary for this role with all its consequences. He allowed Joseph to be involved with definite consequences. He allowed Caesar Augustus to order a census in order to bring Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem with all the hardship that went with that. What is God doing? Is he loving? Yes. Is he wise? Yes. Is he powerful? Yes. Now comes scene four.
Scene Four: The Merciful Resolution
When things look their darkest, God gives reassurance that everything is as it should be. In Luke 2:8-20, Mary and Joseph’s story is confirmed by some unlikely people:
First by a group of shepherds. They show up at the stable with this wild story about an angel choir telling them to go find the Messiah who was recently born nearby. But this is incredibly good news to Mary and Joseph because it confirms that they are not crazy. God is in control and they can rest assured that its all going to be OK somehow.
Later we are told about the wise men from the east who show up bearing gifts and saying they were directed there by a special star to see the King of the Jews. Why are the gifts important in the story? Two reasons at least: First, the gifts are fit for a king, so they underscore the identity of this child. Secondly they are valuable and practical in that soon the family will need some ready money to make an even greater journey as they escape to Egypt from the murderous actions or Herod the Great. Gold, frankincense and myrrh–all three can be used to purchase daily necessities.
We are also told about others who each had their part to play in reassuring this couple in their very unique and difficult circumstances. Simeon testifies that the child is the promised Messiah and warns Mary that her son will be a source of great controversy among the Jews and a cause of great sorrow for her personally. Anna adds her voice, announcing to many people that the Messiah had arrived in the person of this baby. Before the trip to Bethlehem, Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth assured Mary of the lordship and divinity of the child growing within her. So, their story is confirmed by lowly Jewish shepherds, high-status Gentile holy men and an assortment of others.
None of these people changed the circumstances, but they did give enough encouragement for the couple to go on and fulfill God’s plan. Notice 2:19 says Mary pondered these things in her heart. Can you imagine how crucial it was to Mary and Joseph that these people were sent to them? There must have been many times later in life that she thought about these events and it helped her through what must have been a very difficult life.
I want to briefly suggest some applications of this story to our own stories. Friends, this story might devastate you. It might anger you. It might make you jump for joy. But it should never bore you.
The baby born in that stable is God. He created the heavens. He designed the intricate structure of DNA. He foreknew you in intimate detail before anything came to be. The baby born in Bethlehem is also fully human. He grew in Mary’s womb for nine months. He was born amid the pain and mess of a normal human birth. He was totally reliant on Mary to nurse him, keep him warm and clean and safe. His parents had to teach him to speak properly (the Word had to be corrected on his grammar and expand his vocabulary). He had no special perks growing up. His was the normal life of poor, working class people all over the world. The baby born under that star is the Messiah of Israel and the Savior of mankind. All the prophecies point to him. All the noble longings of people are fulfilled in him. The people living in Old Testament times looked forward to his coming. He came, according to Galatians 4, “in the fullness of time”. That baby is King of kings and Lord of lords. Someday every knee will bow to him and every mouth will confess who he is. Do you acknowledge Jesus as your Lord?
Does God care?
So what do we carry away with us today? God cares. Enough to become one of us. Enough to live a difficult life so that we might gain eternal life in him. God is ultimately in control. God had the option of making a smooth, irresistible entrance into the world, but he didn’t. He chose to do just as we must do: live our lives amid hardships and obstacles. God is more interested in encouraging and strengthening us than in our comfort and convenience. Are you uncomfortable? Is your life full of problems? Go ahead and pray. Ask God to change things—and he may do it. But remember that it is not your comfort God is really interested in. Its your maturity, faith and holiness that matter to him. There will be plenty of comfort and convenience in heaven.
Faith in God is soooo worth it!
Even with the suffering and fear and overwhelming obstacles, it is worth it to be in God’s will and be used by him to accomplish his plan. What would Mary’s life have been without her saying “Yes”? Her yes made possible our blessing. Think about this: Your yes to God will also mean incredible blessing to someone—maybe many someones. There is really nothing else that makes life fulfilling, but honoring God and blessing people. It may be hard, but it is always a blessing to say yes to God! Have a truly merry and blessed Christmas!
Written by Dr. Michael Bogart