This time of year is filled up! It’s filled with lovely music, with delightful treats and delicious feasts, with decorations of every kind! It’s filled with events like the Christmas tree lighting at Rockefeller Center and Santa in the mall, with fabulous programs of amazing dancing and singing seen by thousands, and precious programs of children’s Christmas poems and crooked halos seen by loving churches.Through the windows of houses on the street where you live sparkling lights peek out of picture windows, while inside someone sips cocoa with marshmallows and sneaks another piece of fudge from the tin set aside for visitors.
It’s as though the world cleans house, puts on its Sunday best, and opens its doors to light and love. It is, after all, Christmas!
And though not everyone celebrates it, everyone benefits by its beauty and bounty and belief; belief that there is something better than what we see on TV, that the beauty of this earth goes beyond color and sound, that peace on earth, goodwill toward men can be more than a platitude. It is, you know. And it came on Christmas Day over 2,000 years ago.
The nation of Israel had waited thousands of years for the Messiah promised by the prophets. Micah 5 gives us one of the prophecies, if you believe in that sort of thing. I do. The nation of Israel did, too; but prophecy often appears differently than those expecting it anticipate. For instance they probably didn’t anticipate a small town, unmarried girl or something as ordinary as shepherds doing their thing.
An angel visited a teen-aged girl named Mary. She was a good girl. She feared God and honored Him and trusted Him. And when the angel, Gabriel, appeared to her and told her that she had found favor in the sight of God; and that He had chosen her to be overshadowed by the Spirit of God; and that she would give birth to His Son, she was – well the Bible says she was ‘greatly troubled’.
If an angel not only suddenly appeared to you, but gave you such a wild message, you’d be greatly troubled, too. She was no doubt scared at the sight of Gabriel, but Mary’s faith in her Creator helped her to listen to his message. She didn’t close her eyes and pretend the angel was just her imagination. And she responded not with an ‘I don’t believe you’ or ‘can’t you find someone else’ or a flat out ‘no’.
She didn’t complain about the gossip that would certainly be spread about her. She didn’t reason with the angel that she could be stoned for being pregnant and not yet married. She didn’t talk about the many things that would certainly cause trouble in her life if this came to pass. Instead, she replied with one of the most beautiful passages of Scripture, something called The Magnificat. It’s found in Luke 1:46-55 and praises God for remembering the little folks and doing magnificent things with humble people.
Mary’s life wasn’t the only one initially affected. Now Joseph’s life was turned upside down, too. He had contracted to marry her, but learning of Mary’s pregnancy left him with few options as a God-fearing Jew. He could allow her to be stoned or he could get out of the contract and let the chips fall where they may. He prayed for God’s direction, then, like most men, he decided to fix it in the best way he knew. He decided he would get a quiet divorce in order to avoid her public humiliation.
However, an angel appeared to him in a dream and told him to go ahead with the marriage because Mary was telling the truth: her pregnancy was a result of the Holy Spirit. Joseph didn’t blame the dream on something he ate or drank. Instead, when Joseph woke up from this dream, he showed great courage and did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him. He took Mary home as his wife, but he had no physical intimacy with her until she gave birth to a son.
Even back in those days, government interfered in the lives of the common man. Caesar Augustus decreed that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. What a huge undertaking! However, it was this very thing that caused Joseph and Mary to have to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, a town in Judea.
Bethlehem was bustling with citizens who had traveled there specifically to register for the census, and it resulted in packed inns and no room for a young couple who had had to travel more slowly due to a pregnancy. There was room in a cave or stable with the animals and that is where Mary and Joseph settled in for the night.
On this night there were shepherds watching flocks of sheep outside. Some shepherds might lock their sheep in a pen overnight, but not these shepherds. Some scholars think it’s possible they were watching over the lambs born to be sacrificed in the temple.
Did you know that a sacrificial lamb must be without any defect? What if something happened during its birth that would mar or injure it? For this reason, shepherds caught the lambs intended for sacrifice in something called swaddling clothes – to keep them pure and unspotted.
The baby was born that night in the stable, and the biggest, brightest birth announcement ever came to the shepherds. First one angel appeared to them, and God’s glory shone around them. They were terrified and, again, if an angel suddenly appeared to you, you’d be terrified, too. But the angel told them to not be afraid. He then gave them a sign: they would find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger.
Then a large company of angels also appeared and the heavens erupted with praise to God. That great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”
And the shepherds hurried to Bethlehem and found everything just as they had been told by the angel. They found Mary. They found Joseph.
And they found something that held more meaning to them than it usually does to us. They found a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes – the very thing they used to catch the new sacrificial lambs at birth. Can you say “foreshadowing”?
And they spread the word everywhere they went to anyone to would listen. And those people told their friends and neighbors. And so news of such an amazing event spread to whoever would listen.
Wise men from the East followed an unusual sight in the sky – a star that was unusual for its brightness and connection to prophecies, and timing. It took them awhile to travel, so that when the star came to its destination, Jesus wasn’t a newborn baby anymore. That star didn’t stop over a stable. It stopped over the home of Mary and Joseph and Jesus. The wise men knew Jesus was special. They knew he was a king. They worshipped him and they brought him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
Yes, this time of year is filled with an abundance of things. It’s a beautiful, blessed, filled-up season, but it is all these things because of the one thing that happened in the fullness of time – the birth of the world’s Savior, Jesus.
As we watch the darkness fill with candlelight this Christmas Eve, let’s give praise to God. Let’s praise Him for His bountiful generosity during the season of Christmas and, most of all, give thanks for His unspeakably beautiful and precious gift – Jesus.
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