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Celebrate Together: Christmas

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Sometimes, we know a story so well, and it gets so caught up in the culture around us, that we no longer here it at all. We tune it out. We mix up what we think the story might be with the actual story. There is probably no story so well known and yet not actually known than the Christmas story.
The real story of Christmas is both less sentimental and much happier than we get from watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special. So, let’s listen again to the story today with ears ready to hear and eyes open to see what God was doing all those years ago.
Luke 2:1–21 NIV
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. 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. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” 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.” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told. On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived.

Retelling the Birth Story

Mary and Joseph head off to Bethlehem from Nazareth because there was a census of some sort. Near as we can tell, this Census took place around 4 BC and may have been before Quirinius was governor, while he was a lower official, or during an earlier term that we know little about. But, Censuses were pretty common and following Jewish custom of tribal counting, Joseph goes back to his ancestors town of Bethlehem.
The real story of Christmas is both less sentimental and much happier than we get from watching the Charlie Brown Christmas special.
While Bethlehem was a small village, it had a big history. It was David’s hometown and while everyone else called Jerusalem the City of David, the people of Bethlehem claimed that title. So, when Joseph shows up with his pregnant wife, he would have been a bit like returning royalty. Dropping his name would be a bit like a DeVos or VanAndel dropping their name in Grand Rapids, doors would be opened.

The family welcome

Not only would the town welcome Joseph, but his extended family would have welcomed him home as well. One of my favorite experiences in Israel was visiting with a Bedouin tribe. I was there only a few years ago and be then most bedouins had settled down, but 20 years ago, you would have met them still living a nomadic life in tents. But, when you stopped by for a visit, even now, they drop everything they are doing and make you food and give you something to drink and hold a small feast to welcome you. Hospitality is a huge obligation. An entire town would be shamed if they did not welcome two travelers, one of them pregnant. We can be pretty sure that Joseph’s family would have welcomed them in.
In fact, one way we know Mary and Joseph were well taken care of is the response of the shepherds. They come and see the child and go home. If Mary and Jospeh were cold and alone, with no one to care for them, the shepherds would have been morally obligated to take them home and help them care for this newborn baby. But instead, the shepherds go around telling everyone about this new baby and glorifying God for all they heard and saw, including the accommodations.
If they hadn’t been welcomed by the people of Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph could have traveled to stay with Elizabeth and Zechariah who also live in the mountains of Judea near Jerusalem. And here it is important to read what the Bible actually says carefully, “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born...” The Bible does not say that they moment they arrived Mary went into labor, but rather, they were there for sometime and then Jesus was born.
Which makes more sense than the image of a 9 months pregnant Mary making a 5 or 6 day journey through the desert and mountains with Joseph. I remember when Rachel was 9 months pregnant. She was a trooper and not a complainer, but I can imagine what would have happened if I had asked her to go hiking for 5 days, sleeping outside, and carrying all our food and water. She may have told me to go take a hike, because she wouldn’t be taking one. If Mary had been due already, she would have stayed behind with her own family to deliver the baby.

The Front Room of the House

So, they arrive in Bethlehem and the place is crowded. Family wants to welcome them, but there is no room in the spare bedroom, which is what the Greek word actually means that we translate as inn. The NIV gets it right and calls it s a guest room. Instead, Mary and Joseph are put up in the stable, which would have been the front part of the house where animals would normally be kept on cold nights. But, animals would be considered unclean, so they would have been kept out of the stable when Mary was giving birth. In fact, it is more likely that they whole family swept the floor, cleaned out the manger, and made the room sanitary as the baby was being born.

The likely Midwife

While all the cleaning was going on, someone would have been sent to bring the midwife. Most towns had a midwife, because having babies back then was dangerous, just like now we have trained professionals help us deliver babies.
The Old Testament highlights the value of a midwife in the story of Rachel. Rachel you may remember is the beloved wife of Jacob Her first son is Joseph and her second Benjamin. In between these two sons being born is a small verse we may easily overlook where we are told that Rachel’s midwife dies. A little while later, Rachel is giving birth to Benjamin without a midwife, complications arise, and while Benjamin is born, Rachel dies. Everyone knew you needed a midwife and every town had one. So, the midwife would have been there to help Mary with the delivery.
Jesus was born, cleaned up, wrapped in swaddling clothes and celebrated by all the extended family and friends. Placed in the manger right where every guest would walk by so they could “ooh” and “aah” over baby Jesus.
Why is Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes, you might wonder. There are three possible reasons. First, this is how all babies are wrapped in the first century. Much like we wrap a child today to help them feel safe and warm, babies were wrapped 2,000 years ago. Second, knowing how the story ends with Jesus dead body wrapped and lain in a cave and then miraculously raised with only the swaddling clothes left behind. Perhaps, Luke begins his story with a hint of where it might all end. For the third possible explanation, you will have to wait until we get to the shepherds in a few minutes.
If all of this seems a little farfetched, consider one other key piece of evidence from scripture. The shepherds. They come and see the child and go home. If Mary and Joseph were cold and alone, with no one to care for them, stuck in a dirty cave surrounded by animals, the shepherds would have been morally obligated to take them home and help them care for this newborn baby. But instead, the shepherds go around telling everyone about this new baby and glorifying God for all they heard and saw. The key word for us is ALL they had seen and heard, including the accommodations.
In fact, one way we know Mary and Joseph were well taken care of is the response of the shepherds. They come and see the child and go home. If Mary and Jospeh were cold and alone, with no one to care for them, the shepherds would have been morally obligated to take them home and help them care for this newborn baby. But instead, the shepherds go around telling everyone about this new baby and glorifying God for all they heard and saw, including the accommodations.

Retelling the Shepherds

Those shepherds are a little harder to figure out for sure. So, they are out in the fields watching the sheep, which means it is the warm season and not the winter. So it is likely some time between March and early November. The shepherds themselves are likely young boys and girls. 12 or 13 years old. They take turns sleeping so someone is always awake to watch the sheep.
In the distance, just to the south and east, the night sky would have been blocked out by the Herodium. A literal mountain moved by Herod the Great to make a desert palace. The entire structure stood about 330 feet above the rest of the ground. Outside the palace was a swimming pool, in the middle of the desert, big enough to sail a small boat. The palace served as a reminder to the Jewish people that they were not in charge, they were occupied, living under the authority of Herod the Idumean, a descendant of Esau and partner with hated Rome.
The sheep may be temple sheep. Being so close to Jerusalem, many of the sheep in Bethlehem would have been raised in order to sacrificed in the temple. We can’t be too sure, this is conjecture, and less clear fact than what we know of Mary and Joseph back in the village.
But, if they are temple sheep, then we know a little but more of their experience. One of their jobs as shepherds of temple sheep would be to make sure they have as many unblemished lambs as possible for passover the next year. So, every time a lamb was born they would check it over for any flaws or blemishes. If it was healthy, they would wrap it up in swaddling clothes to keep it from injuring itself in those first few hours of thrashing around as it learned to control its body in the big outside world.
The next year, the perfect unblemished lamb would be offered up on Passover to pay for the sins of the people. This is the possible third reason Luke emphasizes the swaddling clothes. Maybe, he wants us to remember the swaddling of the passover lambs and recognize the final passover lamb lying in the manger.
Whatever the case, into this darkness, living in the literal shadow of the evil king, a light suddenly bursts into the sky as the angel announces the good news of Jesus birth. The a whole company joins in, as the shepherds cover their eyes, singing of the peace Jesus will bring to all on whom God’s favor rests.

Temple Lambs and Swaddling Clothes

Then, they are gone, and the shepherds are left with a simple sign, a baby, wrapped in cloths, like a passover lamb would be, lying in a manger. This new king is like them. From humble origins. Without the power and wealth of the world, and yet he is the savior of the world.

The Shadow of Herodium

In Which Power Do You believe?

As I prayed and thought about the Christmas story over the past few weeks, my mind kept going back to these shepherds living in the shadow of Herod and all the power and fear he projected over the nation. We live in a world that focuses us on fear and anxiety, on the powers beyond our control. We are told to be afraid of the terrorists. To be afraid of Russia. To be afraid of the liberals. To be afraid of the conservatives. We are told that the powers of our day are both against us and our only hope. And so we are angry at the wall street titans for rigging the economy, but we also look to our stock portfolio for our security. We complain about the immorality or amorality of Hollywood, but look to the subculture of Christian movies and music to redeem the broader media culture. We complain about corrupt politicians, but look to our favored political party to make it all right. We are both afraid and enraptured by the financials powers, the political powers, the military powers, the cultural and technological powers of our day.
Maybe that is why Jesus comes to us not revealing his power and glory, but by masking it in the form of a helpless baby, with lowly parents, surrounded by a typical extended family and some young shepherds. Maybe God comes humbly so we will dare approach.
While he comes humbly, he also comes in power yet to be revealed. Like a newborn passover lamb, this baby has come to take away the sins of this world, to unmask the powers of darkness, to disarm the violent, to bring an end to all hostility, to bring a full and final peace on earth for all who believe and trust in him.
Luke 2:10–12 NIV
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Luke 2:
Luke 2:10–12 NIV
But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
Luke 2:10-
Believe this good news and go forth to live in its peace. Amen.

“Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Believe this good news and go forth to live in its peace. Amen.
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