I’m a Christmas person! I love love love the whole nine yards of tinsel, presents, music, trees, and the fa la la-ing! I love love love the Christmas story! But, if we are really telling the true Christmas story it has nothing to do with all the traditional trappings we wrap around it this time of year! So, today let’s unwrap the real story and see it in its real-time without all the pretty decorations.
Let’s go back to first century occupied Israel…
The images in the story are from my studies in Israel.
God’s message in the Christmas story is…
I am coming! Coming to you as a human. I am your kinsman. I will be called Jesus, “GOD SAVES”! I, God will live with you, close and intimate. You will be able to hear and feel and touch and see me for a little while. I will love you with an everlasting love just like I have from the very beginning! And then I will sacrifice myself in your place because I want you to be with me forever. I want to share my riches and myself with you forever. I love you more than you can think or know! You are so precious to me, my child!
Most of us read about the birth of Jesus as a nice and pretty and sanitized story.
Ah, the shepherds, and sweet Mary and faithful Joseph, and the mean Inn Keeper and the lowly donkey and the shining star and the multitude of girly angels in flowing gowns and halos playing harps and trumpet thingies, and the sweet-smelling hay and the rosy-cheeked blond-haired baby and oh, the beauty and formality of the King’s English version of the story!
Today I hope to change our “squeaky clean” version of the Christmas story.
Let’s get real and go to 1st century Israel!
A time of terrible occupation by the brutal Roman Empire. Let’s go back to the real time when a young Jewish girl lived in a once pioneer village of no more than 35 homes. A speck of a village on the side of a hill occupied by a Roman outpost.
Let’s visit THIS Christmas story…
Nazarath today, a far cry from the little outpost town of Mary and Joseph.
First, Jesus was not, in all probability, born on December 25.
I’m not going to speculate when, but we can be pretty sure that it was not December 25.
It’s also a sure bet that there was no snow or evergreens or mistletoe! No bows, or fancy decorations. Just the very ordinary and everyday in first-century Israel!
Mary was a young Jewish girl, some say probably around the age of 15. She was not formally educated but was most likely well taught in the Pentateuch (the first 5 books of the bible), the Law and the Prophets by her parents and also by her brothers who would have attended Synagogue.
She lived in a small home with her extended family. Not a whole lot of privacy there! In those day’s a family’s animals were often taken into the back of the home at night in a dugout area. There they would sleep and eat from a feeding trough called a manger.
No running water, no toilets, no heat or air conditioning, no Wallmart’s, no electricity, no books or tv or computers or modern day conveniences. Just living! Basic and cramped and smelly!
Site of Mary’s home. Can you see the ceiling full of soot?
Like all young Israeli girls, Mary might have thought about being the mother of the Messiah (the Anointed One who would lead the Jews out of bondage and be the great ruler of Israel and the Savior of the whole world).
Never in Mary’s wildest dreams could she imagine what her life would hold. Her life was meager and common and everyday-first-century-in-a-small-town-on-the-side-of-a-hill-in-Israel!
One day an angel, named Gabriel, appeared to her with a message directly from God Himself.
Mary had found favor with God. Can you imagine an angel? Not one of those girly angels! By the way, there is NO SUCH THING as a girly angel!
Can you imagine an angel appearing to you?
He said… “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.” Luke 1:30-33
I’m sure this scene had Mary in quite a state!
But in true Godly form, we don’t really get to see her emotion or thoughts! But God does reveal how she answered the angel…
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” Mary, even though she was contractually bound to be married to another villager named Joseph, had not slept around! She and Joseph did not live together or have any intimate contact. They were good Jews and followers of God’s Law.
In Mary’s day and age, according to God’s word and His law, Marry kept herself pure. In Mary’s time, the penalty for sex before marriage was stoning… stoning to death!
Can you see how important sexual purity was (and still is) to God?
Mary, could not understand how she could ever conceive a child…
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come over you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.” Luke 1:35-37
I like my English Standard Version translation of verse 37… it says… FOR NOTHING IS IMPOSSIBLE WITH GOD!
The bible does not tell us Mary’s feelings or trepidation or fears or inner thoughts. Mary’s obedient and succinct answer is recorded for us…
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” This was a pretty together young lady!!!
We are never told of the detail of the reaction of her family or the village but we can see a glimpse of her espoused husband (in other words, engaged), Joseph.
The Bible calls Joseph a righteous man. Meaning one that followed God’s law and was found in right standing with God.
Joseph, hears the news of Mary’s pregnancy and what does he think? He probably thought that she has been unfaithful to him and therefore, had broken a sacred contract.
This must have shaken him to his core! According to God’s law, Joseph has every right to have her stoned to death. And it would be the right thing for him to do. In doing so he would totally vindicate himself. It would let everyone know that he was not the child’s father. It would have let everyone know he had not slept with her before marriage. He was a follower of God’s law. Stoning would save him from the shame (a very big deal in Joseph’s time and culture) of a pregnant espoused wife!
Here we get a glimpse of Joseph’s character! Here is what Joseph chose to do…
Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
Joseph chose life for Mary and her baby even though he knew the baby was not his. I’m not sure how quiet you can divorce someone in a small town. But the fact is
HE CHOSE LIFE!
Now the plot thickens and Gabriel enters the story again…
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Not only did Joseph choose life for Mary and her unborn baby but by marrying her he also took responsibility for Jesus as his son.
Can you imagine being responsible for God’s son!
To the villagers and the rest of the people of Israel, the marriage of Joseph to Mary was as good as admitting that he was indeed the unborn baby’s father and he along with Mary was guilty of fornication. That’s a word we don’t hear often, meaning sex before marriage.
This probably brought great shame to the couple and great hardship within the community! Mary and Joseph lived real lives, in real history, in hard times!
As the Christmas story progresses can you see how agonized Joseph was when he got the news that he had to travel with his expectant wife to Bethlehem, the town of his ancestral birth, to take part in a census of the Roman government occupying beloved Israel? This baby was about to be born, the one he had charge over! God’s very son!
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. Luke 2:4:5
Can you see Joseph and Mary making the mandatory 10 day trip over craggy mountains and valleys to reach Bethlehem?
Mary so uncomfortable and ready to give birth. Was it easier for Mary to walk or to ride a donkey?
The Bible does not say.
But our collective experience can make a good guess. Can you imagine “O Little Town Of Bethlehem” a real town just 8 miles outside of the capital of Jerusalem, a small town but swelling and teaming with ancestors of David to take part in a decreed census.
Bethlehem today. Eight miles outside of Jerusalem.
Mary and Joseph, tired and worn out from their long journey, were probably taken in by a distant relative. Since it was Joseph’s ancestral home it only makes sense that one from his line found some sort of lodging for him and Mary.
And there Mary went into labor as the prophets had told centuries before.
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. Luke 2:6-7
In all probability, she was taken to the back of a small crowded home where the family kept their animals because there was no other room for them to rest.
And in that real-life, cramped, common environment the King of Kings was born. And out of necessity Jesus, God in human flesh, was laid in an animal eating trough because it was probably the softest place they had to lay Him?
Church of the Nativity… under it is the birthplace of EMANUEL!
The spot of Jesus’ birth. You can touch the original rocky floor underneath. This is my sister-in-law, Sue. I was taking the picture. What an emotional and holy time!!!! Every time I see this picture I cry!
The story continues…
Israel was an agrarian society. They lived close to their land and even closer to their animals.
In the fields surrounding Bethlehem that night shepherds were watching over their sheep like they did every night. They were protecting their flock from predators. This was a lowly job.
Can you see the shepherds out in the craggy, ravine-like valley of Bethlehem at night?
And here’s what they saw and heard that night of all nights…
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.” Luke 2:8-12
And because this new was so great and awesome, and any other superlative there is, a multitude of angels joined in! So great was their number it could not possibly be counted. They praised God for his plan of salvation in utter amazement and joy. This was quite a birth announcement!
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.” Luke 2: 13-14
Shepherds, the lowliest of the low, being visited by a multitude of angels!
These godly messengers proclaiming the birth of the Savior of the world. This is the news the nation Israel had been waiting to hear for centuries!
Oh, I’d love to see the shepherds real faces when they heard this news!
But I can imagine how they really looked. They were ordinary men doing dirty work. I can imagine them with dirty fingernails and dusty clothing, worn and tired, yet determined to find the babe. Filled with wonder and awe and probably a great deal of human confusion!
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. Luke 2: 15-16
Shepherd’s field in the evening in July.
You know, you just can’t keep good new to yourself. And neither did the shepherds.
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. Luke 2: 17-18
But dear Mary, at such a young age had a mother’s heart. There are so many things mothers hold dear in their hearts and keep just for themselves. I love how the Bible uses the words “treasured up”. Yes, there are so many things concerning our children we “treasure up”. As a mother, this really resonates with me!
But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. Luke 2: 19
The shepherds, being good Jews, would have know the scriptures about the coming Messiah. It was true! They knew just who to thank too!
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 2:20
Yes, this story of all stories is really made more magnificent when we see that God stepped into a broken, dirty, common real word!
Can you see God’s love by sending His Son to be born in a time such as this? In this very place? In this common way!
It’s important to see the drama and the struggle of the Christmas story! As well as the great and unexpected wonder!
We need to feel the emotions of two people given a choice to make. A very hard choice.
Would they follow God’s will knowing that following it will most likely reap some very unpleasant consequences from the world around them? We need to imagine the real-life consequences of following God!
We should to see the Christmas story from the customs of the first century, ancient, orthodox, oriental viewpoint.
We need to smell the manure and hear the animal sounds and the see sweat and dirt of the story!
Did you know the three wise men were not present at the Christ child’s birth? They don’t belong in the manger story until almost two years later.
I’m stunned and in awe of God’s timing and choices!
The Creator of the Universe came to us among common people who were a lot like us, in the most un-kingly way.
Relatable in the time in which He came. He truly wanted to be one of us and live among us.
Knowing the real, nitty-gritty, raw and beautiful story of Jesus’ birth makes me love Christmas far above the secular trappings wrapped around this season!
Yes, I love everything about Christmas because front and center of it all is the celebration of Jesus! And there is no greater gift than Him!
Happy Birthday, my King!