Why We Celebrate Christmas
© C. O. Bishop
(Explication of a Hymn) Luke 1, 2; Matthew 1, 2
The Christmas Song
by Don Francisco
The center of the ages, and the Lord talks with a girl
And by the words He speaks He gives a Savior to the world
The fullness of the time has come, and Mary’s Son is born;
The promise’s fulfillment lies asleep now in her arms.
He didn’t come to terrify, to judge or condescend–
To call us all His servants, but to lift us as His friends
To save us all from Satan’s power, to reign at His right hand
In the little town of Bethlehem, when God became a man.
Today the God of Majesty has given to the Earth
A gift of such magnificence we could never plumb its worth
And the rudeness of the setting just ignites the jewel’s fire
A pearl beyond the greatest price, the joy of man’s desire.
He didn’t come to terrify, to judge or condescend
To call us all His servants but to lift us as His friends
To save us all from certain death, to reign at His right hand
When, once for all eternity, God became a man.
In the Gospels of Matthew and Luke we read the account of the birth of our Savior, and there is little question why we celebrate that birth, as it was the fulfillment of promises dating back thousands of years, all the way to the Fall of Man…and a plan from before the Creation.
We have all watched Christmas pageants, heard sermons, sung songs, and have read the scriptures, until we may become complacent about the facts of the Gospel. So, let’s review:
The Center of the Ages, and the Lord Talked with a Girl;
God actually could have chosen to carry out the crucifixion prior to the Creation, but it would have made no sense from our perspective, as we are locked in the sequence of time, though He himself is not. In fact, one of the pedigrees of the Gospel, in the Old Testament, is that God tells us the end from the beginning. No one else can do this. He let us know where, when and how, and by whom, the Savior was to be born, as well as what would characterize His life. The determination was made before the Creation, but the fulfillment had to wait.
So the first promise of the Savior was actually made the day the Human race fell into sin, in Genesis 3:15. And the fulfillment of that promise, along with hundreds of other, later promises regarding the Messiah, came about in the “Center of the Ages”, as the song says.
But the fulfillment began with a conversation between God (via the angel Gabriel) and Mary, a young girl in Nazareth; a small town in Galilee. It is interesting to read through the scriptures, looking to see how the spoken Word of God has affected our lives and our History. As it turns out, the creation itself was by the Word…the world was spoken into existence. All that we see around us was initially the creative act of the Word of God. So, it seems fitting that the spoken promise should give way to the Person called the Word of God, who would later assure His disciples that they were already cleansed through the Word He had spoken to them. By the Word of God, the Savior was given.
Mary was betrothed to a man (apparently much older, as was common) named Joseph. But when Gabriel appeared to Mary, announcing that she had been chosen by God to bear the Savior, she was initially shocked and probably a little dismayed, as to how it was going to affect her betrothal. As it turned out, she would have been right to be worried, but she had quickly recovered, and blessed God for the privilege. She accepted the assignment with joy, looking forward by faith to the fulfillment of the Promise.
Mary went to stay with her cousin Elizabeth for a while, as she, too, was bearing her firstborn, but in her old age (another miracle-child: John the Baptist), and the angel Gabriel had told Mary about it. Elizabeth was already six months into her pregnancy. When Mary arrived at the home of Elizabeth, she herself was evidently only a few weeks pregnant by the Holy Spirit, but Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, blessed her, and recognized that she was the mother of her Lord, and revealed that as soon as she had heard Mary’s voice, the baby in her own womb had leaped for joy.
When Joseph discovered that his fiancée was pregnant, he had sadly determined to quietly divorce her, not wanting any public disgrace to come on her. It did require a divorce to break a betrothal, in that culture and time, and he thought she had been unfaithful, so he was planning to break the betrothal. But the angel Gabriel appeared to him, as well, in a dream, and assured him that Mary had been completely chaste, and faithful, and that the child she bore was literally the Son of God. Joseph was instructed to carry on with the marriage. He arose in the morning, and did as he was told, but did not consummate the marriage until after her firstborn son was born.
In the Little Town of Bethlehem
Joseph was required by Caesar Augustus to register for a census, along with all the other inhabitants of the Roman world. Bethlehem was his ancestral home, so he had to return there for the census. He took Mary with him to Bethlehem. Remember that Nazareth was home to both Joseph and Mary. That is where they would have expected their child to be born. But the prophecy of Micah 5:2 said that the Savior was to be born in Bethlehem. Caesar “just happened” to make a decision that would force them to temporarily relocate to Bethlehem, about 80 miles away. (Now, that was a strange “coincidence,” wasn’t it?)
The Fullness of Time
But, Mary was far along in her pregnancy by that time, so when they arrived in Bethlehem, along with the crowds of other people in the same circumstances, she was in critical need of a place to lie down and give birth. The only inn was full, and so they found shelter in a stable where animals were fed. The fullness of Mary’s time had come, as well as the fullness of God’s timing. Daniel’s prophecies had spelled out when the Messiah would come. (And here he was!) She gave birth there, in the humblest of circumstances, without a midwife, without her mother or aunts or older sisters to help her. So far as we know, only Joseph and she were there. God was in control. There was no need for other help. The baby was soon safe in her arms, and was subsequently wrapped in cloths, called “swaddling clothes.”
We always make nativity scenes with a variety of animals and the shepherds, and angels, and wise men. But at that moment, it was just Mary, Joseph, and the infant they would call Jesus, in obedience to the angelic messenger who had spoken to each of them separately. Animals very well could have been there, as the manger would indicate that animals were fed there; but the rest is all speculation on our part. Tradition has it that she rode there on a donkey, too, but we don’t even know that, for sure. It would make sense, but it is still just supposition and speculation. The wise men showed up perhaps a year or two later…not that night, for sure.
However, there were shepherds, in the surrounding fields, guarding their flocks by night. They got an astonishing announcement from God, via one angel, initially, soon joined by a multitude of angels, who appeared, telling them about the Savior’s birth, and praising and glorifying God. The shepherds were told to go and see the baby, and that they would find him wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. Then the angels disappeared into the sky. (By the way; every single time angels appear in scripture, they appear as men… fearsome men at times: not dainty little lady-angels…sorry.)
But why these particular signs? Swaddling clothes were a rather archaic way of clothing an infant, in which the baby was simply wrapped in strips of cloth. It was similar to the way they prepared a body for burial, and it was not terribly common, even in that time, so that was part of the sign, along with the fact that they would find Him lying in a manger—an animal food trough—not a common bed for a child, at any time in history. It was just a plain, elevated food trough, made so that the animals would not step in their food. But it served well as a baby crib, in this case. So, when the shepherds came to look, they found him there, exactly as promised. They told everyone who would listen, and went back to their flocks excited, and praising God for the fulfillment of His promise. In Luke 2:10, it says that the “good tidings” (also called the gospel– that’s what “gospel” means: good tidings–good news) would bring great joy. That was the immediate response of the Shepherds. They didn’t have the day off because it was Christmas; no turkey, no tree, no “stockings, hung by the chimney with care:” just…great joy, because the Lord, the God of Israel, was finally fulfilling the Promise of the Ages. It seems to me that we all could use a dose of that kind of faith and the resulting joy. Remember, these were not parishoners, pumped up by a good sermon. They were common, lowly shepherds, who had just experienced God’s Grace.
But, why did He Come?
Skip forward thirty years in time: Joseph, Mary’s husband, has evidently already passed away, so that the rest of the family (Mary, four half-brothers and at least two half-sisters) now look to Jesus as the head of the household. Jesus begins his earthly ministry, and it is not at all what the Jews were hoping for. They wanted a King, who would destroy the Romans, and elevate Israel to supremacy, as the prophecies in Isaiah seemed to indicate would happen.
They were not at all impressed with a poor, itinerant preacher who persisted in preaching Grace, and Righteousness, and Peace. He healed the sick, cast out demons, raised the dead, and, in general, proved that he was, in fact, the Son of God. But they rejected Him…He wasn’t what they wanted!
“He didn’t come to terrify,” as the song says: He didn’t come as a conquering emperor: He came “not to condemn the World, but that the World through Him might be saved.” He did not come to judge, but to offer salvation. He did not call us to be his slaves, but to free us from our slavery to sin, and to elevate us to be on friendly speaking terms with God: He even said “I do not call you my servants, but my friends.” He said of Himself, in Matthew 20:28, “…the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister, and to give His life as a ransom for many.” He has already done what He came to do. He died in our place. And we who believe have already received the gift of eternal life. We have already been raised by Him, to sit with Him in the heavenlies. God says that we believers are already there, even while we are still in our lives here on earth. We have already been resurrected and ascended with Him to sit with him at the right hand of the Father.
The Rudeness of the Setting
Why do we find the story so compelling? Precisely because the setting was so completely plain. Jesus could have been born a royal heir, and lived in luxury, as do the heads of most of the world’s religions, but he chose to come as the son of a very poor girl, with a poor man for his adopted father. He emptied himself of all the trappings of deity and royalty, to become a man, living as a servant, not a king, owning nothing but the clothes he wore, and walking the roads of the tiny nation of Israel, reaching out one last time to a people who had mostly rejected his advances for almost 2,000 years.
His name was “Jesus”, meaning “Jehovah is Savior.” The angel Gabriel told Joseph that they would name the child “Jesus, for He shall save His people from their sins.” His name is “Jehovah is Savior” because He shall save us from our sins! The deity of Christ is made clear, in the scriptures. John 1:1-14 says he is The Word, and that he is the Creator, as well as being God the Son. We can’t hope to understand such things. But all of them are facts!
And the gift God gave to us truly was magnificent beyond our comprehension. The cost was beyond our understanding, too, as we cannot even begin to imagine what it cost the God of Eternity to bind himself in time and space, specifically so that He could be tortured to death by his own creation, and to become sin for them, so as to endure for them the curse of His own wrath toward sin, and save them from certain destruction. 2nd Corinthians 5:21 says that “he who knew no sin became sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him.” It boggles my mind to consider such a thing. We have been saved from our sins, saved from wrath, and delivered from Satan’s dominion over us. We could ask for no greater gift. We are now sons of God, and joint-heirs with Christ, for eternity.
God became a Man
Philippians 2:5-8 tells us of the “kenosis”—the self-emptying of Christ. He set aside all his prerogatives as God, and chose to be born a human child, in harsh circumstances. He came for a single purpose: to die for our sins. He taught and demonstrated His Grace and Wisdom on the way to the Cross, but he was headed for the Cross from before the World began. Revelation 13:8 says that He was “the Lamb slain from the foundation of the Earth.”
And it could only happen when and if…once, for all eternity, God became a Man. And that is the heart of the Christmas story!
Lord Jesus, help us to grasp and value the gift you have given, and to share that gift with those around us. Awaken our hearts to the need, and allow us to be your hands and feet and mouth, so that you will be free to love the World through us.