The Jews had anticipated the coming of the Messiah for generations. Isaiah, Ezekiel, Amos, Hosea--to name a few--had prophesied Him. But still, four hundred years later, no Messiah had come. Israel was still a troubled nation, under the rule of Rome, and they longed for a leader who would immediately stamp on their enemies. When would their Deliverer appear? |
The devout in Israel had watched so long for the promised Messiah that they knew every sign given them by the prophets of old. And now to those truly looking for Him, it was evident that the time was imminent. Their Messiah must come soon. The air was filled with expectation. Some anticipated the sound of trumpets, announcing the arrival of Israel's King. Oh what a glorious day that would be! … But almost no one expected the event to happen as it did, a Baby, born in a lowly stable, to a peasant woman. They would have been, had they read Isaiah's prophecy: Isaiah 7:14 – "Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."
In the town of Nazareth, lived a young woman named Mary. One day Mary was in her house doing her work. Possibly she was humming, thinking about Joseph and her upcoming wedding. She was engaged to a good man, Joseph, a carpenter from the family line of King David of old… Suddenly something startled Mary. Standing beside her was an angel. She was terrified and confused, as in those days it was believed that if you saw an angel you would die. Mary tried hard to think of anything wicked she may have done, but nothing came to mind…
But wait! The angel was speaking. "I am Gabriel," said the angel. "I am sent from God…Greetings. You are greatly favoured. The Lord God is with you!" The angel saw the fear on Mary's face. He continued, "Don't be afraid, Mary. God has chosen you to be the mother of the Son of the Most High. You are going to give birth to the Christ Child. You will name the baby 'Jesus'. He is the promised Messiah: Immanuel. He is coming to save people from their sin."
"But how can this be? How can I have a child?" asked Mary, still a little frightened. "Joseph and I are not yet married. I am a virgin."
Gabriel answered: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. The baby born to you will be holy, and he will be called the Son of God."
Young women down through the ages had dreamed of being the one chosen to bear the Son of God. The words of the prophet Isaiah--Isaiah 7:14 - "A virgin will conceive a child, whose name will be Immanuel" were well known to all the Jewish people. They were read the Scriptures weekly when they came to the Temple. But to have this wonderful thing happen to her—Mary! It was amazing! But whom could she tell? No one would believe her. In fact—she left the thought unfinished. She knew what people would think—would say, if she mentioned to anyone about this wonderful thing that was about to happen to her.
When Joseph learned that Mary was with child, in order to save her embarrassment, he was going to silently "put her away" until after the baby was born. True, they were only engaged, but in the ancient Jewish custom, that was as binding as marriage. While he thought on how he would do it, he had a dream. An angel stood before him."Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost… And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins…Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife." Matthew 1:20-24
. . .
Caesar sat in his imperial palace in Rome. He was proud of his vast empire, which included Palestine. He was god. What he said must be carried out. It didn't matter to him that it was a hardship on many of the poor people of his empire to have to travel to their place of birth to be registered. But that is the decree he put out. Everyone in his kingdom must go to his place of birth to be taxed. Death was the penalty for disobeying. But what Caesar didn't know was, it had already been decreed that a census should be taken at this time. "And it came to pass in those days that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city." Caesar didn't know that he was fulfilling a prophecy made seven hundred years earlier by the prophet of God. He would have resented it had he known that he was being used by a higher Ruler.
. . .
Joseph cast worried glances at Mary as she sat on the back of the donkey, on the dusty road from Nazareth, in Galilee, to Bethlehem, in Judea, the place of their birth. How very alone they must have felt during that long, ninety-mile, three-day trip. He could feel the furtive glances of their fellow travellers. Many of them knew that the couple had only recently married; yet they could see that the young woman was about to give birth. What a scandal! But Joseph knew it wasn't a scandal. Mary was the mother of the Lord. He was very protective of his young wife, and did his best to guard her against the cruel criticism of the public. So as not to have further stress put on Mary, who was growing more uncomfortable by the minute, Joseph kept a safe distance from the sneering group of people.
As they neared the town of Bethlehem dusk was already settling in. Relief surged through Joseph's weary mind. They were almost there. Soon he could get his young wife into a comfortable inn so that she could have a night's sleep before the baby came.
Mary glanced around at the countryside of the town of her birth. As they trudged up the long hill into Bethlehem, she looked absently down on the thread of low, flat-roofed houses. The glow from the setting sun cast a silvery hue on the foliage, making everything look peaceful. Her eyes wandered upward to the hills. There was Herod's castle. The sun's rays hitting the tower made it look like ivory.
She was not to know at this time what wicked scheme the puppet king inside that 'ivory tower' would soon dream up: to seek and destroy the Child she was about to bear. She cast her eyes downward again, to a brook. Beams from the sun, falling on the bubbling water, made it look like a river of gold. Almost as if in a dream her mind registered a tranquil picture of a few shepherds that were leading their small flock to a quiet pool of water upstream from the golden waterfall she had just seen. She was willing her mind to notice these peaceful pictures of God's wonderful handiwork, in order to keep from thinking about the increasing, screaming pain that was surging through her body.
They were almost into town. Soon she would be settled in a comfortable bed. She slumped forward, leaning on the head of the patient donkey. Soon it would be over. Soon she would bear the Christ Child. Soon. Soon.
Relief flooded Joseph's mind as he and Mary approached the usually quiet, but now bustling little town of Bethlehem. Clouds of dust swirled around them as their fellow travellers whipped their tired donkeys, urging them to go faster. Groups of weary and irritated travellers pushed and shoved their way to the hostels in order to find accommodation.
Joseph prodded his patient donkey to pick up her pace, all the while keeping his eye on Mary, slumped as far as she could on the neck of the donkey. He must soon find a place for the night. He had tried at inn after inn, with the same response. "Sorry Sir, but we are full."
"No room. No room." The words throbbed in his head. Desperate and discouraged, he lifted his eyes to the heavens. The Son of God soon would be born. He had to find place for Mary to lie down. He entered yet another inn and was given the same answer: "Sorry, sir. The last room has been taken." As the dejected Joseph left the inn to join Mary, waiting just outside, he heard the innkeeper calling after him. "Wait, Sir. I do have a stable at the back of the Inn. It isn't much of a place to bed down your pregnant wife, but it is all I have to offer. You are welcome to stay there for the night."
And so it was that Mary "brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger…" Christ was born. Joseph looked down on his wife and newborn Son. He sent up another prayer to the heavens. How thankful and proud he was to be the "step father" of the Son of God.
. . .
Shepherds in a nearby field, who had watched the hordes of travellers pouring into Bethlehem a few hours earlier, had now settled back into their usual routine. They weren't surprised at the number of visitors to their quiet town. They knew about Caesar’s decree and about the taxing. But on this still night something seemed different. Well, it was just their imagination! They built their usual fire to ward off the deepening coolness of the night. They began their usual tales, told to pass the dark and lonely hours. Their sheep slept quietly nearby. But something was different. It was unusually dark. The only light to penetrate the extreme darkness was the glow of their small pit fire.
Suddenly the sky burst into brightness. The shepherds looked up. "And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid."
An angel! That meant they would die. Everyone knew that if you saw an angel it meant you would die. The Shepherds were terrified. They huddled together, hugging one another... But wait! The angel began to speak: "Don't be afraid. I have brought you good news."
"Good news! What good news?" These unspoken words spun around in the minds of the awestruck shepherds.
"Behold I bring you good tiding of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger." The shepherds fell apart from each other, staring up into the heavens. The whole sky lit up. Beside the one Herald Angel, stood a myriad of other heavenly bodies. Awestruck, the humble shepherds listened. "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." The shepherds had never heard anything so glorious. They were spellbound. They were speechless. They stood gazing up at the sky… But now the angels were gone. They were alone. What did it all mean?
For the next few minutes the shepherds didn't speak. They were lost in their own thoughts. During their long night watches they often talked about the rotten world. Some of them related stories of their childhood how that their parents had told them that someday a Redeemer would come to take them out of their miserable life. Someday a King would come to relieve them of the tyranny of the Roman Empire. Someday. Someday. Someday.
Then one of the older shepherds spoke: "Let's go. Let's leave our sheep in the care of the Most High and go and find this wonderful thing that has come to pass."
All at once the other shepherds agreed. They picked up their staffs and started down the hill into the now-quiet town of Bethlehem. Following the angels' directions, they found the stable. Quietly entering, they saw Mary and Joseph and the Baby lying in a manger. With heads bowed, they worshiped the Lord God of Heaven who had sent their Redeemer. With simple faith they believed that He was the promised Deliverer that the world had waited for, for so long.
The shepherds, silent and humbled, left the stable. But as they went back to their flocks they glorified God. And they didn't keep this good news to themselves. They spread the word to everyone they came in contact with. Many who heard the shepherds' tale scoffed. Many just wondered. After all, who could believe simple shepherds? They were forever fabricating stories. What else did they have to do as they sat on the hillsides looking after a bunch of dumb sheep?
Mary heard of the shepherds' stories too. As she sat rocking her Son, she silently praised God that He had chosen a simple country girl to be the Mother of God's Son. She praised God that He had sent simple shepherds to be the heralds of this Good News. She praised God for giving her a simple carpenter to be her husband, to love her and protect her, despite the scandal that had spread. She silently praised God, and she kept all these things and locked them away in her heart. Some day she would think of them again.
© Helen Dowd
More of Helen's Christmas:
The Haves and the
A Walk In
No Room For
The Christ of Christmas
What Is Christmas?
His Name Shall Be Called …
Check out Christ Birth Series