Sunday, December 24, 2017

The Characters of Christmas

May the day never come when we get tired of hearing the story of the birth of Jesus, because it is the story of our salvation. It is the most fascinating, intricately woven tale ever told and I feel like it is taken too much for granted. Think about it, 6 angel visits, warnings in dreams, a moving star, prophetic utterances, spontaneously composed songs, an angelic choir filling the night sky, the fulfillment of at least 9 specific Old Testament prophecies including a virgin birth. This is the greatest story ever told. We should tell it well...and reverently. Luke writes his historical account to "a friend of God." There is so much wonderful depth of knowledge that a first century reader would have, so many wonderful images this text would have brought to life for them. Today, I offer my humble attempt to help you envision these events the same way its original audience did. Here is the story, found in Luke Chapters 1-2 and Matthew Chapter 1-2. I will narrate the story in sequence, using both accounts. I recommend reading the verses before each section of my commentary and explanation. 

Zechariah & Elizabeth...and Gabriel (read: Luke 1:1-25, 57-80)
Zechariah was a faithful priest, serving God by burning incense in the temple, in the Holy Place. On the left there was a lampstand with 7 lamps, representing the Holy Spirit of God. To the right, there was a table with the Bread of the Presence. On it were set out bread and wine, representing communion and fellowship with God. At the head of the room was the altar of incense. The fragrant smoke rising from the altar represents the prayers of the people rising up before God. God hears our prayers, and they are like a pleasing and good smelling aroma to Him. Behind this altar was the veil, a curtain that divided the room, beyond the veil, in the 1st temple, there had once been the Ark of the Covenant, representing the very presence of God, but in this rebuilt temple, it was no longer there. Once a year, the high priest would have gone behind the curtain into the most Holy Place to meet with God, but the high priests at that time were Sadducees who did not believe in angels, miracles or an after life. They were purely political and used the priesthood for personal gain. God did not send a messenger to one of them. He sent it to a humble and faithful priest. As Zechariah was burning the incense, the multitude of the people were gathered outside, praying. At this moment, after 400 years of silence, God answered. He sent His messenger, the angel Gabriel, to tell Zechariah that his wife Elizabeth would conceive a child and that child would fulfill the prophecy that Elijah would return to prepare the people's hearts for the coming of Messiah Jesus. His son John would have the spirit and power of Elijah, the Holy Spirit. In the same way that John was to go ahead of Jesus to prepare the people's hearts, those of us who are Christians know that Jesus is coming again and we have that same Spirit within us so that we can tell people about Jesus and encourage them to prepare their hearts for His return. Zechariah and Elizabeth were righteous before God. This does not mean that they were perfect and sinless, but it does mean that they honored God, had faith in Him and carefully followed the law to atone for their sins. It is interesting to me that Zechariah immediately sinned by doubting the words of the angel, but God showed grace and continued with His plans, though Zechariah would remain silent throughout the pregnancy, opening his mouth only when he truly believed and prophesying over his newborn son. Elizabeth showed great faith and rejoiced that God had given her this child, she felt grateful that He had chosen her. She kept herself hidden for 5 months. In the 6th month, Gabriel was sent to be God's messenger again.

Mary (read Luke 1:26-38)
Mary was betrothed to a man named Joseph. A betrothal is not the same as an engagement in our society. A prospective groom would go to visit a father and his daughter. He would lay out the terms of a marriage covenant (like a contract or marriage license), explaining how he would provide for her and making promises. The hopeful young man would pour 3 cups of wine and drink from one of them. If the proposal was acceptable to the girl's father, he would drink the cup. If the young virgin girl chose to accept his proposal and become his wife, she would drink from the cup. He would then leave her with presents to remember him fondly by and then leave with one last promise that would go something like this: "I am going now to prepare a place for us to live. Once it is ready, I promise to come back for you and to bring you to our new home so we can be together." Sound familiar? This is the same type of covenant Jesus has made with His bride, the church. From that day forward, the young couple would be considered legally married, though the marriage was yet to be consummated. There would not be a formal ceremony in a synagogue with a Rabbi pronouncing them husband and wife while the groom breaks a glass and everyone shouts "La Chayim." Once their dwelling place was finished, the groom would simply come for the bride one evening and whisk her away to the marriage bed for 7 days.

Each night, Mary would have gone to bed, wearing clean white linen, anointed with oil, hair brushed and with her lamp filled with oil and ready to light the way, hoping this would be the night when the love of her life, Joseph arrived to take her home. THEN, a marriage feast would have been planned for them and all of their relatives would come and celebrate for a further 7 days. But those plans were interrupted. The angel Gabriel showed up and told her she was highly favored with God and would be the mother of our Lord. Mary's response was truly remarkable. She said "I am the Lord's servant, May it be done to me according to your word"  The word servant, (bondservant or maidservant in some translations) means that she was a WILLING servant of God. Mary gave her whole-hearted consent to be part of God's plan. 

Joseph (Matthew 1:18-19)
Joseph was a special man. When he found out that Mary was pregnant, he might have initially doubted the truth, but he still acted with compassion and mercy. Legally, he could have publicly divorced Mary and possibly even had her stoned. But he chose to put her away quietly. Some translations say send her away  or divorce her. He made a plan which would have prevented him from being married himself and gave up all of his own legal rights. It seems like he may have sent her to her country cousins to have the baby. The Bible says that she went there in haste. The important thing is that he protected Mary and the life she had conceived in her womb and began to think over these things. He didn't yet know that Mary had done no wrong, even still, he chose to show grace.

Mary and Elizabeth (Luke 1:39-56)
Mary hurried to her cousin Elizabeth's home in the hill country of Judah. Elizabeth and Mary exchanged encouraging greetings full of hope and faith. John, who would later be called, "the Baptist," jumped in Elizabeth's womb when he heard Mary's voice. Notice the affirmation that life begins at conception? These women believed every word the angel had spoken and they sang and prophesied over each other. This is how believers are supposed to greet one another and rejoice together. Mary's song of praise provides a sermon in itself, which I will save for a later date. But I do want to draw attention to the fact that she realizes this is the fulfillment of God's promises to Abraham. She declared that God is her Savior and speaks as if Jesus had already conquered his enemies, proclaiming the victory of the cross before Jesus was even born. After about 3 months, just before John was born, Mary returned home. Seems a little strange that she would stay so long and then leave before seeing the baby....

Joseph and Mary (Matthew 1:18-25)
An angel appeared to Joseph, telling him it was ok to take Mary as his wife and affirming the good news that she was indeed with child by the Holy Spirit. He explains the prophecy from Isaiah that A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will call his name Emmanuel. Emmanuel means "God with Us." Jesus would be fully God and fully man. God was reaching out to us, desiring a relationship with us. Joseph immediately took Mary to be his wife. We do not know for sure if she fled to the hill country and then he learned of her pregnancy, or if he sent her there and then retrieved her after the visit from the angel. What we do know is that he brought her into his home to live as husband and wife, but did not lie with her until after Jesus was born. He believed the angel and honored the prophecy. Since Mary was only a few months pregnant at the time and not showing in loose fitting, modest ancient clothing and because of Joseph's discretion, there was no scandal. She was his wife and it was his legal right to bring her into the marriage bed as was assumed. They departed from their home in Nazareth before Mary gave birth and years later, when they returned, everyone assumed that Jesus was Joseph's son--John 6:2, Matthew 13:55, Mark 6:3)

Bethlehem (Luke 2:1-7)
Bethlehem, which means house of bread, was the ancestral home of Joseph's family--clear back to Boaz and Ruth. In those days, I think it would have been a great insult for a Jew to charge another Jew money for a place to stay. When they arrived, some translations say there was no room for them in the inn, others read: there was no guest room available for them. If there was a local inn, it would certainly have been full, but this was much worse, every home in the town was filled with visitors, or they would have been welcomed into the home of one of their relatives. They might have found shelter in a barn or stable out back, but in that day, the people lived in 2 story stone structures. They often slept upstairs, used the rooftops like a front porch and cooked and worked on the bottom floor. The few animals the family owned were sometimes stabled for the night on the first floor. What we do know is that they slept in the place where the animals slept, or stable. When Joseph and Mary arrived, as husband and wife, they were probably welcomed as family and received as warmly as possible with what meager accommodations were available. Animals would have been valuable to a family and kept in a clean, safe place. Mary wrapped Jesus in soft cloths and laid him in a feed trough because there was no other bed available. If you have ever spent time in a barn, it can be pretty peaceful. Animals down for the night are quiet. It wouldn't have been appropriate to deliver the baby in a room where many people were crowded and trying to sleep, but a clean, safe stable, while very humble, would have afforded more privacy than the other options. I am sure that midwives were called. Mary and Joseph were not outcasts, but closely related family from the tribe of Judah. 

The Shepherds and the Angel Choir (Luke 2:8-20)
Shepherds are used throughout Scripture as an example of how God's men are to shepherd, or pastor His people. Think of the 23rd Psalm. The Shepherds in the fields between Bethlehem and Jerusalem had an incredibly important job. They watched over the lambs that would be used for the Passover and the sacrifices in the temple. Since the lambs had to be spotless, or without blemish, they had to guard and protect them carefully. They led them to safe pastures, protected them from predators like wolves, lions and bears. Shepherds of smaller flocks would often sleep at the entrance to a sheepfold, as the door, so that no predators could get in. The Shepherds of these enormous flocks basically lived out in the fields with the sheep, or at least slept out there while they were on duty. 

The most notable aspect of the angel's visit to the shepherds is that they proclaimed a message of peace on earth, good will toward men. They didn't bring warnings, fear, or threats of punishment under the law. They  proclaimed good news of great joy that will be for all people. They declared grace. God had come in peace. They declared that the Messiah had come, Jesus had been born in Bethlehem. They filled the sky with God's praises and brought a joyful message to the Shepherds. The Shepherds had been entrusted with the Passover and sacrificial lambs, now they would be entrusted with the Good News about Jesus, the Lamb of God...And they told everyone they encountered. 

Jesus (Luke 2:21)
8 days after he was born, Jesus was circumcised. and given his name, Jesus, or Yeshua in Hebrew and Aramaic. This was probably performed by a priest in Bethlehem. The name means Yahweh Saves. Yahweh is the personal name of God. We have a personal God who is invested in our lives and cares about us. He is a God who saves and rescues us from sin. 

Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:22-38)
30 days after Jesus was born, Mary's days of purification were completed. This means that she would no longer be considered "unclean" because her body had time to heal after giving birth. They took Jesus to the temple to present and dedicate him to the Lord in accordance with the law and gave an offering.

That very day, the Holy Spirit had led a man name Simeon to come to the temple. God had promised him that he would live to see the promised Messiah, the Savior of his people. He praised God in a song declaring that Jesus would be a light, not only to the Jews, but also to the Gentiles. It is remarkable that God had made him the promise and he was guided by the Holy Spirit, when the perception is that God had been silent for 400 years.

They also encountered a prophetess, Anna who was so excited that she spoke to everyone who was waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem. This means that she told the good news to the faithful Jews of the city. Some might have understood that they were being saved from their sins as we have read, but many would mistakenly think this meant they were being freed from Roman rule. 

The Wise Men...and Herod
Anna shared the good news with the faithful Jews who were waiting, eagerly anticipating the arrival of their Messiah. The wise men brought the news to those who were less eager. Since all of Jerusalem was thrown into an uproar at the news, I believe it only makes since that it was the very same night of the temple visit, that the wise men showed up bringing the news to Herod. While this is "Good News" to most people, to Herod and the Sadducees, this is the worst news ever. Herod was the darling of Rome. He had built Caesarea as a tribute to Caesar and port city so that Roman nobles arriving by boat would see Roman columns and enjoy a hippodrome, theater and luxury accomodations. Inland, he had built a lavish palace in Jericho, a vacation getaway/stronghold at Herodium and in Jerusalem, he dramatically increased the size of the temple mount and monotized religion. They were living high on the hog with the most extravagant clothing, rich food and lives of privilege as Roman pawns. News of the King of the Jews  being brought by a caravan of foreign emissaries, to the current occupant of the throne, was not good news to them at all.

The Magi are rightly called Wise Men, because they sought out Jesus. They were highly educated, being well versed in the subjects of their day which would have included mathematics/numerology, astronomy, political science and more. Being skilled in astronomy, the men had noticed a new star in the sky and followed it, pulling right into Jerusalem and going directly to the palace to pay homage to the new King. They probably assumed that the child was Herod's own offspring. These men had come to curry favor and secure future good relations. The Bible says that they came from the East which means that they were not Egyptian wise men from the south, nor were they Assyrian wise men from the north. They were from the East, Babylon or Persia, modern day Iraq and Iran.

This was not the first appearance of the magi, or wise men, in the Bible. Daniel encountered them, received the same education as them, and became their chief. Because of the Holy Spirit, Daniel and his 3 friends (Hananiah, Azariah and Mishael, known to the Babylonians as Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego) were found to be 10 times wiser than these scholars. Their successors would almost certainly have been familiar with the Biblical prophecies about the Messiah, with the royal decree that the God of the Jews was to be revered throughout the empire and that the period of time prophesied until the Messiah would come had been completed. These men were well capable of plotting the movements of the stars and their attention would certainly have been drawn by a new star appearing over Israel. There was a famous school with 3 levels of learning in ancient Babylon. The term Magi gives strong indication that these men had studied there or in a similar situation. Persia and Babylon, modern day Iraq and Iran, are East of Israel as I mentioned before. This is where many Jews had been exiled to and this is the reference to wise men coming from the East. The city of Hillah, built over the site of ancient Babylon is 542 miles due East of Jerusalem. It would take a fit person about 3 weeks to walk. We also encounter such wise men in the historical book of Esther which took place in Susa, about 228 miles further East. If the magi began making preparations for their prophesied journey by camel caravan after the night of Jesus birth, we would expect them to arrive in Bethlehem about 30 days later. After seeing the star, they traveled toward the area it had appeared, arriving in Jerusalem, just 7 miles away from the place of Jesus' birth. They were elated when they left Herod to see the star in the sky, but it was in motion. The only explanation I can think of for the star moving and leading them from Jerusalem to Bethlehem is that Jesus was probably in Jerusalem at the temple that very day. I believe the reason the star was moving is that when Mary and Joseph took Jesus back to Bethlehem, the star followed overhead. The wise men were able to follow the star as Scripture says it led them directly to Jesus, settling over the house where He was. 

They worshipped Him and presented Him with gifts of Gold, Frankincense and Myrrh. They honored Him as a mighty King. The angels visit to the shepherds taught us about the grace of God. The visit from the wise men reminds us that Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and while he CHOSE to come humbly, as a savior, offering peace, He is, at the same time, the most lethal child ever born and will one day return bringing justice upon his enemies.  

The magi were warned in a dream about Herod's scheme and altered their route home to avoid him. Even though they told him precisely when the star appeared, Herod flew into a mad rage and ordered every child from birth all the way to 2 years old in and around Bethlehem to be murdered. History tells us that 11 precious children died by the order of this power hungry lunatic. After the visit of the wise men, the star is not mentioned again and since Herod was not able to use it to find Jesus, we can conclude that the phenomena probably disappeared. 

Joseph's Family (Luke 2:39-40, Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23)
Joseph was warned in a dream by an angel and fled in the middle of the night, narrowly escaping Herod's wrath and taking his family safely to Egypt, where I'm sure the gold from the wise men came in handy. Once Herod was dead, an angel from the Lord told Joseph it was safe to come back, so He, Jesus and Mary returned home to Nazareth. With their return to their own town of Nazareth, every prophecy about the birth of Jesus had been miraculously fulfilled, including the one that He would be called a Nazarene. Luke ends his account of the events surrounding Jesus birth with these words:

The boy grew up and became strong, filled with wisdom and God's grace was on Him. 

From Zechariah's angelic encounter we learn that God answers prayer. From Mary's conversation with Gabriel we learn how to be a willing servant and cooperate with God. From Joseph's actions we learn how to consider others as more important than ourselves, how to show compassion and grace. From Mary and Elizabeth we learn how to encourage one another in our faith. From the angels visit to the shepherds we learn that God is coming peacefully to offer salvation to all. From the visit of the wise men we learn that Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and is worthy of our reverence and worship. Most importantly, we learn that Jesus is both God and man, human and divine, a personal God who desires a relationship with us. 

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