How does the first Christmas have anything to do with this Christmas? This Christmas feels strange. In some ways it feels strained. How can a quaint tale of a collection of slightly random characters and a message of joy and peace make any difference today? After all, this year we are pondering a global pandemic, political upheaval, racial tensions, social justice struggles and economic collapse. Surely the first Christmas feels more irrelevant than ever this year, doesn’t it?
The Bible tells us what happened that first Christmas. The stories are written in the first couple of chapters of Matthew and Luke’s documents. All the promises written in the earlier part of the Bible, the Old Testament, seemed very long ago. In fact, for over four hundred years, the people of Israel had lived through political upheaval, but had not heard a peep from heaven. No prophets had stood up to declare a message from God for centuries. Instead, foreign armies had taken turns occupying their land and forcing change upon them.
Then it felt like heaven was stirring into action. An angel was dispatched to the hill country of Judea and then the nothing town of Nazareth. Elderly Elizabeth was going to have a son who would grow up to be John the Baptist – a man sent by God to prepare the way for God’s entrance. Young virgin Mary was going to have a miracle son who was truly human, but also truly divine – this was God making his entrance into our world!
Joseph also got to see the angel. Once he found out his young bride-to-be was pregnant his world would have fallen apart. He was a young carpenter, an unusually godly man in a godless town. He had been betrothed (imagine an engagement bound by contract) to the one godly teenage girl who was so different from everyone else in Nazareth. Now she was pregnant. Every dream was shattered. But then the angel came to Joseph and explained the pregnancy. This child was there by God’s placement and was to be called Jesus, which means “the Lord saves,” because this Jesus was the Lord, come to save his people from their sins.
Joseph knew how the baby got there, what he was coming into the world to do, and that somehow, in this child, God was with us. What Joseph didn’t know was how they were supposed to live life. What would his family think? What would Mary’s parents say? How brutal would the gossip and judgment be from a nasty town watching the “godly” couple now morally compromised? How would Mary cope with going into the market with nasty tongues wagging? How would anyone in Nazareth ever trust his word in business dealings? So many unanswered questions, but somehow, this boy Jesus was coming to save his people from their sins.
Then we read about them having to transfer to Bethlehem for the census. They were probably relieved to get a break from the nastiness of Nazareth! So, the young couple arrived in Bethlehem. The guest rooms were filled, the town was busy, but the time came for Jesus to be born. He was laid humbly in a manger and the gathering of characters for later nativities and Christmas cards began.
Some shepherds, some of the lowest people in society, were tending their flocks nearby. All of a sudden they received a heavenly wake-up call to go and look for the new baby who was born to be the promised Saviour, the new king bringing peace into a tumultuous world.
Some foreign dignitaries, star-gazing sages from the East, arrived in Jerusalem causing quite the stir. Once they had been directed to Bethlehem, they arrived, bringing some much needed resources for the young couple who were embarking on a greater adventure than just giving birth to the long-awaited Saviour of the world.
Not too long after, some murderous soldiers arrived intent on killing all the new boys of Bethlehem. Paranoid King Herod would never let anyone threaten his position as king in the land. Thankfully, the angel had warned Joseph and he had quickly taken Mary and Jesus to head south into Egypt for a while.
The first Christmas was intense. Political turmoil as a Roman census forced occupied peoples to make difficult journeys and interrupt their businesses and normal lives. Racial tensions as people mingled against their will. Antagonistic authorities ready to kill innocent infants to protect their power. It wasn’t as quaint as a Christmas card image!
The first Christmas changes everything. Just because the story is familiar, it does not change that the facts are thrilling. God was at work. God was entering into our world in the form of a vulnerable little baby.
The heavenly army of angels scared the shepherds to death, but then announced a message of life. The poorest, most disenfranchised segment of society was being invited to see this baby Jesus for themselves. Jesus came for everyone, including poor Jewish shepherds.
The foreigners on their camels showed up, showing that this Jesus was not just for the Jews, but for all the peoples of the Earth. Jesus came for everyone, rich and poor, Jewish and foreign.
The evil king was thwarted in his plan to destroy Jesus. In fact, everyone would be thwarted, until it was time for Jesus to voluntarily give himself up to death on the cross in Jerusalem thirty-odd years later. Jesus was born in order not only to live, but also to die. He was, as the Christmas story tells us, God with us, the Lord coming to rescue his people from their sins.
If we will look more closely at that first Christmas, we will find that it isn’t so far removed from Christmas 2020 as we might have assumed. In fact, in the child born that first Christmas we can find hope in our darkness, life in our world of death, and the relationship with God that we were created for in the first place.