January 4, 2015
There were fireworks in my neighborhood accompanied by impressive displays of colored lights. There was a significant amount of noise; some partying people welcomed in the New Year with a great deal of energy.
Events were likely much the same in your neighborhood.
In most places, the holiday season is considered officially over. However, my study is an exception.
I continue to work on correcting my childhood version of the Christmas story. I am attempting (so far as I am able) to recover history as history, and yet retain mystery and miracle without apology or fantasy.
So—back to work.
Caesar had commanded a census in which those Jewish subjects who were descendants of David were directed to register in Bethlehem. One important clue that helps us understand Epiphany and the Flight to Egypt lies in this fact although the commercialized version of Luke’s story is no help in grasping that point at first read.
We Christians miss (or distort) the historical context of the nativity largely because of religious bad habit, ignorance, and inattention. The birth of the Christ Child was a Jewish event (no—no Christians on the scene as yet. Luke [Acts 11:26] noted that followers of Jesus were first called Christians in Antioch years later).
Actually, the conception and birth of the Christ Child was God’s decisive fulfillment of His ancient covenant with His chosen people, Israel. This covenant (leading back to Abraham) was one of both privilege and responsibility.
To His people Israel God had promised a Messiah who would restore the throne of David and the glory of His people and God's relationship with them. However, this promise carried what we might now term “missional” responsibility. Through this Messiah God had decreed that the Gentiles as well would be blessed, and their inclusion in the humanity-wide family of God insured.
In the divine economy of events, when it was time for the Messiah to enter the human-race, God had a plan in place.
Bethlehem will be Messiah’s birthplace, God had recorded earlier through the prophet Micah. This fact was not kept secret. When after the birth of Jesus those men who came from “the east” inquired at Herod’s court about the location of the new King’s birthplace, the scribes and chief priests answered promptly without hesitation: “Bethlehem of Judea; for this is what the prophet wrote.” [Matt. 2:4-6]
But more about those “eastern” folk next week. For today, a profoundly important event that is commonly overlooked.
Think factually: At the time of Jesus's birth Israel was a conquered people, subjects of Rome, the original tribes scattered, and some of the northern tribes considered “lost.” Only the religious Temple structure remained of what had once been a civil/religious kingdom that was one of the wonders of the ancient world.
On the surface, the geographical challenge posed by Rome was no small thing. How was God going to deliver this promised baby into the chaos, disorientation and displacement that formed the “real life” of God’s people at that time? And how would they know that He had come?
God is mysterious, but He is also blessedly sensible.
God took advantage of Caesar’s political plans to further His own goal.
Everybody—well, almost everybody from the Tribe of Judah at least—would be in Bethlehem, thanks to Caesar. How convenient.
Years of associating the nativity scene with church settings requires this idea to take a bit of getting used to, but it is unquestionably true—The nativity occurred in the context of a political assembly!!
We are closer to the mark historically if we think of the national convention of Democrats or Republicans. The political reality of the times makes the later visit of those eastern folks an example of politics-as-usual, the flight into Egypt reasonable, and the slaughter of the innocents typical of Herod’s brutal self-serving insanity in the political realities of his day.
The descendants of David had congregated in Bethlehem in obedience to a pagan emperor who—unknowing—acted in the sovereign service of Israel’s God.
Watch God work. Come worship.
See the prophetic faithfulness of God, His unwavering commitment to His covenant, the empty silent waiting years for captive Israel—then, O, then—
- the baby safely delivered. I wish I knew the names of the women who helped.
-Mary’s tired face, filled with joy as she first held Him,
- the small swaddled earthling asleep in the feeding trough. I think it likely that there were animals there, warm and sleepy and mildly curious about the strange events. I wish I could have seen the candle light in which that baby first opened His eyes.
-the angels, the music, the spectacular light out there in the dark, the shepherds in the fields with sheep that smelled (they always do).
-And, O I wish that I could have been there in that small sheltered space in which God Himself chose to arrive.
-God with us, in us, God at peace with us.
What do you suppose Caesar was doing all that time while God was arriving to be with us, and the angels were singing, and the great promise to Israel was being kept?
I think Caesar was in the palace utterly unaware that, while he was having dinner, time had been eternally broken in two. That night I think Caesar went to sleep believing that his census was the significant news of the day.
Continuing Christmas--visitors from the east next week.