The Story of Christmas That Should be Told
You're probably familiar with the traditional story of the birth of Christ. Jesus was born in the little town of Bethlehem, in a lowly manger. He was visited by shepherds and received gifts from 3 wise men. This has long been commemorated in nativity scenes, Christmas cards, songs and dramatic church productions. It's about peace and good will toward men - but that's not the whole story, or even a very accurate one. My interest here is not in setting the historical facts straight or even in condemning the practices that offend The One who is falsely claimed to be honored. And, while that would not be without value, my interest in this study is in bringing forth a message from obscurity that is entirely absent, not from the scriptures, themselves, but from the teachings of those who have been entrusted with the responsibility to inform us about the whole truth. Your version has had its teeth knocked out! The real story, the story of Christmas that should be told, is not one that inspires warm feelings of religious sentimentality but rather one that is truly life-changing. It's a poignant and very sobering cautionary tale that is intended for us, for you and I, today. It bears stark witness to the reality of judgement and of our personal accountability, speaking profoundly to the sincerity of our faith, love and hope!
I'm going to preface the telling of this story by sharing my testimony, because the way I learned this is very relevant. This is all deeply personal to me!
Several years ago, my wife (now, ex-) and I had hoped to have another child but came to be very disappointed. The circumstances of the recent miscarriage had quite an emotional impact on both of us. It was while I was in a definite season of grieving that I was led in my studies to the record of Matthew 2, which I had read many times before. That passage gives an account of the decree made by King Herod, who put young boys around Bethlehem to death in an apparent attempt to eliminate the threat of competition for his throne. On this particular day, I began to consider very deeply how the execution of that decree must have impacted the community, and in particular the mothers and fathers of the slain toddlers. Quite unexpectedly, the grieving I knew very personally for my own recent loss was replaced or displaced with something else altogether. By a kind of transference, a deep and heavy grief with weeping came upon me as I became identified with those parents. I was astutely aware of how this was supernatural in nature. The spirit of God was upon me. This was not for my recent loss but for theirs, then. In this state of having an open wound I poured out my heart before the Lord, inquiring about why these boys were allowed to be killed, about why He permitted such a tragedy. It was very intense! This expression continued for several minutes until I was struck with a chilling conviction. The answer was received. I understood the reason why. I had never considered it before but immediately knew it to be true. God is just. This is how the Lord revealed to me what I'm about to share with you; the story of Christmas that should be told.
May the Lord of Glory grant you insight and bring conviction in the telling of this precious story.
The Real Story of Christmas
1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” 15 when the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger.
Wow! What an awesome privilege for those humble shepherds to receive such a blessing as that! It may well be that, of all those living on the earth in that day, an angel of the Lord and a great company of the heavenly host singled them out for this blessing. They responded to this great honor in an appropriate manner, hurrying off to find the Savior, just as they had been told. The character of these men may be seen in the risk they took. Shepherds were responsible for the flocks they tended. Leaving them unattended in the field put their very lives in jeopardy! If sheep were lost while in their care due to negligence, there was more at risk than having their pay docked, being placed on administrative leave or being fired. They would have been executed! These men were of such character that they deemed it worth the risk!
Now, pay close attention to what these men of faith did next.
When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child,
After finding Mary, Joseph and the baby, they gave witness, sharing the good news of great joy with the neighborhood! They spread the word, testifying about how, on that very night, in their very own community, a Savior had been born who is Christ the Lord!
Now, pay close attention to how folks responded to their testimony, because this is what the lesson hinges on.
17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.
In verses 18 and 19 we find two kinds of response. "All who heard it" were amazed at what the shepherds said to them, and we may infer by comparison with Mary's response that they neither treasured up all those things nor pondered them in their hearts. Nowhere does the narrative suggest that a thronging crowd went to see for themselves whether it was as they had been told. The fact that they did no such thing will soon enough become obvious.
It should be known that this wasn't just some random night. There, as everywhere else in Israel, the Lord God's people of promise were celebrating Yom Teruah, the Day of Trumpets, of shouting. (When Jesus was Born - The Celestial Signs) This was no sleepy little town. There would have been feasting and celebrating with the blowing of trumpets and the shouting of praise, according to their tradition.
Now, here's some irony. Yom Teruah was a holy day that was appointed to prophesy of the birth of the Messiah. They were celebrating His actual birth without even realizing it. And, in ignorance, having been mislead by those they trusted to rightly inform them, their following of the religious traditions had a role in causing them to miss out. The occasion for which they had been rehearsing every year for nearly 15 centuries had finally arrived - and they missed out!
It's understandable that those who heard the commotion caused by the shepherds would have considered that they had better things to do than investigate rumors. Historians have recorded how there was no lack of messianic fervor in those days. The fairy tale of the shepherd boy who cried wolf comes to mind as one that is really very relevant. "The savior you say? Wow! Okay, but we've heard that before. Now, please excuse us, there's a party on and we're busy, you see." For the people of Bethlehem and its vicinity to receive the testimony of the shepherds and respond only by being amazed is understandable, but was it excusable? Was it enough to be amazed or was more expected of them that they failed to deliver?
Let's turn to the book of Matthew to continue the story's development.
1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2) and asked, "Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him."
On the night of the Messiah's birth in 2 BC, the heavens themselves bore testimony of the wondrous events taking place in Bethlehem, shining forth for the whole world to see. Far to the East, men of a Persian sect, who faithfully bore the legacy of the Prophet Daniel, were attentive to the celestial signs. With confidence in their understanding of what the signs meant, they prepared a caravan and made a long trek westward, bearing lavish gifts for the royal child. These men of faith, as the shepherds before them, were honored to find and give the young King His due!
9 After they had heard the king, (Herod) they went on their way, and the star they had seen in the east went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.
If you know your biblical history, you already know that Rachel was the favored wife of Jacob. She bore him two children: Joseph and Benjamin. When the land of Canaan was distributed among the sons of Jacob, Bethlehem was among those properties appointed to Benjamin. Those in the vicinity of Bethlehem were Benjamites, and this observation must be worth noting because the "census" responsible for the presence of Joseph and Mary brought many others to their ancestral home.
A probable location of Rachel's tomb is associated with today's Bethlehem. It's identified with the territory of Benjamin in 1 Samuel.
1 Then Samuel took the flask of oil, poured it on his head, kissed him and said, “Has not the Lord anointed you a ruler over His inheritance? 2 When you go from me today, then you will find two men close to Rachel’s tomb in the territory of Benjamin at Zelzah...”’
1 Samuel 10:1-2a
16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi. 17 Then what was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled: 18 "A voice is heard in Ramah, weeping and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children and refusing to be comforted, because they are no more."
What was said through the prophet Jeremiah was fulfilled at that time because the Benjamite children of Rachel in the vicinity of Bethlehem "were no more"! Herod's cruel decree had just been carried out! This has become known to many as the slaughter of the innocents, but, as you should know, there is surely guilt at the root of it!
When I was grieving my own very personal loss, now so many years ago, I was brought quite unexpectedly into a spiritual connection with the mothers and fathers of those sons of Benjamin. In that identification, I poured my heart out before the Lord and He subsequently gave me to know the reason for the tragedy. There was guilt. An accounting was made and the execution of justice was swift. While you may find the idea disturbing, pray for the Lord's help in grasping His heart and mind in the matter as you do some critical thinking. All those boys were slain in connection with Jesus and His birth. Look beyond the obvious and superficial, Herod's apparent effort to eliminate the competition. He was acting on behalf of the Highest Authority, carrying out His will in an act that was likewise connected very directly to Jesus and His birth. It is no coincidence that this was visited upon THE VERY SAME PEOPLE who had received the shepherds' testimony. It was no coincidence, but rather, CONSEQUENCE!
On the night that the fathers and mothers of Bethlehem heard the news of the birth of Christ the Lord, did they even go visit the child? The shepherds did. Mary, who knew full well who He was that had just been born, treasured up those things she had heard and pondered them in her heart. In contrast, all the others in the neighborhood heard but were merely amazed. Merely amazed. In some popular translations, the texts read: "wondered at." If you consider other scriptures where the same Greek word is used, you will find that no further action is implied. Given the magnitude of the gift they had received, could such a response have been adequate, or acceptable? Would there not have been a higher expectation?
Friends, see in this story the demonstration of a great truth, that God's precious gifts are attended by the responsibility for their stewardship. According to our Savior's own warning, an accounting will be made that is commensurate with what is received.
From everyone who has been given much, much will be demanded; and from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked.
This is not a thing to be taken lightly. Even small children can readily judge the fairness of such an accounting, but as we get older we struggle, being continually confronted with and influenced by the perversion of justice in this world. On that night so long ago, a gift of great magnitude was given to all the world, but those living in and around that little town of Bethlehem were the privileged recipients of a unique and very special gift. The invitation to come and celebrate in the presence of the Holy One of Israel was offered to them. It's the exclusivity of this blessed opportunity that distinguished the locals from all others, and it's this feature that highlights the sobering lesson. They had truly been given much! I'm convinced that what followed in the historical scenario is mistakenly referred to as “the slaughter of the innocents,” and that it was related to their situation as cause is to effect. A penalty was assessed for their guilt and a divine sentence was carried out.
This lesson is for our benefit, today. I implore you to not make the mistake those Benjamites made in undervaluing the opportunity they had so graciously received. Take stock of what you have received, dear brother, dear sister. An accounting will be made.
14 “For it is just like a man about to go on a journey, who called his own slaves and entrusted his possessions to them. 15 To one he gave five talents, to another, two, and to another, one, each according to his own ability; and he went on his journey. 16 Immediately the one who had received the five talents went and traded with them, and gained five more talents. 17 In the same manner the one who had received the two talents gained two more. 18 But he who received the one talent went away, and dug a hole in the ground and hid his master’s money. 19 “Now after a long time the master of those slaves came and settled accounts with them. 20 The one who had received the five talents came up and brought five more talents, saying, ‘Master, you entrusted five talents to me. See, I have gained five more talents.’ 21 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 22 “Also the one who had received the two talents came up and said, ‘Master, you entrusted two talents to me. See, I have gained two more talents.’ 23 His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful slave. You were faithful with a few things, I will put you in charge of many things; enter into the joy of your master.’ 24 “And the one also who had received the one talent came up and said, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow and gathering where you scattered no seed. 25 And I was afraid, and went away and hid your talent in the ground. See, you have what is yours.’ 26 “But his master answered and said to him, ‘You wicked, lazy slave, you knew that I reap where I did not sow and gather where I scattered no seed. 27 Then you ought to have put my money in the bank, and on my arrival I would have received my money back with interest. 28 Therefore take away the talent from him, and give it to the one who has the ten talents.’ 29 “For to everyone who has, more shall be given, and he will have an abundance; but from the one who does not have, even what he does have shall be taken away. 30 Throw out the worthless slave into the outer darkness; in that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
We have been warned.
16 “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish, but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send the Son into the world to judge the world, but that the world might be saved through Him. 18 He who believes in Him is not judged; he who does not believe has been judged already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. 19 This is the judgment, that the Light has come into the world, and men loved the darkness rather than the Light, for their deeds were evil. 20 For everyone who does evil hates the Light, and does not come to the Light for fear that his deeds will be exposed. 21 But he who practices the truth comes to the Light, so that his deeds may be manifested as having been wrought in God.”
There is judgement, yet the Son was sent into the world that it might be saved through Him!
While I'm not ungrateful for the annual public reminder that there was born in the city of David a saviour, which is Christ the Lord, I'm usually filled with a fresh awareness of the willful ignorance of those promoting it, making the observation that those in need who might otherwise be drawn to Him are instead repelled by the hypocrisy of the multitude of greedy half-truth telling sponsors of the message.
When the biblical account of the birth of our Lord is considered in a mature fashion it becomes apparent that our hypocrisy and neglect will be dealt with, our sins of commission and our sins of omission - and that's very sobering. Yet, if we repent and find His mercy, and this is my hopeful expectation, it will be well with us! I pray that this insight into the story of Christmas that should be told is one that resonates with you and brings you to reflect on the true value of His gift and giftings that have been committed to your stewardship.