Christmas this year stands out as a beacon of hope. Friends and family often tell us they love the lights and carols of Christmas. But this year which has been so tumultuous and troubling, Christmas holds out something extra special. How wonderful if it were really true!
Isaiah 9 is part of the Christmas back-story. In the early chapters of his writing Isaiah spoke of dark times, of deprivation and suffering, anger and a sense of hopelessness. In Isaiah 8:21 we read: Distressed and hungry, they will roam through the land; when they are famished, they will become enraged and, looking upward, will curse their king and their God.
‘But don’t give up’, Isaiah says, ‘for a time will come when the light will dawn’. And in chapter 9 he tells us where the first glimmer would be seen: Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who are in distress. In the past God humbled the land of Zebulun and the land of Naphtali – lands to the north of Israel – but in the future God will honor Galilee of the Gentiles, by the way of the sea, along the Jordan…
The Promise. Galilee will be where the light will dawn. There will be joy, Isaiah says, and the shadow of death will pass. For, as verse 6 says: To us a child is born, to us a son is given.
The sign of God’s saving plan would begin with something very weak, something very insignificant – the birth of a baby. Yet, the government will be on his shoulders. His name will be called, wonderful counsellor, mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Isaiah was laying down a timeless principle: we need to be patient and turn to the Lord, putting our trust in him. As we look back at Isaiah 9 we discover that God led Isaiah through his own family experience to see the unfolding of God’s purposes – of judgment, redemption and hope.
But there was more to come. The carol ‘Hark! The herald angels sing …’ picks up the biblical theme of the next stage in God’s plan.
Some six hundred years after Isaiah wrote, Dr. Luke tells us: In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered (2:1).
Like a good newspaper reporter or historian, Luke identifies the time of his narrative – when Augustus was Emperor. As we look back at this we see that Augustus’s decision requiring a census set in motion events that resulted in the fulfilment of God’s promises. It’s worth noting that God works out his purposes in the course of human affairs.
Luke then tell us The time came for her (Mary) to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (2:6b, 7).
The word inn which is part of our culture’s Christmas story is not an accurate translation of the original word. The usual word for inn is found in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:34). The word in Luke 2 is different: katalyma which literally means ‘a place to stay’ or ‘guest room’. It is also found in reference to the ‘guest room’ in a private house in Jerusalem where Jesus celebrated the Passover with his disciples (Luke 22:11).
In Jesus’ day poorer families lived in homes with one large extended room. At one end there was always a small area at ground level under the same roof where the family animals were kept at night to keep them secure.
Luke is telling us that there was literally no guest room in a private home for Joseph and Mary to stay. Mary had to make do for the birth of Jesus at one end of a living room. What’s more, she used the cattle feeding-trough or manger, set up at the end of the raised floor of the living room as the baby’s crib.
The announcement. Yet Luke tells us that at the birth of Jesus, the angel said to shepherds: “… To you is born this day, in the city of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (2:11).
Luke’s description of the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth draws our attention to an irony. The title Augustus that Caesar Octavian had taken to himself, signified greatness and divinity. The circumstances of Jesus’ birth were the converse and prompt us to ask, ‘How could Mary’s baby be the long promised Messiah?’ Yet the angel had told Mary that her baby would one day be far greater than any emperor or monarch, president or ruler (Luke 1:32f).
Shepherds. And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them… (Luke 2:8,9a). Given the resources of heaven it’s striking that the angels didn’t use the occasion to hold a spectacular announcement in Bethlehem or, come to think of it, in Jerusalem.
We need to keep in mind Isaiah’s words in chapter 9. God himself would raise up a ruler who would do what no other leader could do – he would rule with justice and peace.
At the time of Jesus’ birth, shepherds were at the bottom of the social order. They were the lost, the outsiders. Yet it was to them the angel made the announcement. In fulfilment of his promise, God has reached down from the glory of highest heaven to rescue and transform the lives of all people, even the lowliest, including the outcasts.
No wonder the angels sang: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, ‘shalom’, ‘peace’.
Is it true? Or was the announcement that Jesus is the Savior, the Christ just another false hope? GK Chesterton once remarked, ‘Truth must necessarily be stranger than fiction; for fiction is the creation of the human mind and therefore congenial to it’.
Too often we fail to find the joy and peace of Christmas because we have not truly found God’s shepherd-king ourselves. But, let’s be honest: we are all in need of a savior.
It means carrying out our own investigation and encouraging our family and friends to do the same. It is only when we turn to Jesus with changed minds and hearts that we can truly sing, O Come all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant… Yea Lord we greet Thee, born this happy morning…