There are plenty of journeys in the Christmas story, but two we should be primarily focused on.
The angel Gabriel travelled to bring news to Nazareth. Mary travelled to Judea, in part to avoid stares in Nazareth. Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem, then later Egypt, then Nazareth. The Magi probably started their journey before all the others and maybe arrived sooner than is commonly thought. Herod’s soldiers travelled a short distance to perform a horrific deed. Lots of journeys, but two that matter most.
First, God the Son travelled all the way from heavenly glory to human poverty. He came to the humblest of circumstances to truly be Immanuel – God with us.
Second, because of what Jesus did, we are able to travel all the way into the throne room of God, calling His Father our Father and joining in the intra-trinitarian relationship forever. He came to us, so we can come to Him.
Hidden away in Zechariah’s song is a wonderful truth. He pondered all that the angel had told him for nine silent months. He searched Malachi since that was the text the angel referred to, but surely he had time to enjoy the rest of the Old Testament too. And when it all finally came out, Zechariah was gripped by God’s faithfulness, God’s rescue, and God’s transformative work in the lives of those He rescues.
Too often we give God half credit for salvation, but inadvertently try to take our part of the credit for the efforts at transformation. Christmas gets awkward when we only half receive a gift. “Thank you so much, but here’s mine to you!” The good news is that we, in our total bankruptcy, are invited to receive from an ever-abundant and generous God!
Mary would have had a mind swirling with questions after hearing all that Gabriel told her. Many of those questions were unanswered. Yes she would carry and bear the son of God – which was truly amazing. But what about other people? What would she say? How would all the complexity be worked out?
The trust of this young teen is heart stirring. I am God’s servant, so I trust Him. Actually, that is true for us too. We don’t know how the future will be worked out, but we do know who is in charge. And as Mary realised, God’s in-charge-ness is incredibly gracious and faithful. That is, He can be trusted.
Zechariah spent nine months pondering what the angel had said to him. It was nine months of anticipation. It was nine months of advent. Why? Surely this old priest was slightly distracted by the news that his elderly wife was going to have a son? Of course. But he knew the implications of the message from the messenger, and the message of Malachi.
If his son was going to be the one to prepare the way, then that meant that his Lord would be following soon after and coming to His temple. We read the Zechariah story as if it is a mildly interesting prelude to the more familiar birth of Christ. He lived it as if it was the most exciting preparation for the greatest of births.
The Christmas narrative is told in two Gospels, Matthew and Luke. And then there is the Christmas card version. The problem with the Christmas card version is that it feels like a fairy tale. But it is not. There may be embellished elements of the familiar story – the stable, the full motel, the panicked arrival, the restricted number of Magi, etc. But there is also the true story, as told in the Gospels.
This Christmas lets not be vigilantes criticising the familiar re-telling, but let’s be thankful that Christmas is based on the truth of God’s Son coming to people like us, so that people like us can come to God.
When God the Son became a human, he came all the way to our side. He didn’t just take on flesh, but supercharge it with a divine inner engine. Equally, He didn’t just take on humanity, but play it safe with every luxury divinity could buy. No, Jesus really became one of us.
One way we see this is in His acceptance of His name qualifier. Jesus was a common name in those days, so every Jesus walking around would have some identifier added – Jesus the son of Thaddeus, Jesus the fruit seller, or even Big Jesus. So what identifier stuck with our Jesus? Jesus of Nazareth.
And it stuck. All through His ministry, after His resurrection, even after His ascension to the heavenly throne. Still He is Jesus of Nazareth. Jesus of Nowhere, Galilee. Jesus of a town that nobody was ever proud of. He really did want to come and be with all of
To chase this idea more, click here to read an extended version of this post.
The “child-friendly” Christmas story is not completely safe. After all, the paranoid persecutor, King Herod, instigated a brutal killing of every boy under the age of 2 in Bethlehem. For that community it was horrific, but on the national scale, it would barely have registered – such was the nastiness of Herod.
God delivered Jesus from this attempt on his life. As we preach Christmas we can give the impression that if only humanity could learn our lessons from the Christmas story, then we would just be able to stop such nastiness to one another and the world might remain a lovely place year round. This is naive.
God did not deliver Jesus from Herod to set an example of how we should seek to stop evil in this world by delivering others. He did it because His plan was to deliver innocent Jesus to death for our sake. Christmas is not about us learning to be nice, it is about God’s mission to transform us at great cost to Himself.
The Christmas story is strangely complex. On the one hand you have a poor couple in a poor town in poor circumstances giving birth to a little boy. On the other hand you have angels from heaven telling shepherds from nearby fields, and stars in the heavens telling exceedingly rich nobles from a distant land.
Jesus was not born in a palace, but at the other end of society’s echelon. He was born in Israel, but with visitors from outside. Christmas makes it clear that Jesus’ ministry and goal will not be just for the elite, or even just for the Jews.
Jesus came for everyone. This may be something we reference in our Christmas messages of peace on earth, but does it register in our motivation for an expansive ministry? How will Jesus’ global goal grip your life, your energy, your giving, and your plans in this next year? Perhaps our Christmas ponderings are too passive – we talk of peace on earth in the brief season of a Christmas truce, but maybe Christmas should stir our imaginations and motivations as we think about living for Jesus in the coming year.
Joseph faced very uncertain days. Nobody would trust his word – not his family, not his clients, not his neighbours. He knew that his wife would be talked about, his son would be talked about, and how this would play out was uncertain. And the visit from the angel technically didn’t change that at all. Yes, he knew how she was pregnant. He knew who this child was, but who would ever believe the “miracle child” explanation?
Joseph did not face an uncertain future with faith because God promised to make everything easy. He faced an uncertain future with faith because He trusted God’s bigger plan. Somehow this little baby was to be the Saviour of His people from their sins. Somehow this little baby was God with us. And if God’s bigger plan involves a combination of God with us and a Saviour from our sins, then surely God will work out the future in all its details. He may not fix everything instantly, but if God is that kind of God, surely He should be trusted.
We face uncertainty. A big part of that is the mess of sin, both ours and that of other people. We don’t know how it will play out, nor that everything will be easy. But we can trust God. Why? Because of Jesus – the Lord saves, Immanuel – God with us.
One of my favourite chapters to write in Pleased to Dwell was chapter 8, looking at the ladies that appear in the genealogy of Matthew 1. I won’t go into the detail now, but it is is striking that the line of Christ is not a dream list of superstars. There are certainly some heroes in there, but there are lots of sinners, lots of strugglers, lots of failures.
Even among the women listed, there are question marks galore hanging over their heads (which I think is part of the reason they were chosen for inclusion). The Old Testament line leading to Jesus is not a red carpet, but rather a crimson line of sin. Jesus came from people like us and to people like us. Hallelujah! What a saviour!