The men of The First Christmas Story
Happy Christmas Everyone!
What does Christmas mean to you? For some people it’s a welcome rest. For others, it’s a busy time with family, friends, and almost endless amounts of cooking. Others focus on the presents, the tree, the tinsel and all the things we do to mark this as a special time. Huge numbers of kids today know all the popular Christmas songs like Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer!
Today we are going to add a little balance to that – by turning to the Bible and focusing on the story of Christ’s birth. It would be a great tragedy if we celebrated Christ-mas, the feast of Jesus – and didn’t focus on him! So, back we go to the real story of Christmas again. Last week we looked at some of the women who were involved in the story of Jesus’ birth (not least, his mother Mary!). This week, it’s the turn of some of the men who were there.
The story of course does not begin with these men – but with God. God sent his son into the world, conceived by a virgin. Jesus was fully human, but fully God. He knew hunger, tiredness and death; but then rose from the dead, and ascended to heaven. His was a human life – but also a supernatural one! He was utterly unique. It was also a life which prompted a wide range of reactions from different people.
Joseph the carpenter is a wonderful character in the Bible. The more I read his story, the more I respect him and think that we have so much to learn from him. Not one of his words is ever recorded for us in scripture, (we are told a couple of his thoughts), but his example is really inspiring. Read the story of Joseph in Matthew 1:1-25 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Matthew+1%3A+1-25&version=NIV
The first thing you will notice in that reading is that we are given Joseph’s complete family tree – stretching back through the centuries. The Jewish people took exceptional care to record their heritage in this way – as their ancestry was so critically important to their identity. Don’t be put off by the long list of unfamiliar names here; they are given to us for several reasons.
Firstly, Matthew’s primary audience were Jewish people like him. The Jewish people knew that the messiah when he came would be a descendant of Abraham, and so Matthew writes here to demonstrate Jesus’ credentials. Luke focuses on Mary’s genealogy, whereas Matthew draws the ancestry of Joseph for us. This is yet one more piece of evidence that forces us to take Jesus’ claims seriously.
Then notice that when we meet Joseph in the text, he is a man in a deep dilemma. He has just found out that his fiancée is pregnant, and he knows the child is not his as they had not sexually consummated their relationship. The pattern in those days was that the betrothal (for around a year) was a legally binding contract breaking of which was legally a ‘divorce’. However, the couple would not live together and consummate the marriage at that stage, until the formal wedding took place.
As a law-abiding, godly Jewish man – Joseph must have been hurt and angry at this apparent betrayal. Yet he clearly loved Mary, and was a kind, compassionate man too. He knew that if he divorced her publically she risked a formal adultery charge, which could lead to death by stoning in the worst case; and ostracism, poverty and abject misery for mother and child alike at the very best. Wrestling with his love, his jealousy, anger and sense of shame; he resolved to quietly divorce her, preserving his righteousness, while protecting harm to her.
At this point God intervened. An angel appeared to Joseph, with some highly unusual information and instructions. He was told the baby was conceived supernaturally, not by adultery! He was instructed to name the child Jesus, marry Mary and raise the child as if it were his own. In those days when a man ‘named’ a child he claimed it as his own.
Wonderfully Joseph obeyed God. We see him here as a man with a great love of holiness, matched with a tender heart towards others. He doesn’t make great speeches in scripture, or make a great show of himself; he is a model of the beauty of obedience to God. We often recoil at the word ‘obedience’ in our culture. We instinctively like to feel that we are free. One of the most popular songs at secular funerals is “I did it my way” for example. One of the great lessons we see from Joseph, the godly carpenter from Nazareth, is that obedience to God is a thing of great beauty, and is to be greatly prized.
Luke in his gospel tells us about some of the first people to come and worship Jesus, who were also among the first evangelists to pass the message on to others. They were the shepherds, who worked the hills around Bethlehem – and who have been pictured on millions of Christmas cards, and sung about in carols for hundreds of years!
Shepherds were not people of high income or social standing, and some of them had a reputation for rowdy behavior. Bethlehem shepherds had a special role however. One of their jobs was to produce temple-lambs that would be sacrificed in Jerusalem. Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem then, looked back to the Old Testament which prophesied that location (Micah 2). However, it also looked forward to day in which Jesus, “the lamb of God” would offer himself as a sacrifice to “take away the sin of the world”.
Jesus though, was not a just the fulfilment of the Old Testament’s sacrificial lamb – he was also the Good Shepherd. King David, who had himself been a shepherd, wrote the famous lines in Psalm 23 “The Lord is my shepherd” centuries before Jesus “the great shepherd of the sheep” was revealed!” So it was appropriate and hugely symbolic that the first people invited to come and worship Jesus were Bethlehem shepherds. Called away from their night-shift in the hills by an angelic messenger and choir; they came, worshipped and then told others.
The Wise Men
In contrast to the shepherds, who were Jewish, poor and just doing their jobs when they were called to Bethlehem; the wise men were rich, gentiles who were on a spiritual search. They came from Persia – that is the territory of the Babylonian Empire; which now lies across Iran and Iraq. It has been suggested that when Judah fell to the Babylonians and the Jews were taken into exile; prophets such as Daniel left a legacy of messianic expectation there; which became embedded in Persian lore – which prompted the wise men in their study. Seeing a supernatural sign in the heavens, they followed the star all the way to Palestine.
Of course, when they reached Jerusalem and made enquiries there – Herod the Great was enraged by their suggestion that God’s appointed king of the Jews had arrived. Herod claimed the King of the Jews title as his own. However, the ancient scrolls in Jerusalem (what we have as the Old Testament) were checked and the prophecies pointed towards Bethlehem as the birthplace of the messiah. So the wise men went there. They found Jesus, and worshipped him and gave their famous gifts of gold frankincense and myrrh. These ‘gifts-fit-for-a-king’ were offered in worship to Jesus. The wise-men then went home, avoiding Jerusalem and not giving Herod any information about the holy-child or his whereabouts.
Jesus is for godly people like Joseph.
Jesus is for poor, ordinary folk like the shepherds.
Jesus is for rich, educated people like the wise-men.
Jesus is for Jews and Gentiles alike!
Every epic story has a bad-guy and Herod is the villain of the Christmas story. ‘Herod the Great’ was a regional warlord, who had struck a deal with the Romans under which he was able to run Palestine as a client-state of Rome, with some autonomy. He proclaimed himself King of the Jews, and built himself a splendid palace in Jerusalem, and restored the second temple. Despite his apparent devotion to God shown in the amount he invested in the temple – like countless Old Testament rulers, his heart was far from God.
Herod forms a striking contrast to the wise men. Herod was supposedly King of the Jews – and so should have welcomed Jesus as the long-expected messiah. The wise-men were pagan-gentiles from Babylon (that hated symbol of evil!) who might have been expected to have been disinterested in a Jewish king at best; and hostile to him at worst. Remarkably then, the Persian wise-men bowed down and worship Jesus; while Herod attempted to have him killed.
Of course, in the Providence of God, Herod’s plan was foiled. He had many children killed, but failed to find Jesus – Joseph saw to that. The light shone in the darkness, and the darkness could not overcome it.
The Heart of the Matter
Joseph shows us the beauty of humble obedience to God. May The Lord grant us gentle, kind, willing spirits like Joseph. His was not an easy calling, yet he took up the role he was given by God with willingness, and love.
The Shepherds show us that God calls ordinary people, to come and worship Jesus, to bask in the rays of his grace, beauty, truth and truth! There is a time to put aside your work, and to come and worship Christ! There is also a time to put aside your house-work, and come and worship. Don’t settle for the mundane, when the presence of almighty God is here. Then, there is a time to go and tell others what you have seen of Jesus!
The wise-men show us that God calls, the rich, the powerful, the educated – and people from all nations! Again it took humility for these erudite Persian noblemen to prostrate themselves before a Jewish infant. May God grant us all liberation from the pride that tells us that we are above worshipping Jesus, giving ourselves to Him and following his commands.
Herod’s place in this story is important too. How we respond to Jesus, reveals how our hearts are inclined towards – or away- from God. In John 8:42, Jesus said, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God.” While people who loved God, like Simeon and Anna, saw Jesus and their hearts brimmed over with unrestrained joy; even the mention of him stirred aggression in Herod. How we respond to Jesus, reveals our relationship to God. Some people respond like the wise men and the shepherds – they bow down and worship Jesus. Others, like Herod, whose hearts were hard towards God, cannot bring themselves to do so.
But there is a twist to this story…
So far we have talked about people like the shepherds who worshipped Jesus, and Herod who refused to – as if there were two fixed categories of people. The good news of the gospel is that even if until today you have refused to bow the knee to Jesus, acknowledged him as your savior, and asked for the forgiveness of your sins; you can today! Amazingly, even people like Herod can become people like Joseph. The Bible is full of stories of people like Saul of Tarsus, who was a violent angry man, who opposed everything Jesus stood for but came to worship him and was transformed by the grace of God.
There is a well-known song that is sometimes sung at the start of worship services which begins, “Come, Now is the time to Worship!” So come now, this Christmas – for now is the time to worship. You may have served God for years, like Joseph. You may have only just heard the call, like the shepherds. You may have searched and searched for truth like the wise men. You might up until this point be actively rebelling against God, like Herod. The call to all of us is exactly the same – Come and worship Christ the King!