The Birth that Rocked the World
31 Dec 2005, Dr Barry Wright
(Barry is Thornleigh's Church Pastor)
THE BIRTH THAT ROCKED THE WORLD
I want you to picture in your minds this morning the following dramatic scenes that are enacted out in the words of one of our well-known hymns - Words that describe the birth of a little baby boy whose coming was to turn the world upside down - a birth that was to rock the world.
Listen to these words very carefully.
O little town of Bethlehem, How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep The silent stars go by;
Yet in thy dark streets shineth The everlasting light;
The hopes and fears of all the years Are met in thee tonight.
For Christ is born of Mary; And gathered all above,
While mortals sleep, the angels keep Their watch of wondering love.
O morning stars together Proclaim the holy birth!
And praises sing to God the King, And peace to men on earth.
How silently, how silently The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming; But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive Him still, The dear Christ enters in.
O holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
Cast out our sin and enter in - Be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels The great glad tidings tell-
O come to us, abide with us, O Lord Immanuel!
That night, in the cold dark wrinkled hills of Bethlehem, two worlds came together. The Son of God who knows no beginning and no end was to enter this world's time and space. A God who knows no boundaries suddenly finds Himself taking on the confines and ominous restraints of human life. This is a story like no other. It is no wonder that a choir of angels broke out in spontaneous singing, disturbing not only a few shepherds, but also God's entire universe (Yancy, 2000: 45). The parallel worlds that came together that night in Bethlehem were to involve both the natural and supernatural domains (Ibid: 44).
In contrast to what our Christmas cards would have us believe, what happened that night would not do anything to simplify life here on planet earth.
Leading up to this event, the apostle Luke in 1:26-38 tells the story of a young virgin girl, 'greatly troubled' and 'afraid' as she is visited by the most powerful angelic being in heaven. It is here that she is told that she '…will be with child and give birth to a son.' His name would be called Jesus. The angel Gabriel continues his message by saying that this boy '… will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David, and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever; His kingdom will never end.'
We need to remember that a betrothed woman of this era, who became pregnant, was seen as an adulteress and subject to death by stoning. You could imagine Mary's human response to the concept of unplanned parenthood at that time. However, after hearing the angel out and pondering the repercussions, Mary replied in Luke 1:38 'I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me as you said.'
Often God's work comes as a two edged sword, bringing great joy, but also great pain. It would seem from Mary's response that she was prepared to accept both, regardless of any personal cost to herself (Ibid: 31,32).
We need to recognise that the joy of Jesus' birth that began in Bethlehem was to eventually finish at the cross of Calvary (Ibid: 33).
Only one person, after the time Jesus was born, seemed to grasp the mysterious nature of what God had set in motion that night in the little town of Bethlehem. As told by the Gospel writers, Mathew and Luke, this was to be an old man called Simeon. In recognising the baby as the Messiah, he also knew that conflict would surely follow. In his words to Mary in Luke 2: 34,35 he says, 'This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. He then makes a prediction that a sword would pierce Mary's own soul (Ibid).
While everything on the surface seemed the same, Simeon recognised that underneath, everything had changed. A new force had been unleashed on an unsuspecting world where the ruling nations would now find that their seemingly unlimited powers would be slowly undermined (Ibid).
Jesus had arrived in a world dominated by the Roman Empire and under the control of an Emperor called Caesar Augustus. This Roman leader had embarked on what he considered was a new world order. He was declared a god and was worshipped as such declaring to the world that his enlightened rule would last forever. It was here that the Greek word for 'Gospel' or 'Good News' was first applied by Augustus to represent his own reign (Ibid).
The baby boy, Jesus, whose birth in this obscure corner of the Empire and simply overlooked by the chroniclers of the day, was to be born amid the strife and terror of a pagan spirit filled world - A world where many were dealing in fables and worshipping false gods (White, 1940: 43). It was a world, where even just after His death, less than one half of one percent would ever hear of Him (Yancy, 2000: 34).
Incredibly, this spectacular event that divided history, and even our calendars, was not to be witnessed by many of earth's inhabitants (Ibid: 37). This strange set of circumstances is reinforced by the words in our hymn which state 'How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.'
For a brief moment the sky becomes luminous with the angelic hosts who await the signal to declare the glad tidings to the world. The leaders of Israel could have shared in this joyous event, but now they are to be passed by. The indifference of the Jewish nation, who had been called to communicate the light of truth to the world, caused absolute amazement to the angels of God.
Who then were privileged to witness this display of heavenly supernatural light above the hills and plains of Bethlehem?
In the very same fields where the boy David had led his flocks, were shepherds who were keeping the night watch. These illiterate hirelings, whose names no one knows, were talking about and praying for the promised Saviour (White, 1940: 47). Shepherds had such a poor reputation that many Jews placed them with the 'godless' restricting them to the outer courtyards of the temple (Yancy, 2000:37) Therefore, it is ironic that it was these men whom God selected to help celebrate the birth of one who would come to be known as the friend of sinners (Ibid).
It would be hard to imagine the feelings that came over these men as an angel of the Lord spoke to them, showering them with the light of his presence all around. The Scriptures in Luke 2: 9 tell us they were terrified, 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. Today in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you; He is Christ the Lord'. This 'Good News' was to be in major contrast with the 'Good News of Caesar Augustus. It is interesting that the gospel writers, in telling their story about the birth of Jesus, only mention Augustus once, and this was only in a passing reference to set the census date ensuring Jesus would be born in Bethlehem (Ibid: 34).
You could imagine the response of the shepherds as they began to conjure up visions of glory, power, exaltation and triumph believing that these things would be part of the sign of the coming Messiah.
The angel quickly prepares them to expect a very different scene - One that would openly display nothing but seeming poverty and humiliation. 'This shall be a sign unto you', he says, 'Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.' This animal shelter with no attendants present and with only a feed trough provided for the newborn child tells us something about God's preferential options for the poor on planet earth.
In contrast to the birth of John the Baptist to Elizabeth some six months earlier which took place amid great celebrations, complete with midwives, doting relatives and the traditional village chorus celebrating the birth of a Jewish male, Jesus was to be born far from home. There were no midwives present here, no extended family, or village chorus present, only the presence of animal witnesses and the shepherds who were directed to the scene of Jesus' birth.
'And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger' (Luke 2:15,16).
The mighty God of the universe, who created matter, had now taken shape within it (Ibid: 39). God was writing this story using real characters that would now become part of the pages of real history. The Word had become flesh (Yancy, 2000: 39).
The story surrounding the little town of Bethlehem provides an exhaustless theme. In it we find hidden, as Paul says in Romans 11:33, '…the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God.'
We will never cease to marvel at the sacrifice made by the Son of God in exchanging the throne of heaven for a manger, and the companionship of heavenly beings for the animals in the stall. All of this rebukes human pride and our own self-sufficiency. Yet this was only the beginning of a life full of unselfish deeds and condescension. Taking on human nature after the race had been weakened by thousands of years of sin would have been the ultimate humiliation. However, in this heredity, He came to share our sorrows and temptations and to give us the example of a sinless life (White, 1940: 49). Praise god.
The words of our hymn seem profoundly true today, as it would have been two thousand years ago. 'The hopes and fears of all the world do rest on thee tonight' (Yancy, 2000: 42).
When the angels appeared over the hills of Bethlehem, there were others that night who also saw the mysterious light luminating the heavens. Living East of Palestine a number of men of noble birth, studying the workings of nature and honoured for their integrity and wisdom, were observing the starry heavens. These wise men belonged to a large and influential class of people who controlled much of the wealth and learning of their nation.
It is important to recognise that even in lands of darkness, God's light is there and it was in this place that the Magi were studying the Hebrew Scriptures, seeking a clearer knowledge of the mysteries of creation. It was in their reading of the Old Testament writings, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, that they discovered, with great joy, the nearness of the birth of a little boy who was to be born King of the Jews. They were impressed to go and find Him and it was by faith they set out westward bearing precious gifts befitting a person of princely rank. It might have been said of them as was said to the Roman Centurion in Matthew 8:10 ' I have not found so great faith, no, not in Israel.'
Matthew 2:1,2 goes on to provide us with a short description of their search.
'Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the East to Jerusalem, saying, Where is He that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East, and we are come to worship Him.'
Unbeknown to the Wise Men this was not a fixed star or planet they had been following, but a company of shining angels and it was through a series of God-given dreams that they were instructed to go in search of the new born child.
To their amazement they find not one person in Jerusalem who seems to have any knowledge of the newborn King. However, while news of the angelic visit to the shepherds had reached the priests and elders, they had treated it as unworthy of their notice. Pride and envy had closed the door against light, as they refused to believe that God would pass them by to communicate with ignorant shepherds and heathen gentiles (White, 1940: 62, 63).
With the shadows of night falling again the wise men, disappointed by the indifference shown by the Jewish leaders, see the star and follow it to Bethlehem.
Even though they were not shown the circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth as were the shepherds, when they saw Him they immediately recognised the presence of divinity in Him. Even though they found no royal guard protecting Him, and no honoured men in attendance, they bowed down and worshipped Him. These men were the first to welcome this little boy as the redeemer of all mankind. They were the first to lay gifts at His feet. These Gentile philosophers had been granted a special privilege in direct proportion to their faith
Jesus was cradled in a manger. His only guardians being His parents who were seen by them as uneducated peasants, but regardless of these facts, the Wise Men accepted that here was the one of whom it was written 'would be a light unto the Gentiles' and would provide '…salvation unto the end of the earth' (Isaiah 49: 6).
What joy and excitement this must have been for these visitors from afar as they realized they stood in the very presence of the saviour of mankind.
As we examine this special and joyous event we need to recognise that it took courage for God to lay aside power and glory and to take a place among sinful human beings who, right from the very beginning, would greet Him with a mixture of aloofness, scepticism and even hate. This need for courage was to begin with our Lord's first night on earth and would not end until His last.
As Satan watched this awesome scene, he must have been filled with dread as he realised the course that was to flow from this supernatural event. It was here that he begins to set in train the events that were to be described by the prophet Jeremiah six hundred years before that 'A voice is heard In Ramah, mourning and great weeping, Rachel weeping for her children, and refusing to be comforted, because her children are no more' (Jeremiah 31:15).
King Herod, impatiently waiting to hear a report from the wise men of the East, realised that he had been deliberately deceived. Satan, taking advantage of this situation, stirs Herod into action creating one of the most horrific scenes to take place in the city of David. This was a man who had jealously guarded his right to rule over the people of Palestine. So much so, that history records that he even ordered the death of his own wife and children to protect his throne.
Soldiers were dispatched at once to Bethlehem, with orders to put to death all the children of two years and under. This act of cruelty was one of the last to darken Herod's reign. Soon after the slaughter of these innocent children, he himself was to face his maker, an inevitability that no one can ever turn aside. We are told he died a fearful death (White, 1940: 66).
Unable to trust His beloved Son with men, God commissioned His angels to take charge of the young child's safety taking the family to Egypt and then later to Joseph's former home in the town of Nazareth. Jesus would now spend the next thirty years growing up in relative obscurity and safety fulfilling that which was spoken of by the prophets that He would be called a Nazarene.
Such was the reception that Jesus received from the hands of those He had come to save. He had risked all to come and offer life to those who were indifferent to His cause.
The King of glory had stooped low to take on humanity. Shunning all outward display, He had entered life in a manger surrounded by all things that were earthly and simple. Jesus, recognising that riches, worldly honour, human greatness and all forms of earthly display would not save us from death, made it His purpose to only draw men to Him through the beauty of heavenly truth.
If the angels in heaven wondered at this glorious plan of redemption, how much more should we, the recipients of this precious gift, marvel at what God has done. 'For unto you is born this day in the City of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.'
This was indeed a birth like no other - a birth that was to turn the then known world upside down - a birth that has continued to rock the world.
Yancy, P. (2000) The Jesus I Never Knew. Sydney: Strand Publishing.
White, E. G. (1940) The Desire of Ages. Mountain View, California: Pacific Press Publishing Association.
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