If you know a little about the birth of Jesus, it might be best for you to forget it and start all over again.
We have sterilized and glamorized the Christmas story so much over the centuries that even Hollywood – as jaded a culture as can be found anywhere – always fails to capture the gritty pathos that surrounded Jesus's arrival. Even some churches are guilty of romanticizing the birth of Jesus. Yet it was anything but idyllic.
The sixth century BC was a lousy time to live in Judea. Herod the Great had seized the throne of Israel through bloody intrigue and with the political support of Rome. Herod proceeded to guard his stolen title, "King of the Jews," so ruthlessly, he even put his own sons to death when any of them posed a significant political threat.
Macrobius, a fifth-century writer, recorded, “When [Caesar Augustus] heard that Herod king of the Jews had ordered boys in Syria under the age of two years to be put to death, and that the king's son was among those killed, he said, 'I'd rather be Herod's pig than Herod's son!”¹
Caesar's refection illustrates the sad irony of Israel's condition. Herod, though not Jewish, pretended to be a good religious Jew by eliminating pork from his diet, but he made up for that concession by indulging himself with an insatiable appetite for power. Granted, he built a magnificent temple for the God of Israel—an architectural wonder in its day—but he gave its administration to one corrupt high priest after another. He taxed Jews through the temple in keeping with the Old Testament Law and then used the proceeds to break the first commandment, building cities and temples in honor of the emperor and his pantheon of Roman deities. You can clearly understand why the Jews were not happy with either Herod or Rome’s heavy boots.
The Roman Empire was bounded on the west by the Atlantic and on the east by the Euphrates. On the north it was framed by the Rhine and Danube, and on the south by the Sahara Desert. It was as vast as it was vicious.
The constant political intrigue, racial tension, increased immorality, and enormous military might dominated everyone's attention and conversation. Judea existed under the weight Rome's oppression. It was a time of unprecedented economic and political advancement for the rich and a time of horrific oppression for everyone else. By the first century BC, a dark cloud had settled over Israel, blocking any ray of hope. In Matthew 4:16, Matthew quotes Isaiah who prophesied that at the time of Jesus’ arrival people would be sitting in darkness, but they would see a great light (Jesus).
On the first Christmas, all eyes were on Augustus—who demanded a census so as to determine how to tax people even further. At that time, who was interested in a young couple making an 80-mile trip south from Nazareth? What could possibly be more important than Caesar's decisions in Rome . . . or his puppet Herod's edicts in Judea? Who cared about a Jewish baby born in a Bethlehem barn? God did!
As the New Testament reminds us: “When the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons (Galatians 4:4–5).
The mighty Augustus, without even realizing it, was only an errand boy for the commencement of "the fullness of time." He was a mere pawn in the hand of God . . . a speck of dust on the pages of prophecy. While Rome was busy making history, God came to earth. He pitched His fleshly tent in silence, on straw, in a stable under a star. The world didn't even notice. Reeling from the wake of Alexander the Great, Herod the Great, and Augustus the Great, the world overlooked Jesus the baby. It still does.
As the world was in Jesus' day, so our times are just as despairing. Moreover, they often are a distraction from the bigger picture. Just as the political, economic, and spiritual crises of the first century set the stage for the "fullness of time" to occur, so today, in our own unrestrained times, our God is weaving His sovereign tapestry to accomplish His divine will. Times are hard, indeed—but they never surprise God. He is still sovereign. He is still on the throne. As the psalmist reminds us: "Our God is in the heavens; He does whatever He pleases" (Psalm 115:3).
Are you feeling anxious about these difficult days? I understand, and Jesus does too. Times were no different when He was born. As this year comes to as close, we would do well to ponder all things concerning Jesus, just as Mary pondered things about Jesus in own her heart. Christmas is a good time to ask ourselves this question: Will I focus on Jesus as the center of my life and cling to Him regardless of the circumstances I face?
Political corruption, religious compromise, economic crises, wars—these will always be on the front page of every newspaper or the focus of the evening news. But we must remember that our God is on the throne. Perhaps your year has been fraught with family difficulties, the loss of a loved one, the loss of employment, or any number of things that have turned your world upside down. He promises to use our desperate times to accomplish His bigger and better purposes in our world and in our lives. We need to remember this as we enter a new year. Sometimes he leads us in the most unlikely of ways, through the most trying of times, and down the most unusual of roads. But he does lead us and he cares for each of us. He said, “be of good cheer, for I have overcome the world.”
Helen Steiner Rice (1900-1981) wrote a beautiful poem that I will leave you with as we end this year and enter a New Year. It’s called The Bend in the Road.
Sometimes we come to life’s crossroads.
We view what we think is the end.
But God has a much wider vision.
And He knows that it’s only a bend.
The road will go on and get smoother.
And after we’ve stopped for a rest,
The path that lies hidden beyond us
Is often the path that is best.
So, rest and relax and grow stronger.
Let go, and let God share your load,
And have faith in a brighter tomorrow.
You’ve just come to a bend in the road.
May the joy of Jesus fill your hearts this Christmas season at as you journey around every bend and turn in life's road. May his peace sustain you and keep you.
1. Macrobius, The Saturnalia, trans. Percival Vaughan Davies (New York: Columbia University Press, 1969), 171.