The Christmas Story

December 25th is just around the corner and there's no doubt we're all aware, it's the Christmas Season. We see the signs everywhere. Houses, streets and shopping malls are deck out with color and lights. Christmas music plays, and most everyone seems to be in a joyful spirit. People searching for the perfect gift and making sure it's wrapped and under the tree for their loved ones. When the big day arrives there's an excitement, the gifts are opened, paper is scattered about but, it is not long before life returns to normal and maybe even a disappointment or two set in, because what they were seeking was not found in a gift-wrapped package. Please don't misunderstand, giving and receiving gifts are wonderful. A way we express our love for one another, but there is only one gift that can truly satisfy.

Imagine for a moment the shepherds tending flocks of sheep on the hills outside of Bethlehem. Throughout the day the shepherds watched as the people grew in number. Some had journeyed from far away because Augustus decreed a census should be taken. As day turned into evening, maybe some of the shepherd noticed a donkey carrying a woman who was with child, being led by a man. They might have even wondered where the couple would stay as now there was no more room in Bethlehem. The stillness of the night settled in and there seemed to be an anticipation in the air, could it be just because of the gathering of the people for the census, or was there some more about to take place.

Before we talk about the birth of Jesus. Here is little history concerning the date, December 25, some may already know this. December 25th was a pagan Roman holiday before the birth of Christ. It was celebrated as the birthday of the sun god Mithra. Most ancient religions had a sun god of some sort. Around 350 AD, December 25 was Christianize by the Roman Catholic Church. Even though we did not know the exact date of Jesus Birth. There is nothing wrong in our celebrating Jesus Birthday on the December 25, but as believers in Christ we should remember to celebrate in a way that brings glory and honor to Him.

The Birth of Jesus is one of the most significant events in the history of mankind. The Old Testament prophesied Jesus would be born of a virgin. He would a restorer of Israel, and light to the gentiles (meaning us). Most of all he would bring Salvation to the world

·      Is. 7:14 Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and shall call His name Emmanuel

·      Is 49:6 He says, “You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me. I will make you a light to the Gentiles, and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.”

 

In Matthew and Luke, we find the genealogy of Jesus. About 700 years before the birth of Jesus, Micah prophesied the place Jesus’ would be born Micah 5:2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf. These scriptures and many more were known to the Jewish people. They had been handed down by word of mouth for generations. The people were in anticipation of the Messiah coming.

Luke 2: 1:7 At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2(This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. 7She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. While reading the passage from Luke there were couple of things that caught my attention. First, are the cloths, mentioned in Luke 2:7. Some translation say, "strips of cloth", like the NLT. Where the AKJV reads clothes, which seems to indicate a complete garment. These were more likely strips of cloth Mary used to wrapped Jesus in. This will be made clear as we processed. Scripture mentions the swaddling or wrapping snuggly two times. Once with Mary and then when the angel speaks to the shepherds.

I recently read a book on the cultural insights of First Century Jewish Life. The strips of cloth were fresh in my thoughts when Larry asked if I would read the Christmas story. In "Understanding Jesus" by Joe Amaral. He shares about a Jewish cultural practice during the First century where if you’re going on a long journey you would take strips of cloth in case one was to die. The strip was then used to wrap the dead body in to prepare for burial. He says these strips of cloth were what Mary wrapped Jesus, giving us a glimpse of God's future plan for salvation and foreshadowing the death of Jesus.

It was becoming clear the strip of cloth was written in scripture for a reason, especially when we read they are mentioned again where the shepherds are concerned. When Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem and discovered there was no rooms available they were provided lodging in the caves were the sheep were born. It is possible if there were rooms available in the inn Mary would have had help in delivering Jesus and he would have been swaddled in something else. But God have a different plan for the birth of his Son. So, Mary wrapped Jesus in the only available resource they had, which spoke volumes to the Jewish community then, and to us today. Luke 2:8-14 8 That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. 9 Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

As I read from other sources, having to do the "strip of cloth" information concerning the shepherds came to light. It was not normal for shepherds to tend large flock close to where people lived, because the odor from the flocks made it hard for people to breath. Therefore, the flocks were normally confined far from where people resided. The question then is, why were there shepherds in Bethlehem?

 

Bethlehem was the exception.

 

Those sheep that grazed on the hillsides of Bethlehem, belonged to the High Priest and his family. For centuries lambs were raised in Bethlehem, which is located about 6 miles from Jerusalem. Each lamb was declared to be unblemished by the priests and they were separated to be sacrificed in the Temple or eaten as Passover lamb in Jerusalem. The flock of lambs required a great host of shepherds that worked in shifts. Some watched the sheep while the others slept. It is no coincidence that Jesus, the Lamb of God, was also born in the same town as the sacrificial lambs were raised. John the Baptist said of Jesus, behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world! The angel told the Shepherds they would recognized the baby by the "sign of being wrapped in strips of cloth." Luke 2: 12. My first though was, why did these shepherds who looked after the sheep, need the sign of "strips of cloth" to recognize the baby. Then I read the following quote by a Jewish Rabbi from New Jersey Rabbi Sobel offers a fascinating view of Jesus and the swaddling clothes. He says, "the so called "Levitical Shepherds" would wrap the lambs in swaddling clothes to protect them, thereby offering lambs without blemish for the Passover lamb."

Another source reads: "The Shepherds had been designated from the time they were very young and assigned the task of "keeping watch” over the Temple’s flocks. One of their tasks was to make certain that none of these lambs were blemished while being birthed. The lambs were immediately wrapped in "swaddling cloths" after their births to protect them from injury. Baby lambs tend to thrash about and harm themselves in their first couple of hours of their lives. The shepherds who attended these lambs, were under special rabbinical care, and were required to keep their birthing caves ritually clean."

It is in one of these caves, it is believed Jesus was born. Rabbi Sobel also says. "What did the shepherd see as they as they arrived where Jesus was born. A baby born in the same place the Passover lambs were born, swaddled like a Passover lamb, pointing to the fact, the Baby Jesus, the Messiah was the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world." Those Levitical Shepherds on the hillside of Bethlehem, who raised, nurtured and cared for the Passover Lambs, also knew the prophesies concerning the coming of the Messiah. When they witnessed Jesus wrapped snuggly in strips of cloth, I believe their eyes were opened and they understood this little baby was the Lamb of God. After witnessing this they went and spread the Good News to everyone.

Luke 2: 15-20 15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.” 16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. 17 After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. 18All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, 19 but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often. 20 The shepherds went back to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. It was just as the angel had told them. Jesus the only begotten Son of God, willing gave up all the Glory of Heaven, left his Father's throne and stepped from eternity into time to become the Lamb of God, shedding his blood for our sin. It is because of His great love for us, he freely gave the Gift of himself. The only gift that truly satisfies completely. As we celebrate with family and friends this Christmas I hope we all stop and ponder the cost of the Gift Jesus gave, and offer back to him the living sacrifices of our hearts completely without reservation.

Is 9:6-7 For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace. There will be no end.

By Bette Bechal