Sunday, December 24, 2006
“Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.”
It was a common ancient belief that a new star would appear at the occasion of a ruler’s birth. On one particular, memorable night just over two millennia ago now, three king’s from the east arrived at Jerusalem asking “Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star at it’s rising and have come to do him homage.”
When the news of the eastern king’s arrival and questioning reached the ears of Herod the Great, who was set by the Romans as the ruler of the land encompassing Jerusalem, he gathered all the learned men of his people and inquired of them “Where is the Messiah to be born?” They told Herod that old prophetic writings said the place would be Bethlehem.
King Herod called for a meeting with the eastern kings, and he questioned them as to details of the star’s appearance. He then sent them on their way, asking that when they should find the child “bring me word, that I too may go and do him homage.” Now Herod was a plotter and schemer. His reign was reported as “one of continual fear of plots and he does not hesitate to execute his own relatives and children.” Herod meant not to worship the newborn King, but to kill him.
When the kings from the east set out again, they quickly found the same star, and it led them to a house in Bethlehem of Judah where they found the newborn child Jesus with Mary his mother. They bowed and knelt before him, and presented gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. The latter two items are extracts of tree sap, used to make incense that when mixed with other items such as nuts or roots makes wonderful scents.
Joseph had brought his young wife here to the little town of Bethlehem while she was still pregnant in order to stand for the census. Each family had to go to its own ancestral town to register, and since Joseph was from the house and family of David this was their destination. On arrival in town they found no room at any of the inns, and so had to take shelter in the stable room of a local house.
While they were there in Bethlehem, it came time for Mary to have the baby, and she soon gave birth to a son who the couple named “Jesus”. Mary wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger to sleep. Soon the couple was visited by some local shepherds who told them they had been visited in a field by angels who had told them “today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.”
The young mother Mary and her older and more worldly husband Joseph knew that their child was special, but these visits from the shepherds and the three wise men, three kings from afar, was the first real-world concrete sign to them that mankind would find something special in their son. How astounded and grateful at this attention and these gifts they must have been.
After paying their homage, the kings prepared for their return journey and a stop to tell Herod of all that had transpired, and where he might go to find the child and worship him as well. But they were visited in a dream and warned of Herod’s wicked intentions. Being three wise men indeed, they returned to their native countries by another way.
In a similar dream, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph saying “Rise, take the child and his mother, flee to Egypt and stay there until I tell you. Herod is going to search for the child to destroy him. Joseph rose, took Mary and Jesus, and fled with them to Egypt as the angel had instructed them. There they would stay until Herod’s death.
Herod soon realized that the three kings were not returning and he grew furious, ordering the murder of every boy in Bethlehem and its surrounding towns who were two years old and under. He believed that he was playing for keeps against a future king, and he would leave no margin for error in eliminating this potential threat. Little did he know the reality of the power that he was up against.
After Herod’s death, the angel again appeared to Joseph and told him to take Mary and Jesus and return to the land of Israel. While enroute, in yet another dream Joseph was warned that Herod’s son had taken over this region, and so was directed to take his family to the region of Galilee instead. Joseph took his family there, and settled in the town of Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary had previously been living prior to the census.
This is the warmly familiar story of the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. The baby born in Bethlehem, who slept in a manger surrounded by barnyard animals in his infancy, would indeed grow to be a King, just not of the type that Herod had feared. He would grow to teach us to love God and to love one another, and ultimately he would die so that we all might live in eternity.
It all began two thousand years ago when a star appeared in the sky over Bethlehem. This Christmas season be sure to remember and reflect on all of these events, and the dramatic influence that they eventually had on your own life. Perhaps while you are looking up at the sky on a clear night you too will see that star, the one that brought us goodness and light.