The birth of Jesus is, no doubt, the most joyous and celebrated of all holidays in our culture. Families get together, gifts are exchanged, and a good time is usually had by all. Even people who know or believe little or nothing about Jesus celebrate his birth. Most people think of Christmas as a singular event. It just hangs out there by itself and when it is over, it is over until the same time next year.
Although the birth of Jesus was a momentous event, it was not a singular event. Jesus’ coming has deep roots in the religious and cultural tradition of the Jewish people; and the fact that he came has had ever widening ramifications that show no sign of abating even after two thousand years.
Who was this Galilean peasant, whose obscure beginnings got connected with so much from the past, and whose brief life has so profoundly influenced so many for so long? Who was this stranger from Galilee about whom we know so much, and so little? Why is it that what he said and did has given so much hope to so many regarding this life and life in the world to come?
The Messiah had been expected for a long time. As a nation, and as individuals, the Jews had been hoping and praying for his appearance for hundreds of years. Ever since the Jewish people got into so much trouble that they realized their condition was beyond human help, they had been expecting divine intervention into human affairs in the form of a messiah. Their expectation of a coming messiah was about as intense as an unrealized intangible could be. Mothers prayed that their unborn would be a male child, and that he would be the Messiah. The expectation was not casual.
When times were good the expectation was less intense. Like most of us they did not feel the need for divine assistance when they were getting on quite well by themselves. The intensity of expectation was in direct proportion to the degree of national and personal difficulty they were experiencing at any given time. But, the expectation was always there, albeit at times in the background. When times were tough, they expected the imminent arrival of divine help. Like present-day Christians, when in trouble, the first words out of their mouths were: “Dear God, where are you?” It became increasingly obvious to them, as it does to us, that God’s timetable does not necessarily correspond with our timetable.
Crises came and went and no messiah. False messiahs came and went. In every age there are religious charlatans who exploit for their own selfish purposes the simple faith of the naive and desperate. There is always a following. People who live in the zone of desperation will grasp at any straw of hope and help. They are blind to the incongruity of religious leaders who drive expensive cars, own airplanes, and live in milliondollar houses while they tell the story of a man who had no place to lay his head. The principle is the same in every age. Only the setting is different. There were disappointments and dashed hopes, but the false prophets in any age usually have enough support to make the next payment or move to the next town.
There were many widely divergent concepts of what the Messiah would be like when he came. For the most part their hopes and dreams tended toward a political and religious “strong man,” a warrior-like messiah who would destroy the enemies of Israel and restore Israel to the power and splendor of the reign of David. They never dreamed that the Messiah would come when and as he did. Only Isaiah came close with his “suffering servant” who would be a light to all nations, and this was a fragmented glimpse that had little ideological support by the Jewish people (Isaiah 53). The Messiah is on his way! The time is drawing near that the hope of the ages will be fulfilled, but in a most unexpected manner.
The epicenter of Christmas is the birth of Jesus. Even those who know nothing but the solitary fact of his birth can be blessed by the event, but blessing and insight await those who know how it all came to pass. No one puts it all together in such a fetching story as Luke. Luke takes the loose ends of strange and obscure events occurring in the lives of the most unlikely people and leads us unerringly to Bethlehem, a stable, and the manger in which the newborn Messiah was laid by a wide-eyed teenage mother as a puzzled, but faithful, Joseph looked on.
It started in this fashion. An old priest named Zechariah whose wife, Elizabeth, was barren, drew the honored duty of burning incense to the Lord. While performing this duty the angel Gabriel appeared to Zechariah and informed him that his wife, though advanced in age, would bear a son who was to be named John. Because Zechariah doubted this promise he was struck speechless until “the day these things came to pass.”
In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy (which she had kept secret), an angel appeared to a teenage girl named Mary and informed her that she would bear a son without benefit of an earthly father, who was to be called “Jesus.” The angel informed Mary of the pregnancy of Elizabeth, her kin. So, in the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, Mary came to visit. When Mary greeted Elizabeth the baby leaped in her womb and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. The unborn babe is prophetically aware of the unborn Messiah. The future mother of the forerunner then recognizes the future mother of the Messiah. Elizabeth said to Mary: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” These two women share a secret that the world has waited long to know. As they revel in what they have come to know, Mary speaks a song of praise that has more to do with her unborn son than herself. It is Mary’s song. We call it “The Magnificat,” from its Latin name.
The song thanks and praises God for including her in this unfolding divine drama. As Mary sings of the power of God, we can read what she says to be the power to be exercised by her unborn son. It portends a revolution and a reversal of present reality. This is the most comprehensive statement of liberation theology in the Bible:
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants forever. (Luke 1:51-55)
On which side of this revolution do you wish to be when it comes to pass?