The sun has yet to dawn upon the horizon. The moon and the stars are veiled by clouds. Darkness prevails. I sit in my family room surrounded by a soft glow of amber, which is produced from the gold light bulbs that adorn my Christmas tree. The small bulbs illuminate the furnishings in my home generating a warm and cozy feeling in the house.
No one in my home is stirring. Few in my neighborhood have yet risen to greet this day that is beginning in such blackness. I have only seen lights in one nearby house and there is still no traffic on the street. The lonely darkness outside stands in stern contrast to the welcoming illumination indoors thanks to the Christmas tree.
The quietness of the morning has afforded me time to appreciate my tree and to ponder on this holiday that provides the background for one of the most treasured truths found within the pages of the Bible. Few theologians believe that Jesus was actually born on December 25, but all believers acknowledge that on a dark night in a Bethlehem manger the Light of the World began to shine.
The prophets of old had foretold the coming of the Messiah, the Son of God. Although the light of that promise shone only dimly against the dark world of Roman oppression, the faithful believers found solace in the glow of God’s pledge. Just before the dawning of the new day for humanity, the Christ child was born on a dark night, in an obscure village, and in an ignoble place. Mary, Joseph, and a few shepherds were awake. They were privileged to bask in the warm glow of His glory and His grace.
Yet, the darkness of every night yields to the brightness of a new day. If I sit here on my couch long enough, the sun will rise; and its bright rays will diffuse the blackness outside and saturate my house with vivid light. The neighbors will soon be awake; the traffic will flow; and life will thrive in the bright light of day. Darkness may endure for the night, but the sun comes up every morning.
Although I may start this morning against the backdrop of darkness and find some comfort in my softly illuminated surroundings, I know that I am not destined to work and play in this level of dimness. The same could be said for the babe born in a manger! He may have come at night; He may have illuminated only a few in the nativity; He may have shone glory only in a small sphere on that night in Bethlehem; but He brought the dawning of the new era.
The obscurity of the manger gave way to the full light of Christ’s ministry. His miracles and His message shined light everywhere in Judea and Galilee. While He lived, many responded to His brightness. Yet that was just the beginning. Throughout the last two millennia, people in all nations have heard of Christ and responded to the brightness of His glory. He may have been born in an obscure manger, but He came to be the Light of the World.
Isaiah 60:1-3 declares, “Arise, shine, for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness shall cover the earth, and thick darkness the peoples; but the Lord will arise upon you, and his glory will be seen upon you. And nations shall come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising.” (ESV)
As you celebrate Christmas this week and look toward 2021, I pray that you will have the hope of a bright future because of the birth of Christ, who is your Light and the Light of the whole world.
Her mother had told her what she could expect. She had done her best to make preparation. The cradle, the linens, and the baby supplies had been gathered and arranged neatly in anticipation of the grand event. But then, the summons had arrived. Caesar Augustus had decreed that those living under Roman rule were to be taxed. Joseph and Mary were required to undertake the 4 to 5 day journey to Joseph’s homeland, which was Bethlehem, where they would be counted in the census and forced to pay the mandated tax.
Mary had no choice but to make the trip, even though she was in the final days of her pregnancy. She undoubtedly expected to return to Nazareth before her time to give birth arrived. The journey was difficult. The roadways were extra busy as many fellow Jews journeyed to their ancestral regions. Local merchants, taking advantage of the caravans, had lined the thoroughfares with carts selling their merchandise. Mary was grateful that fresh dates and pomegranate juice could be easily purchased.
Joseph was attentive and dutiful to Mary’s every need. He loved her. He showed his love in countless thoughtful ways, which made the arduous trip more bearable. Yet, in spite of all his efforts to arrange their circumstances to minimize her discomfort and concern, the unexpected occurred. Mary began labor.
They had passed Jerusalem. Bethlehem had come into view just as the sun was setting. Joseph knew that he must procure lodging. He searched and inquired; but he could find no vacant rooms. Because of his fervency and the imminence of her delivery, one inn-keeper showed mercy and offered an outdoor covering where he stabled his livestock. Although Joseph wished he could provide better accommodations, the stall would at least give shelter.
As her labor progressed, Mary attempted to erase her mental image of the cradle sitting in her home in Nazareth. She had to repress her disappointment that her ideal and imagined daydreams had been shattered by this harsh reality. She had to concentrate on the birthing instruction that her mother had given. She must be ready to deliver her new son.
Her new son – she knew she would have a baby boy because the angel, Gabriel, had told her about this child, her role, and God’s salvation that would be accomplished through this long-anticipated Messiah. How could that which had begun with such supernatural splendor have led her to such natural difficulty? How could the glory of the celestial have been reduced to the humility of such a visceral reality? Yet, the straw, the animals, the night sky – and the contractions – reminded her. She would give birth in a Bethlehem stable.
Then he was born. Jesus was born. “You shall call his name Jesus,” the angel said. “And he shall be great and will be called the Son of the Most High . . . and of His kingdom there shall be no end.” As Mary gazed upon her child’s face, the words of Gabriel echoed again in her ears. She did not have to attempt to recall his advice. She remembered. The sight of her son reminded her of his destiny and her part in the eternal plan. Somehow, that viewpoint of the heavenly overshadowed the harshest realities of the earthly.
Mary treasured the night with all its unexpected circumstances. She pondered everything in her heart. Perhaps, God delights in birthing promises from a manger of obscurity. Maybe, the great shepherd should begin his work in a manger. Surely, the redeemer was destined to seek out the lost sheep in the world. Mary wondered how many unexpected difficulties lie ahead as she journeyed with her son from Bethlehem to the place where He would birth salvation for the world. From the obscurity of the manger, Calvary came into view.
She departed the encounter with her mind whirling. Mary knew with all her being that what she had seen and heard was as real as the ground upon which she stood. Yet, her mind was rehearsing the event and searching to find any earthly reasoning upon which to take a stand.
He said he was Gabriel, an angel that stood in the presence of the Lord. She did not doubt that. His very person emanated a radiant light that evoked reverence while his whole demeanor communicated an authority that demanded obeisance. He had come from heaven to deliver a message from the Lord.
Gabriel spoke. Mary listened. His words pierced her soul as though a hot branding instrument had been placed against her chest. She was accustomed to receiving the Word of God spoken from the mouth of her Rabbi. She had heard the reading of the Torah, listened to the worship from the Temple, been attentive to the stories of God’s supernatural intervention among her people, Israel. But the words of the angel were unlike the words of men. They penetrated, seared, and burned their way into her soul. How could she but believe that he came as the messenger of the Most High God?
Gabriel announced that she had found favor with God. She was to have a son, and she was to name him Jesus. He would be given the throne of King David and would have a kingdom that would never end. Promises of the coming Messiah, the savior and deliverer of the world, were well-known to Mary. They were some-day pledges, which had been spoken by the prophets so long ago. They were off-in-the-distance assurances, which had passed from generation to generation but never actually came to pass. And yet – the angel declared that the appointed time had come – come to Israel, come to Mary, come to the earth.
She would give birth. She would be a mother. Every daughter dreamed of the day when she would have a family of her own. Once Mary married her fiancé, Joseph, she envisioned those hopes becoming a reality for her. But how could she become pregnant prior to any union with Joseph? She hesitated to inquire as to how she could conceive from a being so majestic and powerful as this angel.
Mary spoke. Gabriel listened. Again, his response pierced her soul like a blazing torch. The power of the Highest would cover over her; and the child she would conceive would be the son of God, not the son of man. Immediately she recalled the words of the prophet, Isaiah, who declared that a virgin would conceive and bear a son who should be called Immanuel – God with us. Mary knew. She knew she was that virgin and this was Isaiah’s promise. Her heart resonated, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” Her voice resounded, “Be it unto me according to thy word.” And with that proclamation, Gabriel departed.
She was alone. The encounter had ended. The silence loudly declared that life – her life – would forever be changed. Life – all men’s lives – would forever be altered. Mary knew that her family, her friends, and Joseph would be required to decide who got the last word. Would their fears or their preconceptions cause them to believe their ideas over God’s Word? And what about the people to whom Immanuel was sent? Whose word would take preeminence?
For surely, she thought, there is a promise that can light a fire in the soul of every man. “For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, The mighty God, The everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
Be it unto us according to Thy Word.