Friday, December 19, 2008

The Characters Around the First Christmas

Rev. Sudhakar Mondithoka

Asst. Pastor, English Congregation at Centenary Baptist Church, Secunderabad and A Visiting Faculty/Professor at SAIACS and SABC, Bangalore

Introduction: It would be a very instructive exercise for us to study the Characters around the first Christmas of the 1st century, because people are the same even today and we can learn many lessons for our lives in the 21st century. When we survey the Gospels, we can find many people around the Christmas story, like the shepherds, the wise men, King Herod, John the Baptist, the Innkeeper, the religious leaders, Joseph and Mary, and so on. On the basis of my observation and analysis of how they responded to the news and the fact of Christmas, I have divided them into three categories and we will consider each one of them briefly and draw out some lessons for us during this Christmas season.
I. The People that Made Christmas Possible: Joseph and Mary are the people that made Christmas possible (see Matt. 1: 18-24; Luke 1: 26-38). In a sense, whole of God’s plan of salvation for humanity that was being worked out progressively over centuries depended on the response of two teenagers for its final fulfillment. Man is God’s method – God in His sovereignty chose to use humans in His plan of redemption to redeem humankind. Imagine what would have happened if Joseph and Mary had responded negatively. The coming of the Savior of the world depended on Mary saying ‘Yes’ to God and accepting the Savior on His terms. We do not find any words of Joseph being recorded in the gospels. We only find his actions. His actions of obedience to God speak for him (see Matt. 1: 24-25).
Commenting on God’s plan of Salvation and how it depended on Mary, C. S. Lewis said, “The whole thing narrows and narrows, until at last it comes down to a little point, small as the point of a spear – a Jewish girl at her prayers.” Yancey, thinking on the same matter, says, “Today as I read the accounts of Jesus’ birth, I tremble to think of the fate of the world resting on the responses of two rural teenagers.”[1] Both Mary and Joseph counted the cost and accepted the Savior at a very high personal cost – shame, disgrace, ridicule, and so on. There was much more at stake for Mary than for Joseph. She was a virgin, a teenager, and was just betrothed (pledged to be married) to Joseph. She did not have any marital (sexual) relationship with Joseph yet. She was perhaps dreaming about her life with Joseph, as she was waiting for the final step of marriage. At such a time, if she became pregnant, any one can imagine what would have happened to her dreams and life. So when the Angel from God told her that she was going to be pregnant, she was quite naturally troubled, she wondered, and said, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1: 29 and 34). She knew enough to understand that virgins do not become pregnant just like that and that the consequences of such a happening would be disastrous for her and for Joseph. Joseph, being a righteous man, did not want to expose Mary to public disgrace, and determined to quietly divorce her (Matt. 1: 18-19). If something like this were to be suggested to a virgin like Mary in our time, the Savior would not be allowed to be born. Malcolm Muggeridge, a great journalist considered Mary’s response from a modern or contemporary perspective and observed that in our days, with family- planning clinics offering convenient ways to correct “mistakes” that might disgrace a family name, “It is, in point of fact, extremely improbable, under existing conditions, that Jesus would have been permitted to be born at all. Mary’s pregnancy, in poor circumstances, and with the father unknown, would have been an obvious case for an abortion; and her talk of having conceived as a result of the intervention of the Holy Ghost (or Spirit) would have pointed to the need for psychiatric treatment, and made the case for terminating her pregnancy even stronger.” Thus our generation, needing a Savior more, perhaps, than any that has ever existed, would be too humane to allow one to be born.[2] However, the Virgin Mary, though her pregnancy and parenthood was unplanned (by her), had a different response. She heard the Angel out, pondered over the repercussions, and replied, “I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said” (Luke 1: 38). Commenting on Mary’s response, Philip Yancey, says, “Often a work of God comes with two edges, great joy and great pain, and in that matter-of fact response Mary embraced both. She was the first person to accept Jesus on his own terms, regardless of the personal cost.”[3]
The obedient response of Mary and Joseph to God and His will at great personal cost made the coming of the Savior of the World (at first Christmas) possible. Thus, they were blessed and became great channels of God’s greatest blessing to the whole world. Today, in our time and in our generation, if we are true followers of Jesus Christ, we have to obey our master in order to be truly blessed and to be channels of God’s blessing into the lives of others – family members, friends, classmates, colleagues, and neighbors. If we obey our master’s command to be His witnesses and choose to give the Christmas message, which is ‘good news of great joy to all the people (or whole humanity) and not just for Christians (Luke 2: 10-11), then we will make the birth of Jesus the Savior in their hearts and lives possible. Christmas is about love, that is, giving and giving sacrificially. God the Father gave His Son (John 3: 16) that humankind might not perish but have eternal life. God the Son, Jesus Christ gave or sacrificed himself on the Cross that humans might not die and go to hell but have abundant life and everlasting life. Mary and Joseph paid a heavy price and submitted themselves to the will of God and gave the Savior to the World (in a sense) and made the fulfillment of God’s plan of salvation possible. Christmas is about self-less self-giving for the sake of the others (the agape love of God) and the giving of the greatest gift, the Savior. Self-centeredness and Christmas do not go together. What about you and me? How are we celebrating Christmas? The most Christian way of celebrating Christmas would be to give priority to giving the Christmas good news to others rather than being pre-occupied with ourselves and our enjoyment. Should we not obey the great commission and give the good news to at least a few people this Christmas season and make the Christmas joy, peace, light, and life possible for them also? If not you (and I) who will give the gospel to those among whom we are placed and if not now, when?
II. The People that Missed Christmas: The innkeeper (Luke 2: 7), Herod (Matt. 2: 1-8) and the Religious leaders (Matt. 2: 4-6) are examples of those that missed the first Christmas. The innkeeper in the 1st century hung the shameful words, “no room” outside his inn. There was “no room” for them (Mary and Joseph) and of course for Jesus who was to come into the world that historic day in Bethlehem in the innkeeper’s premises. The creator of heavens and earth, the creator of all humanity, the owner of the whole universe, the earth and all that is in it, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, was coming into the world to be the Savior of the Word and there was “no room” for Him. The innkeeper was business-minded, industrious, preoccupied, and was ignorant of what was happening when he said, “No room.” These words describe aptly most of the people in the 21st century world who are so busy with Christmas celebrations (parties, cakes, cards, candles, stars, trees, clothes, shopping, gifts, carols, events, etc.) that they miss the Christ of the Christmas. They make no room for Jesus. Without even realizing it, most people still miss Christmas just like most of the people in and around Bethlehem on the night Jesus was born.
The innkeeper missed the opportunity to be a part of the most important and significant birth in all history. It was census time (Luke 2: 1-6) and the city was bulging with people descending on it from different directions. Bethlehem was crowded. The innkeeper was not hostile or even un-sympathetic. He was just busy with his own things like many people today that are busy with all kinds of things and activities that compete for attention. And in the middle of all this, many preoccupied people miss the Son of God. There are many so called Christians who are busy with Christmas related things and miss Christmas, because they have “no room” for Christ in their hearts or lives. There are millions of innkeepers in the world today. What about you? Do you have room for Jesus in your heart? Do you have Christ in your life? Have you ever invited him into your life? If not, why not now, during this Christmas season, the reason for which is Jesus the Christ? Christ-less Christmas celebrations will only prove to be a curse.
Herod was a king who missed Christmas, because he was insecure and was troubled by the news of the coming of the King. He was too full of himself. He pretended he wanted to worship Jesus, the King, but he was fearful of the one who was called the King of the Jews. He did not want to be ruled over by another king, the real King, because he wanted to be his own boss and ruler. There are many Herods today in our Churches that do not want to let Jesus have His rightful throne in their hearts and in the Churches where they are leaders. These 21st century Herods (especially leaders in our Churches!) do not want Jesus interfering with their life style, power, plans, prestige or positions. What about you? Have you invited Jesus as the King and Lord of your life? King Jesus said, “What does it profit a man, if he gains the whole world and loses his own soul? Herods ultimately lose in this world and in the world to come as well. It is my prayer that you should not be such an ultimate loser.
The religious leaders (chief priests and teachers of the law, like the pastors, theologians and teachers of our time) missed Christmas, because they were indifferent and self-righteous. They believed in their own religion, traditions, and customs, and their positions in it but not in right relationship with God. They knew that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem (Matt. 2: 4-6; Micah 5: 1-2). They were there when the Messiah was born on the first Christmas day. Yet they missed Christmas. How sad! They were proud and perfect in their own minds. There are many ordinary people and religious leaders like this in our world now – people that are satisfied with their religion and self-righteousness. Such people miss Christmas and the Savior who was born, because they don’t understand their need of salvation. They don’t openly oppose Him. They just do not receive Him. They do not care about God’s solution or remedy to human misery, because they do not realize their problem or disease, which is sin, the root cause of all the problems. Such people miss Christmas. Like Nicodemus, a religious leader who realized his need and received the Savior we all needs to repent, confess our sins, and receive the Savior through the experience of being born-again (see John 3: 1-18 and 19: 38-42). Unless we are born-again, we cannot enter the Kingdom of God. Are you born-again?
III. The People that Met (or Received) the Savior: The wise men that went from the east (Matt. 2: 1-12) and the Shepherds (Luke 2: 8-18) are examples of those that met and received the Savior, and made Him known to others. The wise men followed the star that guided them, went a long way from their country to Jerusalem and then to Bethlehem and found the real star of Christ, Jesus. They bowed down and worshipped Him. They gave their gifts of gold, incense, and myrrh, and returned to their country. I believe they would have surely spread the good and exciting news about Jesus, because I see in the Bible that all true worshippers are witnesses also (like the Samaritan woman who witnessed to the Samaritans, as we can see in John 4). Wise men and women still follow the star (the hints that God gives to guide people to the Savior), seek, and find the Savior and not miss the Christmas.
The shepherd that were given the Christmas news of the Savior that was born in Bethlehem, went, verified, and confirmed that what they were told was true (Luke 2: 20). They met or found Jesus. Then they “spread the word” concerning what had been told them (that Christ was the Lord and Savior of all the people) concerning Jesus (Luke 2: 17-18). The implication is that they accepted the truth and received the Savior; otherwise they would not have had the spontaneity with which they “spread the word.” There are at least two lessons that we can learn. One, we need not believe blindly. We can investigate, search, and research and confirm the truth for ourselves. After His resurrection, Jesus gave many “convincing proofs” to His disciples that He was alive again or that He came back to life (see Acts 1: 1-11). It was after that that He gave them His command afresh that they should be His witnesses. Christianity is truth. The gospel is truth. Christ is historical. So we can search for the truth and find it with solid evidences, and be confident about what we believe. For example, our belief in the virginal conception is more believable now than ever before in human history. We have the phenomena like parthenocarpy and parthenogenesis (reproduction without fertilization or the male and female coming together) in nature. Now the cloning techniques enable us to produce young ones without fertilization and just from somatic (non-reproductive) cells. If we humans with limited knowledge and powers are able to do this, then can’t God who is all-knowing and all-powerful do what the Bible says He did (in bringing the Savior into the world through the womb of the Virgin Mary)? Two, whatever we might be doing to make our living, if we know the truth, then we will proclaim and make it known to others like the shepherds. Are we (you and I) witnessing or “spreading the word” or making the truth about the Savior known to others? The Christmas season is a good opportunity for us to “spread the word” about Christ to some of our friends and family members.
Conclusion: Our study has given us much to ponder over. In conclusion, I would just like to say that we should be like Mary and Joseph, the Shepherds and the Wise men and not like the innkeeper, Herod, and the religious leaders. May this Christmas be a Christ-centered Christmas for YOU and your family. May the Lord bless our nation, India with the joy, peace, light, and life of Christmas and use you and me as His instruments or channels of blessing.

[1] See Philip Yancey, The Jesus I Never Knew (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1995), 31 and 32
[2] Ibid, 32.
[3] Ibid.