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For most of us, most of the time, a holiday is a holiday; but then there's Christmas. Of course, there is Christmas Day, on December 25; but Christmas is much more than that.
It is a season which takes on a life of its own; and for Christians and non-Christians alike, I think it is probably accurate to say that it is the most significant holiday on the calendar.
For most merchants it is the biggest time of the year; and for many merchants, this period of time can be a life-or-death matter.
For families, this time of year is often homecoming; and in my family, except for my brother on the west coast, about the only thing that can disrupt that homecoming is unpredictable weather.
But for both merchants and families, because of the significance of this season, planning for it is a long-term proposition. We want everything to be "just right." In fact, that's what our Christmas traditions are all about, hanging on to an orderly observation of Christmas.
But there is an irony in all of this; and that irony is that the first Christmas might be seen as a masterpiece of bad planning.
For starters, the government threw a wrench into the works.
"In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria."
Now, note that word "first." This had not been a regular event, and history tells us that folks were pretty upset about it. But governments do interrupt the lives of their peoples, even as the government--or should I say the president--of this country decrees that large numbers of our citizens should spend Christmas in the Middle East.
Well, according to Luke, the decree of Augustus must have caused a mass migration.
"All went to their own towns to be registered." Of course, I doubt that folks then were as mobile as they are now. The travels to return to "their own towns" may not have been great.
And scholars even doubt that all this running around actually took place, that the Romans didn't really care what family one belonged to.
But this does give Luke the opportunity to set the stage for what is about to happen as the fulfillment of prophecy: "Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David."
So maybe I should take back what I said about this being "bad planning." Maybe it's SUPPOSED to happen this way. Maybe fulfillment of prophecy can only come about through the decree of Augustus.
The Gailileans and the Judeans may be upset by all of this, but they don't know what's about to happen.
And Joseph is not alone:
"He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child."
Joseph is probably thinking that when it rains it pours. As if it was not enough that he must endure Mary's pregnancy for which he was not responsible, now he must take Mary, nine months pregnant, on a trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. And Mary probably isn't so hot on this idea herself. The timing is not good. It would have been so much nicer, so much more comfortable, to just stay home. But they didn't.
And "While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child."
Now that sounds simple enough, and we might not think much about it. My generation usually thinks of hospitals when we think of children being born. I, and my brothers and sister, and all my nieces and nephews, were born in hospitals.
But my father was born in a farmhouse, off a dirt road, at the top of a hill, in western Mitchell County, Kansas; and my mother was born in the home of an agent for the Bureau of Indian Affairs on the Uintah-Ouray reservation in Fort Duchesne, Utah. Yet all this pales by comparison with with Mary had to put up with.
"...she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn."
How large was Bethlehem, anyway, that they would run out of space for overnight travelers? Nowadays we take so much for granted. Phone calls and plastic cards and the internet can help us to make reservations and take care of our transportation needs.
And it is easy to look upon the circumstances of the birth of this baby as being the result of simple bad planning.
When children are born nowadays, in hospitals, it's fairly easy to go visit or send cards--if you find out soon enough and get there fast enough; but Jesus didn't have that luxury. Friends and relatives were not close by.
But, "In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night."
Shepherding was something akin to running a 24-hour convenience store. Just as the store is always open, so the shepherds are always on the job. And if the word of this birth can't be spread immediately to family and friends, it needs to be told to SOMEBODY.
And maybe it wasn't such a bad idea to go to the shepherds first.
"Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified."
And who can blame them? Night after night they're out in the fields with their sheep and nothing ever happens. Nobody ever pays attention to them; nobody ever comes to see them; until now. What must have happened, in a physical sense, was probably similar to a blinding flash of light, or perhaps crashing thunder; something totally out of place in that usually quiet field.
"But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people."
The angel knows this is unsettling, and wants to calm them down. But they're probably wondering, "Why us?" If this is such a big deal for everybody, why are you out here in this field with US? Are you sure you don't have the wrong address?
Shouldn't you be in town where you can tell a whole bunch of people all at once? And the shepherds, being generally considered a "lower class," are probably also wondering why the angel is not now spreading the word among the middle and upper classes. Has there been a mistake in God's planning?
But the angel goes on to say, "to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord."
Now, this is more than the announcement of a birth. It is also the announcement of a gift, and the purpose of that gift. "To you is born..." So the shepherds must know that no mistake has been made. The angel is NOT at the wrong address.
This announcement IS for them.
And the angel tells them, "This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger."
Now this MUST be alarming. Just when the shepherds think that this message is on the level, they hear those words, "lying in a manger." The Messiah is lying in a MANGER? On the other hand, this IS a place where the shepherds can go to visit and no one will be looking down upon them. It will be a place where they will be welcome. And the angel DID invite them, after all.
"And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host."
And if there were doubts remaining among the shepherds, God has dispelled them with the emphatic presence of a multitude of angels, a multitude of messengers. The meeting of God with humanity is no mistake. There has been no error in planning.
God has fully intended that shepherds in the fields be the first to hear the good news. Not the crowds in the cities, not the social upper classes, but the shepherds.
And the multitude of angels are "praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
And the first Christmas card has just been delivered. A gift has been announced to the shepherds: "To you is born the Messiah." And the angels tell them why: "Peace among those whom God favors."
A gift has been given; it has a purpose; and there was a reason for the gift to be given.
Because God loves humanity, God has given the Messiah to save humanity. When we humans give or receive gifts that are not useful or impractical, we rationalize that "it's the thought that counts."
But when God gives, the "thought," the love of God, is part of the gift, inseparable from it.
"When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us."
They are convinced. There is no "What was that all about?" discussion, but a simple, straightforward, "Let's go."
"So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger."
And the shepherd's haste is rewarded. They went looking for a child in a manger, and they found one. But I wonder what they thought of those words, "This will be a sign for you." That certainly doesn't sound like bad planning to me.
On the contrary, it sounds very intentional. God WANTED Jesus to be born in a manger, and everything that happened up to the moment of his birth was not bits and pieces of accidents, but happened as they did so that Jesusí birth would take place where it did.
And the shepherds, "When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child."
And what HAD been told them? That the child was "Savior," "Messiah," "Lord." But more interesting is what the shepherds did NOT make known.
Scripture informs us that the shepherds made known WHAT they had been told, but it does NOT inform us that the shepherds made known HOW they had been told.
So we don't know whether they also passed along the story of the presence of the angels in the fields that night.
But we do know that "...all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them."
And what did that amazement mean? Did they believe the story, or did they think it sounded pretty incredible? How READY do you expect folks were to believe that the Messiah had just been born in a barn?
And how ready were they to believe that the message would first come to lowly shepherds? Through all the years of waiting for the Messiah, surely God would have found a more appropriate way of bringing the Messiah to God's chosen people!
Surely, God would have PLANNED it better than that.
"But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them."
And today, we still need to be asking the questions, "Why did God plan it that way? Was it bad planning or good planning? Mary probably wasn't very enthusiastic about that donkey ride to Bethlehem or giving birth in a barn.
Joseph probably would have preferred more socially acceptable circumstances for him and Mary. And I doubt that those shepherds ever forgot those strange events that night.
In this Christmas season as we have carefully planned our family, social, and church life, I think we need to be reminded that even if those plans don't always work out the way we want them, and frequently they don't, that the greatest gift God has ever given us was brought into the world in circumstances that any objective observer would have to label as "bad planning." Yet, it is in the midst of bad planning, even our own, that God can work wonders in our lives if we will but look for God's signs.
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