The things of life have a way of distracting even ardent Christians during the season of Christmas.
In America and some other nations, consumerism has taken such a hold on many that the real reason for the season is relegated to the back of shoppers’ awareness. In the Midwest and across the land, the inequalities among races have been pushed to the forefront of the collective conscience. Jim Crow laws may be dead, but in too many places, Jim Crow-like application of justice appears live and well a full 2,000 years-plus after Jesus appeared to set people free from such behavior.
Economic disparity in the nation and in the world — in too many places exacerbated by political and military unrest — threatens not only the health of men, women, children and infants but the lives of whole populations, the plight of many of them, unfortunately, more easily ignored or more readily accepted than others. We anguish over such conditions.
Still, for believers, the message of the birth of Jesus comes alive at Christmas — and often year round — as they strive to find ways to be the people of God where they are and wherever they have influence to be the hands and feet — and the voice — of Christ in the world.
The good news is a feel-good story, to be sure, but it was never intended to help people forget about the anxieties of others or their heartfelt needs. Jesus’ ministry was in fact a call to action, and it ruffled the feathers of some, focused on people poorly regarded by even the top religious leaders and prompted efforts to silence Jesus because he was a threat to the status quo, even in faith matters.
And Jesus demonstrated how to respond in such trying times, beginning with his very birth.
As trying as today’s times are, they are no more so than what the Messiah encountered a couple thousand years ago.
Palestine was under the iron grip of Rome when angels began visiting Mary, Joseph, Elizabeth and Zechariah prior to the birth of the forerunner John and Jesus the Messiah. One of Rome’s contributions to the world was order, but it was order that ultimately benefitted Rome through the exercise of raw power. It discouraged dissension and uprising.
The law was tilted in Rome’s favor, of course. It did not particularly benefit Greeks or Jews or slaves — only Roman citizens, who controlled most of the known world. Justice applied to Roman soldiers and other leaders and their families. In disputes, the law, without apology, sided ultimately with Rome’s interests and not particularly with truth and fairness.
No one expected anything different in the exercise of pagan justice.
Some Jews cultivated the protection of Rome by doing the business of Rome, turning on their own people to become rulers themselves or perhaps tax collectors.
Petty and cruel King Herod was Rome’s choice as ruler of Judea, and he certainly reaped the benefit of Roman protection. It was to Herod that the wise men of the Christmas story told of the Messiah’s birth as they sought to find the Christ child. Herod, in turn, announced a campaign of infanticide to be sure he snuffed out the Messiah, a potential threat to his prosperous kingship.
As a result, God led Joseph and Mary to flee Judea with their young son and become refugees to Egypt until after Herod died and the coast was clear to go home to Nazareth. Almost as soon as Jesus was born, his life was threatened. God sent his Son into the world against great odds, but he protected not only the infant but his faithful parents.
The good news is not merely a happy children’s story, where all the characters live happily ever after. Being the earthly parents of the Messiah was no walk in the park. Few of us these days are born targeted for death as was Jesus.
God could not have chosen a darker time to bring the promised Messiah into the world and to bring it light. The times were treacherous and dangerous, perhaps in some ways not so much different than what we see around us today.
But God knew what he was doing. The good news is exactly that, whether 2,000 years ago or any day since. God was staking his claim on his world and his people, and he is still doing it.
The good news of the Messiah’s coming still has remarkable power to change attitudes and to even snap believers’ desires back in line with the Savior who was announced by angels and, subsequently, by shepherds and others so long ago.
We’re still working on what Jesus, in Paul’s words, intended: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28, NIV). Even so, we celebrate Christ’s coming at every opportunity and we recommit ourselves to the Savior and Lord who prompts us to help reconcile the world to himself.
Give thanks daily for God’s unspeakable gift to us.
Bill Webb is editor of Word & Way.