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Do You See What I See?
EXPLORING THE CHRISTMAS OF EVERY DAY
By Ross Parsley
David C. CookCopyright © 2008 Ross Parsley
All rights reserved.
The nativity is probably the most familiar and iconic image of Christmas. Perhaps you have a crèche of your own that comes out of hiding every year along with flattened red-ribboned door wreaths and prancing-reindeer mugs and tangled strings of half-working Christmas lights. Do you place your manger scene on the fireplace hearth? Next to a picture window? At the base of the tree?
In our house, we place it on a table where each of my five children have at one time or another played with the wooden nativity purchased at a tourist shop in Bethlehem. Each year it has become a unique tradition at the Parsley household to search under couch cushions and in toy boxes to locate the baby Jesus who becomes detached from the set.
How do you arrange all those pieces? If you follow a traditional setting (the one pictured on the long-discarded box that used to hold the nativity set), you start by putting the manger in the middle and then lay the swaddled baby Jesus gently onto the bed of hay. Next come Mary and Joseph. They need to be closest to the manger, in case the baby cries for his mother. What then? Well, you've got a whole bunch of animals to spread around the scene, a donkey here, a couple of sheep there, here a cow, there a cow, everywhere a ... sorry, right now it's my three-year-old's favorite song. Just put the animals wherever they look best and allow them to wander as animals do.
Now the wise men—the "three kings" of which we sing—they ought to be close to Jesus too, since they have all of these wonderful, glittery, valuable, sweet-smelling gifts. These three have names, too: Melchior, Balthasar, and Caspar. (At least according to tradition. You won't find these names in the Bible.)
But what do you do with the shepherds? The nameless shepherds. Did your manger set include shepherds? Perhaps you should place them just outside of the manger, looking in, hoping for a better view of the Christ child. That seems about right. They won't mind waiting their turn to see Jesus. They're a humble bunch, after all.
Hmm ... I think we need to back up a bit and visit another scene in the Christmas story before we can understand where the shepherds fit. Let's go all the way back to that moment when Mary first learned the news—the big news—from an angel named Gabriel.
Just a Couple of Kids
In the sixth month, God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin's name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, "Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you."
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, you have found favor with God. You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end."
"How will this be," Mary asked the angel, "since I am a virgin?"
The angel answered, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be barren is in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God."
"I am the Lord's servant," Mary answered. "May it be to me as you have said." Then the angel left her.
Okay. This is a really wonderful story, but we have to look a little closer. We have to think through what's really happening here. I don't know what your family or hometown is like, but where I'm from, if an angelic being shows up and says you are blessed and highly favored and then describes how you'll be having a baby who is going to be called the Son of God and sit on a throne over the nation of Israel, people would think you were nuts! I mean, think about it. For us today, it would be sort of like an alien from outer space showing up and telling you that God is going to supernaturally impregnate you with a baby who will grow up to become president of the United States, cure cancer, and lead the greatest end-time revival in the history of the world. Oh, and by the way, you're only fifteen years old when you get the news, you're not a U.S. citizen, you have no education, and your family is dirt poor. Nuts, right?
Mary must have been disturbed enough for the writer of the story to indicate she was troubled. I think she was saying to herself, "Okay, he said I'm blessed and highly favored. This is good, right?"
Then there is that curious question in the middle of the conversation. You can imagine sweet, innocent Mary asking, "How will this be?" Then the angel, with a slight smile, knowingly describes how the Holy Spirit will come upon her and gives her some evidence of the miraculous power he is speaking of when he shares the news of Elizabeth's pregnancy in her old age. Strangely enough, he leaves out almost all the details of the experience, which we'll discuss later, but I think God often works like this in our lives. He sends us a message, giving us a hint of the miraculous with small confirmations along the way, but provides none of the particulars of how it will all take place. I think we call this faith.
We must remember that Mary wasn't someone of particular significance or importance in Nazareth. She was no daughter of privilege, no sister of success, no cousin to royalty. She was just a kid—a young woman betrothed to a young man named Joseph. An ordinary woman expecting to live an ordinary life.
But God had other plans.
And He sent an angel to deliver them.
"You're going to have a son," Gabriel said, "and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever."
This is no small thing; in fact, it's probably the most important event the angel could have told Mary about. She would have understood the significance of the language the angel was using to describe the Messiah. As part of a Jewish family and community, she most assuredly would have grown up with a deep appreciation of Jewish history and anticipation of a Messiah who would save them from hundreds of years of tyranny.
The amazing thing about Mary is that in the face of this dramatic, angelic visitation, her initial response to the angel was one of humility and obedience. She did not question Gabriel's intent and ask, "Why me?" or pause to consider the consequences. She simply replied, "May it be as you have said." Later, when visiting her cousin Elizabeth, Mary would witness the confirmation of the angelic message. Rejoicing and celebrating all that God had done for her, Mary expressed a humble thanksgiving to God for choosing her to serve Him in this a rare and powerful way.
Truly, Mary was a special woman; she just didn't know it yet. But let's stop for a moment to see what was going on around her. First, there was the whole "pledged to be married" thing, what many of us remember as "betrothed." This was a one-year commitment before marriage that was just as meaningful as Mary and Joseph's impending nuptials. They actually belonged to each other at this point in the story. Picture their first discussion about this. Talk about an awkward conversation. Joseph must have been so confused: angelic sightings, King of Israel, virgin birth? Sure enough, Joseph was more than a little taken aback to discover the woman he was going to marry had suddenly become pregnant. Can you imagine what must have gone through his mind? Well, you don't need to. It's recorded in Matthew.
Because Joseph her husband was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
We don't know if Joseph "bought" Mary's angelic visitation explanation, but let's be honest, he could have responded in anger.... Certainly he must have been confused, frustrated, and distressed. But do you see his heart? Notice the depth of character. He didn't want to expose Mary to public disgrace. Even though his heart was breaking, he was thinking of Mary's well-being.
This says a lot about the kind of man Joseph was and also gives us a hint of the greater challenges that both Mary and Joseph would face if they went through with the marriage.
Of course Joseph didn't divorce her. Another encounter with an angel helped him see the truth of her story.
But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, "Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins."
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel"—which means, "God with us."
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Do you see how Joseph responded to the angel's words? He simply did what the angel commanded. (Angels clearly can be quite convincing.) But it is also the way he did it that's so significant. He honored Mary, protected her, and took care of her. Notice how he had no union with her and how he kept her from public disgrace. While Joseph had the benefit of an angel's words to explain Mary's story, the rest of the community would still have been skeptical at best and accusatory at worst.
What do you see?
With the benefit of hindsight, what follow-up questions might you have asked the angel were you in Joseph's or Mary's sandals? Would those questions have changed your response? Why or why not?
You see, by acting according to God's wishes, both Mary and Joseph were destined to suffer. I had never seen this in the Scriptures before reading this story, but they were both given a word from God—a gift. They received an awesome and glorious visitation with remarkable words of encouragement and instruction. They would struggle soon enough, but right now they would say yes. Without all the details and without a clear path, they still answered with an unequivocal yes.
Life wasn't easy for Mary and Joseph, and we see this truth played out in the Christmas story. Can you see them? There they were, traveling along the dusty road to Bethlehem for the census—doing the right thing according to the culture and the law. Travel certainly wouldn't have been easy—especially for the very pregnant Mary. Have you ever traveled with a very pregnant woman? I have—five different times. They may glow, but they are not enjoyable travel companions!
I know, we want to keep Mary right there in the nativity scene as this little, cute, unquestioning girl. But I'm tellin' you, pregnant women are uncomfortable, always overheating, their backs constantly ache, and they have strange cravings! This was really difficult for Mary ... and consequently, for Joseph.
As the time of the birth approached, I believe they were just like parents-to-be are today. They started wondering and questioning what God was really up to. I think they must have had dark moments when the physical reality of their unusual circumstance pressed up against God's promise, presenting them with doubts to match the derision they would have endured for months.
They were alone, isolated, and homeless at the worst possible moment in their lives.
What were those words from the angel? "Blessed and highly favored"? "Save his people from their sins"? Mary and Joseph couldn't even find a place to rest their weary bodies.
We often lose sight of God's dreams for us in the darkness of disappointment or the distraction of discouragement. It is all too common to forget the promises in the midst of the problems. But every significant biblical figure has a story of waiting for the promises of God to be revealed. We see many stories in the Scriptures where it seems the dream has died, only to be resurrected solely by the power of God. Think about it—Abraham, Moses, David, Jeremiah, the apostle Paul—they all had to trust God in the darkness, waiting for the light to be revealed.
Mary and Joseph were no different. They had to hold on to God's words to them in the middle of a dark night of desperation. I can hear Mary wondering, God, where are you? A King ... born here ... in a stable? This couldn't have been how Mary imagined it on that night when the angel visited her.
And then ...
In the darkness ... a light appeared. Jesus arrived.
A little miracle came into their lives and nothing else mattered. That's what birth is, you know—a miracle. I wept at the birth of each of my children. My wife, Aimee, was relieved and overjoyed just to get the baby out of her womb, but I was an ocean of tears. In those kinds of moments, nothing else matters. Priorities come into focus and dreams come alive again.
Jesus came to Mary and Joseph as He comes to us. In seasons of great pain, despair, and disappointment, He comes. Just when you're at the end of yourself, He comes. He appears at just the right moment—never early, but always at the right time. And it is at this moment that you realize it's not the end. It's the beginning!
There is much we can learn from Mary's response to God. And from Joseph's obedience. The lessons there are clear and powerful. But I think there are even greater lessons to be learned from another group of people. They are also humble and ordinary, but unlike Mary and Joseph, they are quiet sideline players in the Christmas drama.
I'm talking about the shepherds.CHAPTER 2
The Stinking Men
Shepherds don't smell so good. Shepherds would spend all day out in the fields under the hot sun, then watch over their flocks by night, herding them this way and that, chasing down a wayward sheep here and there. It's demanding, sweaty business being a shepherd. Washing wasn't something they got to do all that often to begin with. And it's not like they could run off to Walgreens or Target between shifts and pick up some Right Guard or Old Spice to help mask the smell.
What do you see?
In what ways are you like the shepherds? What makes you "ordinary"?
Shepherding was an important job, but it wasn't all that respectable. Shepherds were pretty low on the social totem pole. They were a dedicated group, always out in their fields taking care of the sheep, showing care and concern for their work. I've always wondered, though, why did God reveal Himself to them? Why the stinking men? Why didn't God open up the skies over Bethlehem and give the entire "little town" an awesome light show?
Maybe that is what happened. Could it be that the skies over the little town of Bethlehem were packed with angels? Could it be that the lights and sounds playing in the night sky created a virtual billboard announcing the Savior's birth, and all it took to see it was looking up? And what about Jerusalem? Could angels have been celebrating Jesus' birth above that holy city? Could it be that the invitation to Jesus' birth was right there for all to see and yet only a few saw it? We don't know for sure.
But we do know that the shepherds looked up.
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests."
Excerpted from Do You See What I See? by Ross Parsley. Copyright © 2008 Ross Parsley. Excerpted by permission of David C. Cook.
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