Silence. For some four-hundred years, a people accustomed to a God who willingly communicated with them had been yearning for His triumphant return. Studying the words of the prophets, relishing the victories of their heroes David and Samson, living under the oppression of yet another imperial rule, how eagerly they must have anticipated the promised Messiah, the One they knew would free them once and for all of their current oppressors.
Yet, in 400 years, no one had heard from the God of their fathers. The Jews lived and worked under the heavy-handed thumb of the Roman Empire, who tolerated Judaism as they tolerated other religions. As long as the Emperor was given his due, the people could indulge in whatever fancied them. And still, the God who had delivered them from Egypt was silent.
For a people expecting a victorious entrance, complete with flaming sword and destruction of the enemy, the actual entrance of the true Messiah must have baffled. They knew from the meticulous records kept by their ancestors that God was able. He could part oceans and bring down walls that were six-feet deep and surrounded a city. This God, whose promise of a Messiah went hand-in-hand with His promise to make of Abraham’s sons a great nation, had even stopped time for the sake of one of Israel’s many battle victories.
Except for Mary and Joseph, a couple of peasant kids whom anybody would have scoffed as foolish if they’d even dared to tell about their experiences with the angels, nobody knew to look for the coming of the Savior in a barn, tucked in some makeshift hay bed among the livestock, the human status of God-made-flesh no better than the lowliest of outcasts.
Imagine the anguish of the peasant parents. God hasn’t spoken to anyone in 400 years, and suddenly, He has a message for these two, young kids. He tells the girl she’s going to have a baby, even though Mary is a good kid and hasn’t had sex with her betrothed Joseph, or with anyone else for that matter. Mary’s initial reaction once she got past her disbelief had to be panic. What would Joseph think of her when she showed up bearing a child Joseph did not father? At worst, he would think she was a slut worthy of being stoned to death in the city square. If he could even stay calm long enough to listen to her story of the visit from the angel, he would probably think her off her rocker. God, after all, wasn’t talking to anybody.
Fortunately for Mary, Joseph gets his own visit from one of God’s messengers, instructing the young man about his responsibilities for the child Mary is carrying. What love Joseph must have felt, not only for his betrothed, but also for his God. He determines to follow the advice of his angelic visitor and go through with his marriage to Mary, prepared to take on this child of God as his own son.
As the young, travel-weary couple approached Bethlehem that fateful night, their reception must have underscored their nagging doubts about this whole bizarre turn in their lives. If this is God’s kid in Mary’s belly, then why can’t we find a decent room in an inn to bunk at for the night, Joseph must have wondered. If God could part the Red Sea to get his people out of Egypt, couldn’t He conjure up a room for His unborn kid? Maybe Mary had been violated by some other means, and the young couple had just been deluding themselves to believe otherwise. After all, for a couple of people who were supposed to be the expecting parents of a God, life was proving to be just another day as a poor traveller on this long, long night.
Settled into the final place of shelter, where at least things are warm from the body heat of the hard-worked livestock, Mary and Joseph can do what poor people across the ages learn to be good at if they expect to survive. Using the resources available to them, they set about making everything as comfortable as possible, ignoring the foul stench of overworked animal hide and the ever-present scent of well-used hay and dung. These are familiar settings to country folk like them.
As the first pangs of Mary’s labor begin, knowing they are doing the best they can do may be little comfort when they consider that this is the reception they have planned for the baby God. Except for the ewes in the stable, neither of these young people have had experience giving birth to a human child, much less a God in the form of man. It must have been some comfort to them that they have followed the instructions offered to them by the angels who have visited them so far. Did they wonder if their newborn baby would shoot fire from his eyes or come out of the womb speaking entire sentences? As the pains of childbirth rippled through her body, did Mary have the fleeting thought that no human woman should be able to survive giving birth to God?
Perhaps Jonathan’s famous story flashed through their minds as the long day turned into a long night, Mary’s labor crescendoing in the still darkness. “Nothing can hinder the LORD from saving, whether by many or by few,” they may have reminded themselves (1 Samuel 14:6), as the sheep bleated in sympathy. The North Star, shining extra bright, illuminating the manger in an eerie comfort, must have been their first visible reassurance that this birth would indeed mean something more. God was ready to break the silence.
That first cry, splitting the still air, announced more than a new addition to the young family who had no room for the night. God’s silence had ended with a baby’s cry. True to His character, God chose the most unlikely circumstances and deliverer to make the most important step in saving all mankind. For a people expecting a Messiah who would help them overthrow Rome and develop a nation that would be undefeated forevermore, a baby born in a manger was as far from their vision as the east is from the west.
What a comfort for Mary and Joseph when their baby’s arrival was heralded by angels singing to shepherds in the fields, when soon after the birth, three magi arrived with expensive presents to anoint this special king. Memories of these gifts from above must have comforted as they fled from the threats of King Herod, as the challenging future of raising a child from God kept them up at night, as they dreamed about the life He would lead, perhaps assuming along with the rest of Israel that Jesus would lead with a sword instead of love.
This world is full of trouble. For reasons the human mind has neither the facility nor the objectivism to comprehend, bad things can and will happen, even to very good people. God knows, and He knows from the perspective of humanity. In the small corner of the world, in the even smaller corner of a manger, He came to earth in the form of a helpless child who would experience what it means to be human.
Jesus had to learn to walk, to get along with his siblings, to help his earthly dad on carpentry jobs. He had to put up with the mockery of others when He didn’t step up to conquer enemies by shedding blood. He had to face being yelled at for driving out demons because no good deed goes unpunished, even for God walking around the planet as man.
Finally, He had to take on being spit at, insulted, taunted and mocked. He was beaten and tried for crimes He did not commit. He was sentenced to death on the word of people He had come to save. He died a painful death on the ignominious cross while His oppressors gambled for the very clothes off His back.
Mary, looking on at this child who has never fit in to the expectations she must have had for Him that long ago day in a humble manger, must have wondered even then just how He would follow through on His promise to save the world. He certainly looked defeated. But, she alone knew without doubt His holy origins. She more than anyone had reason to believe that with God all things were possible.
As we contemplate the true champion Jesus proved to be in freeing all those who believe from the burdens of sin, we know that no physical oppression can keep us from the victory of being saved by Jesus. But, this celebration of the birth of our Savior is something every bit as wonderful as His ultimate sacrifice.
After 400 years of silence, God, who never lies, came through on all His promises. He loved His creation so much that He came to the planet in the form of His creation in order to become the ultimate sacrifice.
There are lessons here beyond the faith that leads to salvation. God coming to earth in the form of man teaches us humility, shows us the depth of His love, underscores His ability to make useful that which the rest of us might label useless.
Pray knowing Jesus understands exactly what you are going through. He has literally walked in our shoes. And even though He never sinned, He loved us enough to be willing to forgive us our stumbles. He died for them.
But before that, He was willing to be born for them, in a lowly manger, to the music of animal noises and the sound of the wind whistling through the cracks in the loosely-constructed walls, to lonely parents far from home and struggling to believe.