The Wonder of the first Christmas

Since Jesus would be born in Israel, at first only the Israelites would know about Him. But God would want them to tell others, who in turn would tell even more people, until the whole world had heard about Jesus.

It would be easier if many people spoke the same language. They had to be able to travel to distant places, too, so the farthest cities and the countries beyond the sea could hear. For that, they needed good roads and strong ships.

Still it was not time. Hundreds of years went by. That might seem like a long time to wait, but what takes a year on earth is to God only the blinking of an eye.

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Finally, Rome was built and its armies conquered all the countries around, including Israel. To make sure all the conquered people obeyed them, the Romans built roads for their armies. They also built hundreds of sturdy ships and chased pirates off the seas.

One of the countries Rome conquered was Greece. The language of Greece sounded so beautiful that many people throughout the Roman Empire began to speak it. And God, listening, knew that Greek would be a perfect language for spreading the news of His rescue.

God had already said His Son would be born in Israel. And through the Prophet Micah, God revealed the exact place where this Savior would be born: “But you Bethlehem, … though you are little, … out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be ruler in Israel (Micah 5:2, NKJV).

God was ready to show into whose family this new ruler would be born. Though God was His Father, He would need an earthly mother. God chose a pure, simple girl named Mary-a girl who loved God with all her heart, mind, body and soul.

Mary looked up one day, startled. There before her stood a tall angel. Seeing her expression, the angel said kindly, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bring forth a Son, and shall call His name Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Highest …. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of His kingdom there will be no end” (Luke 1:30-33, NKJV).

Mary was amazed; she could hardly speak. So she bowed low, saying to the angel, “I am the Lord’s servant …. May it be to me as you have said” (Cf. Luke 1 :38).

Mary was engaged to a man named Joseph. He could trace his relatives back only a poor carpenter in Nazareth. But he married Mary and cared for her tenderly as the time drew near for her baby to be born.

Nazareth, where Joseph and Mary lived, was almost a hundred miles from Bethlehem-a long, long distance in those days! But the Prophet Micah had predicted that the Savior would be born in Bethlehem. How could this come true?

The emperor in Rome at that time was Caesar Augustus-meaning “Caesar the Splendid.” One day Caesar decided to count all the people in his huge empire. That way he would know how much tax money he could collect from them. To keep track of all the different groups of people, Caesar decided people should go back to the town where they were born and pay taxes there.

Well, when Caesar Augustus decided something, it became law. He did not know it was God who gave him the idea. All over the Roman world, people had to return to their hometowns to pay their taxes.

And that’s how Joseph and Mary ended up in Bethlehem.

What if we had lived in Bethlehem at the time Jesus was born?

This normally sleepy town was full of excitement. Out on the narrow, crowded street, dusty men tugged and shouted at heavily-laden donkeys. Women with tiny children were everywhere. Older children were lugging bundles of food. Everyone looked weary, since the only reason they had come here was to pay unfair taxes. Alone and in groups the people arrived, some walking rapidly on this last bit of their journey. They must have spent four or five nights sleeping beside the road.

Two of the people coming up the dusty road in the valley were a man walking and a woman riding a donkey. They traveled so slowly. The woman had her hand on the man’s shoulder, and she seemed very tired. The man kept looking at her anxiously.

As the couple drew closer, one could see that their donkey was covered with dust. Joseph and Mary had come a long way. They paused right in front of the gate. The young woman’s face-her eyes great pools of darkness-was pale with exhaustion. But it held a tender smile that seemed to say that all the joy in Heaven had come down to earth.

Perhaps Bethlehem fell still, as if the whole world was listening-waiting? After finding that there was no room for them at the local inn, Joseph and Mary found shelter with livestock.

That evening found Mary lying on hay piled beside one of the stalls. Joseph knelt by her side and covered her gently with his cloak. And next to them – in the feeding trough for the cows-lay the baby, Jesus.

He seemed so tiny, wrapped tight in a long linen band and sleeping soundly like any other baby. He slept as though the world had not waited thousands of years for that moment. As though the lives of everyone on earth were not wrapped up in His birth. As though all the sin and sorrow of the world was not His concern.

But it’s what happened at the end of His life that matters most.

As we pick up the story at Passover in Jerusalem, the Jews were celebrating how God had delivered them from Egypt hundreds of years earlier. But this Passover was the most important of all. Many people at that time believed Jesus would rescue them from the Romans.

But now He was sentenced to die. On that day crowds began gathering on the hill called Golgotha, or “the Place of the Skull.” The hardened soldiers, used to suffering and death, sat and gambled. The arrogant centurion in charge stood near them-efficient, unfeeling. The mocking scribes and Pharisees were there, too. But most of the people were just curious onlookers who had come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover.

A woman looked up, and the sun shone straight on her face. The woman was older now, but there was no mistaking even at this distance that she was Mary, the mother who had given birth inthe cave. And the Baby had become the Man on the cross.

Everything grew darker until it was black as midnight. The earth began to shake. After a while, the shaking stopped but the darkness lingered for three long hours. The scoffers stopped scoffing. The crowds grew quiet. And in that awful stillness, a single loud cry arose. “My God! My God! Why have You forsaken Me?

No answer. Only silence. Then the same voice, exclaiming, “It is finished!

The figure on the cross slumped.

In the strangely dim light, a well-dressed man came with some soldiers to take Jesus’ body down from the cross. They put Him in a tomb in a nearby garden and rolled a huge stone across the entrance. The following day must have been one of the saddest in history. All Jesus’ followers hid for fear of the Jewish leaders. His friends had believed Jesus was the one who would free them from the Romans. Now they were frightened and disappointed. But the next morning something happened.

Before dawn, a great earthquake shook the land. The angel of the Lord descended like lightning, his clothes white as snow. Ignoring the Roman guards, he tossed back the huge stone and calmly sat on it. The soldiers shook with terror and fell like dead men.

Two of the women who had followed Jesus came at dawn and found the tomb empty. They clutched each other in fear. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel said. “Jesus has risen. Now go and tell all His disciples” (Cf. Matthew 28:7).

Jesus showed Himself to all His disciples and friends over the next few weeks. Sitting down with them all, He told them not to blame the Jewish leaders, the Romans or anyone else for His crucifixion, He explained how ever since the Garden of Eden, God had told people that He was going to send them a Savior.

God had not sent Jesus to deliver His people from unjust rulers, from illness or unpleasant situations. He was born to die for the sins of mankind. Those who were sorry for their sins, even the worst of people, could be forgiven. And they once more would know the joy of companionship with God that had been lost so long ago in Eden. Through His death and resurrection, the Baby born that night in Bethlehem had become Lord of all. This is the real meaning of Christmas, the joy and glory of it!