We all know the Christmas story. Mary and Joseph. The journey to Bethlehem. The stable. The baby in the manger. The ox and the ass. The shepherds. The angels. The wise men. The star in the sky. The gold, frankincense and myrrh.
It’s everybody’s favourite story. It’s a happy, comforting fable, a children’s fairy-story that grownups can enjoy as well.
At least that’s the way many people think of it. It’s part of the traditional Christmas we all love. Mince-pies, decorations, Santa – and this funny old story about the baby Jesus. We get the crib out of the loft and dust it off, we sing the same old carols, we attend one more nativity play, we hear the familiar tale, and we’re left with a happy glow. It’s familiar, it’s safe, it’s cosy.
A story of pain
People love the Christmas story. But too often, it’s because they’ve never really understood it. The fact is that when you really think about the story, there’s nothing cosy about it all. It’s about an unmarried girl whose life is shattered when she finds out she’s pregnant. It’s about a man who believes his fiancée has been unfaithful to him and decides he can’t marry her. It’s about a couple living in an occupied country and forced by the authorities to trek across country to register and be taxed. It’s about a girl who’s nine months pregnant but can’t find anywhere to stay and has to give birth in vile conditions. It’s about a paranoid king who’s determined to massacre scores of children if that’s what it takes to safeguard his own position. It’s a story of human ruthlessness, brutality, and pain.
A story about God
But more than that, it’s a story about God. He’s the most important person in the story – the person who’s carrying out his own huge plan. It was God who worked miraculously so that a virgin would become pregnant and bear a son. It was God who gave her son his name even before he was born. He said, “You shall call his name Jesus – The-Lord-Rescues – because he will rescue his people from their sins”. It was God who fixed when and where the baby would be born. And it was God who planned that that baby would grow up to die a horrible and agonising death on a cross.
The Bible tells us that the human race is so corrupted that there was no other way that God could save us. God had to send his Son to live here in this brutal world, and to take the punishment we deserved. That’s what the Christmas story is about – God sending his own Son into the world to rescue bad people, worthless people, wicked people – people like you and me. It’s amazing, it’s awesome, it’s grand, but it isn’t cosy.
A true story
One more thing about the Christmas story. It’s true. Make no mistake. These things really happened. The story of Jesus’s birth – and all that followed – wasn’t a fable concocted and then passed down over hundreds of years. The whole story was written down within a generation while all the key people were still alive, when all the details could be checked up on. An event like the massacre of those children in Bethlehem couldn’t be invented. Anyone could go to Bethlehem and talk to the families whose little boys died. For that matter, anyone could go and check the register where Jesus’s birth was recorded.
Even two thousand years on we can still check on some of the details for ourselves. And everything we can check proves to be true. Did the Roman Emperor order a register to be made of all the citizens in the empire so that they could be taxed? Yes, it’s recorded by the Roman historians of the time. Was it completed at the exact time the Bible says? Yes, the archaeologists can show us the proof. Were there wise men in the East watching the skies waiting for the appearance of a new star? Yes, we can read about them in the Greek historians. Was Herod a half-mad tyrant who killed anyone who he thought threatened his position? Yes it’s all there in the records.
Historians have been checking every detail of the life of Jesus for hundreds of years looking for any discrepancies. But they just don’t find them. Every thing in the gospels that can be checked stands up – if the writers mention a place, you can go and dig there, and you’ll find that it was just the way they described it. If they mention particular politicians or religious leaders, you can go away and check the historical records, and you find that everything that’s said about them in the gospels was true.
You know the Christmas story. But have you really understood it? Have you ever thought about the question, “why did Jesus come?” And have you ever faced up to its implications for yourself? God sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. But is he your Saviour?