It came upon the midnight clear, that glorious song of old
From angels bending near the earth, to touch their harps of gold.
“Peace on the earth, good will to men
From Heaven’s all gracious King”
The world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing.
Time, date: 12:01 a.m., A.D. 1.
Friend, this really happened. It’s not some fairy tale or a nice fable with a moral. Not only do more than a billion people believe this deeply, but they are willing to stake their eternal destiny on it. I know there are several other faith systems that have almost fanatical devotees — but there is no other religious figure from whose moment of birth we have structured our very calendar.
Think of that, will you? From the moment a little Jewish baby left his teen mother’s womb, in a humble, dirty, smoke stained shepherd’s cave, most of the world began to count the days. Yes, there’s a Chinese calendar, and a Jewish one, maybe another one or two. But the entire world calls this 2009, and in a week it will be 2010.
My family and I have been in that little cave, in what is still called Shepherd’s Field, not far from Bethlehem. We were doing a musical special called “Christmas in Bethlehem,” with songs specially written for us to record and use in the special. It was important to us to try to enact and tell the Christmas story, on or near the places where the events actually happened, as near as scholarship could tell us. And so we came to the cave.
Because it was a nighttime scene, we decided to videotape the songs at night. Up on the hillside above the cave — which we were told has been in constant use as a “manger” for over 2,000 years — there had just been an archeological discovery. And they came to the educated guess that this had either been a big, sprawling estate — or, more likely, an inn!
And down the hillside, there was this small cave carved out of the rock, where shepherds and some of their flock, especially the newborn lambs, could come in from the cold and rain. The fires they made to keep them warm and to cook over stained the walls and ceilings for all time. It seemed just too perfect to be a coincidence.
So, we all sang our songs about the little baby, gathered around a little fragile basket, and our daughter Lindy sang a song in the role of young Mary (they were quite likely the same age when Jesus was born). We didn’t just sing, though; we worshipped the God who so loved us that he was willing to let his precious son be born in absolutely the most humiliating, nondescript setting imaginable. It was precisely because he didn’t intend that anyone come to saving faith in Jesus because of pomp or power or wealth.
And so it is that no one comes to Jesus through great intellect or social position or scholarship. Those things may be good and desirable — but as God humbled himself so exquisitely, so unexpectedly, so must every disciple come humbly and merit-less to him.
The world into which Jesus was born was like ours today, in many ways. The Jewish people had been subjugated by the Romans. They were taxed almost to poverty. They had to obey dictates and orders delivered by a man who had sold his soul to the Romans, and the people had to obey or die. King Herod (he wore that title only by permission from his Roman oppressors) ordered that all Jews had to return to the places where they had been born, a great and expensive inconvenience. It was so Herod could have an accurate census by which he could further levy taxes and control almost everything his subjects did.
Any of that seem at all familiar in our country today?
And yet, astoundingly, when the shepherds heard that “glorious song of old,” they were thrilled beyond description. Wise men came from the East, following a very bright star, one which seemed to hover over the little manger. The angels filled the sky with heavenly music and proclamation and joy — great, inexpressible joy — filled the chests of all who heard. Surely you, had you been there that night and heard and saw what they did, you’d have been thrilled the same. No one in history had ever seen or heard such a thing!
Was it only the phenomenon of the angels and their singing that caused the world to freeze “in solemn stillness?” Or was it not the much more fabulous realization that the living God had entered human flesh, the human condition, that the promised messiah of Israel had been born, and things were going to change — radically!
And change they did. That night, the very moment of Jesus’ birth, the Roman Empire was doomed. No matter how the captors tried, even nailing the grown Jesus to a rough wooden cross, they couldn’t stop the tide of change. And they couldn’t keep him in the grave — another hole carved in the rock of a hillside, beside Gethsemane. They buried his dead, tortured body in that cave. But, on the morning of the third day, as the prophets foretold, his body sprang to life, and he walked out into the garden — and back into a world forever changed.
That joy, that deep exhilarating confidence that God was truly in control, was so contagious that it spread quickly around the known world. And it continues to spread today, wherever people give him room — in their hearts.
And what about the “peace on earth?” We have more wars and violence and depravity than perhaps at any previous time. How can we have peace? Is it possible in our time?
Yes, the “peace” comes the same way as the “joy”— in individual packages. We’ll never have a world at peace in our time, or in any other — except for a brief three years or so when the prophesied final world ruler establishes his ruthless authority over every nation and people. But for now and forever, individuals who receive him by faith, even this Christmas time, receive joy inexpressible — and peace that passes understanding.
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