Note: This was a sermon I preached at the Christmas Eve Jazz Carols service at The Journey in 2011. Please adjust your mental calendar references accordingly while you read!
At 19, Jesse was one of the oldest of the shepherds in the region around Bethlehem. It was a young man’s game. Being a shepherd was not the best job in Israeli society. In fact…it was pretty much the worst. Cold, dark nights were a guarantee. Many of his fellow shepherds had lost fingers and toes to frostbite and ended up beggars in nearby Jerusalem, or dead. A few younger ones had got lucky with apprenticeships to men without sons. But not him.
Finding decent land for his master’s flocks was not easy, but Jesse was a good shepherd. He took heart in knowing that great men of God before him had been shepherds also and strove to emulate them. It was not out of the question that one day he would lead all of the shepherds who tended his master’s flocks.
But sometimes the cold reality of his life’s potential struck Jesse. This was it for him. His whole destiny was to be a shepherd, freezing most nights, sweltering during the day while he tried to sleep and looking after another man’s property. There were no rich feasts or fine clothing for him. The rude hut he shared with two other young shepherds…that was his world. His future was set. And so some nights, despite his positive outlook, his faith, his ancestors…he felt totally hopeless. Unbearably lost.
Tonight was one of those nights. A dreariness had settled on him that he could not shake, a sense of fear, of despair. He brooded quietly, listening to the sounds of the night.
The sheep were stirring noisily, few of them sleeping. Jesse took no notice, lost in his thoughts, until he heard the unmistakeable sound of mad laughter. Hyenas. The hair on the back of his neck began to rise. Defending the flock from hyenas and wolves was nothing new to Jesse but it certainly made for a long, stressful night. And every sheep lost was held directly against him. The shadows creeping over the top of the nearby hill in the clear night solidified into a pack of four hyenas. A large pack. Jesse stiffened and put his fingers to his mouth to signal to the other shepherds, but before he could a whistle came from the other end of the field. There, too? That wasn’t just unusual – that was unheard of. Jesse signalled back.
The beasts crept closer, moonlight glinting off their eyes. Jesse remained motionless, not wanting to alert the hyenas to his presence. The stars, bright in the night sky, outlined the pack clearly. Upwind from the sheep, they had not smelled the hyenas yet but that would soon change. Jesse could feel his heartbeat increasing, his pulse racing, nervous sweat beginning to drip from his brow. The hyenas fanned out slowly, crouching low to the ground and Jesse stiffened, readying to fight, realising that by himself, without help he would struggle to win this battle. It looked hopeless.
But the attack never came. Instead, without any warning, a blaze of light illuminated the sky and trumpets sounded, louder than any sound Jesse had ever heard before. He unwittingly fell to his knees, looking up to a sky that glowed incandescently across the horizon. A figure of pure light shone in the night and began to speak as Jesse shielded his eyes from the sheer glory shining before him.
The sound was indescribable. What was spoken was prophecy, directly from the Torah, the sounds of history books that Jesse and all of Israel had been taught since childhood. But what the message brought…was hope.
The angel’s words would be recorded by other shepherds because Jesse, glorious light shining in his eyes and wondrous noise resounding in his ears, was focused on seeking out the hope of the world, the hope that would grant him rest from his present troubles and lead him into a future of a total, holistic redemption.
The dirt, sand and grass crunched under the camels cloven hooves as the small party headed south on the road from Jerusalem. The party itself had about twenty members, mostly bodyguards, but only a few of the party truly mattered. The Magi. The Zoroastrian priests had traveled from the east, following a star and reading the signs, but not before detouring past Jerusalem to ‘pay their respects’ to the local authorities.
There was no doubt in Melchior’s mind that Herod, dull though he was, had understood the insult. Magi from the Parthian court did not simply stroll into Roman-occupied territory without good reason. The two mighty empires had no formal peace treaty – indeed, they were often at war – and rarely did a group of officials travel across the treacherous and fluid border to brave enemy land. While the Judean territory represented only a small part of their empire, Caesar Augustus did not take kindly to incursions, nor to insults to his client kings. However dull they were.
Melchior sneered at the thought, spinning the ornamental anachitis hanging from the cord around his neck. His grizzled brow furrowed as he pondered the events of the past few weeks. The signs and portents were evident and all pointed to the same thing. There was no disputing that the great king had arrived, the question was, how to respond? A flurry of arguments had occurred among the usually aloof and cold magi when the stars had been interpreted. Ultimately, a group had been sent in response. The party had brought traditional gifts of welcoming as a display of honour from the Parthian empire. They had come themselves as a show of respect from Zoroastrian priests, no strangers to Hebrew life and spirituality, but right now, none of that was bothering Melchior. The real question to him was how should he respond as a man?
The magi had a great deal of power, both political and spiritual, within the Parthian empire. They bowed to one man and one alone – the emperor. But the stars told of a changing story.
Was it really possible that this was the King that was prophesised about, not just the King of the Jews but the Christ? The Messiah? Melchior was a priest, a politician, a leader, a magi, an astrologer…he was a lot of things, but he wasn’t the Messiah. He was mighty, but he wasn’t the Christ.
He looked across to the wise and aged faces of Baltasar and Gaspar, who had been deep in conversation when they left Herod’s palace. Now, as they neared their destination, a sense of silence had fallen upon them. Both of them looked introspective. Much as I must look, Melchior thought, unconsciously stroking his long white beard.
Melchior’s unique mix of gifts made for an interesting combination. He was a talented astrologer, though not as gifted as Gaspar. He was a competent priest, but without the bearing and presence of Baltasar. No, Melchior was primarily a highly-skilled politician. His lot in life was to determine the destiny of the millions with the choices he made. He had created and destroyed kings and emperors in Parthia and when he had chosen to come on this trip it created an uproar in the palace.
Melchior knew exactly what he was doing and the effects that it would have. It was the why that troubled him. For the Hebrew prophecies, well known to the magi, were not about the ‘next’ king, but rather about ‘The’ king. The one who would reign forever in an eternal kingdom. Melchior traded in power and in that sense, was a consumate politician. But he was still a priest, with priestly beliefs and actions. He believed in one sovereign god and believed in his outworkings on earth. Which means that if the signs and portents were right – and Melchior believed they were – that this would be the son of God. All Melchior’s vaunted power, his ability to make and break kings along with his fellow magi, would be lost.
Melchior was riding to put himself out of a job. And despite the fact that he believed the omens he was reading, he couldn’t quite conceive that he’d ended up obeying them, choosing God over his own power.
As they crested the hill and saw their destination, the magi pulled up reins for a moment. There, blazing like an inferno high up in the night sky, was the great star they had been following, straight above Bethlehem. Gaspar reached into his saddle pouch and the others followed suit, extracting precious gifts to give to the Christ. A mutual sense of wonder and solemnity gathered over these three wise old men – astrologers, priests and king-makers – as they glanced at each other and silently, mutually came to terms with their own place in the infinite universe. Their bodyguards, sensing the magis’ mood, stood at sharp attention, eyes moving from the magi to the surrounding environment, then back again.
Clucking their reins, the magi rode their camels silently into the little town of Bethlehem, Melchior at their head. No more the arrogant politicians who had strutted into Jerusalem, their superior bearing was gone. Instead, it had been replaced with the childlike wonder of those seeing something for the first time.
Minutes later, they would willingly kneel in straw, dirt and waste, muddying their expensive robes for the chance to bow, awe-struck, at the feet of a tiny baby.
All clichés aside, there had never been a night quite like this one.
The night seemed unnaturally still. All around the small town was silent apart from a few tired cows, lowing in the fields.
The stars were particularly bright in the clear night sky. The air was fresh and cool, bringing with it the scents of a fresh Israel spring: tamarices, orchids, Spanish marigolds. The sort of night that made you glad to be alive. The sort of night that more people should be awake to experience.
But only one man was awake in the tiny town of Bethlehem tonight.
Joseph breathed deeply of the night air, revitalising his weary body. He needed sleep; no, he was past that. He needed something that mere sleep could not provide.
Joseph turned and stared up at the one star that outshone the rest, the one that seemed peculiarly to be sitting directly above the stable he’d just walked out of. A year ago, he would have scoffed, calling that a ridiculous fancy. But a lot had changed in that year.
Getting married was always a big deal in Israel, cause for a celebration. His mother had alternately wept for joy and mourned that she would be losing her boy when she found out the news. His father had grinned, congratulated him heartily and worried about being able to provide enough wine for the wedding feast.
But it was Mary who had turned Joseph’s world upside-down.
No, he corrected himself, that’s not quite fair. It was the events that had occurred to Mary. It wasn’t as if one could predict these sort of events.
His fiancée, pregnant.
An angelic vision.
A shotgun wedding.
And now, here he was, 80 miles from Nazareth, without a bed to sleep in – even if he could – standing outside a stable where his wife had just given birth to the King of his people.
Joseph considered himself to be a good man – some had even gone as far as to call him ‘righteous’, which he thoroughly refuted – but he had no idea how to handle the events of the past year and, in particular, the last 24 hours.
His wife should be stoned. He should be a widower. He shouldn’t be a parent!
What is a man meant to think, when his wife mysteriously gets pregnant? What is he meant to believe when he dreams of angels and prophecies? How in God’s name was he going to get through this!
Joseph had seen the wise and foolish come and go tonight, kneeling at the feet of this boy, Mary’s child. The rich and the poor. But now they were gone and he was alone in Bethlehem in the middle of the night.
Joseph wanted so hard to believe this was all true. He desperately loved his wife. She was an incredible woman: thoughtful, kind, compassionate, playful and wise beyond her years. He could even let himself dream that if God had to choose someone to bear His baby…why not Mary?
But it was one thing to read about these prophecies in the history books. It was another entirely to experience them being fulfilled in his own life.
Joseph sighed, and with one last glance at the shining star, walked quietly back inside the stable. His beautiful wife was fast asleep under a blanket. He smiled slightly. She’d had a big night.
He sat down on a bale of hay and peered in at his newborn – stepson? Godson? – as he lay sleeping in the manger. Joseph put his head in his hands, rubbed his eyes and dropped his shoulders as tears began to well in his eyes. He watched the sleeping baby, blankets moving up and down gently with each breath.
Then from his lips, unbidden, came a soft cry from his heart.
I want to believe in you…help me in my unbelief!
The whispered words woke the baby. With serious dark eyes, he silently peered up towards Joseph, who picked him up to rock him back to sleep.
Joseph was suddenly, inexplicably captivated by this tiny creature, swaddled in blankets. After the chaos that was the past 24 hours, the stillness of the night was such an incredible contrast that he could hardly bear it. He stood there for a moment, staring into the child’s eyes.
Then, cradling the baby, Joseph walked back outside, careful not to disturb his wife. He looked back up at the clear, dark sky with its single bright star, then down at the newborn child in his arms. Soft. Fragile. Flawless.
For the first time in his life he felt a personal connection with the God of the universe, beyond anything he’d ever felt or understood before. Beyond God as a Creator, Joseph suddenly understood the nature of God as a father. In that moment he was overwhelmed by the depth of the love he felt, the connection from the God he sensed around him that had inspired him to share the same love with his wife and now, to this tiny baby in his arms.
“Someday,” he said, “you’ll rule everything I can see. And no doubt places that I can’t. But until that time, I’ll do what I can to raise you the way that your Heavenly Father would want me to. And I will love you with everything in me. You will be my son in name and inheritance and I will believe in you and I will do whatever it takes to help you grow into the man the world needs you to be.”
The saviour of the world smiled up at his father, secure in his loving arms. And for one perfect, holy moment, all was well with the world.
The Most Wonderful Time Of The Year
Christmas is called the most wonderful time of the year.
For the characters in these stories, that was definitely true. They were full of wonder and awe at the presence of God in their life.
More importantly though, they were transformed by it.
The bible records that Jesus was brought gifts by all his visitors, most famously gold, frankincense and myrrh from the magi. But Jesus has never been about physical representations or literal sacrifices. Jesus is all about the gifts of the heart and the sacrifices we make to draw nearer to him.
For Jesse the shepherd, his sacrifice was his heart – placing all his hope for new life in Jesus. For Melchior the magi, his sacrifice was his own pride and power – humbling himself before the infant king. For Joseph, his sacrifice was his very faith – faith in the honesty of his wife, faith in the legitimacy of his own vision and faith that Jesus truly was the son of God, entrusted to his care.
As we celebrate together the birth of Christ, what gift do you need to bring to him? What sacrifice do you need to offer to him?
Maybe you’re like Jesse – feeling hopeless and needing the love of God and the hope that Jesus brings. Maybe you’re like Melchior – arrogant, secure in the misguided sense that you control your own life, needing to humble yourself before the Creator of the universe. Maybe you’re like Joseph – struggling to believe that what you’re hearing is true but desperately wanting to believe the message.
Maybe you just really, really need to feel God’s love.
Whatever the case, this Christmas I pray you know that God is with you wherever you go and whatever you’re going through. He loves you so very much and is always waiting to respond to welcome you into his loving arms. Today we celebrate the day that God came to earth as a baby to save us all.
May you rest secure in this knowledge over the holiday season. May you seek God and find Him. May you have a very merry Christmas.