When I was a child in Sunday school, my image of Christ was of a tall man with long, flowing haira handsome, rugged man with a gentle smile. He was always carrying a very white lamb perched peacefully on his shoulders. But that's not how the prophet Isaiah described the Messiah: "He has no form or comeliness; And when we see him, there is no beauty that we should desire him" (Isaiah 53:2).
Nothing about the arrival or appearance of Christ was expected.
Through Their Eyes
Imagine you are in Jerusalem on the night of Christ's birth, and Jerusalem is crowded. The area around the temple is mobbed with people standing shoulder to shoulder, staring straight up into the sky.
"What are you looking at?" you ask.
"Nothing, I'm waiting," is the sharp reply.
"Waiting for what?" you want to know.
"Not what; it's who! We're waiting for the arrival of the Messiah."
You slip away from the mass of impatient men and women jockeying for a better position and head out into the countryside southwest of Jerusalem. It's quiet now, peaceful. You gaze up at the stars and are amazed that they seem so bright, so close, in the crisp night air. There's one in particular that's so bright it cuts through the darkness like a brilliant lantern. You follow. You walk about five miles and find yourself in the small town of Bethlehem.
"Nice night!" you say to a small group of shepherds as you catch up with them. You mean to ask them if they know of a good place to stay, but they're in a hurry, so you just follow. You arrive at a small barn and reason that they must be looking for shelter for themselves.
You go in. But something outrageous is going on here. There, lying in a cattle feed box, is a baby. The shepherds get on their knees, and you join them. You can't stand. There's such a swelling in your heart, you think you might burst. Deep inside your soul, you know the crowd in Jerusalem is standing in the wrong place. Those people have missed the miracle by five miles. They're standing, looking up, when the Messiah has come down.
Can you image if you had told the religious leaders of the day, "The Messiah is coming! His mother is an unmarried teenager, and he'll be born in a shed"? It would sound outrageous, irreverent, perhaps even blasphemous. Yet so many missed Jesus that night. They were so close, but so far away, like someone who's sat in church for 50 years and never has gotten the point. You can be inches away from Christ and still miss the gift. You can be a very religious person and never receive the hope and healing offered through the sacrifice Jesus made.
An Unlikely Audience
What did the shepherds understand that night? We'll never know. They knew that there was something very unusual about the child. Very few human eyes have seen the sky fit to burst with the presence of angels. Few human ears have heard singing like that or such a message directly from the throne room of heaven:
"The angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.'
"Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
"'Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.'
"When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, 'Let's go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about'" (Luke 2:10-15).
It's interesting that often when an angel addresses a man or woman, he has to start by saying, "Don't be afraid!" Angels must be spectacular to look at. I don't think we even begin to take in the power that's around us every day. We've watered down the truth of the majesty and might of God's kingdom and the mighty warriors who fight day and night in the name of God. The arrival in Bethlehem wasn't the mild-mannered, sanitized depiction we see on our Christmas cards every year. It was an invasion of all that's holy and good into everything that's corrupt and evil, a divine covert operation to set us free. In the guise of an innocent child, all of heaven was waging war with the Enemy of our souls to set us free.
A Painful Gift
Every Christmas in churches around the world, little ones don their bathrobes and reenact that first Christmas. Shepherds crowd around the manger, vying for a good camera position for their parents, and then the wise men arrive with their gifts. For purposes of a church presentation, everything happens in a matter of an hour or so. But that's not how things really happened.
It's clear from Matthew's gospel that some time had passed from the birth of Christ until the visit of the Magi: "On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh" (Matthew 2:11).
Mary, Joseph, and Jesus were settled in a house. The Greek word used to describe Jesus on the night he was born is the word for "baby," brephos, but the word used during the Magis visit is the word for "small child," paidion.
Mary knew this boy to whom she'd given birth was no ordinary child. An angel had visited her, and she'd shared the first moments as she held her tiny boy to her breast with shepherds who told a fantastic story about angels appearing. But days had turned to weeks, and they had moved on with their lives. They were in their own home now. Jesus had said his first word, perhaps taken his first step. She was a young mother with the hopes and dreams of any young motherand then the Magi arrived.
I imagine Mary receiving the gifts. She would be moved and overwhelmed by the gift of gold from the men. Their gifts signified that they recognized One greater than they was in the room. The frankincense was a costly perfume and would be gratefully received. But did Mary recoil as they presented the gift of myrrh? Did her face betray her shock that already this child's destiny was being prepared? Myrrh exudes from a tree found in Arabia and was a much-valued spice. Myrrh was an anesthetic, a substance used in embalming.
What a strange gift to give a child! It was a gift that would be offered again as Jesus was about to be crucified. Merciful women would approach those about to be executed and offer myrrh, which would act as a sedative.
Jesus refused the cup offered to take the edge off his pain. He fully embraced everything that lay ahead: "They brought Jesus to the place called Golgotha (which means The Place of the Skull). Then they offered him wine mixed with myrrh, but he did not take it. And they crucified him" (Mark 15:22-24).
Jesus embraced loneliness on the cross so that we will never be alone.
He took the punishment of our sin so that we can be forgiven.
He was broken so we can be whole.
His death brought us forgiveness.
His resurrection brought us hope for eternal life.
His wounds heal us.
He left the worship of angels, the glory of heaven, and the companionship of his Father to step into human time and treachery. He came to do what no one else could doto bring healing and to fulfill the promise of Psalm 147:3: "He heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds." That is his commitment to us.
Adapted from the book The Heartache No One Sees, 2004 by Sheila Walsh. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson Inc., All rights reserved.
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