Tag Archives: Christmas
[Talk given at Christmas Eve Candlelit Carol service 2014 at the Brecon Presbyterian Church.
Based on a talk from
[Hold up a large Christmas Cracker]
Who can tell me what this is?
Who can tell me what I’ll find inside?
Who wants to pull it with me?
What do we find in there?
– We’ve got a joke
– We’ve got a present
– We’ve got a crown
1. the joke reminds us that Jesus brings us great joy
Crackers always have jokes in them. Let’s read one of the jokes from the cracker.
“What do reindeer use to decorate their Chrstmas trees?”
Not a very good joke. reindeer have antlers, not horns! Sometimes the jokes in crackers are pathetic. They are there to make us groan rather than laugh.
But good jokes are brilliant because they make us laugh and they bring us great joy. The joke in the cracker reminds us that God sent Jesus to bring us great joy. Jesus is the only person who can make us really joyful. Following and trusting in Jesus is the most fantastic thing that we can do.
2. the present reminds us that Jesus is God’s gift
Crackers always have a gift in them.
This is the gift in the cracker. It’s not much, is it. But if you spend a lot of money on crackers you might get a decent gift in them.
The gift reminds us that God sent Jesus as a gift. Jesus is very valuable and very precious. Jesus is the best present that God could give us.
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)
I’m sure that there are lots of things that we’d like to have at Christmas but there’s no better gift to have than Jesus.
3. the crown reminds us that Jesus is a king
Crackers always have a paper hat or a crown in them. Grown ups always look slly at Christmas because they wear their crowns when they’re eating.
But the crown reminds us that God sent Jesus as a king. Jesus is in charge of everything. Even though we can’t see him he is looking after everything to make sure that we’re ok.
And it reminds us that we also shall wear crowns in heaven and share in his heavenly kingdom.
Let’s look at some key words in Luke 1: 26 – 28:
v 27 ” to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary.”
There is no way you can read the New Testament and escape the fact of the Virgin Birth. Some theologians have denied its truth – have said that the word used in Isaiah 7: 14 does not actually mean “virgin” but simply means “young woman”.
[“The Virgin shall be with child and will give birth to a son and you will call him Emmanuel. ]
This may well be true in Isaiah’s original prophecy, but when that prophecy is quoted in the New Testament the Greek word “Parthenos” (= Virgin) is used.
Those who deny the Virgin Birth also have to ignore Matthews words:
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. ( Matthew 1: 18 )
Mary was a virgin she had never had sexual relations. Joseph and Mary were godly Jews and they obeyed the Law of Moses. They were waiting until marriage before consumating their relationship. To do otherwise would have been to disobey the Law of God and Mary was not a disobedient girl. Those who deny the virgin birth are casting aspersions upon her character.
There are only 3 possibilities. Either:
· it was a miraculous conception
· or Joseph and Mary had sexual relations and then made up the story to cover up their sin
· or Mary had been unfaithful with other man.
How can we think such things? To a Christian, surely only the first option is possible.
v 28 “The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.” “
Mary is more highly honoured and any other woman – and any other man apart from her Son.
Think of some of the world’s great men and women who have received wonderful honours:
· emperors and rulers – Julius Caesar, Napoleon
· scientists – Isaac Newton, Einstein
· musicians – Beethoven, Mozart
· inventers – Edison, Bell
· businessmen – Rockerfeller, Richard Branson.
Has any of them ever received such an honour as this? Has anyone ever been honoured in the way Mary has been honoured?
We Protestants have perhaps shied away from according to Mary the true honour she deserves. Appalled at the idea of people kneeling before her image and offering their prayers to her we have gone to the other extreme. We have failed to realise what an extraordinary thing it was for this humble village maiden to become the Mother of the Son of God.
v 29 “Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be.”
She was perplexed, troubled, disturbed by what had happened. It’s not every day an angel appears to you – even less with such words of honour on his lips. In her humility she could see no reason for this honour. The humble saint of God will often be perplexed at what God is doing.
v 31 “You will be with child and give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus.”
This is the name they were told to give him. It is a form of the name Joshua and it means “the Lord saves”. Just as Joshua had led the people of Israel into the promised land so is Jesus would bring salvation to his people.
v 32 “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David.”
He is to be a divine child, God’s Son. By his dual nature (human / divine) he will bring salvation to the world.
“If Jesus is not true God, how could he help us?If he is not true man, how could he help us? (Dietrich Bonheffer)
v 33 “And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end.”
He’s a king and he will reign over a kingdom that will never be defeated. He is the one true Saviour and Lord of all nations. All shall in time submit to his rule, all people will one day bow before his throne.
I have seen a picture, it is called “King of kings”, which shows many of the world’s great leaders ( Caesar, Napoleon, Alexander the Great, etc.) bowing before Christ. But we can say on that day even the founders of other religions and ideologies will bow before him:
· Karl Marx will bow before him,
· Mohammed will bow before him,
· Gautama the Buddha will bow before him,
· Mahatma Gandhi will bow before him.
All will have to acknowledge him as King of Kings, and true Saviour of mankind.
v 34″How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
Here is emphasised the miraculous nature of the conception of Jesus. “I am a virgin” how can I became the mother of God’s Son?
It was most definitely going to be miracle – there is no way we can get away from that fact.
Scientists tell us that it is theoretically possible for there to be a virgin birth in humans. (In the insect kingdom it happens all the time.) Also, one day it might be possible, by genetic engineering or cloning, to induce virgin birth in human beings. And when that happens there will be nothing miraculous about it – it will be according to the laws of science. But scientists also point out that it would only be possible to produce a female child from a virgin mother. So the virgin birth of Jesus is impossible in genetic terms – but not in God’s terms.
v 37 “For nothing is impossible with God.”
This is how it will happen the Angel says:
v 35 “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.”
It will be brought about by divine power. The child will be conceived by the Holy Spirit and thus he will be the Son of God. God himself will take human flesh.
Do you find it difficult to believe in the virgin birth? How can this be so? If you believe in the Incarnation – that God came into the world, died on the cross and rose again on the third day – if you believe these things how can the Virgin Birth be so incredible?
After all if God was going to be born as any man then it would be very strange if there were to be nothing miraculous or wonderful about his birth. If Jesus had just been Joseph’s son we might never have known that he was also the Son of God.
God took the initiative. The birth of Jesus was not the result of any human action it was a miraculous work of grace.
7) Servant (Conclusion)
v 38 ”I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.”
Submission to the will of God.
Here we have the awesome and awful possibility that Mary could have said “No” to God. And God would not force his servant to became the mother of his Son. By her free will she chooses to become the mother of the Saviour. With great fear and trembling – not quite knowing what the consequences will be – she says yes to God.
The Roman Catholics stress her role in all this, calling her the Co-redeemer of the world. We would not want to go that far. We will not worship her or offer our prayers to her but we will seek to emulate her, we will hold her in respect.
None of us is called to the same great task as Mary but we all hear the call of God. To each one of us he says:” My child, submit your life to me”.
And our answer should be the same as Mary’s:
v 38 ”I am the Lord’s servant. May it be to me as you have said.”
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise, God chose what is weak in this world to shame the strong, God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God.”
(1 Corinthians 1:27- 29).
To illustrate this text let me tell you the Fable of the Three Trees. You may have heard this story before:
The Fable of the Three Trees
Three trees once grew on a hillside. They often talked about what they would like to become. One said, “I would like to be made into a baby’s cradle”. The second said, “I would like to be part of a great ship carrying treasure”. The third said, “I would just like to stand on a hilltop and point people to heaven”.
One day the woodcutters came along. They came to the first tree and said, “Let’s cut down this tree and make it into a feeding trough for cows.”
The tree thought, “No, I don’t want to be a feeding trough. I want to be a cradle for a baby.” But they made it into a feeding trough anyway.
And when Jesus was born he was placed gently into that feeding trough (or manger) – because there was nowhere else for him. And the wood of the tree cradled far more than an ordinary child – he was the King of Kings himself.
“Why,” thought the wood, “This is far more wonderful than I imagined!”
The woodman came to the second tree and said, “Let’s use this one as part of a fishing boat.”
“Oh no,” groaned the tree, “I want to be part of a great ship carrying treasure.” But they made a fishing boat and they sailed it on an inland lake – not even on the great ocean.
Simon Peter came to buy that boat and one day Jesus sailed in it and used it as a pulpit to preach from. The boat carried far more than earthly treasure then – it became a vehicle for the Word of God.
And the wood of the boat thought, “Why, this is far more wonderful than I imagined!”
The woodcutters came to the third tree and said, “Let’s make a cross to execute criminals.”
The wood of the tree cried out within itself, “Oh no, I don’t want to be a cross – a thing of shame where men die! I just want to stand on a hilltop and point people to heaven.”
But they made a cross – and Jesus was crucified on it. And the wood of the cross became the Tree of Glory – the instrument of salvation for the whole world. Down through the ages people have looked to the cross and it has pointed them to heaven.
And the wood of the cross said, “Why, this is far more wonderful than I imagined!”
I hope you don’t mind me telling you a fable – it’s far more than just a children’s story. It’s a parable. It tells us how God takes the mean and humble things and turns them into instruments of his glory.
Christ the Power and Wisdom of God.
When Paul wrote to the Christians in Corinth he reminded them that not many of them came from wealthy families or were highly educated. He drew their attention to the fact that God chose the cross of Christ to save the world.
Jews were looking for signs and wonders and Greeks were always seeking for wisdom. To the Jews the cross was a stumbling block: for does it not say in the Law of Moses, “he that is hanged is accursed of God”? ( Deuteronomy 21:23 KJV)
To the Greeks and other Gentiles it seemed to be utter folly. Who would become the follower of a man who had been executed in such a shameful way?
But Paul says, “To those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God.” (1 Corinthians 1: 24).
We need to realise that there is power in the cross and in the cross alone. The power is not in man-made schemes, not in clever marketing ploys to win the world, not in the latest trendy teaching from some popular TV evangelist. The power is in the cross of Christ: his blood atones for our sins, puts us right with God and is able to transform the human heart.
From defeat to victory
God takes the weak and feeble things and uses them for his glory. He takes disappointment and humiliation and turns it into victory and joy.
God’s Son was born in a stable, placed in a manger, brought up in humble obscurity, rejected by the leaders and religious teachers of his day, betrayed by one of his disciples, abandoned by the others, flogged and nailed to the cross by the Romans.
To his followers this seemed a crushing defeat. But three days later they saw it all differently! And in the years that followed they came to see that that cross of shame was indeed the means of salvation for all mankind.
If we put our trust in him, God can turn our disappointments and sorrows into joys. He can even use them to bring greater good into the world.
As it says in one of our Christmas Carols (although this verse is omitted in the Church Hymnary version of “It came upon the midnight clear”):
And those whose journey now is hard,
Whose hope is burning low,
Who tread the rocky path of life
With painful steps and slow:
O listen to the news of love
Which makes the heavens ring!
O rest beside the weary road
And hear the angels sing!
(E.H. Sears, altered)
Yes this is the message of Christmas – God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise. And it is also the message of Easter! It is in fact the Christian message – that there is power in the cross of Christ.
So then let us set aside our own power – out own wealth, intellect, influence, talents – let us lay them on the altar and let us unreservedly lean on the power of Christ to save us and to transform our world.
Matthew 1 23. ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means ‘God with us’).
It has been said like that many of the Old Testament prophecies are rather like looking at a range of mountains from a distance. You look over at the mountains and you think you have just seen one set of peaks. But in fact there are several ranges of mountains one behind the other. From the distance that you are viewing them they seem to be just one range of mountains. They all seem to be at the same distance, although in reality there are large distances between the various ranges.
And when we read the prophecies in the Old Testament there may be several different ways in which they will be fulfilled. The first one is the message that was given to the people in those days – to be interpreted within the context of the political and national life of that time. The second one might speak of the coming of the Messiah into the world. This will be fulfilled when Jesus is born in Bethlehem, grows up in Nazareth and dies in Jerusalem. The third fulfillment of the prophecy will be at the End Times when Christ will return to judge the world. And then, beyond all this there is usually also a personal application which the Christian reader can make to their own lives.
So what seems at first to be the one range of mountains is really a series of peaks one behind the other. And just as the ranges of mountains in the distance might be very far apart from one another, so it is with Biblical prophecy. There may be hundreds or even thousands of years between the various fulfillments of a prophetic word.
This is true of our text today: it speaks of a child called Immanuel who will be born to a young woman. It had its first application in the time of Isaiah and king Ahaz. But we see its second and most important application in the birth of Jesus who was born of a virgin.Then again it will find its third fulfillment when Jesus returns.
So let’s consider these things. Let’s look at the first peak, as it were – the words of Isaiah to King Ahaz. (Isaiah 7:1-17.)
The Lord himself will give you a sign
The kingdom of Judah was in danger of invasion by the King of Syria and the King of Israel ( the northern Hebrew kingdom). They had allied and come to attack Jerusalem but they had not been able to overpower it. And so the Lord gave to Isaiah a message of encouragement for the king of Judah.
“This is what the Sovereign Lord says: it will not take place, it will not happen.” Isaiah says that within 65 years the kingdom of Israel will be too weak to be able to do anything. “If you do not stand firm in your faith, you will not stand at all,” is what he said to king Ahaz. God says he will rescue his people.
And then the Lord spoke to Ahaz:
‘Ask the Lord your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights.’
But Ahaz said, ‘I will not ask; I will not put the Lord to the test.’
Then Isaiah said, ‘Hear now, you house of David! Is it not enough to try the patience of humans? Will you try the patience of my God also?
King Ahaz says that he won’t put the Lord to the test – but God is asking him to do this, to ask for a sign! This is not tempting God or putting him to the test. It is responding in obedience and faith. And that is what Ahaz will not do. He cloaks it in pious talk but really he is trying the patience of God.
“Therefore,” says Isaiah,”the Lord himself will give you a sign: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel.”
These words are obscure but Isaiah seems to be saying that God will bring his deliverance to the people in a very short time – in the time it will take for a young child to be born and weaned. “Before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste,” he says.
But why refer to a virgin giving birth to a child? The Hebrew word actually simply refers to a young woman – it does not require a miracle and it is not, in the first instance, referring to a virgin birth. This child going to be born maybe refers to a son of King Ahaz, or prehaps a son of Isaiah. This child will be a sign to the people and a reminder to them that God is with them. Immanuel: God with you.
As I said these words are obscure and difficult to understand. If we just restrict it to the days of Isaiah and king Ahaz then we can not make much sense of them. These words do not find their full completion in those days – we have to look to the coming of Jesus we find the true fulfillment of these words.
The coming of the Messiah
The New Testament writers, and especially Matthew, saw this prophecy answered and fulfilled in the coming of Jesus Christ.
“All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: the virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son and they will call him Immanuel – which means God with us. (Matthew 1:22)
Matthew sees these words fulfilled in the Virgin Birth of Jesus. Now some Bible scholars seem to take delight in pointing out that the Hebrew word used in Isaiah doesn’t really mean virgin at all – it just means young woman. And then they make the unjustified assumption that the Bible does not teach a Virgin Birth of Christ. This is wrong in so many ways. Yes, the word used in Isaiah does simply mean “young woman” and, as I said, in the first fulfillment of these words it was just about the ordinary birth of a child in Judah. But when we think about the second fulfilment of these words, when we think about the birth of Jesus, then the word “virgin” is totally appropriate.
Matthew uses the Greek word “parthenos” which means “virgin”. And he makes it very plain to us that Mary became pregnant before she had had intercourse with a man, that the conception was miraculous and the work of the Holy Spirit, and that Joseph had no intercourse with her until after she gave birth to her son.
Thus the Gospel of Matthew teaches the Virgin Birth of Jesus. It’s all about God taking the initiative. The birth of Jesus was not the result of any human act.
And the title given to the child is highly significant. Immanuel means: God with us. Matthew is telling us that when Jesus was born, God himself was coming into the world to dwell with us. This is the doctrine of the Incarnation. It is the most wonderful thing in the whole world: that God should take human form, to live like us, to suffer and to die on a cross for our sins.
Immanuel: God with us. What good news that is!
The second coming of Christ
And so we come to the third fulfilment. When Jesus returns, then these words will be completely fulfilled. God will be with us. He will return to earth to dwell with man.
And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Look! God’s dwelling-place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.
God with us.
Its application to us as individuals
And what does it say to us as individual Christians?
· The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is important because it stresses the grace of God. When we realise that our salvation is the work of God and not of man, then we learn to live the life of faith.
· The name Immanuel: God with us, reminds us that the Lord dwells with us. If we are true followers of Jesus Christ, if we trust in him for salvation, then we have his Spirit, the Holy Spirit of God himself to dwell within us. If we believe in Jesus, then God is with us and within us.
· And then going back to king Ahaz – he refused to “put God to the test”. He thought it sounded more pious to talk in that way. “Oh no, I won’t ask for a sign from God, that would be putting him to the test!” But when God himself has invited you to do so, how dare you refuse? And the same could be said of us all.
“I am not good enough to come to Jesus. Oh I can’t say that there is a place in heaven for me – I would not presume to that”. We hear people talking like that all the time. And yet when John says whoever believes in Jesus has eternal life (John 3:16), who are we to doubt it. It may sound humble, it may sound pious, to say, “I don’t know whether or not I have eternal life,” but it is going against the word of God himself. We must have faith and believe the words of God. We must believe his promises.
Immanuel – God with us.
“O little town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie.”
The name Bethlehem is so familiar to us as the place of Jesus’ birth that we seldom think why. Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem, when his parents came from Nazareth, and when he was brought up in that town? And we seldom think of the meaning of the name Bethlehem or its significance in the Old Testament. I’d like us to think of some of these things today.
Bethlehem (beth lechem) means House of Bread in Hebrew. It was no doubt so called because it was a settlement in a fertile area in which wheat and barley were grown. In early times it was known as Ephrath. And later, when the town was called Bethlehem, it was usually referred to as Bethlehem Ephrathah to distinguish it from another town also called Bethlehem in the North of Israel.
Its significance in the Old Testament
Bethlehem was the place where Rachel was buried, Jacobs beloved wife. She died in childbirth as Benjamin was being born and she was buried by the side of the road on the way to Ephrath. From that time on Bethlehem was a place of sacred memory to the Children of Israel.
Later we read how Ruth, the Moabite girl, came to Bethlehem with her mother-in-law Naomi. They were fleeing from famine in Moab and had come back to the home of Ruth’s deceased husband. And Bethlehem lived up to its name. – there was plenty of bread for them there. Ruth ended up marrying Boaz and becoming the mother of Obed and grandmother of Jesse.
Three generations later David was born in Bethlehem. And it was to Bethlehem that the prophet Samuel came looking for a new king for Israel. And it was at Bethlehem that Samuel anointed David as king.
From that time on Bethlehem has been known as the City of David (although just a large village by modern standards).
And so it was, nearly a thousand years later, that Joseph the carpenter of Nazareth regarded Bethlehem as his ancestral home. He was a descendant of King David, he was of the Royal line, as was Mary his wife, and Bethlehem was the place where their ancestors had lived.
Now several centuries before the time of Jesus the prophet Micah had said great things about Bethlehem:
‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.’ (Micah 5:2).
This promised ruler is the one who came to be known as the Messiah, the Anointed One. At the time of Jesus the Jews were eagerly waiting for the coming of the Messiah. The scholars and scribes new full well that he was going to be born in Bethlehem.
In the New Testament
Remember the Wise Men? They had seen the star in the East which had told them that the King of the Jews, the Messiah, had been born. So they immediately set off to Jerusalem, the capital of Judah, to look for the King of the Jews. When they got there Herod’s scribes told them that the Messiah was going to be born in Bethlehem and so the ancient prophecy of Micah led them to that town. It is only later that the star re-appeared and directed them to the place where the child was. (The idea that people often have is of the Wise Men being led by a star all the way to Bethlehem. But this is wrong it was the words of the prophet Micah that lead them in the direction of Bethlehem.)
So how did it come about that Jesus was born in Bethlehem? Joseph and Mary were in Nazareth but the Messiah was going to be born in Bethlehem – about 90 miles away. The scene moves now to Rome where the Emperor Caesar Augustus decides he needs to raise some money. He needs some tax revenue and to get that he must have a census. He has to register all the subjects of his Empire and see who can be squeezed for tax purposes. Now in those days, long before computers and information technology, the only way to hold a census was to require every head of a household to go back to his ancestral home to be registered. (The genealogicalc records would be kept at the ancestral town.)
So everyone had to do that, and what disruption it must have caused. The roads must have been full of people travelling back to their ancestral towns throughout the whole Empire. And how inconvenient in particular for Mary and Joseph! What a trek they had to make it down to Bethlehem – and Mary was nine months pregnant.
When they got there the town was absolutely jam-packed full of other descendants of King David who had also come to the registered. So there was no room in the inn and the child was born in and outhouse.
It was hard for Mary and for Joseph, but the words of the ancient prophet had to be fulfilled. The Mesaiah had to be born in Bethlehem, and so he was. God’s providence had overruled the decisions of Emperors and Kings.
The Bread of Life
Bethlehem is the House of Bread and it was there that Jesus was born – he who is the Bread of Life from heaven.
I am the living bread that came down from heaven. Whoever eats this bread will live for ever. This bread is my flesh, which I will give for the life of the world.’
(John 6: 51)
He is our spiritual means of sustenance. When we come to Jesus we find peace and eternal life. In Bethlehem today Jews and Arabs are living in enmity . Bitter suspicion and hatred reigns in the very place where Jesus was born. Until both Jews and Arabs come to recognise that Jesus is the Bread of Life, the Messiah sent from God, there will be no peace in Bethlehem, or in the Middle East. But when both Jews and Arabs acknowledge Jesus as Lord then the historic wall of separation is broken down between them. For Jesus is the Saviour of all peoples: Jews and Arabs, Black and White, East and West, a rich and poor.
Let us praise God for his over-ruling providence that brought Jesus into the world to be our Saviour.
“The Hard Path (The Road to Bethlehem)” by Fritz von Uhde.
the General Secretary of the Presbyterian Church of Wales, Rev. Meirion Morris, in his Christmas newsletter referred to the “road to Bethlehem”. It is a road which is often sorrowful for many. The General Secretary was writing his letter at the time of the funerals of the children who were shot in the USA.
On reading this I began to think about the occasions in the Bible when we read of people on the road to Bethlehem. How often they were sorrowful on that road! And we could say the road to Bethlehem is not a happy one today – as Palestinians and Jewish settlers live in enmity near that ancient town.
But then, it was not an easy road for Mary and Joseph two thousand years ago – for all the joy of knowing she was going to be the mother of the Messiah. It was a hard road for a young girl who was nine months pregnant, a girl who was a virgin and who had never given birth before.To make a journey of nearly one hundred miles over rough roads, on foot or on the back of a donkey, heavily pregnant – and then at the end of it all, to find no lodging place in the inn. Mary and Joseph must have felt desperate. Was she going to have to give birth in the street? But, just in time, a shelter was found, and a crib for the baby, even if it was only a manger. Yes, for Joseph and Mary the road to Bethlehem was a hard one.
In the Old Testament also the road to Bethlehem was often a hard one.
For instance, Jacob lost his beloved wife Rachel at Bethlehem. She died in childbirth and just before she expired she named the child Ben-Oni. Now Ben-Oni means “son of my troubles” – but his father called him Benjamin, “son of my right hand”. (Genesis 35:19).
And so Rachel was buried by the side of the road on the way to Bethlehem Ephrath and Jacob continued his wandering in the Land of Canaan. For him Bethlehem was a place of sad memories.
Seven generations later the road to Bethlehem was once again a sorrowful one. Naomi a descendent of Jacob, an Israelite woman, was returning to her home town of Bethlehem with her Moabite daughter-in-law Ruth. Both Naomi and Ruth were widows and they were destitute. They had returned from the land of Moab looking for food in Bethlehem – “the House of Bread”. But Naomi was in deep distress. “Don’t call me Naomi,” she said to the women of Bethlehem, “Call me Mara, because the Almighty has made my life very bitter.” (Ruth 1:20 ). (The name Naomi means “pleasant” but Mara means “bitter”.) For Naomi the road back to Bethlehem was a bitter one. But it ended in joy when Ruth found a good husband in Boaz, and when Naomi cradled her little grandson Obed in her arms. This child was to become the grandfather of King David.
Many years later the Prophet Samuel took the road to Bethlehem when he was looking for a new king. And Samuel was sad on that road because Saul, whom he had anointed, had turned out to be such a bad king. The Lord had rejected Saul and had commanded Samuel to go to Bethlehem to choose one of Jesse’s sons to be king. So alongside the sorrow in Samuel’s heart there was hope – hope that the new king would be better than Saul.
But which of Jesse’s mighty warrior sons was it to be? There were seven of them in the army of King Saul and one young one looking after the sheep. In the event it turned out to be the youngest, the one who was not even in the army who was chosen. The least likely of Jesse’s sons, David, was the one chosen to be king. And he became the greatest king of Israel ever had. And it was from the House of David that Jesus sprang.
Well, we have already referred to Joseph and Mary on the hard road to Bethlehem and the joy that came when Jesus was born. When we tell the Nativity story we like to concentrate on the joy and wonder of it all. And perhaps that is right, especially when we retell the story to children. But there is another side to the story that we read in the Gospels. And that leads us on to our next travellers on the road to Bethlehem:
Herod’s soldiers on the way to Bethlehem to kill all the baby boys under the age of two. How heartbreaking it was for those mothers to lose their little boys. How shocking and barbaric the manner of their death – mercilessly hacked by the swords of Herod’s men! Yes, the birth of Jesus was attended with great sorrow.
But then, his whole life was shadowed with grief. He himself was “a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief” according to the prophecy of Isaiah. (Isaiah 53:3)
He came into the world to suffer and die for our sins. Because of his sacrificial death on the cross there is hope for an otherwise lost world
so the road to Bethlehem is often a hard one and a sad one. But into the heart of each sadness at least a little light shines.
- Jacob sorrowed over the loss of Rachel at Bethlehem and he was to have more sorrow later in his life when he lost his son Joseph ( or so he thought). But that sorrow was turned to joy when Joseph was restored to him and revealed to be ruler of Egypt.
- Naomi was sorrowing on the road to Bethlehem. She felt bitter in heart towards God. But God turned her sorrow to joy when he provided a husband for Ruth and a grandson for Naomi.
- Samuel was sad as he hurried on the road to Bethlehem. Saul had been such a failure as a king. But David whom he chose from Jesse’s sons would become the greatest king Israel ever knew.
- Joseph and Mary had a hard time on the road to Bethlehem, especially Mary. They went to be registered as descendants of King David, but in the stable was born the Son of David, the Saviour of the world.
- The mothers of Bethlehem wept and mourned when Herod’s soldiers came among them, bereaving them of their sons. But those innocent children are now in heaven and Jesus himself was safe from Herod’s wrath. He was thus able to grow up and to become our Lord and Saviour.
In the purposes of God every dark cloud can have a silver lining. Every sorrow can eventually lead to joy. It won’t happen in this life but in the promised eternal heavenly kingdom. There, all wrongs shall be righted and God shall wipe away every tear.