And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
Good news didn’t bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem. Bad news did. They had to go. The Roman emperor had decided he needed to count all his subjects so that he could properly tax them. But instead of the type of census that we’re used to, filling out forms in the mail or answering questions at the door, Caesar Augustus wanted a different kind of census. He wanted all families to return to the towns where the male side of the family originated to be counted for the tax. Can you imagine how difficult that would be for so many? Mary was very far along in her pregnancy. Doctors today would have forbidden her to travel. The journey for this young mother-to-be must have been extremely difficult. But all this was part of God’s great plan. Without the census, Mary would not have a reason to travel to Bethlehem. And Bethlehem was the place where the Messiah was to be born according to the prophet Micah: “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.”
The bad news got worse when they finally arrived in Bethlehem. The town was so crowded with travelers coming for the census, all the rooms in town were taken. The only place left was the stable. And now Mary, nine months pregnant and her husband who had traveled so far had to sleep with the animals. And the bad news continued. Mary went into labor and had to give birth in a stable and the only place to lay the baby was a manger, a bin full of food for the animals. What terrible news. Or was it?
Sometimes God allows us to think things can’t possibly get any worse before He reveals His plan. Thinking back on this year, we may feel that way. It’s not hard to see problems all around us. But what about our own lives? What’s happened this year in your life that may have caused you to think things couldn’t get any worse? The bad news sometimes takes over our thoughts and we forget about the Good News God has given us.
Life for God’s faithful at the time of Jesus’ birth was not easy. The Romans had conquered much of the world, including Israel, and God’s people had corrupted the true faith to the point where it was almost unrecognizable. A ruler many describe as insane governed the land of God’s people. Disease and hunger were commonplace. Things seemingly couldn’t get much worse. And it was into this mess that Jesus was born.
The conditions in the world and in that stable were certainly terrible. But the news was not bad news. In fact, the news that Mary had given birth caused one of the greatest commotions the earth has ever seen! Good News that will never be taken away was proclaimed for the first time in history and a peace that will never end was declared.
Some of the first people to hear this good news were shepherds. They were minding their own business, tending their sheep and suddenly events that must have terrified them began to unfold. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. There they were in the middle of nowhere, out in the fields with sheep and a heavenly messenger from God suddenly appeared and “glory of God” was all around them. No wonder they were afraid. Out in the middle of nowhere, dressed in filthy clothing—and suddenly a perfect, holy being appears before them. What went through their minds? Did they suddenly remember all of the sins they had committed? Was the angel here to destroy them? Confronted with the perfect holiness of an angel, any one of us would be frightened beyond our imaginations.
But the angel wasn’t there to destroy them. The angel came bringing a message from God Himself. The shepherds were told not to be afraid: “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. The angel brought a message that would bring nothing but joy! And the message was not only for the shepherds, but for all people. The Christ Child didn’t come for a few, but every person ever born.
And the Good News that was declared next is for all of us also: For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. The Savior everyone had waited for had finally arrived. The Christ, the anointed one, the Messiah, was born! And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us… (John 1:14) God-with-us, Immanuel. One of the greatest miracles in the history of time occurred that night. God came down from heaven, was born as a man, to live among His people to save them.
The joy wasn’t only on earth, though. Heaven itself couldn’t contain the joy, as God began His wonderful plan of salvation. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. “Glory to God in the highest” The glory for this miraculous event belonged only to God. He was one who planned this. He alone carried it out.
And now there would be peace on earth. Isaiah the prophet foretold this: Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end… (Isaiah 9:7) The peace declared that night is greatest news ever proclaimed. Because of what this child would do—live a perfect life in our place and die for our sins—an eternal peace would come to be. A peace that goes beyond nations, a peace that transcends borders, a peace that we can barely comprehend. There will always be wars and bloodshed, as long as the earth continues. But never again would the peace between God and man be undermined. Jesus would die paying for this peace with His own blood. There would be nothing more for us to do.
The Good News that was proclaimed to the shepherds on the first Christmas is for all people. The Savior, Jesus, came for all. If you have struggled this year with fear of the future, with sickness or the death of a loved one, know that this peace God declared is for you. There is no need to fear the future. God will guide you through His Word and has a home prepared for all who trust in Jesus as their Savior.
By God’s grace, through faith in Christ alone as our Savior from sin and death, we can keep the joy and peace of Christmas in our hearts, even as the world around us continues on its path away from God. God loves the whole world. And on Christmas He sent His only-begotten Son to begin the work of conquering sin and death for all time. This Christmas, remember that you have a God who cares so much for you that He became like you to save you. And as the year goes on and more and more bad news is spoken, remember the Good News of Christmas, eternal peace between God and us.
Rev. Paul Fries