As a child, I participated in my share of nativity pageants among other adorable carolers dressed as biblical characters. These human characters of the nativity scene—Mary, Joseph, the babe in the cradle, and the shepherds from that eventful night—often become part of our cute Christmas decorations. Our nativity sets and carols tend to shape the way we envision Bethlehem and the birth of Jesus. The little town of Bethlehem was known as the city of the great shepherd-king David, so it makes sense that the Christ child—the son of David—would be born there. The challenges of Bethlehem, however, must also be remembered. Sin’s devastation is no fairy tale.
Jesus was born into a small town known for its epic violence and murder at a time of pain and political uncertainty. Beyond its fulfillment of biblical prophecy, Bethlehem must be remembered for these disturbing aspects. In the gospel narratives, the announcement of Jesus’s birth fills Jerusalem with fear. Its people are under subjection, living under a politics of fear. From the assaulted and tortured concubine in the Old Testament, who is treated with unspeakable cruelty, to the blood running down the city streets from the slaughter of the innocents in the New Testament, stories connected with Bethlehem raise some serious questions about who God is (Judges 19-20; Matthew 2:16). The Christmas story must respond to the tears and pain of those who have walked through the valley of broken humanity. If God is so peaceful, why does such brutality, war, and murder happen to a child from Bethlehem? Such grievances call for a theological account.
Consider the shepherds on the hills of Bethlehem that eventful night, sitting around campfires and pondering the prophecies of a long-awaited moment of deliverance. Out of Bethlehem will come “One who will be the ruler over Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times . . . And He will be our peace” (Micah 5:2–5, NIV). They are waiting for God to interrupt the darkness of the human experience and to guide them into the way of peace (Luke 1:78, 79). They know that God will not leave them struggling in the dark night forever, for the night itself carries omens of the coming day. The light about to dawn will shatter the hold of darkness, helping people understand the character of a loving God and His plan to abolish suffering and evil.
Suddenly, the night sky is filled with a glorious light, and the angels tell the shepherds not to fear, for they bring great tidings of joy for all people (Luke 5:8–10). As they break through the night sky, these heavenly angels burst into a glorious announcement of the Lord’s shining glory. Listen to how the heavenly host frames the coming of the Savior: “Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!” (Luke 2:13, 14, NKJV).
The heavenly host comes with a song of praise, not a battle cry. Wrath is not hanging in the air to stamp out the crisis of rebellion. The angels do not fill the sky with a raging, punishing fire but with a carol. Fear not! Good tidings! Great joy! Peace on earth! Goodwill among men! These are promises that resonate with our hearts’ deepest longings. Their hymn of praise that bursts forth in the night reflects the kind of person God is. The crisis on earth has been captured and resolved in this massive chorus of angels launching into song. The shepherds are filled with breathless excitement as they experience this rescue anthem that represents the best of God’s character. He comes to lead us all from our dark night into the light of His glorious grace.
The angels indicate that the shepherds will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a manger (Luke 2:12). The humble manner of a baby and the hope represented by birth force us to rethink our assumptions about God. The gloomy shadows cast over the world are lies about God. He has been represented as severe, exacting, mean-spirited, and unforgiving. This representation is angry, arbitrary, and hard to please, but God is altogether different. He is heaven’s greatest glory, but when the shepherds look at God, they see a baby wrapped in swaddling cloth and lying in a feeding trough. All the attributes that comprise God’s glory shine forth; He has come to illuminate, not to coerce. The light and beauty of truth are God’s drawing power. The shepherds see the child but know He is more than a child. This is God’s best answer. He has sent a baby to Bethlehem to bring them hope.
As we look into the face of that child, we must not miss who He is. Recall all the accusations leveled against God—that He is unloving, unforgiving, cruel, and unjust. Really? This little baby? Look into His face and let that tiny hand reaching out to you grip your heart. Recognizing who this baby is truly makes a difference. God is just as loving as His Son. He is not simply a cute Christmas decoration; He is our Rescuer. Look into the face of God—so loving, gentle, and kind. Look at that baby and see God graciously giving us what we need—a Savior to pull us from the grip of sin and Satan’s constant effort to misrepresent the character of God.
Bethlehem had dark days, but gross darkness covers the earth. Like the shepherds on Bethlehem’s hills, we are invited to come and see the incredible gift God has given. His Spirit prompts us into a deeper living relationship with Him, for only when Jesus is “born” in our hearts will the world see who God is. God’s finish for human history awaits heavenly song. God has not forgotten; the pressure has been mounting, and heaven’s chorus is about to burst forth once more. The angelic anthem of God’s glory continues to echo because we are still called to follow the Prince of Peace.
As He did the shepherds, God wants to include us in His plans for the earth. He wants to fill us with glad tidings—lives held together by His peace and joy. The same glory illuminating the night sky of Bethlehem will shine in the hearts of men and women who look for Him today. The heavenly message for a world enshrouded in darkness is the revelation of God’s character of love. The angels will once again flood the night sky with glory, declaring His goodness with the ring of celebration. In the last book of the Bible, John foretells of the time when the glory of God will cover the face of the earth: “After these things I saw another angel coming down from heaven, having great authority, and the earth was illuminated with his glory” (Revelation 18:1, NKJV).
This mighty angel, who comes from God Himself, floods the hills and valleys of our world with glory, delivering the good news once again—God is like Jesus! He is so glorious that the shininess of His glory fills not only the hills of Bethlehem but the whole earth. May God help us see the glory of His character in the gentle face of the babe lying in the manger. May we let Him lead us into the ways of peace to become bearers of His glory on earth and proclaim Him alone as we hum the angels song.
Craig Ashton Jr.