The “seed of Abraham” sprouted and “the line of David” came to a point in a dusty corner of the Roman Empire, a place known as Bethlehem. How does the promised king appear in history? It’s an old story and we know it so well—don’t we?
We know about the poor man who was a poor man engaged to a young woman, who became pregnant, but not by him; her pregnancy was supernatural. And they had to go to Bethlehem because of something to do with taxes, and they just made it to town before the baby arrived, but the Bethlehem Inn was full up, and the only place the innkeeper could put them was a stable. And she ended up having the baby there, in the company of camels, cows and sheep.
Later that night the stable got really crowded, because a bunch of shepherds came, and then some kings from the Orient arrived. The kings are also called Wise Men, which begs the question: if they were really so wise, what were they doing barging into the poor girl’s room on the night she had a baby?
We almost know the story by heart: the innkeeper put Joseph and Mary in the … stable. But the Bible never talks about a stable; that idea arose because Luke mentions a manger – a feeding trough for animals – so we assume there must have been a stable. For that matter, the Bible never mentions an innkeeper either.
And how many kings came to see him – three? But there are at least three problems with that: First, the “kings” did not arrive on the night Jesus was born, but many months later. Secondly, Matthew does not call them kings at all, but magi – members of an ancient Persian tribe. And third, their number is never mentioned. We assume there were three because that is the number of gifts they brought. But some old legends held that there were twelve.
And what did the angels sing in the sky over the shepherds? “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace, good will to men.” To start, that translation is questionable; but beyond that the text never says that the angels sang. Rather it says, “They said, ‘Glory to God in the highest…’”
Well, maybe we don’t have the details of the story down as well as we thought, but it’s not details we are after, but the sweep of biblical history, its main themes. But, when it comes to the birth of Jesus, do we really have the main themes down? The way the story is usually told is full of human interest: unwed pregnant girl; young guy who mans up and marries her; arriving in Bethlehem on a cold and snowy night (though it almost never snows in Bethlehem, and the Bible says nothing about it); forced to give birth in a stable. All of that evokes emotion. It makes us feel good to see how God took care of the poor girl and her noble guy. But we might miss the broader themes.
The Christmas story of stable and shepherds and wise men and, most of all, of a tiny baby, is part of a broader narrative. God had, as we have seen, made promises: to Abraham, to bless the peoples of the earth through his offspring; to David, that his descendant would rule from his throne forever; to the people going into exile, that he would bring a remnant back to the land and return their king to them. promised to enter into a new covenant with his people and to write his laws on their hearts, changing them from the inside out. He promised to forgive their sins; promised that they would know him, and that he would be their God, and that they would be his people (Jeremiah 31:31-34).
If you remove the Christmas story from this larger narrative, from the promises of God to rescue and renew his people, you still have a nice story, but you may just miss the point. This little child is the fulfillment of the great promises. He is the king. Bethlehem is not just an inhospitable town; it is an invasion site. Bethlehem ought to be listed with Thermopylae, Troy, Normandy, and Omaha Beach. With the coming of this child the forces of the eternal kingdom have arrived, and the deciding campaign of the Long War has begun.