It’s time to zoom out and consider the Christmas story from a wide-angle viewpoint. After four hundred years of radio silence, heaven re-established contact and sent messengers (that is the meaning of the Greek word we translate as “angel”) to prepare the way. Headquarters shined a beacon (the star of Matthew 2:2, 7, and 9) to lead the allied agents to the place. God then thwarted the enemy’s attempts to discover the king’s location and assassinate him.
Operation Bethlehem was the first stage in a multi-pronged offensive. Heaven was on the move, and the long-awaited king had arrived.
What can we learn from this? We can learn that God’s timing is not our timing. If you remember, the prophet Isaiah had foretold this day: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever” (Isaiah 9:6-7).
I imagine Isaiah thinking that this prophecy would come true in his day. Perhaps he said to God, “If ever the there was a time for you to keep your promise, it’s now. There is war on our doorstep, suffering in our future, and our king is imperiled.” Yet hundreds of years would pass before David’s heir would appear in Bethlehem.
Such a thing was, from Isaiah’s point of view, unthinkable. The need was now! But he could not see what God saw. During those intervening years, Alexander the Great spread Greek culture and – more importantly – Greek language across the western world. Greek became the trade language of Africa, Asia and Europe, and that made it possible for ordinary men from Galilee to carry the news of the king and his kingdom across the globe.
In the decades before Jesus’ birth, Mighty Rome came into its own. The Empire was the greatest road builder that had ever been seen. Their roads made foot travel over great distances possible for the first time. The iron fist of Rome also put an end to the petty wars that were continually breaking out from India to Britain. The ensuing time of peace (called the Pax Romana) made it possible to cross previously closed political borders with the message of the kingdom.
The right time awaited only Caesar Augustus’ infamous census to bring the right people to the right place at the right moment so that the promises could be fulfilled, and a king could be born in Bethlehem of Judea. God’s timing is not our timing; it’s better. It’s perfect.
Viewed through our wide-angle lens, this story forcefully reminds us of another important truth: that God’s ways are not our ways. Why choose a village almost no one had ever heard of, in a country that few paid any mind, as the birthplace of the great king? Why not Rome or Athens or Alexandria?
And who would ever have dreamed that God would select pagan astrologers to welcome his royal king into the world? I cannot think of a Christian denomination that would make that choice. But God’s ways are not our ways.
And above all, why send a baby? Isaiah had prophesied that God would “shatter the yoke that burden[ed] them, the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor”; that “Every warrior’s boot used in battle and every garment rolled in blood [would] be destined for burning, [would] be fuel for the fire.” What great warrior would God send to accomplish these mighty deeds? We would send an Eisenhower, a MacArthur, or a Patton.
But God’s ways are not our ways: he sent a baby. For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. . . He will reign on David’s throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.”
So when God isn’t doing things the way you think they should be done – and when does he ever – will you still trust him? One of the great lessons from this wide-angle view of the Bible is that if we insist on understanding what God is doing before we trust him, we will never trust him. You cannot decide to trust God based on what is happening in your life, but on what happened on a cross. The good news is not that everything is going to work out just the way you want, but that Christ died for us, death has been conquered, and the kingdom of God is at hand.