As we near the celebration of Christ’s birth our journey through the Christmas story continues, the next characters that come to mind are the good citizens of Bethlehem and the shepherds living out in the fields nearby. Were they ready for the strike of fame that was about to descend on their small town? Did they recognize the Christ child for who He is—the promised Messiah? And what were the thoughts of the shepherds as they witnessed the angelic chorus?
In the days of Caesar Augustus, Bethlehem was just a small town with historic significance for being the birth place and home town of David. Little did the citizens know, however, that their village was about to become immortalized for the birth of a different King. Over seven hundred years prior, the prophet Micah foretold that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem, so the Jews knew where to expect the Messiah. However, the villagers of the City of David were not on the lookout and, therefore, missed the Promised One when He arrived. Instead of welcoming Mary and Joseph when they staggered into town, they turned them out and sent them to a stable.
Now I’m sure that in the days of Augustus’ census, many people were traveling to Bethlehem and that the unrecognized royal couple looked just like any ordinary, tired, young couple looking for shelter. However, that does not excuse the fact that the citizens of Bethlehem turned out and rejected Jesus when He arrived. They were so busy with their own lives that they missed the coming of the Son of God. Meanwhile, the shepherds living in the region were of humble background and were not respected among the inhabitants of Bethlehem. On the contrary, they were the outcasts of society, lowly shepherds paid to take care of dirty, smelly sheep. These were the humble men who beheld the splendor of heaven and to whom God first sent the message of good news.
Can you imagine the shepherds’ surprise when their calm, tranquil night was abruptly broken by the appearance of an angel? What were their thoughts when they heard the angel declare:
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
Were they surprised, confused, overjoyed? And then the angel was joined by “a multitude of the heavenly host” and together they burst into song, praising and glorifying God.
Not many people are visited by an angel, however, even fewer have front row seats to heaven’s truly angelic choir. The shepherds of Bethlehem were blessed with the first news of God’s fulfillment of ancient prophecy, and they not only heard and believed, but they ran to the manger where Jesus was and then spread the good news to others.
So even though the inhabitants of Bethlehem missed the arrival of the Messiah, they probably heard about it from the excited shepherds. What were the thoughts of the inn keeper when he realized that he had turned away the Son of God? How many people of Bethlehem believed the message of Jesus’ birth? We will never know, however, we do know that while this small town fulfilled an important role in the Nativity story, it did not go without cost. Because of Jesus’ birth the young, male children of Bethlehem were slaughtered. I believe that these innocent children were the first martyrs of Christendom for though Christ’s sacrifice had not yet been made and these infants and toddlers were unable to understand the significant to His birth, they were the first to suffer because of Him, the first to be persecuted, and the first to die. Therefore, as we prepare for tomorrow’s blessed day, let us remember that the Nativity story was not all rosy and picturesque, but also included sacrifice, pain, and suffering.
So let us learn from the good people of Bethlehem and not be too busy with our own lives that we reject the Savior and send Him to a cold, dirty stable. Let us be like the lowly shepherds who left everything and ran to see the Promised One, and then joyfully spread the good news. And finally, let us remember that following Christ and becoming a part of God’s story often times requires sacrifice, suffering, and persecution from our broken, corrupt world; however, be of good cheer for Jesus was born in that stable over two thousand years ago to bring us salvation and eternal life!
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