The advent of the Christmas season has begun. One would have to be a hermit to miss the signs; they’re everywhere.
Plastic Nativity scenes adorning lawns everywhere. Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus with halos around their heads will be on greeting cards in our mailboxes. All this causes a longing in my heart; a desire to know what that first Christmas was really like, and although we can’t know for certain, the Scriptures give us some clues.
The story starts out with the scandal of pregnancy in an unmarried, yet betrothed woman. According to the law, Joseph had every right to turn her over to be stoned to death. Yet this child she carried was under God’s sovereign watch; he spoke to Joseph and compelled him to believe. The couple married and then left, perhaps quietly, for a journey to Bethlehem where a census was taking place. Mary and Joseph left their home to travel 80 miles on foot.
When they reached their destination, they were exhausted, hungry and Mary was in labor. Joseph, burdened with the desperation of their circumstance, pleaded for mercy as door after door was closed in his face. Finally, in the crowds of people gathered to be counted, they found their birthing room – a barn full of straw.
The voice that once said, Let there be light! causing the empty void to give way forever now cried and fussed about leaving the warm darkness he’d known for the past nine months. There was no halo surrounding his head. He was not holding out his hands in blessing to the shepherds who came to see him. He was a normal, human baby.
Normal, yes, but extraordinary! This Jesus, who existed in the form of God, emptied himself and took on flesh. Certainly this was not a difficult task for the almighty – he created flesh, after all. But consider the Bible’s use of the term flesh. Paul says it best in Romans 8:3, sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh.
When the Holy Spirit impregnated Mary, Jesus’ divine self became covered with sinful flesh. How should we think of this? Imagine the most incredibly beautiful young woman, virginal and innocent. Now imagine her stooping to pick up a rotting buffalo hide dripping with intestines and dung, and covering herself up with it from head to toe. You’d shout, Don’t touch it! You’ll dirty yourself up completely! This illustration pales in comparison to the incarnation of Christ. The perfection of God taking on sinful human flesh is something we can’t begin to comprehend.
In this sinful flesh, he lived a normal yet sinless life. He had growing pains, his voice changed in his teen years, he scraped his knees, banged his thumb with a hammer in his father’s carpentry shop, he felt hunger and thirst. He learned the Scriptures from the time he was a young boy, reciting them to his mother as she prepared the evening meal. He grew in wisdom and favor with God and man. The only thing he didn’t do was sin. The writer of Hebrews tells us in chapter 4, We do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. He lived this perfect life in our place, and then on the cross he became sin (2 Corinthians 5:21). He fulfilled the law, paying its penalty, so that we could become the righteousness of God; a most inequitable transaction, but without it there would be no salvation.
The sweet pictures and clean images we have of Christmas do no justice to the true miracle of Christmas. Days full of shopping and wrapping, Santa and mistletoe can steal away the winsomeness and wonder of the real miracle of Christmas: Emmanuel, Jesus, God with us.