For most of us, Christmas is a time of great joy, a warm and wonderful family celebration of the birth of our Savior. As we ponder the scene at the manger, however, I doubt many of us think about the impact that starry night had on those who were there. We don't often recall the slaughter of the innocents in Bethlehem and their parents' cries of agony. We also probably don't consider the dramatically changed lives of those humble shepherds who heard the angel's good news and who heard the heavenly host singing, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, toward men of good will." How those words must have rung in their ears many years after. How that sight of the infant Messiah must have never left their imagination.
These first believers are the subject of an imaginative Christmas novel by Richard M. Barry, titled The Shepherds' Prayer. The book tells the story of an adopted son with a mysterious connection to the Messiah, who seeks the truth about his birth thirty years later. The man, Anam, travels to Bethlehem, where contempt is apparent on the faces of the townspeople when they hear the name Jesus.
Anam also meets a band of shepherds who gather at Bethlehem each year to celebrate what they witnessed upon the birth of Christ.
The Shepherds' Prayer is a story that reminds us of two things. First, we remember that the humble will be lifted up and confound the wisdom of the wise. Recounting the story the shepherds told, an innkeeper in Bethlehem tells Anam, "Is that not the height of foolishness? Why would an angel of the Most High visit such lowly men? …if he were to send a messenger, would it not be to the important men? To those with power?"
Secondly, Barry's novel reminds us of perhaps how we often react to the difficult and painful circumstances in our lives. We can use only what C.S. Lewis called the "baptized imagination" in contemplating how many people of Bethlehem must have felt about Jesus' birth. Likely, as Barry imagines, those who spoke of Jesus and that fateful day of His birth were met with scorn from those in Bethlehem and the surrounding area, because His birth had brought bloodshed.
But if we accept the truth, it is the evil of men — specifically Herod, in this case — that led to the slaughter of innocents. Similarly, it is the fallenness of the world that leads to pain and hardship in our lives — not God. Jesus was born to reconcile men to God, to end this pain, and to bring peace.
But as my colleague theologian T.M. Moore has written, from the beginning, Christ also brought division into the world. "The Good News of Christmas," writes T.M., "is for those who trust in Christ and follow Him as fishers of men. For all the rest — all the liars, deceivers, oppressors, greedy, covetous, and selfish — the message of Christmas is one of shame, wrath, and judgment." That's the hard truth of Christmas, but one we must not forget.
The shepherds who first believed in Jesus likely faced oppression and were treated as outcasts. Like them, we must maintain our faith regardless of the world's reaction. And we must never water down the message of Christ's birth.
On behalf of all of us here at BreakPoint, this is Chuck Colson from Washington, D.C., wishing you a holy and merry Christmas.