The God who breaks into our world

Shepherds near Bethlehem

In the musical My Fair Lady, the character Freddy begins to sing a beautiful love song to Eliza Doolittle: “Speak, and the world is full of singing, and I’m winging higher than the birds.  Touch, and my heart begins to crumble; the heavens tumble, darling, at thy….”

But that’s as far as he gets before Eliza interrupts him with a song of her own—a song of complaint: “Words, words, words!  I’m so sick of words.  I get words all day through, first from him, now from you.  Is that all you blighters can do?  Don’t talk of stars burning above.  If you’re in love, show me.  Tell me no dreams filled with desire.  If you’re on fire, show me.  Here we are together in the middle of the night.  Don’t talk of spring; just hold me tight.  Anyone who’s ever been in love will tell you that this is no time for a chat.  Haven’t your lips longed for my touch?  Don’t say how much.  Show me.  Show me.  Don’t talk of love lasting through time.  Make me no undying vow.  Show me now.  Sing me no song.  Weave me no rhyme.  Don’t waste my time.  Show me!”

Eliza is weary of beautiful words about love; she wants actually to be loved.  She doesn’t want just to hear about how much someone would love her; she wants to experience love in action.

Making a rather broad generalization, it could be said that the first testament of the Bible is a promise of love that God would someday pour out on us.  But after 929 chapters of promises from Genesis through Malachi, we, too, might cry out with Eliza, “Don’t talk of love lasting through time.  Make me no undying vow.  Show me now.  Sing me no song.  Weave me no rhyme.  Don’t waste my time.  Show me now!”

Christians divide the Bible into two sections which are normally titled the Old Testament and the New Testament.  But better titles might be the Promise Given and the Promise Fulfilled.  The Promise Fulfilled begins with the birth of Jesus wherein a significant move is made from promise to fulfillment, from words to action.

This shift from the Promise Given to the Promise Fulfilled began in an inconspicuous manner.  Most of the world was completely unaware of any change.  All they noticed was the birth of a baby in an insignificant little town in the boonies of the Roman Empire.

But heaven could not contain its enthusiasm, so a crowd of angels burst forth into song during the night on a hill above Bethlehem, shouting, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom His favor rests.”

The shepherds who heard the angels’ joyous song reacted in terror.  They had no prior experience of supernatural choruses, but they knew well the terrors of this world.

As the shepherds watched their sheep that night, they did so in the shadow of the Herodian, the fortress of Herod the Great, built on the highest hill in the vicinity, three miles southeast of Bethlehem.  At the time of Jesus’ birth, the Herodian was the third largest fortress in the world, covering more than 45 acres, looming above them, as imposing as Herod himself.  Herod had established and maintained his control over Israel through wise political finagling and through cruel force.  The Gospel of Matthew tells us that when Herod receives word of the birth of Jesus, who is described to him by the Magi as the new king, Herod calls for the slaughter of all male children in Bethlehem two years of age and younger.  History also records that Herod killed his father-in-law, several of his wives, two of his sons, and many other people.  It was said, “It is better to be Herod’s hog than to be his son.”  When Herod grew sick and knew his death was near, he ordered the arrest of many well-loved leaders in Jerusalem, with instructions for them to be put to death when he died so that there would be morning in Jerusalem at his death.

For those who lived under the terrifying reign of Herod, anything out of the ordinary easily brought their fear and terror to the surface.

But something began to shift for them at the announcement of Jesus’ birth.

To journey to Bethlehem to welcome this newborn king, who is identified to them as their Savior, the Messiah, the Lord, was to put their lives at risk if Herod should find out what they had done.  But something began to shift for them at the announcement of Jesus’ birth, for now it is no longer simply words of promise but the arrival of the real thing!  With the birth of Jesus, God entered our world, which meant that love over estrangement had come into our world and that hope over fear had established residency here.  That made the journey to Jerusalem to celebrate the birth of this baby worth the risk for these shepherds!

The report from a Wycliffe Bible Translation Team echoes this good news: “Au, the national translator, and I were struggling to translate the Christmas story.  As usual, some concepts, like peace, were almost unknown in the local language.  We finally struck on the following to describe the angels’ visit to the shepherds in Luke 2:14: ‘God in heaven is just so good!  So the people who live in this world, if God’s heart is happy with them, then their fear is all-gone now!’

“Au’s eyes shone as I read this aloud.  ‘That’s so true!’ she exclaimed.  ‘When I was a young woman, I saw two paths to follow.  One was God’s path, and one was my own path.  When I followed my own path, I was afraid of everything.  When I decided I would turn away from doing wrong on purpose and follow God’s path, my fear was gone.’

“I had never seen freedom from fear in the Christmas story, but it was an insight which still encourages me.”

 

 

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