By J.R. Miller
Not much is told in secular history, about the period in which the event of the birth of Jesus belongs. It is said, however, that there are distinct traces that such a census as Luke describes took place. The great emperor commanded that an enrollment of all the world should be made. The emperor did not know when he issued this decree, that long before he was born, there had gone forth another decree from a more glorious King, which unwittingly he was now helping to execute. It had been written by the prophet under divine inspiration, that the Messiah should be born in Bethlehem. But Joseph and Mary were living at Nazareth, a long distance from Bethlehem. How would they be brought to Bethlehem, so as to fulfill the prophecy? They had no business there. Now comes the emperor's decree which requires them to appear in the town of David to be enrolled.
The birth of this King did not have about it the glamour which usually marks the birth of earthly royalty. He was born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes, after the fashion of the children of poverty, and slept His first sleep in a feeding trough. It is pleasant for us to think that our Savior knows all the phases of human life by experience. He looks upon the baby in the mother's arms with a peculiar interest, for He Himself was once a baby. Many children are born in poverty, and sometimes they think their lot is hard--that they have not a fair chance in this world. But here is Jesus, the Son of God, beginning His life in poverty, and therefore He can sympathize with them.
The shepherds out in the fields were especially favored that night. While they were keeping watch over their flock, an angel stood by them, and a divine splendor shone about them. Their occupation was lowly--but they were faithful in it, and thus honor came to them. If we would have angels visit us, we must stay at our post of duty, no matter how lowly it is. Angels never come to people who are ashamed of their calling or too indolent to be diligent at their proper tasks. The shepherds did not seem to have an easy way of living. They were poor, and had to stay out of doors all night, guarding their sheep. The people in the fine houses, no doubt, if they thought at all of these poor men, thought they had a hard time of it, and pitied them because of their poverty and hardship. The shepherds themselves, it may be, envied the people who lived in the big houses and did not have to work and stay out nights. At least some people in these days whose lot is in the lowly places--are envious of those who are rich.
But we may be sure that the Bethlehem shepherds were never sorry afterwards, that they had to be out in the field that night. Think what they would have missed if, because of discontent or of self-indulgence, any of them had stayed away from their post. They would not have seen the angels, nor would they have heard the good tidings that came, nor have looked upon the wonderful Child. We need to watch, lest sometimes we miss blessings, by being absent from our place of duty. Then sometimes the place of blessing may not be in a prayer meeting--but in a field or in a shop or at home, doing some lowly task-work. We do not know where the place of honor and privilege in this world may be. We may be sure, however, that it will always be in the place of duty.
The message the angel brought was a glad one. "I bring you good news of great joy." Never before had such tidings come to this world. Wherever the gospel now goes--it bears the good news. To the soul struggling with temptation, it whispers the assurance of victory. To those crushed in defeat--it speaks of hope, saying, "You may rise again, and yet attain a beautiful and noble life!" To those who are sitting in sorrow--it brings comfort, telling of the compassion of God.
The good tidings were indeed wonderful. "For unto you is born this day in the city of David--a Savior, who is Christ the Lord!" This was the announcement of the most marvelous fact in all the world's history. It was not an unusual thing for a baby to be born--thousands of infants were born that same night throughout the world. It was not a strange thing that the baby was born in a stable--in the East such an occurrence was not unusual. The wonderful thing was that this child was the Son of God. He was the anointed Messiah--He was divine. That the glorious God should thus enter human life as a little child--was the marvelous thing.
The angel told the shepherds how they would know the Child when they found Him. "You shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a feeding trough." They would not find the Baby robed in purple garments, like the child of a prince--but wrapped in swaddling clothes, a child of poverty. They would not find Him sleeping in a palace--but in a stable. Thus the very authentications of the divine character and mission of this Child, were the tokens of poverty and humiliation. We see what empty things--are the world's marks of greatness. When Christ came, He disregarded all the emblems of rank by which men indicate greatness, and wore the insignia of poverty and humiliation. Yet, was He less great because He did not bear the world's stamp of greatness? Greatness is in the character, never in the dress or the circumstances. Do not worry about wearing a crown--make sure that you are worthy of a crown. This mark of the infant Messiah shows us also how Christ touched the lowliest places of life, began among the poorest and plainest of the people. He went down and started at the foot of the ladder, that He might understand our life and know how to help us in the best way.
Earth paid small heed to the advent of the glorious King--but heaven failed not to honor Him even in His humiliation. His birth made no stir in the world's high places--but heaven's angels came and sang their songs of praise. These holy messengers were intensely interested in the great work of redemption on which the Messiah was then entering. We are told that the angels "desire to look into" (see 1 Peter. 1:12) the strange mystery of redeeming love. We know that there is joy in the presence of the angels, when one sinner is saved. We are told further that the angels are as "ministering spirits, sent forth to minister for those who shall be heirs of salvation" (Hebrews 1:14). The glimpses we have in the Bible of angels at their everyday work, show them always busy in services on behalf of God's children. This ministry has not ceased. Angels' visits are not "rare," as we sometimes say.
The coming of Christ brought peace: "On earth, peace." Peace is one of the great words in the Bible. The coming of Christ to this world to live and suffer and die for our redemption, was one of God's thoughts of peace toward us, the most wonderful of them all. It shows how much God loves us, and what He is willing to do and to sacrifice in order to make peace for us. Christ made peace for us first--by bearing our sins, putting them away, that we might come to God and find forgiveness. Then from the cross went forth the proclamation, offering peace to all who would accept it. Paul says, "Being therefore justified by faith--we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ" (Romans 5:1).
If we study the conduct of the shepherds, we shall find an illustration of very simple faith. They said one to another, "Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing!" They did not propose to go to see if what the angel had told them was true--but to see the thing which the angel told them they should see. They were so sure that they would find the Babe in the manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, that they at once went into the town to begin their search. It would be well for us if we had faith as simple, expecting always to find just what God tells us we shall find.
We might suppose, after seeing all that the shepherds saw that night--the vision of the angels and the infant Messiah--they would be too full of ecstasy to think of returning to their own lowly task work at once, at least. We would have been disposed to excuse them if they had not returned to their sheep. Even Peter was once so enraptured with the splendor of the Transfiguration that he begged to be allowed to stay there, beholding the wondrous vision of the mountain. At that very moment, however, human sorrow was waiting at the mountain's foot for the Master's coming, and the rapture of communion with God, must be exchanged for the commonplace of duty. The highest, holiest place for us--is always the place of duty. Where their task waited for them--these shepherds must go.
The joy of communion with God--must never detain us from life's common task--work. We cannot keep the rapture of devotion--if we neglect the routine of lowly service. Worship was meant to fit us for better work, not to make us less ready for our lowly tasks.