The birth of Jesus

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Reflecting on the First Advent

Right now it is the Advent season, and we’re supposed to reflect on what it was like to anticipate Christ’s first coming. In my reading, recently I bumped into something that really got me thinking.

One thing I had always wondered about was a theme that you find in the prayers that surround Jesus’ birth. In Zechariah’s song, he rejoices that God has raised up someone who will bring “salvation from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us.” (Lk 1:71) Who is Zechariah talking about who hates them? And why was Simeon “waiting for the consolation of Israel”? (Lk 2:25) They seem to have some great anxiety, and seem to be imploring God to save them from a great enemy. What was going on around them?

Let’s find out a little more of the history of the time. Remember Herod’s massacre of the infants around Bethlehem? (Mt 2:16) I used to read that as an isolated tragedy, but it actually was typical of the great brutality of Herod and the Romans.

I was especially struck by an incident that happened near Sepphoris, a city just a stone’s throw from Nazareth. If you’ve visited Israel, most likely you’ve walked through its amazing ruins. Scholars say that it’s quite likely Jesus and Joseph walked there each morning and worked in the city because it was so close.

In 4 BC, almost exactly the time of Jesus’ birth, an uprising occurred in Sepphoris.  The Roman responded by scouring the countryside, rounding up two thousand rebels who were crucified. They swept through many of the towns, killing and destroying everything in sight. Sepphoris was burned to the ground, all its surviving inhabitants sold into slavery.

Just imagine, Jesus’ own hands may have chiseled some of the stones that rebuilt Sepphoris. He must have had family friends that told shocking stories of the cruel deaths of their relatives. In his adult ministry, he may have even healed some of their lingering wounds.

For some reason, as I heard about the events of the first advent again I was newly sensitized to the great anguish of Jesus’ people. For a while I’d gotten used to hearing about all the Roman cruelty, and it seemed almost fictional. But then I read one historian liken the Roman government to the Nazis, calling it a “totalitarian regime.” He said that there really was no time in Jewish history that they suffered so much as the first century, outside of the Holocaust. And Jews have suffered a lot over history.

It was really a crisis of faith for them, because in the Old Testament, Israel was punished when it wandered from God. But in Jesus’ time, the most pious were the ones that suffered the most. About a hundred years before Jesus, Greeks tortured and killed Jews for reading the Torah and circumcising their children. And horrors like that kept occurring in his time. In Luke 13, some Galileans report that worshippers who had come to the Temple had been murdered, their blood mixed with their own sacrifices. I can hardly imagine their feelings.

This helps in understanding the groups of people around Jesus, because society was deeply divided by this crisis. The Zealots felt that God wanted them to fight for their freedom, to serve him rather than foreign gods. The Sadducees were wealthy priests who controlled the Temple, who had given up the idea that God would come to their rescue. They, in fact, had sold out to the Romans and were getting wealthy by stealing the tithed money from the Temple. In reaction to the Temple’s corruption, the Essenes abandoned worship there and had secluded themselves to live lives of great ceremonial purity. They were waiting for the day when God would send the Messianic “Teacher of Righteousness” who would call them as the “Sons of Light” to battle the “Sons of Darkness,” which, in their minds, were pretty much everyone else.

Many of the common people, like Jesus’ family and Simeon and Anna, concluded that their best hope for the future lay in prayer and careful obedience to God’s word. A popular movement grew up of laypeople who wanted to pray and study together in their own towns, rather than only worshipping in the Temple. The leaders of this movement were the Pharisees, who were common laborers who distinguished themselves by their devotion to study. You can imagine that at times they might get a little excessive, because they felt like their nation’s life depended on their obedience and piety. But ultimately, Jesus was closest to their way of thinking. And you can imagine how strong people’s feelings were at that time. In times of war, emotions run very high.

Wow. All of a sudden I see why people were longing for a redeemer. And as many times as I’ve piously said, “they were wrong to want a political savior,” I now have great empathy for why they did. Jesus lived in a world as evil as anything in our modern reality, and God sent him right into the middle of the depths of their darkness.

The News to the Magi

Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, magi from the east arrived in Jerusalem, saying, "Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we saw His star in the east and have come to worship Him."
Matthew 2:1-2

To most of us, the story of the wise men is strange. Who were they? Why would they look for a king because of a star? In different translations the travelers are called wise men, magi or astrologers. The term "wise men" (hakamim) is often used to describe a pagan king’s counselors that are schooled in the magical arts, and are often mentioned with magicians and diviners. It was common that pagan kings had magicians. We hear about them interpreting dreams of Pharoah and Nebuchadnezzar, and trying to reproduce the miracles of Moses.

One of these diviners who lived 1500 years before Jesus made a prophecy that is important for understanding why they were looking for a star. Balaam was a powerful, internationally known magician who was hired by a king to put a curse on the Israelites. But instead, God forced him to bless them and prophesy about their future. He said:

I see him, but not now; I behold him, but not near. A star rises from Jacob; a scepter comes forth from Israel...  Numbers 24:17-18

The imagery of stars is closely associated with kings, and kings were poetically described as stars in the heavens. The poetic parallel of the word star in this passage is "scepter", which certainly is a kingly image. The word scepter also means "comet", also hinting that there was a tie between celestial events and earthly kings. It seems logical that the Messianic king that the Jews expected was associated with a "star rising from Jacob" (meaning Israel), a celestial event that announced His arrival. Astronomers are still speculating what event was associated with Jesus and how the wise men interpreted it. It seems that w hen they learned by of the coming of this powerful figure, most likely the pagan kings had sent them with riches to deliver to this new ruler to pay homage for their countries.

It is interesting to note that these pagan magicians probably also used divination also to gain this news. This tells us how the rest of the spiritual world reacted to the coming of Jesus. We know that the angels rejoiced to see that He was born. But it seems that all of the spiritual world was also in an uproar about the coming of this king! Not only were the angels telling the shepherds, but demons were telling the pagan magicians in distant countries about the powerful king who had arrived on earth. They knew that He would be king of all creation, and that He was more than human - He was the Son of God who would have a unique authority over the spiritual world that made the demons shake in fear. We should be reminded of the great authority and power of Christ, whose coming was not just earth-shattering, but "heaven-shattering", rocking the spiritual world as well.

Chad Oltman. (2008). Illustrations of Chad Oltman.

Source: Magazine Name, January 1, 2006

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