This last September I traveled to Israel, leading a group of 50 who wanted to walk the land and learn the history of the most fought-over real estate in the world. Connecting as it does Europe and Asia with Africa, this tiny strip of land bordered by the Mediterranean Sea on the west and the Jordan River on the east was the only land trade route between the continents for millennia. Battles were fought for it, kingdoms relied on it, and civilizations were built upon it, layer upon layer upon layer. But if Israel’s history was only that of a war-weary trade conduit, we would hardly take notice.
Our group didn’t travel to Israel to hear about the combat even though the last battle of the Crusades was fought there on the Horns of Hattin, an extinct volcanic mountain where Saladin defeated the Crusaders and sent them home for good.
No, we travelled to Israel because today, all over the world, both religious and non-religious people pause to celebrate a birth that occurred in the fields just outside the ancient village of Bethlehem.
That birth of a baby boy to a couple – Joseph and Mary of Nazareth – is still considered the single most important event in the history of mankind. And yet, it was without fanfare or celebration except for a few shepherds who happened to be out in those fields caring for their sheep at night.
And we should ask, “Why were they out there? Why weren’t the sheep safely in their pens?” The answer might surprise you.
In those days, the religious elite were allowed by the Romans to rule the Temple area. So, like every self-focused ruler, they lived to make money. They imposed a Temple tax that could only be paid with currency they provided. That explains the “money-changers” in the Temple court spoken of in Matthew, Mark and John. But even more lucrative was their edict that only those lambs raised within a 7-mile radius of the Temple could be used as Passover Lambs. This engendered a vast lamb-raising industry in the fields outside Bethlehem.
The shepherds were out with their sheep knowing that the special Passover lambs were being born. They had to be there as the ewes began their labor so they could gather them safely into one of the many caves in that valley where the lambs could be delivered, and wrapped in special linen cloths meant to keep them both warm and safe.
Have you ever wondered how the shepherds knew where to find Mary, Joseph and the baby named Jesus? Were they supposed to head into town and start knocking on doors? Even though they were told the baby would be in a manger, were they supposed to run around to all the stables?
Or did they know that the cloths mentioned were special, and would only be found in one of the few birthing caves with which they were so familiar?
They knew just where to go, and go they did! Why? Simply because the Passover lambs had always been a preview of the Lamb of God who, it was promised, would one day bring forgiveness and salvation to his people, and bring an end to the continual sacrifices mandated by the Law of Moses.
You can read the story in Luke 2 for yourself, but don’t think it is just a story that allows us to sing carols, eat fudge, drink wassail, and exchange presents. No, if the baby born that night grew up to live a normal life, even an historically extraordinary life, and then died and was buried, we’d probably have one day of remembrance, and that would be it.
But Jesus son of Joseph was no ordinary baby. He was, and is as the Athanasian Creed repeatedly confesses, eternal God in the flesh, the God-Man.
And he went on to prove it, healing the sick, multiplying the molecules of the bread and fish, overruling demonic powers, and the best miracle of all, rising to live after being crucified, proclaimed without life, and buried in a garden tomb guarded by a squad of Roman soldiers.
As I led our group around Israel, we visited many of the traditional and historical sites, but for me none is as powerful, as wonderful as that birthing cave we entered as weary pilgrims one hot September afternoon. Inside it was cool, quiet and strangely inviting. We spent some time there, and as I explained the historicity of Jesus’ birth in that area, we all came to understand why Christmas garners so much attention.
If we strip away all the music, food, lights, decorations, presents, parties and family, we still have the wonder that God became man, and came to us so that, through faith, we might be his forever.
It has been my privilege and great honor to write this column for many years, and to have you, the readers, allow me a few minutes in your heads and hearts. I hope someday I can meet more of you, and share the good things of life with you. We’re in this together, and I’m very thankful for the grand folk of the Santa Clarita Valley.
Local resident David Hegg is senior pastor of Grace Baptist Church. “Ethically Speaking” appears Sundays.