The devil seems to know when God is going to do something big. And he predictably rises up with a fury to oppose it. You would think things would go smoothly when God is at work, but the reverse is often the case. Great things tend to arrive in the midst of a storm. It takes persistent faith on the human side and miraculous interventions on the divine side for Gods will to break into this dark world. This shouldnt discourage us, rather, it should encourage us by putting some of the troubles we face into perspective. Trouble doesnt necessarily mean weve made a mistake or missed Gods will. It may be proof were doing something right, that something great is on the way.
There is simply no better example of this than Christmas. What could be more indisputably Gods will than the incarnation of His Son to be the Savior of the world? Yet this event, which is the greatest miracle that has ever taken place, was bitterly opposed by the devil. He used every person available to him, at every opportunity, to resist the birth of Jesus.
The figures of Joseph and Mary are so familiar to us as part of a manger scene decorating our homes or churches, that we might forget they were real people walking through these events by faith. They didnt know the end of the story like we do. From their perspective Marys pregnancy had brought them one problem after another. It appears their families had totally rejected them, believing the child had been conceived out of wedlock, and on that lonely night in Bethlehem, as Mary gave birth, it must have seemed that even God had forgotten them. How else do you explain having to give birth in a stable, alone
with no one there to celebrate?
The Christmas story (Lk 2:1-20)
After her first trimester of pregnancy Mary returned home to Nazareth, having stayed with Elizabeth, her cousin, and Zacharias up until the time Elizabeth was due to give birth (Lk 1:56-57). We have no record of how Mary was treated once she returned home, obviously pregnant, but Nazareth was a mean-spirited town (Lk 4:28, 29; Jn 1:45, 46). The very fact that Joseph felt obliged to take her with him to register for the census in Bethlehem, eighty miles away, when she was nine months pregnant, indicates her family and friends did not accept her account of the angels visitation (Lk 1:26-38). The Romans normally required only the head of a family to appear for registration, so it seems Joseph took her with him because he didnt feel he could leave her in the care of family or friends in Nazareth. Normally, the Romans registered people in the town where they owned property, but in Israels case, probably because of the strong bonds of their tribal system, people were told to return to their hometowns. Both Joseph and Mary were descendants of King David. Their family roots were in Bethlehem, the very town in which David had been born (1Sa 16:1; Ru 1:19-22; 4:16, 17). Luke specifically says that Joseph belonged to the house and family of David, which means he was a direct male descendant, and this is confirmed by the genealogy of Josephs family as supplied by Matthew (Mt 1:1-16). In chapter three (vs 23-28), Luke records Jesus actual physical ancestry through His mother Mary, who was also descended from David by another of his sons (Nathan) (Lk 3:31; 2Sa 5:14, Zech 12:12). Luke emphasizes Jesus family ties to David through both Joseph (who is not His father but acts as His guardian) and Mary, because it was prophesized that Israels Messiah would be one of Davids descendants (Lk 1:27, 32; 1Ch 17:11-15; Mic 5:2).
Mary and Joseph were married or they would not have traveled together this great distance, but because they had not yet physically consummated their marriage, Luke still refers to them as engaged. Matthew tells us Joseph married her while she was pregnant, after an angel spoke to him in a dream (Mt 1:18-25). He kept her a virgin until Jesus was born. Upon arriving in Bethlehem, Mary went into labor and had to give birth in what was very likely a cave used to shelter animals. There is no mention of anyone acting as a mid-wife, though it would seem reasonable to think they both might have had relatives living in town. If so, Mary must have been rejected for her out of wedlock pregnancy because otherwise someone surely would have opened their home to a relative in labor rather than let her give birth in a stable. Their custom was to wrap strips of linen cloth round and round the newborns limbs in order to keep them straight (I.H. Marshall, Luke, Eerdmans, 1978, p.100). Here we see Mary doing this herself shortly after giving birth which further supports the idea that she was alone, without other women caring for her. Then she laid her baby in a feeding trough since it was the only thing available to serve as a crib.
Marys sense of isolation from her family must have been very painful at that moment. Having to wrap her own baby and care for herself after giving birth may well have left her exhausted and sad. So, if her family wouldnt come to celebrate the birth of her child, then God would find some righteous people who would. Certain fields around Bethlehem were set aside for the raising of sacrificial animals for the Temple (Leon Morris, Luke, Tyndale N.T. Commentaries, Eerdmans, 1974, p.84). Those who guarded these special animals would have been much more disciplined than the normal class of shepherds. Its possible it was to one of these groups to which the angel of the Lord appeared. Luke uses a word which means they lived regularly in the fields, with some on duty during the night hours. This angel is not identified by name, but Gabriel has been the one making announcements concerning John the Baptist (Lk 1:19) and Jesus (Lk 1:26), so we might assume he is again the one speaking. He appeared in brilliant light which shone all around the shepherds. Not surprisingly, they were terrified. The angel told them not to be afraid because he had come as a messenger bringing good news that would produce great joy among the people of Israel: The promised Messiah had just been born in Davids hometown of Bethlehem. No longer would Israel have to wait in faith for a coming Messiah. In only a few decades this newborn would reach manhood and His ministry would begin. The angel describes this newborn as Savior, which is a title reserved for God in the Old Testament, and as Lord which also refers exclusively to God when used this way. So the mystery of the incarnation is already being expressed in the words chosen for this announcement: baby has just been born to whom titles belonging only to God are appropriately given (Is 9:6, 7). The shepherds were instructed to look for this baby immediately, and they were told they would know they had found Him because He would be wrapped in linen strips, lying in a feeding trough.
Then suddenly the angel who spoke to them was no longer alone. Standing with him was an entire army of angels whose voices must have roared together in unison as they said, May God be honored in heaven and on earth, and may peace be given to those who please God. Those who please God would be those who hear the news about this Savior and receive Him by faith. After the angels went back to heaven, the shepherds agreed to go and look for the baby immediately. So, in the middle of the night, they left their fields and headed for town to conduct a search of the feeding troughs in the area. In their earnestness, they quickly found the cave where Mary, Joseph and the baby were spending the night. When they saw the feeding trough and the wrappings they knew for certain this was the child the angel had spoken about, and they poured out their story to Mary and Joseph. To Mary especially, who may have been feeling very weary and lonely at that moment, their words must have brought great encouragement. Its hard to imagine she didnt feel abandoned by her family and confused that God hadnt arranged for a room to be available in the inn. So after they left she must have thanked Him for sending them and marveled that angels had celebrated the birth of her baby. And she never forgot that night. Luke says she memorized all the words they spoke and would often ponder them in her heart.
Gods faithful care
Obedience to God can leave us rejected and lonely. Simply because she had the courage to say yes to God, Mary was left alone.
Joseph initially rejected her
Her family in Nazareth rejected her, though later on her sister stood beside her as she watched her son dying on the cross (Jn 19:25)
Her relatives in Bethlehem rejected her
But God found people who loved Him and sent them to encourage her:
Elizabeth (Lk 1:39-56)
Joseph, after the dream (Mt 1:18-25)
Shepherds (Lk 2:25-35)
Simeon (Lk 2:25-35)
Anna (Lk 2:36-38)
In the midst of the storm of opposition God faithfully sends people to encourage us. They come in moments when we need it the most. Just as the enemy has his people who discourage and reject us, God has His. And when they arrive, speaking strength to our weary hearts, they may surprise us, just as those who turn against us may also surprise us. Gods love may come to us through a family member we havent seen in a long time, or a stranger we never met before. But the message they bring from God will always come down to this: I love you. I havent forgotten you. Keep going. What youre doing pleases Me. Dont quit. Youre going to triumph.
We may experience long seasons of uncertainty, fretting over whether or not we missed Gods will. There may be moments when were sure we cant go on another step. But God is faithful to send people who will celebrate with us, who will stand beside us in the nighttime
until joy arrives in the morning. The question is, will we recognize them when they come?
1) Can you think of a time when you were discouraged and felt alone and God sent someone to encourage you? Would you be willing to tell us about it?
2) Describe a time when God used you to encourage someone else.