THE ancient world into which Jesus was born was a pretty rough place. Life was short. The average lifespan was 40 years.
In the international sphere, Rome was the imperial power that ruled a large part of the known world.
And yet decay was setting in. A third of the city’s population were slaves. The powerful and rich were bored and entertained themselves with blood sports and whatever else they fancied.
In many parts of the world, raw power ruled the day. The man who wielded the sword was king. The wealthy man owned the world. The ordinary people on the streets and fields went about their daily existence often with great difficulty. Democracy, though it was idealised in ancient Athens, was unknown in the ancient world. In many places, life could best be described in the words of Thomas Hobbes, the 17th century English philosopher. He said: “No arts, no letters, no society, and which is worst of all, continual fear and danger of violent death, and the life of man solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.”
Life indeed was poor, nasty, brutish and short for many. And so it must have been for the poor shepherds who watched their flocks in the cold Judean night near Bethlehem (Lk. 2:8-20). And to them was announced the good news that the Messiah was born.
The angels appeared and sang about divine glory and human peace. The shepherds went into Bethlehem and found the baby lying in a manger. Though the stable where Jesus was found was the humblest of places, the shepherds knew in their hearts that this was a special baby. They were convinced that what they saw when heaven opened and the angels came, and what they heard were true.
The shepherds must have felt at home in the humble stable. As people who lived in poverty, it was the kind of place they were used to. Just as well that Jesus was not born in some fancy palace lined with gold and silver. They would not have gained entry. Even if allowed in, they would have felt terribly out of place. The more greedy among them would have had their eyes glued to the luxurious fittings rather than the baby. Just as well that Jesus was born in the stable of an overcrowded inn. It was a place that poor and simple people could relate to.
The shepherds returned to their flocks and to their poor lives with a new spirit. They were glorifying and praising God. Their difficult circumstances may not have changed much. But they were changed men.
While the world has moved on over the centuries, the human condition remains the same in many places today. Slavery still exists in many new forms. Mindless violence continues its terror in many parts of the world. Recent events, including the tragedies of Sept 11, 2001, the Bali bombing, the hostage-taking in Moscow, the sniper shootings in Maryland, and many others about which we read daily in our newspapers, have made us more aware of the uncertain conditions of our modern world. Many feel that we live in a fragile and uncertain world.
Shootings, killings, wars … what a messy world this is. – CNS picture. In spite of all the advances in science and technology, and the depiction of life in glossy brochures and the feeling that we are in control of our lives, it still appears that we live in a messy world. Any alien (if there was one) who spent a week on earth might probably come to that same conclusion.
The apostle John describes the condition of the world as “darkness”. Paul, another apostle, describes the human condition as living “without hope and without God in the world”. (Eph. 2:12). Imagine reading our newspapers and watching the evening news, without hope and without God in the world. What a terrible and frightening thought!
Jesus the Messiah came to a messy world. He was not afraid of the mess. He did not stay at a safe distance to deal with the mess. He could have tried to save us while remaining safely in heaven. But He came down. “The Word became flesh and made His dwelling among us.” (John 1:14). He emptied Himself and took the form of a servant. He became vulnerable. He touched lepers without gloves. He took on a life of poverty. He had no place to call His own. He did not even carry cash with Him. He experienced what it means to be homeless and poor. He experienced being beaten up violently. He was spat upon and called names. He was stripped and hung on a rough cross to die a public and humiliating death. He knew all about the human mess in this world. He entered the mess as the Messiah.
As we celebrate Christmas this year, our celebrations are probably coloured by the pessimism and anxieties we see around us. Terrorism, economic uncertainties, worries about the future — we seem to be living in the era of bad news. The world is in a mess.
It is in these circumstances that we need to hear the good news afresh. In Christ, we have the Saviour, the Messiah. He knows all about the mess we human beings can get ourselves into. Looking at the mess without the Messiah turns our lives and our distant horizons into darkness. But when we look at the Messiah, then we see the light in the darkness.
John declared: “The light shines in the darkness but the darkness has not understood it.” (Jn 1:7). May we see the light shining in the darkness this Christmas. And may God give us grace to understand this light.
When Mary, the mother of Jesus, saw all that was happening and heard all that was said, she “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart”. (Lk. 2:19). Let us do the same this Christmas, quietly pondering, grateful that God in His love has not abandoned us to perish in the mess, but in fact has sent us the Messiah, in whom is all our hope. In Christ we see the glory of God and in Him we have peace. Even in this messy world.
My wife joins me in wishing you and your loved ones God’s peace and joy this Christmas.