I wasn’t there to see the place for myself, of course, but I would guess the Christmas card portraits of Bethlehem on the night of Jesus’ birth are probably…well…questionably accurate. I mean, they always present such a perfect little Judean town: Clean. Quiet. Peaceful. Charmingly aglow in the light of a mystical star. A first century version of a Thomas Kinkade painting.
And then Christmas carols can add to the misconceptions. “O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie…”
Except for the fact Bethlehem may not have been so still. While the ‘little’ part was probably true, at least before and after the census, a Roman survey for tax purposes could very well have turned Bethlehem into a bustling, noisy community almost overnight. Judeans, by law, would have had to return to the city of their birth or to the largest municipality in their region to register, which might have swollen little Bethlehem’s population several times over. That would certainly account for Mary and Joseph’s struggle in finding lodging.
And the star, while it was new enough and bright enough to catch the eyes of wise men from who-knows-exactly-where in the east, likely didn’t illuminate the entire town in heavenly light.
No, Bethlehem was dark, as was most of Judea.
Actually, it was a dark time in the history of Israel. The first century was not a day of great innovation and prosperity for the Jewish people. Judea was a region under the occupation of the powerful and often brutal Romans. Self-government and religious freedoms were present, but limited, and factions within the nation — some hoping to cast off the bonds of Rome, others hoping to profit from peace with it — threatened to tear it apart.
Poverty and crime were rampant. Government was corrupt. The religious leaders of the day, though sharply divided among themselves, shared in common their love for money and political power, and lorded over the common people with selfish, self-righteous zeal. Attending to the spiritual needs of the nation were an afterthought, if a thought at all.
Four-hundred years had passed without a prophet in Israel. Four-hundred years. God had turned away from His people, it seemed, and left them to suffer under His apathy and silence.
Hope may have been hard to come by in those days.
And yet, you and I know what was going on behind the scenes. We know that something beautiful, something miraculous was taking place in the midst of all that darkness. God was turning the world upside-down, and he’d chosen little Bethlehem as the place where it would all begin. And most people, even some of those who were players in the story, weren’t aware of it at all.
So how often is God at work in the darkness of our day? Often, you think? While we’re busy worrying and complaining and despairing over the condition of our culture or over hopeless personal circumstances, we forget that God does some of His greatest work in the darkest, most hopeless of times. In fact, darkness is where Light thrives!
On a dark night in a dark town in a dark time God sent the very Light of the World. Where no one watched, where few had hope enough left to believe, He showed up to do something greater than anyone had ever dreamed:
“And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” 1 John 1:14
And when it was all done, when Jesus had died and then risen again to overcome death, hell, and the grave, it was clearer the things God had been doing all along. And the faith spread like wildfire, in spite of persecution and wars and heresies. (Times when, again, God did amazing things, even in the worst darkness.) A kingdom without end had been established, one disbelieving Judeans couldn’t undermine and the Romans couldn’t destroy, and in so doing, HE SAVED THE WORLD.
And don’t you love it when, (because I know it’s probably happened to you, too,) you look back at a time of incredible darkness and despair in your own life and see the fingerprints of God all along the way? He hadn’t forgotten you or grown weary of you. He’d been working all along. There just hadn’t been enough light along the way to see it. But, properly illuminated, things become clearer. Not always perfectly defined, but clearer.
That’s just God’s way.
“…In thy dark street shineth the Everlasting Light,The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
Wishing you a year blessed of that Light Everlasting! Merry Christmas to you all!