Have you ever stopped to ponder just how strange everything about the birth of Jesus was? Whatever people had imagined the coming of the Messiah would look like, no one imagined it to look like it did.
In all that he reveals to us about that strange first Christmas, God is saying very important things to us about how he wants us to view the perplexing, bewildering, glorious, frustrating, fearful, painful, unexpected, disappointing, and even tragic experiences of our lives. No one really understood all that was going as God the Son entered the world. No one really saw the big picture — no one except God.
An Unexpected Messiah
It began with the unexpected revelation of the Son of God. The existence of the Son in the Godhead was not clear to the Jews prior to his surprise appearance in Bethlehem. He was revealed in the Tanakh (Old Testament) in texts like 1 Chronicles 17:13, Psalm 2, Psalm 45:6–7, Psalm 110:1, Isaiah 53, and others, but most didn’t recognize him.
Those who perceived a messianic prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” didn’t take it to mean a virgin would miraculously become pregnant with God. They assumed a chaste young bride would conceive the Messiah in the, you know, standard manner. And no one believed “Immanuel” literally meant God would become flesh and dwell among them. God’s ways were much wilder than even his people had imagined.
From the Wrong Side of Town
Nor did anyone expect God choose the backwater town of Nazareth as the place for the Messiah to be conceived and raised to adulthood. First off, no prophet ever arose from Galilee (John 7:52). And second, everyone knew that Nazareth produced nothing good (John 1:46). Besides, didn’t the prophet say the Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2)?
Indeed, he would emerge from Bethlehem. But who could have possibly anticipated that the Almighty would prompt Caesar Augustus to decree an imperial census in order to force the young peasant woman great with divine child and her bewildered new husband to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem just barely in time to fulfill that prophecy (Luke 2:1–5)?
And who in their wildest dreams would have imagined that once they arrived in Bethlehem, there would be no place for her to give birth to the long-expected Messiah, except some dingy cave used to house animals?
Welcomed by Peasants and Pagans
When he was born, great angelic fanfare was made . . . to shepherds. Profane, unclean purveyors of all things sheep, if you know what I mean. This would have been viewed with great suspicion and confusion by pious Jews. In terms of social standing, if Jesus had been born in 21st Century America, it might be like God choosing to bypass everyone else and sending an angel choir to a group of illegal migrant workers. Why shepherds, of all people?
Actually, it gets worse. God took things to a whole different level by summoning only one other group of people to welcome his divine Son into the world: the “magoi” (Matthew 2:1–2). Some English translators transliterate this Greek word into English as “magi.” Others use the term “wise men,” but it doesn’t capture the surreal nature of these strange visitors. Of all the unlikely characters and events in this story, these may be the unlikeliest.
The magi were pagan Persian priests and/or astrologers. They were experts in sorcery, divination, and other mysterious magical arts and literature. They were “wise” in the things God strictly forbade the Jews from participating in (Deuteronomy 18:9–14). And God summoned them through astrological divination by using some sort of “star.”
Today, it might be like God choosing to bypass everyone else and summoning through tarot cards or crystals a group of Wiccans to come worship the baby Jesus. Does that make you squirm? That’s how you should feel at the arrival of the magi in the story — until you make the missional connection with the purpose of Christmas. Then you worship alongside these pagan welcomers of the Savior of the world.
Into Unspeakable Horror
But the magi’s role in the story wasn’t merely marvelous. They unwittingly blazed a trail leading to tragedy. For their arrival awakened awareness in a wicked ruler that a Rival had been born in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:7–8). This ruler wielded the power of the sword, and did not hesitate to use it when he felt threatened. And so a dark horror entered the glorious story. The ancient dragon sought to devour the divine Child (Revelation 12:1–6) by manipulating Herod the Great’s paranoid, demonically selfish, evil rage. A military guard came suddenly upon the unsuspecting residents of Bethlehem and massacred every male child under two years of age, leaving the daughters of Rachel inconsolable (Matthew 2:13–18). The Child was delivered, but not the rest of the children.
Like nearly every other tragedy, no divine purpose is explained. We are left to trust through tears. But trust we can. For the spared Child of Bethlehem was given life that he might die a far more brutal, horrific death — one that would purchase the eternal redemption of Bethlehem’s lost boys and bring eternal consolation to any bereaved parent willing to receive it.
Inscrutable Hope for All
Do you see the pattern? The Christmas story has the same elements of strangeness as the whole biblical narrative, beginning to end. It is a story we would not have written. It carries a wisdom alien to sinful men:
[For] God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1 Corinthians 1:26–29)
Nothing about the Christmas story was expected. As things were unfolding, no one really understood all that was going on or why. God chose ways and means to bring his Son into the world that appeared more or less foolish to all observing. There were ample things to perplex, bewilder, awe, enthrall, terrify, frustrate, disappoint, and grieve those who experienced the first Advent. The pieces were put together in retrospect.
Great Joy in Strange Days
You and I live in the present moment, not yet in retrospect. And we may be in a very strange moment. Things may not seem to make sense. There may be a convergence of odd elements and unexpected turns of events. Some things may just seem bizarre. Other things may be grievous or fearful. We may feel psychologically and emotionally destabilized and disoriented.
If so, Christmas comes to us as a wonderful gift. For the God of the unexpected — who as transcendent Creator chose to become part of his human creation to redeem us from our hopeless wretchedness, who chose a peasant teenager to bear the divine Child, chose to wield an entire empire to fulfill prophecy, chose a disreputable hometown, chose an animal trough cradle, chose profane and pagan welcomers, and chose to allow an unspeakable horror to accompany the Messiah’s birth for redemptive reasons not yet revealed — that God is with us, Immanuel. And if God is with us, who can be against us (Romans 8:31)?
God sees the big picture, and in his wisdom — which often initially doesn’t look like wisdom — he will bring all to right in the ways and at the times that will result in our experiencing the greatest joy possible (Luke 2:10).