And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. Luke 2:4-6, ESV
Our Christmas cards and children’s programs generally paint a peaceful and serene picture of that evening in Bethlehem when our Savior Jesus was born so long ago. In the candle- scented quiet of our homes or the festooned interiors of our churches, it’s easy to imagine that this is how it was. History, however, tells of our Savior being born into a setting quite unlike this. So does archeology.
Only a few miles from present-day Bethlehem there stand the ruins of a massive fortress built by King Herod. This proud and oppressive king, backed by the Roman occupiers of Israel, built for himself an opulent get-away high on a cone-shaped mountain. Surrounded by double walls seven stories high, it also served as a last-ditch refuge for the king should he need to flee for his life. Seen clearly from miles around, surely it served as a bold reminder, indeed a warning, of the king’s power and his willingness to use it.
Mary gave birth to her son Jesus in the menacing shadow of this fortress, known as the Herodian. Soon the true darkness of threat became all too real, as Herod, in fear of the one “born king of the Jews,” (Matthew 2:2) ordered the murder of all male infants in that Bethlehem, there in the shadow of his tyrannical stronghold.
As we know, God saved Jesus by directing Joseph and Mary to flee for Egypt. But we also know that over 2000 years ago, in spite of overwhelming military repression, political tyranny, religious corruption and social upheaval, God sent his only Son Jesus to be our Savior. Israel surely needed a Savior! Indeed, we all need a Savior. Every nation, every people. And so it was, that out of his great love, and with no fear of the world’s evil, God sent Jesus to the shadows, the threatening shadows of our dark and conflicted world.
Such shadows continue in our world today. Recent and disturbing news of conflict and violence in Hong Kong, Bolivia, Kashmir, Myanmar, Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan, Syria, Afghanistan and elsewhere, should remind us of our severely fallen human nature and of the continuing spiritual battle that plagues the children of Adam. Perhaps current events in America, though of a different nature and with different implications, remind us of the same. The shadows, my friends, are all around us. Some are more frightful than others, but they are there all the same. But so is our Savior! May we say with King David: “Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.”
When the angels proclaimed to the shepherds “peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased,” they were not promising a new world order free of conflict and oppression, at least not in an earthly sense. They were declaring the mission of the Christ child: to bring peace between all humankind and God the Father through his life given on the cross for us. Not even the horrifying shadow of the cross would deter him in his mission to save us!
With boundless love and fearless resolve Jesus continues to go into the shadows of our world. As John the Evangelist reminds us: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it” (John 1:5). Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist, prophesied of Jesus that “the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:78,79).
Just as Jesus came at his birth into the troubling shadow of Herod’s fortress, so today he continues to infiltrate the darkest places of our planet. By his Spirit he commissions and sends his emissaries into the world’s shadows. Some of our own workers he has directed to nations and peoples plagued by oppression and conflict, where freedoms are few, and where the light of the gospel is not yet known. Please come alongside them with your prayers and remembrances this Christmas. Ask the Lord to provide the faith, courage and wisdom to obey when Jesus says, “Go your way; behold, I am sending you out as lambs in the midst of wolves” (Luke 10:3). Pray, too, for those among whom they serve in such shadowy places, that some day it might be said of them: “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in the land of the shadow of death, upon them a light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2).
A blessed and most Merry Christmas to all of you, dear friends! “Arise, shine, for your light has come” (Isaiah 60:1)!
The Rev. Dr. Paul Gossman serves as the Director of the World Mission Prayer League, United States. For more information about this Ministry Partner of the NALC, please visit: https://wmpl.org