Today we want to look at two backdrops, landscapes of the human and the divine; earthy yet spiritual; immanent yet transcendent. Jesus Christ, God coming to earth and living among us, and God bringing the sublime image of God above, yet God among us and with us, living by our side; God choosing to move into the nitty gritty, daily grind of our daily lives. Making the structure of our daily lives, the places where we work, we live, we love, we pay taxes and we die; making those places full of meaning and purpose as God has chosen to live and move , to make his home among us. God has moved into our neighborhood and into our very existence and into every area of our lives.
We begin by looking at the registration or what we would call the census. That census or accounting includes (1) where you live (2) what your occupation is (3) How old you are (4) Whether your married or single (5) What the geographical area you live in is composed of….medium age, income, how many children, etc…Similar to what we do in the national census. This isn’t a bad thing. All countries do that. It’s just that in Jesus day when communication was slow census taking would last for many days; to travel in and register. It would take the government officials; some of them would do this all year long. They did not have machines or calculators. It was all done by hand.
Everything was written. They did not have copy machines. Everything was handwritten on sheets of papyri. Professional hand writers would copy the census after it was written down. If they needed a dozen copies, which means that you would have it copied hand by hand, one page at a time by a copy writing. It was a full-time job for a lot of people to organize and put together an official registration like this.
Everyone was coming into Bethlehem or to another designated area. It would be like us traveling to El Centro to register. That would be a trip of over 100 miles each way by foot, which is how most people traveled back in Jesus time, a trip that could take a week, going and coming. From Nazareth to Bethlehem was also a journey of about 100 miles each way, not an easy journey, especially for a woman that is 9 months pregnant.
It was difficult to get a room, especially if you got into town late. Joseph and Mary were traveling slowly. How fast can you travel on horseback, mule, camel or over the road wagon of some kind? How fast can a woman that is ready to have a baby travel? Not an easy way to travel.
A census is not all bad. It’s simply the civic way of getting a handle of who, where, how and how many people live in specific areas of the country, a necessary accounting for all governments, even today. So that’s the secular picture of what was going on. Now let’s look at another picture that stands up against this secular, civic, background.
Let’s call this the pristine side. The setting with the barn or the manger, outside of town, and in the open fields nearby, with shepherds and sheep, farmland. And, then you have Mary and Joseph setting up, and the baby is born. It’s probably put into an animal trough with straw or hay. And over this manger you have this unusual bright shining star, directly above and right over the manger. You have shepherds listening to angels singing in the skies. You have wise men coming from great distances from the East, perhaps India, coming in with horses loaded with gifts.
This is the pristine special picture. You have the manger scene with stars overhead, shepherds, wise men and angels, cattle lowing in the night, and an awesome wonder and quietness. The pristine setting over and against the secular civic setting.
Jesus, human yet divine, has come into the world. That coming of Jesus is prevalent today, 2000 years later. We have our secular settings with our census takers, with our government, which is important. Without government we have no laws and we have no rule. That’s the secular and natural setting that Jesus comes into. But the pristine setting is still there 2000 years later.
When in awesome wonder we can still say that Jesus Christ has come into the world. The light has come, and he is living among us. Jesus Christ has come, and we are evident of that. This Jesus who never wrote a book, never directed a play, never ran a big business, was never elected to office, was never appointed as a leader. But he was recognized for his special leadership. This same Jesus has had more books written about him than any other person in history.
Even our dating system revolves around Christmas Day, before and after the birth of Jesus. We live almost 2000 years after the birth of Jesus Christ. He has come into the world to bring peace, to bring hope. And, that hope is for you and for me. Jesus lives today. He lives in our hearts. He lives to intervene for us. He lives to help make your life have sense, purpose and meaning.
He lived, he died, he rose again, and he is coming back. That’s our heritage as Christians. That’s how we base our faith. Our faith is based on a historical reality. And, that historical reality has a present tense. Faith is living our lives with Jesus, the living Christ, who lives among us. As John 1:17 says: He has come to live among us. He tabernacles with us.
That’s what Christmas is. The pristine is still there, (transcendent yet immanent among us) The backdrop of the secular and commercial is there, but the pristine message that Jesus Christ has come into the world to live among us, born as child in a manger, but living among us still 2,000 years later.
Come away, come away, and come today to Bethlehem. Come adore on bended knee, one whose birth the angels sing.
Come away, come away, from your noisy celebration, to a place of quietness and peace.
Come with wonder, come with awe. Take your place among sheep and cattle.
Sing with joy, praise God, for the time of promise has come. Sing the good news of Emmanuel: God-with-us! The Christ has come!
Come away, come away, come today to Bethlehem.
(A Litany for Christmas Eve, from Bread for the Journey, Ruth C. Duck, ed.)