In this lesson we contemplate the significance of the isolation, humility, and solitary silence of the Messiah’s birth.
In our world today there is never a time of total silence. Never does the world come to a complete stop—with one exception: Christmas Day. Nobody goes anywhere on Christmas Day. Everybody stays at home. Nobody is on the highways. Nobody is out and about. The whole day is a quiet day, unlike any other day we celebrate throughout the year.
- A Silent Night at the Inn of Bethlehem
- A Silent Night on the Hillsides Outside of Bethlehem
Frederick Buechner has written a book entitled A Room Called Remember. In this book he tells the story of a snowstorm that took place in New York City in 1947. He said it was an incredible thing. Flakes just kept coming down, and before long, all of the streets were covered. There was no wind, so the snow didn’t blow. It just stayed. Pretty soon, all the traffic in the city was stopped. The subways shut down. Nobody could go anywhere. Everything came to a complete, total stop. Buechner said the thing that overwhelmed him was the silence of it all. He said there was nothing going on in the city. When people stopped to listen to the noise of the city to which they had become so accustomed, there wasn’t any. It was total silence.
A Silent Night at the Inn of Bethlehem
That must have been the way it was on the first Christmas. Luke 2:1–7 tells us it happened like this:
And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into 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 wife, who was with child. So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
This story—so familiar to us—is nevertheless amazing. Hundreds of years before this event, Micah the prophet told everybody it was going to happen. And not only did he reveal that it was going to happen, but he told where it was going to happen! Not only did he single out the town of Bethlehem, but because there were two Bethlehems, he told which of the two it would be. We read in Micah 5:2, “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you shall come forth to Me the One to be Ruler in Israel, whose goings forth are from of old, from everlasting.” It is incredible that this prophecy was fulfilled as it was in the Christmas story. Think for a moment how—if the Roman census edict had gone out in a different way at a different time, everything would have been changed.
If the conception of the Virgin Mary had taken place six months earlier, Jesus would have been born in Nazareth of Galilee and carried to Bethlehem in Mary’s arms. If the conception had taken place six months later Mary would have already returned to Nazareth, and the Babe would have been born in Nazareth of Galilee. But the edict went out, the conception took place, at exactly the right moment Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem Ephrathah, and in that moment of time—as Micah the Prophet foretold—Jesus Christ was born and became one of us.
I don’t understand all of this, but Luke 2:7 tells us that Mary brought forth her own child. She delivered her own baby. Where were the midwives? Where was the innkeeper and his wife? Where was anyone to help? No one was there. Mary, alone in a quiet place, in a moment of silence, brought forth her child. And into that silent night burst a tiny baby’s cry.
It was that cry that gave hope to a lost world. Someone had come to fix things. Many misunderstood it at the time. Many thought He was going to take away Roman bondage. Little did they know that He had in mind a bondage greater and more eternal than Roman bondage. When that little One cried, it meant that the Messiah had come to earth. In that quiet moment, God had become human, so that as the God-man He could wrap His arms around a lost humanity, and bring that lost humanity to the Father.
A Silent Night on the Hillsides Outside Bethlehem
On the hillside outside of Bethlehem, it was in the cooler season of the year. Shepherds were out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. Nothing special was supposed to happen that night. It was like all the other winter nights when they cared for their sheep and watched over their flocks.
All of a sudden, in that quiet night on the hillside outside Bethlehem there was an interruption. Just as the Baby had broken the silence at His birth, the heavenly choirs came to break the silence of that hillside. In Luke 2:8–14 we read:
Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men!”
If we had orchestrated this, if we had written the script, if we were the ones doing this pageant, would we have introduced the Lord Jesus Christ for the very first time to a group of shepherds? We’ve seen so many Christmas programs that most of us are conditioned to think, “Who else?” But in that day it would have been the last thought in your mind, because shepherds were considered ceremonially unclean. They were not allowed to worship in the temple. They were not allowed to go to court and bear witness, because they were the least of all. So God, who chose Bethlehem, the least of all the cities, also chose shepherds, who were the least of all men.
And in the quietness of a silent night, He broke in upon the countryside with an angelic host, praising God, and giving the first gospel message ever preached about the coming of Jesus Christ. What an incredible event!
What was that message? It was the message we need to listen to today: “Fear not.” The circumstances into which Jesus was born are very much the circumstances in which we find our Christmas being celebrated today.
A lot of people “celebrate” Christmas with fear. Yet that first Christmas message was, “Don’t be afraid.” The answer to our fears comes in the person of Jesus Christ.
The Word of God says the ultimate fear is our fear of death. What do we do with death? We need someone who has overcome it, and that’s who Jesus was. He came to overcome death and take away fear.
The angels also proclaimed peace and good will toward men. In fact, in that first gospel message, the angels proclaimed to the shepherds every message we need for our lives today. But don’t get caught up in the song, for the real message was in the Son. It was in the person of Jesus Christ himself.
It was a silent night near the inn at Bethlehem. A Baby cried, and nothing has been the same since. It was a silent night outside of Bethlehem where the shepherds watched their flocks, and the angels came and proclaimed the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and nothing has been the same since. And for many of us, it was a silent night, a quiet moment, when, in the deepest recesses of our hearts, we knew something was wrong, something was missing. Someone had told us that Jesus Christ came to fix all of that. And in that quiet moment, in that silent night, we invited the Savior of the world to be the Savior of our life. We accepted the one who came to be our Savior and Lord.
Many years ago, my wife and I visited Bethlehem, where there is a church called the Church of the Nativity. Though it is 100 feet by 70 feet in size, you can get into the church only one way. The door into the church is not much higher than a child, and it is only a couple of feet wide. To go into the church, people must—one at a time bend down, stoop, and walk through the door.
I remember thinking, “What an interesting reminder to all of us that entering the kingdom of God is not something that happens in a group. It is an individual experience. Knowing Jesus Christ is like getting into that church. You have to stoop down.”
Too often, that’s the last thing we are willing to do. We are too caught up in ourselves. We are going it alone, thinking we’ve got it all together.
Then, suddenly or gradually, the load of life’s problems on our shoulders finally makes us stoop down. Sometimes it is a moment of reality when we realize that the Word of God says, “There is a way that seems right unto a man, but that way ends in death.” The world would have us believe that we can come to Christ and embrace the Savior through our own efforts, but the Word of God says we must come to Him bowed down in humility, one at a time.
Would it not be a good thing for all of us in the midst of all the frenzied activity of Christmas, to get away for a short time and mediate on what this story really means and how it touches our lives?
Sometimes the most important voices we ever hear are the voices that interrupt the quietness. If you are not sure where you are with that One who came, you need to let Him speak to your heart.
- Read Luke 2:4.
- Why did Joseph and Mary have to be in Bethlehem?
- Why was that significant, in light of:
2 Samuel 7:16–17?
- If you were watching for Messiah at the time of His birth, what would you have expected?
How does that differ from what actually happened?
- Read 1 Chronicles 11:2; 17:6; and Psalm 78:70–72.
- What groups of people were the “shepherds” of Israel in the Old Testament?
- What group of people would have been the designated “shepherds” of Israel at the time of Christ?
- To whom did that group of people probably expect God to announce the arrival of Messiah?
- To whom did the angels announce Messiah’s arrival?
- Why do you think He did it this way? (See Jeremiah 10:21; 23:1; 25:34.)
- Read Ezekiel 34:2–16.
- What parallels can you see between the bad shepherds in Ezekiel and the religious leaders at the time of Christ’s birth?
- What parallels can you see between God as the Shepherd of His people, and statements Christ made during His earthly ministry?
- What events spoken of in this passage apparently took place at the birth of Christ?
- What events spoken of in this passage have not yet taken place?
- How might the angelic announcement to real shepherds have reminded Jews of this passage?
- Read Psalm 78:49; 2 Kings 6:7; 19:35; Zechariah 10:3.
- Why might the shepherds have been frightened at the appearance of an angelic being (Luke 2:9)?
- What might they have been expecting to follow such an appearance?
- What, instead, is proclaimed to them?
- What, then, is the theme of the angelic proclamation in Luke 2:14?
- What is the shepherds’ response?
Did You Know?
Although most “nativity scenes” picture the Baby Jesus lying in a manger constructed of wood, nearly all mangers found in the archeological digs of Israel were quite different. Used for water or for fodder, they consisted of a rectangular trough carved out of a single piece of limestone or basalt—making them look something like a miniature stone tomb. What this means, of course, is that when at His birth Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, it was a picture of precisely what would be done with His body following His crucifixion.
Light Up Your World
Watch for candles on sale tables throughout the year and gather an assortment of sizes and colors that fit your color scheme. All sizes and shapes can be combined to create a unique centerpiece or focal point. Decorate pillar candles by gluing leaves, glitter, stars, or anything you find interesting. Tie candles together with raffia for a unified grouping.
Clay pots make attractive candleholders and the children can personalize them with paint. For the table, try hollowed-out oranges, apples, lemons, or grapefruits as votive candle holders.
Turn the lights off and sit by candlelight and sing or talk as a family. You may be surprised how the quiet calm of candlelight can bring sweet sanity to a very busy season.
 Jeremiah, D. (1999). Celebrate his love: Study guide (pp. 28–39). Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishers.