How Do You Know He Was There?
Helena, the mother of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, made a trip to the Holy Land between 326 and 328 AD. She went to build churches there where ever she felt she had verified important events in Jesus’ life had taken place. Eusebius, the first historian of the church and the Bishop of Caesarea, took Helena to the hill country about a mile east of Bethlehem which, for 200 years, the local people had revered as the place where the angels appeared to the shepherds in the Christmas story. Helena built a church there also, the mosaic tile floor of which may have been discovered.
The Temple Lambs Were There
There is evidence that the lambs sacrificed in the Temple were raised and kept there. Some scholars insist there was a tower there, from which the shepherds watched the sheep, and at the base of which, they birthed sheep and wrapped them in a swaddling cloth and laid them in mangers, so the sheep would not injure themselves, disqualifying them for Temple sacrifices. These scholars think Mary and Joseph took shelter there just before Jesus was born, and that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger just like the sheep to be sacrificed in the Temple. These scholars think this is why the shepherds needed no directions to find the baby Jesus. When the angels told the shepherds that the baby would be wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, they said to one another, “Dude, that’s what we do with Passover Lambs. We better check the tower!” Maybe this tradition inspired John the Baptist to think of Jesus as the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29 and 36) and which caused the writer of the Gospel of John to insist that Jesus was crucified when the Passover Lambs were sacrificed, not the next day as Matthew, Mark, and Luke claim.
The Temple Shepherds Were There
There is a little evidence that there was a special group of shepherds who swaddled lambs and laid them in mangers. But the fact that there was a local tradition dating back to about 120 AD that the angels appeared to the shepherds east of Bethlehem is pretty good evidence that the “temple shepherds” were the ones to receive some kind of vision from God that the Messiah had been born. So down the hill they hurried, in the dark, toward the little town of Bethlehem, which is visible from their fields during the day. At night, Bethlehem was probably harder to see. There were, after all, no street lights in tiny towns in those days. There may have been a lamp or two shining among the homes of the 300 or so inhabitants of Bethlehem, one of those lamps being necessary for a midwife to attend Mary during and after the birth of Jesus. I imagine that’s how the shepherds found Mary and Joseph. And I suppose shepherds were pretty agile fellows, so that if anyone could have made it down rock-strewn slopes and paths at night with only the most rudimentary of lighting of their own, it would have been them.
Some Good Shepherds Were There
Shepherds were not all notorious characters. King David was a shepherd. Luke, who seems to have been the Gospel writer most steeped in Greek language and culture, would have been well-acquainted with many stories in Greek literature of gods appearing to shepherds. And in Bethlehem, there appears to have been a truce worked out between usually quarreling farmers and shepherds. Bethlehem, which means “house of bread,” was a good grain growing area partly because it was a highland water aquifer, tapped eventually by Jerusalem itself when its own water supply was ruined by all the blood from Temple sacrifices. The other reason that Bethlehem was a good place to grow grain is that the Temple sheep grazed in the wheat stubble and left lovely fertilizer there before moving up to the mountain pastures as the grain ripened in the summer.
The Messiah Was There in a Manger?
Luke believed the angels told the shepherds that Jesus was the Savior, the Messiah (the anointed ruler of the world from David’s family) and the Lord (a way of saying “ruler of the world” for Luke’s Greek readers who may not have known what a Messiah was). Kind of weird message about the ruler of the world: his cradle was a manger, not a royal bed in the nicest home in Bethlehem. But if angels tell you something, I guess you go check it out.
How Do You Know God Is There?
On last Saturday evening, a tall young man dressed in a new and clean, gray athletic training outfit, a nice gray, hooded coat, and new, gray athletic shoes came through the doors on Madison Street about a half hour before worship. He had a backpack, but was also carrying a large, black plastic bag at least partly full of clothes. The ushers and I greeted him cheerily as he walked slowly up the steps, but he said nothing. I tried to strike up a conversation with him, but he said nothing until he said he felt like he was a dead man walking. Like he was in a coma. And he wanted to talk. Concerned for privacy for our talk, I drew him into the beautiful parlor before the gorgeous glowing tree. He said he could see dead people walking. He wondered why. He said he was looking for Jehovah. And I said God was right there in the parlor with us. And in the churches up and down the street.
“How do you know?”
I was apparently not as convincing to this young man as the angels were to the shepherds. The shepherds did not ask, “How do you know he’s the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord?” They just ran down the hill.
Our guest wasn’t running anywhere. He was serious. He stood and stared at me. I said, “We believe God’s here. It’s not like 1 + 1 = 2. You can prove that. You can see that.”
“But faith is different. It’s more like trust.”
The front door slammed. The sudden bang bothered him. A lot.
“It’s like hope. We believe God is here. God is with you.”
He took a while to digest that. Like Mary pondering the message of the shepherds. Since there’s certainly no room for people like him in inns, he seemed interested in the homeless shelter, and I tried to explain how to get there. He couldn’t focus on anything. Not even on the GPS on his phone. He began to move on. He got all the way down the steps to Madison Street, and he came back again and dropped his bag. “I want to donate this,” he said. And he left.
Emmanuel: God Was There With Us
He went south toward the homeless shelter, but he took the wrong turn. After worship, we saw him heading north. There were no angels for him. No star. He did not return to Grace the next day to retrieve belongings he may have mistakenly given away. He had meant to give away his possessions. God only knows where he went. I got one thing right that night. God was right there with us at Grace: where two or three are gathered in his name, in the bread and fruit of the vine, and in our Guest, one of the very least of our brothers and sisters. For whom we, like the shepherds, did nothing, though at the end of his visit, he gave everything to us. Which is what we celebrate at Christmas. And every week all year long.