GUEST EDITORIAL: The greatest gift
By David M. Dudley, Pastor
Pocket Presbyterian Church, Sanford
Politics. All throughout 2012, politics has taken “center stage” in American life. And it’s politics — not religion — that sends Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem for the birth of their first child. “In those days,” Luke writes, “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” A census! That’s what sends this young couple on their way. Caesar, the Roman emperor, wants better records of the population across his vast empire — which includes the tiny nation of Israel. So he orders all citizens to return to their ancestral homes to be counted. Joseph comes from the line of King David, whose home was Bethlehem. So he and his young wife Mary pack up and start the slow journey toward that little Judean town, even though Mary is nearing the end of her pregnancy.
Caesar Augustus is the undisputed leader of the great Roman Empire. But in the end, this powerful emperor is only a small, historical “footnote” in a much more important story. Caesar believes that he’s in charge — but in truth, God is! Without even knowing it, the emperor sends Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem, where the Old Testament prophets said the Messiah would be born. To Caesar, the census is only a tool to raise more tax money. And to Mary and Joseph, it’s a dangerous, time-consuming burden for a woman who’s about to have a baby. But for God, it’s all part of his master-plan of salvation, which he put into motion even before the world was created.
Caesar knows nothing of the Messiah’s birth, and neither do the hundreds of Jewish travelers. So Mary’s holy child is born in a borrowed barn, because all the guest rooms in town have been taken. Imagine that: he’s the most important baby ever born on our planet — but while Caesar sleeps in a palace on silk sheets, Jesus’ parents lay him on a bed of hay, in a feed trough for animals!
The promised Messiah is born, and the world needs to know. So angels light up the night sky on a nearby hillside, and startle a group of sleepy shepherds. “Don’t be afraid,” the angel tells them. “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the city of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” The census may have been the main topic of conversation around dinner tables throughout the Roman Empire that night. But the real news is taking place in tiny Bethlehem, in the corner of a dark stable, where the world’s Savior is born as a helpless baby!
And that is why Christmas is a miracle. Not because another new baby is born into the world — as wonderful as that is. And not because we see generous people filling Salvation Army kettles with donations — although that’s great to see, too. It’s not even the joy that scattered families feel when they get together for the holidays. All of those things are blessings of this season. But we discover the miracle of Christmas when we recognize just who that baby in the manger is. Jesus is the Eternal God who lowers himself to our level, comes to earth, and lives among us as a human being. As the angel tells Joseph, Mary’s baby is Emmanuel, which means “God with us.” Not God above us, not God near us, or God with a message for us. Jesus is God WITH us — the God who loves us enough to come to us in person — face to face — and live through the fears and disappointments and heartaches that are part of life for each of us.
As we share gifts with each other on Christmas Day, don’t forget to thank God for the greatest gift ever given — the gift of God’s only Son, our Savior Jesus Christ!