Jesus was born in the Roman province of Judea, which had been on the verge of open revolt for nearly a hundred years. Judea was ruled by a tyrant named Herod, who slaughtered his enemies without mercy. Above the tyrant was a Roman government which granted faraway conquered lands much latitude, but had Legions that could project enormous power anywhere in the known world. Caesar’s word was indisputable law, over life and death.
Jesus was born in a world filled with turmoil. People didn’t know who to believe, what to believe, and from where (or if, or whom) their rescue would come. Many had fallen for false messiahs in recent memory. The Romans understood how to deal with these groups if they amassed too much power. The threat of Roman Legions and the heavy hand of Herod made the Jewish religious authorities very careful of anyone who rocked the boat.
In that world of turmoil, amidst the large backdrop of political intrigue, a baby was quietly born in a stable, attended by the lowing of cattle, and visited by shepherds from the field. Shepherds were considered to be in a lowly profession, though they were quite skilled at their jobs—if Jesus had been born in a hospital, the janitors would be in attendance.
The New Testament records that angels sung in Heaven, and revealed the will of God, a message of “Peace on Earth, and good will toward men” to the shepherds, then showed them the way to Bethlehem, where the newborn savior lay with his mother and Joseph.
Politics intruded later, when the Magi followed the star they observed that night, and in deference to diplomacy, their caravan stopped in Jerusalem to inform Herod of their arrival. Herod was disturbed at these men who interpret celestial signs, pointing at the birth of the King of the Jews (he believed that to be himself). Asking his religious scholars, they told him of the Scriptures and prophecy that the messiah would be born in Bethlehem.
Herod sent the Magi on their way, asking them to let him know where the found the King, so he too could worship. The Magi perceived this was a lie. After offering their gifts, the Magi did not go back through Jerusalem. King Herod, enraged, ordered his soldiers to murder every child two years old or younger in the Rama area, which includes Bethlehem. In a dream, Joseph was warned by an angel and escaped with young Jesus and his mother Mary, fleeing to Egypt.
This is all in Matthew chapters one and two (and Luke chapter two). The historicity of the larger events has been established and confirmed by scholars throughout the last two centuries. Herod the Great existed and we see his works—the Western (“Wailing”) Wall in Jerusalem was built as a “parking lot” area for the Temple. The Roman general Titus came with a Legion and finally put down the rebellion that followed Jesus’s death 70 years later.
(Nero had the Apostle Paul executed, Caligula declared himself God and planned a huge statue of himself installed in the Holy of Holies. Hadrian systematically erased all Jewishness from Judea, renaming it “Syria Palestina,” the effects of which endures to this day.)
As Jesus prophesied, not one stone was left upon another as the Temple was burned to the ground. It was recorded that Titus ordered the Temple to be left untouched, but his troops did not follow the direction. Today, the Temple Mount is home to the Al-Aqsa Mosque, under which is the ruins of the first and second Temple. The Palestinian Authority does not allow Israeli archaeologists to do any research on that ground.
There was turmoil, rebellion, tyranny, and war.
Yet in the midst of that, Christianity prospered and added thousands to its numbers. Persecution caused many to flee to the far corners of the earth. Apostles followed the call of God as far as modern day Spain, India, and north Africa. The Gospel was shared throughout the known world, amid resistance, and even the death of all the Apostles as martyrs, with the exception of John the Revelator. John discipled Polycarp and Ignatius. Polycarp served as bishop of Smyrna for sixty years. Irenaeus was a disciple of Polycarp, who was a disciple of John, who personally knew Jesus Christ as a close friend, and was present on the Mount of Transfiguration.
Through all this, back to Jesus’s quiet birth in Bethlehem, the turmoil raged. How could this have been “peace on earth, good will toward men?” How could God’s will make any sense?
The peace that Jesus brings is not the peace of this world. It is the peace of God, which transcends all understanding. It is the calm of the martyr who climbs willingly onto his own execution pyre. It is the joy of the missionary who is pelted with stones, cursed by local witches, and beaten within a sliver of life, but survives to build yet another church on the burned ashes of the previous one.
We have turmoil today. I read the news just like you do. There’s no need to review everything that comes across our little glowing screens at breakneck speed, of pandemics, and vaccines, and politics, and corruption, and crime, and the rumors of war. We all see it.
Yet Christmas brings to mind the message, “peace on earth, good will toward men.” The angels sung in a Heavenly choir, worshiping and praising the little baby who was fully man and fully God, come to earth to fulfill an impossible prophecy, live an impossible life, and give us an impossible future.
Christ did not come to overturn the turmoil. He came to give us the unspeakable gift of peace to rise above it. Whatever your personal turmoil this Christmas season, and there’s plenty of it going around, ask God to help you rise above it. The baby in the manger came for no other purpose than to do that, just for you.
Keep up with the Christmas carol countdown, here’s a review:
God bless and have a wonderful day. Travel safe, wear a mask in public, use hand sanitizer, and don’t fear the vaccine. Pray for the 115,351 who are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, the families of the 319,363 who have died from the disease, and the 2 million who have endured it (me included).