Joseph and his betrothed, Mary, arrived in Bethlehem some time before Jesus’s birth. They traveled the eight-day journey along the Jordan River from Nazareth most likely with a caravan as there were always dangers along those roads. Luke tells us that once they arrived in the city of their ancestors, they could not find a room. So, other accommodations were made to provide for an obviously pregnant relative. Then, He was born.
We tend to add more to the Christmas story, such as Mary traveling on a donkey, although it is hard to imagine a pregnant woman on the back of a beast of burden for eight days. Or, the birth occurring in a stable, even though stables were not in use in Palestine at the time. We add the inn keeper who said there were no vacancies, although inns would not have been in a city such as Bethlehem. We even add a cold December night to the birth, though shepherds would hardly be keeping watch of sheep outside in winter. These things add color to the story of Jesus’s birth, although they are not mentioned in Scripture.
Erwin Lutzer, former pastor of Moody Bible Church in Chicago, once said something to the effect that there would be no cross if there were not a cradle. While true, there is a certain cuteness to the image of a cradle surrounded by animals with Mary and Joseph kneeling on a bed of straw in a stable gazing at their newborn Son under the glow of a star as shepherds and three wise men arrive with gifts. However, the actual story is much more profound.
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.(Luke 2:15-20)
The shepherds’ great fear had been turned to great joy and their great joy would turn to great praise. So, they go “with haste” to find what they had heard from the angel. Christ the Lord was indeed born! And there He was, exactly like the angel had announced. The color we sometimes add to the story of the birth of our Savior can distract us from what Scripture says: the shepherds found Jesus just as they had been told. What the angel announced was indeed true! Christ had come! A Savior was born!
We have no idea how many babies had been born in Bethlehem at this time or on this day, but His was different. He alone was lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling cloth. And if this were true, as the shepherds experienced, then he must be the Savior.
Just as in the field after the angelic announcement when the chorus sang, “Glory to God in the highest,” so now the shepherds, departing from the child, sang in praise. It was all about God’s glory! The great Giver gave a great Gift that brought great joy and resulted in great praise.
So, here’s a question that has challenged us during this season. What would happen if we genuinely understood that Christmas was about God’s glory? How would that change our lives? It changed the shepherds. From their great joy swelled great praise to God and they told everyone about their incredible experience.