Human history is divided into two parts: before and after the birth of Jesus Christ. OK, that may sound like a trivial statement: any arbitrary point in time serves equally well to divide history into ‘before’ and ‘after.’ And, of course, historians are fond of pointing to specific events that were ‘turning points’ or ‘watershed events’ which dramatically altered the course of history. The signing of the Declaration of Independence and the Battle of Gettysburg are two such events in our own nation’s history. And we each have those landmark events that changed the course of our personal lives.
But when we say this about the birth of Jesus, we are talking about something quite different. Any historian will agree that the start of the Christian faith in the early first century AD was an event that dramatically shaped all subsequent history, indeed, we use it as the reference point for how we number our years. However, for the secular historian this is just an interesting occurrence that ended up having enormous significance – his fascination is to understand how and why this quite obscure event developed into an ‘earth shaking’ movement.
But for the Christian, that misses the real point. For us, the birth of Jesus was not just something that turned out to be really important, but the critical moment in God’s long-standing plan to redeem His creation from the rebellion and misery into which it had fallen. Now, every Christmas we gather to meditate on what the birth of Jesus has meant to our salvation. But in this Fish Hooks we want to look at the historical convergence of God’s plan to reclaim for Himself the ‘enemy occupied territory’ which His beloved creation had become. God knew from the very beginning what would be involved in this assault, but the time wasn’t ripe: the rampant violence and idolatry of pagan societies were an environment in which His Kingdom of Heaven could not be planted. You see, God’s invasion would not be by brute force, but by voluntary repentance and discipleship, and that required patient preparation of hearts and minds.
So, the first step in God’s plan was to find an appropriate man (Abraham) who could form the basis for His ‘invasion force’ – a people set apart to prepare the ‘landing area’ for the arrival of His Son. The Old Testament is a record of how those pre-invasion preparations proceeded – how His specially-chosen people were instructed, protected, and disciplined until they were unquestioning in their commitment to the One True God, and anxious for the arrival of the Messiah (‘anointed one’) who would overthrow God’s enemies on earth and usher in His Kingdom.
When God came into our world as a human baby, the situation was remarkably optimal for the planting of that Kingdom. Humble but pious people like Mary and Joseph could be found who would unquestioningly answer God’s shocking call and raise Jesus according to His ordinances. Then too, after centuries of dispersion and isolation, the Jewish nation had been recently united under a strong king (Herod the Great) and the Jerusalem temple rebuilt – the setting for so much of Jesus’ life and activity. But that hostile despot was now dead, and it was possible for Jesus to grow up in peaceful obscurity until He was called to ministry. This was also a period of heightened Messianic expectations where John the Baptist found a ready audience, and Jesus would be recognized by some as God’s promised one (the Christ). Yet, at the same time, this was an environment where the very people who had been authorized to make sacrifices pleasing to God, would unwittingly accomplish the necessary sacrifice of God’s Own Son: “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29)
This was also the optimum time for the Kingdom to explode into the rest of the world. Under Roman rule, the entire Mediterranean region shared a common language (Greek) and enjoyed safety and freedom to travel far and wide – an unprecedented window of stability and literacy which would only last for a few hundred years, during which Christianity became the religion of Western culture from where it could be efficiently spread to the rest of the globe. Surely this too was God’s plan!
“But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4)