Hard Times In Old Bethlehem
A Christmas Message
A Sermon Manuscript by Robert L. Cobb
Editor, NewsForChristians Dot Com
"And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, 
and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn." Luke 2:7

The story of the first Christmas is retold every year from the kitchen table to the most ornate of pulpits. Like the rest of the Bible, this story never fails to speak to individuals, the church, and the nation no matter our circumstances or condition.  As we enter the 2008 Christmas season, we find ourselves in difficult economic times.  Not since the Great Depression of the 1930's have people been so fearful of the monetary future of our country.  As we examine the story of Christ's birth in a little different light, we find that Scripture still speaks to us in our need, even in this modern age in which we live.

It is very easy to focus on the great miracle of the Virgin Birth and the first coming of our Savior, and indeed, that event is central to the story.  But, in an attempt to find spiritual food for our souls, let us look at the human condition of Joseph and Mary and all those who lived during that time.  Let us focus our attention mainly on how the saints of God should handle difficult times, applying the lessons of our text to our situation today.

The series of events that would bring Roman destruction upon Jerusalem in 70 A.D. was already in motion.  In 37 B.C. the Romans took control of Jerusalem by force of arms and installed Herod the Great as King.  From then until 4 B.C., Herod ruled with an iron fist and stamped out any Jewish dissent.  But now the old king lay dying and change was in the air.  Caesar Augustus had decreed that the entire Roman kingdom would be "taxed," or registered for taxation.  Each subject would declare his holdings in the town of his birth.  From this registering, Rome would tax its citizens according to their wealth.  This represented a huge change in the way of life of the people.  Changes in leadership and changes in monetary policies threatened the well-being and the confidence of the people.

Today, we find similar circumstances.  We who claim to be God's people and claim to trust in Him, now find that our way of life is threatened by change.  Have we really been trusting in God, or were we really trusting in the only way of life we have ever really known?  God can upset the "status quo" and has done so on many occasions.  World wars, natural disasters, bad leadership, depressions, and many other things have torn Christians from their beds of ease and thrusted us into a new and frightening set of circumstances.  "As an eagle stirreth up her nest, fluttereth over her young, spreadeth abroad her wings, taketh them, beareth them on her wings:  So the LORD alone did lead him..."  Deut. 39:11-12

Most scholars agree that Joseph was somewhat older than Mary, who could have been still a teenager.  This unlikely couple had an even more unlikely secret.  Their unborn child was the long-awaited Messiah!  This had been confirmed by personal visits from the archangel Gabriel.  They were certainly the "chosen" of God to be entrusted as parents of the Son of God.  Both of them had obeyed the heavenly vision and followed God's instructions to the letter. (Mat 1:24, Luke 1:38)  No one would blame them if they had expected a little "special treatment" from the Father for this great task that lay before them.  But no special treatment came.  It is amazing to think of how today's Christians expect to be spared from the repercussions of recession and economic hardship.  If God let Mary and Joseph suffer in such a time as Christ's birth, what should be our expectations today?

Joseph and Mary were poor.  Though they were descendants of King David, the Roman occupation had ground the Jewish people to poverty.  The only Jews who prospered were the ones who carried out and cooperated with the Romans' will.  Joseph was a carpenter, but was most probably paid with supplies rather than money.  Now his wife was great with child and there were no rooms available and most likely no money to pay for one.    Mary and Joseph were without friends on this journey.  Many acquaintances probably were gossiping about her pregnancy and counting the months to figure out who the "real father" was.  When we consider the trials and tribulations that this godly couple endured, one is tempted to ask, "Why did God allow this to befall them?"    God's thoughts are not our thoughts, and Psalm 92:5 says  "O LORD, how great are thy works! [and] thy thoughts are very deep."  As we negotiate our way through these times, we must remember that God never promised to save us from troubles, but to help us in our troubles. 

Another lesson for us in the Christmas story is the fulfillment of prophecies.  The angel had appeared to Mary and prophesied of the coming Messiah.  Luke 1:31: "And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a son, and shalt call his name JESUS.  He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: and the Lord God shall give unto him the throne of his father David:  And he shall reign over the house of Jacob for ever; and of his kingdom there shall be no end."  But the wise men from the East also followed the prophetic star to Christ's birthplace.  And do not forget Anna and Simeon, the old people in the temple who trusted God that they would see the Messiah before they died.

The times in which we live also give proof to fulfilled prophecy.  Since 1948, Israel has taken her place among the nations and is the key to the politics of our world. The European nations continue to come together as one preparing the way for the Antichrist to rule over them in the end times.  The Muslims have pushed forward on the world stage, along with the Chinese and Russians.  But probably the most stunning prophecy we see being fulfilled is the Church becoming more Laodicean every day!  Just like in the story of the first Christmas, people go about their daily routines oblivious to the fulfillment of prophecy in their midst!

God was working in the world, bringing the political and economic conditions to a point that would be condusive to the Coming of the Messiah.  The mulitudes did not notice because they were wrapped up in their day-do-day routines.  But God spoke in Luke 2:10-11: And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.  The promise was made that a Savior had come!

While nothing outwardly changed in the world that day, a great event had happened.  As we search the history books, the taxation of Caesar Augustus rates barely a mention.  The birth of a backwoods Jewish child in the little town of Bethlehem gets no mention at all.  But human life had changed that day!

And so it is today!  The salvation that was made available in the First Coming of Christ is still available today.  You won't see it mentioned in the New York Times or the Washington Post.  You won't hear it spoken on Wall Street or Hollywood.  The leaders of the world, for the most part, ignore the salvation of Christ just as they did in the First Century.  There is deliverance for humanity!  There is a cure for sin!  There is a key to a better and more fulfilling life!  It is Christ!  Just as it was in Bethlehem long ago!

As we close this message, we come to a very special truth.    "...And all they that heard it wondered at those things...But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart."  Mary and Joseph had just gone through a most traumatic experience.  The birth of her first child had occurred away from her family and home in a stable,  and she was surrounded by shepherds, angels, and, later, wise men from the East.  Mary "kept" these things, that is, she kept it all in her mind lest it be forgotten.  The word means to preserve a thing.  And notice the word "pondered."  This means to bring together in one's mind, converse with one's self about a thing. Each of these great events in her life were put into her mind's picture book, to be taken out and considered in her quiet time.  We have all had experiences with the Lord, prayers answered, truths given, principles observed, that we shoud ponder in our hearts!

CONCLUSION:  My point in bringing this message is to compare the time of the first Christmas with today.  We are humans no different than those in that day.  God is working in lives today just as yesterday.  We can see His fingerprints on the world stage, moving and working His will.  We should not expect to get a "free pass" from the trials and tribulations of the future.  God has a plan for each of us, but that plan will be carried out with history as a backdrop.  We will not be saved "out of" recession, depression, war, or famine.  We may be called upon to carry out His work in the midst of it, as did Joseph and Mary in Old Bethlehem!

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