Angels, shepherds, wise men, Jesus lying in a manger–we know the story so well. But it’s been sweetened up, romanticized, censored, stripped of its violence and desperation through the years. It’s good to go back to the original sources and renew our appreciation of the extreme drama of the story.
Here are 9 questions to challenge you and your family to worship a God who would orchestrate such an amazing story to reconcile us to himself. (You might enjoy using one each night as a conversation starter at dinner. You can even include these questions in a larger game of Advanced Christmas Trivia to share at Christmas gatherings with additional categories like music and history using this free download.)
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1. The four women mentioned by Matthew in his genealogy are: Tamar who disguised herself as a prostitute to entice Judah to fulfill his patriarchal obligation to her (which he had shirked).
Rahab was also a prostitute. And a foreigner. She lived in Jericho and sheltered the spies from her countrymen because she believed their God.
Ruth was not only a foreigner, but a foreigner from Moab, Israel’s enemy. God seems quite intent on showing his grace toward sinners, victims and outsiders by including them in the family tree of Jesus.
“The wife of Uriah.” That would be Bathsheba, who committed adultery with King David. Notice how the genealogy emphasizes how she was another man’s wife. David saw her bathing and took her. As king he had all the power in the situation. We don’t know how willingly Bathsheba submitted to his sexual advances. But God redeemed her shame, guilt and loss by choosing her to be the mother of David’s successor, Solomon, and the one through which the line of the Messiah would come.
2. The first Christmas saw the slaughter of the innocents. The magi told Herod exactly when they had seen the Jewish King’s star rising. Because he intended to kill the child, when they did not return to Jerusalem, he became furious . Starting from the star’s rising, he did the math and ordered the murder of any male child in the Bethlehem area age two or under. Matthew 2:17-18 17 tells us, “Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, weeping and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be comforted, because they are no more.” (Jer 31:15)
Joy is the point of the Christmas story, as the shepherds told everyone who would listen. But joy is opposed. Real blood flowed in Bethlehem. Real moms held their dead children and sobbed.
3. Other Old Testament prophecies of Christ’s birth include: Messiah would be born from the line of David. Born of a virgin. His throne would last forever. Messiah would be called out of Egypt. (Hosea 11:1); Num 24:17-one day a king of Israel will rise like a star.
4. None of these events are out of chronological order. The picture we have of the shepherds and the magi all worshiping at the manger together is the product of dramatic license, compressing the story to get the “best parts” in. And censoring the bad parts (the slaughter of the innocents) out. It creates a tight narrative for drama and art, but it isn’t the way things really happened.
The reality creates a higher drama–The magi arrive after the family has settled into a house. (Matthew 2:11, “And going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him.” Being warned in a dream they returned without telling Herod where Jesus is.
The Christmas story does not end at the manger. It ends with the the magi deceiving King Herod and Joseph and Mary fleeing Herod’s coming rage, running for their lives.
5. A multitude. Heaven cuts loose. God is up to great things beyond imagining in a small town. The shepherds get a glimpse.
6. Angelic visitations besides the shepherds: Luke 1: Gabriel appears to Zechariah, foretelling the birth of his son, John the Baptist.
Luke 1: Gabriel appears to Mary to announce Jesus’ birth and God’s provision of a friend and fellow traveler for Mary in her cousin Elizabeth, now six months pregnant in her old age with John the Baptist.
Matthew 1: An angel assures Joseph that Mary has not been unfaithful. He can take her as his wife knowing that Mary’s child was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and this son, to be named Jesus, will save his people from their sins.
Finally, after the magi leave, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream (Matthew 2:13) warning him that Herod wanted to kill Jesus and that they should flee to Egypt.
Their flight to Egypt concludes magi part the Christmas Story, in which case there were four angelic visitations.
God works through circumstances, through influencing hearts and minds to accomplish his great redemption. But when the danger is great and the stakes are high, he calls in his angels.
7. The Bible doesn’t say how many magi. It mentions 3 gifts: gold frankincense and myrrh—probably the source of the church tradition of the three magi.
8. The magi came from the East and studied the signs of the stars. Prime candidate: Babylonia. Daniel probably shared with the other court magi the prophecies of the future Jewish Messiah, and his teachings may have been preserved among those who assiduously studied the stars.
9. Simeon told Joseph and Mary that Jesus was appointed for the “fall and rising of many in Israel and for a sign that is opposed.” (And that a sword would pierce her own heart as well.) Can you imagine? Fast forward 33 years to the trial and crucifixion of Jesus…Mary knew better than anyone that Jesus was the Messiah, the very Son of God. She could remember where she was and what it felt like to be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and conceive a son without an earthly father. What must she have felt to see the priests and elders of her people deny that sacred reality? How could they oppose him? No doubt a sword did pierce her heart.
As in our own stories, in the Christmas story we see such danger, loss, and heartbreak and such joy, peace, and overcoming, No other story inspires such soaring beauty and hope. The fleeing and hiding from evil, the loss of loved ones–it’s not the end of the story. God is still at work doing things beyond imagining in our time, in our lives. May we be like Mary, opening ourselves up to him in confident expectation that we are safe in his hands and that he is working everything out for our joy and his glory.