The First Noel the angel did say
Was to certain poor shepherds
in fields as they lay;
In fields as they lay, keeping their sheep,
On a cold winter’s night that was so deep.
Noel, Noel, Noel, Noel,
Born is the King of Israel.
They looked up and saw a star
Shining in the east beyond them far,
And to the earth it gave great light,
And so it continued both day and night.
And by the light of that same star
Three wise men came from country far;
To seek for a king was their intent,
And to follow the star wherever it went.
This star drew nigh to the northwest,
O’er Bethlehem it took it rest,
And there it did both stop and stay
Right over the place where Jesus lay.
Then entered in those wise men three
Full reverently upon their knee,
and offered there in his presence
Their gold, and myrrh, and frankincense.
Then let us all with one accord
Sing praises to our heavenly Lord;
That hath made heaven and earth of naught,
And with his blood mankind hath bought
The first verse of this carol starts with the shepherds, but the rest of the verses talk about the wise men. As you read this carol and think about the one posted yesterday (We Three Kings) you’ll notice the songs talk about the wise men arriving in Bethlehem as they follow the star. That’s not exactly the factual version of the story. The wise men arrived in Jerusalem, the capital city of Israel, looking for the new king announced by the star they had seen. That visit to Jerusalem started a horror story. It’s a story we don’t mention that often, and I certainly wouldn’t tell that part of the story to my young children. But I think we, as adults, need to see these events for what they actually were in reality. The Christmas story is not all cozy and beautiful.
Let’s look at the story told in Matthew 2: 1 – 23 in The Message paraphrase:
“After Jesus was born in Bethlehem village, Judah territory— this was during Herod’s kingship—a band of scholars arrived in Jerusalem from the East. They asked around, “Where can we find and pay homage to the newborn King of the Jews? We observed a star in the eastern sky that signaled his birth. We’re on pilgrimage to worship him.”
3-4 When word of their inquiry got to Herod, he was terrified—and not Herod alone, but most of Jerusalem as well. Herod lost no time. He gathered all the high priests and religion scholars in the city together and asked, “Where is the Messiah supposed to be born?”
5-6 They told him, “Bethlehem, Judah territory. The prophet Micah wrote it plainly:
It’s you, Bethlehem, in Judah’s land,
no longer bringing up the rear.
From you will come the leader
who will shepherd-rule my people, my Israel.”
7-8 Herod then arranged a secret meeting with the scholars from the East. Pretending to be as devout as they were, he got them to tell him exactly when the birth-announcement star appeared. Then he told them the prophecy about Bethlehem, and said, “Go find this child. Leave no stone unturned. As soon as you find him, send word and I’ll join you at once in your worship.”
9-10 Instructed by the king, they set off. Then the star appeared again, the same star they had seen in the eastern skies. It led them on until it hovered over the place of the child. They could hardly contain themselves: They were in the right place! They had arrived at the right time!
11 They entered the house and saw the child in the arms of Mary, his mother. Overcome, they kneeled and worshiped him. Then they opened their luggage and presented gifts: gold, frankincense, myrrh.
12 In a dream, they were warned not to report back to Herod. So they worked out another route, left the territory without being seen, and returned to their own country.
13 After the scholars were gone, God’s angel showed up again in Joseph’s dream and commanded, “Get up. Take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt. Stay until further notice. Herod is on the hunt for this child, and wants to kill him.”
14-15 Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother under cover of darkness. They were out of town and well on their way by daylight. They lived in Egypt until Herod’s death. This Egyptian exile fulfilled what Hosea had preached: “I called my son out of Egypt.”
16-18 Herod, when he realized that the scholars had tricked him, flew into a rage. He commanded the murder of every little boy two years old and under who lived in Bethlehem and its surrounding hills. (He determined that age from information he’d gotten from the scholars.) That’s when Jeremiah’s sermon was fulfilled:
A sound was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much lament.
Rachel weeping for her children,
Rachel refusing all solace,
Her children gone,
dead and buried.
19-20 Later, when Herod died, God’s angel appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt: “Up, take the child and his mother and return to Israel. All those out to murder the child are dead.”
21-23 Joseph obeyed. He got up, took the child and his mother, and reentered Israel. When he heard, though, that Archelaus had succeeded his father, Herod, as king in Judea, he was afraid to go there. But then Joseph was directed in a dream to go to the hills of Galilee. On arrival, he settled in the village of Nazareth. This move was a fulfillment of the prophetic words, “He shall be called a Nazarene.”
If we weren’t aware that Satan is active in this world, then that story should make us think. There was no way Satan was going to sit idly by and watch the Messiah, the Saviour of the World show up without a huge effort to stop God’s plan. Satan didn’t have to look far to find the man he could use, a man who was desperate to be a king. No way was Herod going to give up the perks of ruling over Israel with Rome backing his every move.
I can’t even imagine the area in and around Bethlehem when Herod’s troops started killing all the boys two years old and under. What a horrendous nightmare! Some of you are moms or grandmothers of little ones. Can you imagine the fear and stress you would be under if you knew the government was determined to kill your preschooler? Talk about panic attacks and grief!
Joseph was warned in a dream by an angel who told him to get out right away. He obeyed and left that very night. He was far away from Bethlehem by daybreak. They had left Nazareth to go to Bethlehem because of a government enforced census when Mary was close to the end of her pregnancy. They were in Bethlehem when the wise men showed up; we don’t know for sure how long that was after the birth. But they hadn’t returned to their hometown yet at that point. Then Joseph is told to get out of Israel. Now Joseph and Mary are refugees in Egypt, and they have to stay there until Herod dies. I’m sure they heard about the massacre around Bethlehem. How do you think they felt? I’m sure they were glad that Jesus was safe, but maybe they also felt a little guilty that their son was the reason for that horrible tragedy? The birth of Jesus didn’t make life easier at all for the people involved. It was hard!
Yet, we also know that Mary and Joseph eventually made it home again. Jesus grew up in Nazareth and learned carpentry from his father. God did protect them and their family grew as more children were added. I think their story helps us realize that God is there for us even when the situation is hard. God does have a plan, and although Satan may try to mess up that plan, God is in control. When life hits you with really difficult situations, remember that God is with you. Think of the following verses that assure us of His care.
Jeremiah 29:11 (NLT)
“For I know the plans I have for you,” says the Lord. “They are plans for good and not for disaster, to give you a future and a hope.”
Isaiah 26:3 (NLT)
“You will keep in perfect peace all who trust in you, all whose thoughts are fixed on you!”
Our song today is The First Noel by Pentatonix.