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The rest of the story

By Scott Harrup

They sit beneath Christmas trees, in neighborhood yards and in front of churches. Some are miniature ceramics, others half-scale plastic figures. Occasionally a full-size, flesh-and-blood ensemble serves as a living cast of characters. Nativity scenes at Christmas are as universal as fireworks on the Fourth of July.

Seeing these depictions of Joseph, Mary and the Babe in the manger transports our thoughts to a night in Bethlehem more than 2,000 years ago. It’s easy to interpret the scene from our own life experiences — for mothers to commiserate with the young woman forced to deliver her Baby in a primitive stable, for fathers to put themselves in the shoes of the carpenter coping with a growing family when money is scarce and the government is determined to make it scarcer.

Joseph and Mary journeyed to Bethlehem to register for a tax. Caesar Augustus would not have cared if Mary were three months pregnant or a day away from delivering. Rome was fueled by money, pure and simple, and he needed more of it.

The couple ended up in the stable because Bethlehem’s inn was full. Perhaps the nameless innkeeper directed them to its limited shelter. In all likelihood, the scene had none of the rustic charm now invested in those countless nativity sets. By some accounts this sacred birthplace was a cave.

Message from a manger

But rustic charm is immaterial to the central message of Jesus’ birth. On an unknown night now remembered each December 25, angels shared that message with humble shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men” (Luke 2:14, KJV).

The God of creation, the Lord of the universe, personally connected with humanity at its most basic, its humblest, its most dependent level. The Son of God, the Prince of Peace, was not born in a palace or even a respectable home. He came into the world, “who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: but made himself of no reputation” (Philippians 2:6,7).

For most of us, the story of Jesus begins in that stable. The Babe in the manger is the central, accessible image that pulls at our hearts and warmly assures us of God’s love. For too many of us, the story of Jesus ends there as well.

The rest of the story is so much greater. And it’s intertwined with the message of Christmas every year.

Message from an empty tomb

When the Old Testament prophet Isaiah predicted Jesus’ birth, he spoke of another name by which Christ would be known. “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14). In his Gospel, Matthew explained the meaning of that name as “God with us” (Matthew 1:23).

Every Christmas a searching world is reminded that God is not a distant deity but is truly with us in the challenges and sorrows of life. Jesus himself lived out that promise among His family, His disciples and the multitudes He touched and comforted and healed.

Jesus’ identification with life’s hardest experiences reached an apex on the cross. He took the place of every sinner who merits God’s judgment — judgment the all-loving Heavenly Father was willing to pay any price to avoid. Christ was purchasing with His blood not only renewed relationship with His Father, but eternal fellowship with Him beyond this life.

Jesus’ resurrection validated His mission on the cross. If death had defeated Him, all His suffering would have been for nothing. But following His crucifixion, visitors to His tomb encountered another heavenly messenger.

“The angel said to the women, ‘Do not be afraid, for I know that you are looking for Jesus, who was crucified. He is not here; he has risen, just as he said” (Matthew 28:5,6, NIV).

Message on a hillside

On a spring day, 40 days after the Passover during which Jesus was executed, He returned to heaven in full view of His followers.

The crowd may have been as large as 500 people, if this was the event of which the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:6. Luke described the day in the opening verses of Acts. He mentioned the Mount of Olives on the outskirts of Jerusalem as the site of Jesus’ ascension.

One moment, Jesus was speaking to them with the intimate familiarity they had grown accustomed to during His earthly life. The next, He was rising into the sky. Yet again, heaven-dispatched messengers put the event into context.

“They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. ‘Men of Galilee,’ they said, ‘why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven’ ” (Acts 1:10,11).

Message from the Messiah

Taken together, the three angelic announcements call out to us this Christmas to reflect again on the past, but to keep our focus on the future.

Every nativity scene reminds us of the manger’s simple embodiment of God’s love for all mankind. “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger,” the angels told the shepherds (Luke 2:12, KJV).

The empty tomb gives silent testimony to a risen Savior who completed His mission of redemption. “Go quickly and tell his disciples: ‘He has risen from the dead,’ ” the angel told the women who visited Christ’s tomb (Matthew 28:7, NIV).

“This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back,” the white-robed heralds told the believers gathered on the Mount of Olives.

Jesus himself has endorsed that promise. “Behold, I am coming soon!” He announced in the closing verses of Revelation. “My reward is with me.”

Christ’s message is aimed at each of us this Christmas Day. He would ask us how we have responded to the manger and the empty tomb. He would ask us if we are ready to meet Him when He returns.

And each of us, this Christmas, would be wise to consider our answer.

Scott Harrup is associate editor of Today’s Pentecostal Evangel.

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