The Christmas Story – A Character Study

The birth of Jesus changed the world. So, I’ve been re-reading the Christmas story in  Matthew and Luke with a singular purpose in mind – to identify those characters in the story who were the kind of people who get things done, who take initiative and make things happen. Maybe we can learn something from them that will enable us to be more effective in our efforts to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

I am unimpressed.

Take the old priest, Zechariah, for example. Entering the Holy of Holies in the temple in Jerusalem, swinging his censor of burning incense, Zechariah is confronted by an angel of the Lord who tells him that his wife, Elizabeth, is going to have a baby in old age. Did Zechariah seize the moment? Hardly. Luke tells us that he was dumbfounded. Literally.

The next character we meet is Elizabeth. When she realizes she is pregnant she goes into seclusion for at least six months. Not much inspiration there.

Let’s head up to Nazareth next, where we meet the girl, Mary, and her espoused husband, Joseph. Mary is told by the angel Gabriel that she is going to have a baby by the Holy Spirit. Her reaction? Denial: “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” In other words, “You’ve got the wrong lady, buddy.” She goes off to see cousin Elizabeth, where her soul magnifies the Lord, but in seclusion – she stays with Elizabeth for three whole months!

Okay. Next is Joseph. Joseph is the most docile of them all. He doesn’t do a single thing without being told to do it. He thinks about ending the engagement to Mary, but he had a dream in which an angel told him to go ahead and marry her. So Joseph said, “Okay,” and they were married. The government said, “We’re taking a census, but we’re not spending the money to send census-takers to you, Joseph. You have walk eighty miles to Bethlehem to be counted.” Joseph says, “Okay,” and off he goes with his by now very pregnant wife. An angel says, “Go to Egypt,” and off he goes again. An angel says, “Go back home,” and Joseph packs their bags and sets off. An angel tells him to skirt around Judea, and Joseph skirts around Judea. Every single thing the man does he is told to do.

The shepherds? They went to see the baby because a bunch of angels told them to, then they told a few people in Bethlehem and went back to their sheep. Not much initiative there.

The wise men? Followed a star. Brought gifts of burial spices. I guess after their conversation with Herod they figured this new king wasn’t going to last long. To avoid any confrontations they went home by a different route – not the kind of people who have the drive to change the world.

The soldiers? Did what Herod ordered them to do.

It turns out that the only people in the story who take any initiative at all are the inn keeper and Herod. The innkeeper refused to let them hunker down in the inn. Luke’s account says there was no place for them in the inn, and we usually think this means the inn was full. It really means, however, that having a pregnant woman deliver a baby in a public place would have created a scandal with observant Jews who avoided “uncleanness” as a rule, and the innkeeper made the decision not to allow that to happen. Now there’s a man of decisive character!

But if we want a decisive character, the best example is Herod. Confronted with the news brought by the wise men he took immediate action. He ordered his people to search the records to find where the new king was to be born. He sent the wise men there, ordering them to return and tell him exactly where the child was, and when they failed to return he immediately dispatched a platoon of soldiers to kill every baby in Bethlehem. A real man of action was Herod!

Isn’t it interesting that the only people in the Christmas story who had the wherewithal to get things done were the two individuals who were either against Jesus or could care less about him?

So, what are we to make of this? It seems to me that the lesson we followers of Christ can learn from the Christmas story is a lesson of submission. God doesn’t need us to change the world. God simply needs us to be available.

Grace and Peace! And merry Christmas!

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