For some people, Christmas is all about spending time with family, and the giving and receiving of gifts, but for others, Christmas is also a celebration and remembrance of the birth of Christ.
When thinking about the birth of Jesus, I think it’s important to remember that it isn’t a fairy tale in a story book. The birth of Jesus was a real historical event with real historical people, and it’s an event with a lot of rough edges to it. A lot of times in our minds I think we like to smooth out those rough edges and turn the story of Christ’s birth into something from a Hallmark greeting card, but it really wasn’t like that.
It was a difficult birth, but I think it’s a good thing for us that it was a difficult birth, because it helps us to see how to better live our difficult lives.
The Scandal of Christmas
The birth of Jesus—the Incarnation, God becoming flesh—was amazing. It was miraculous, and it was unthinkable until it happened. It was the first step in Jesus becoming our High Priest, Someone who knew what it was like to live as a human, but to do so perfectly, without sin.
And a big part of this miraculous event was the fact that Mary the mother of Jesus was a virgin when she became pregnant.
Now for us, this is history. We believe that it happened, we accept it as fact, and we commonly hear her referred to as the Virgin Mary (growing up I knew that Mary was a virgin loooong before I knew what that word actually meant). What I’m trying to say is that we are so familiar with the idea of Mary being an unwed virgin that I think we tend to overlook how big of a scandal this would have been for her.
The angel Gabriel appears to Mary in Luke 1.26-38 and tells her that she is going to give birth to Jesus. The Bible says that Mary is troubled, and she’s also confused as to how she’s going to give birth while she is still a virgin, so Gabriel tells her that it will happen by the power of the Holy Spirit.
I think we get the first hint of scandal in Luke 1.39, where it says that Mary “went with haste” to visit her relative Elizabeth, who is six months pregnant with John the Baptist. It’s almost like Mary is trying to get out of town to hide her pregnancy. She spends three months with Elizabeth, presumably until the time that John is born, and I get the impression that while there, Mary is encouraged by Elizabeth and comes to terms with what it going on and begins to glorify God for it.
Then she returns home. And if going out of town to visit Elizabeth had successfully hidden her pregnancy to this point, it’s probably not hidden any longer. At this point, people can likely see that Mary is pregnant.
And we’re not really sure of the timeline, but maybe it’s at this point that we have Matthew 1.18-19:
“Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”
Now, there is some background information here that we need to know. In Jewish culture at that time, a man and a woman would be engaged to one another, and this would be considered to be a binding engagement. They would be referred to as husband and wife, even though they weren’t technically married yet, and even though it would have been considered immoral for them to have sexual relations.
If a woman like Mary was discovered to have had sexual relations during this time of engagement, it would have been considered adultery, and under the Law of Moses, she could have been stoned to death.
That’s the gravity of the situation that Mary would have been in when she was “found to be with child.” And just stop for a moment and imagine the conversation that must have happened between Joseph and Mary when he found out. Remember, these were real people, in many ways not so very different from you and me. They were likely both fairly young (some estimate that Mary would have been between 14-16):
What?!? Mary, I can’t believe this! How could you? Who, who is the father?
Well, the Holy Spirit. I’m still a virgin, Joseph! I haven’t been unfaithful to you!
(And I can just picture the look on Joseph’s face)
The Holy Spirit?! Yeah, right.
And then, we get to see the character of Joseph. You know, I think God chose the earthly parents of Jesus carefully. He didn’t pick rich parents or powerful parents, or members of the social elite, but he chose carefully. He selected quality people to raise His Son. Joseph, despite all the disappointment and heartbreak he must have been feeling, decides to show Mary compassion and divorce her quietly so she won’t be put to shame and face the punishment for adultery.
And then an angel appears to him in a dream and says, “No really, this is a special birth, a special child who has been conceived by the Holy Spirit.” And from that point on, Joseph’s on board.
But even then, in a small town like Nazareth, I’m sure that the gossip and the rumors of scandal would have persisted.
Scandal in our Lives
Well, just like we try to smooth over the scandal in the birth of Jesus, a lot of times we try to do that in our lives as well.
Sometimes we do this by putting on a brave face and trying to pretend like we have it all together, like we don’t have any sin or problems in our lives that we need help with. But really, all of us are a mess. We all have issues and problems in our lives. The key to dealing with the scandal, with the mess in our lives, is not to smooth it over and pretend it’s not there, but rather to address it, repent of it, and leave it behind.
But sometimes we also try to remove scandal from our lives by having nothing to do with people we consider to be sinful or scandalous. And let’s be clear, it’s true that bad company corrupts good moral and that we shouldn’t tolerate sin in the church, but Paul is clear in 1 Corinthians 5.9-10 that in order to be out in the world and point people to Christ, we’re going to come in contact with some scandalous things (because that’s how the world is).
Don’t misunderstand me—none of what I am saying here is meant to downplay the importance of holiness in our lives, or to downplay the seriousness of sin. But our world is a sin-ridden, scandalous place, and sometimes that sin and scandal can even creep into the church.
And if we’re going to mature as Christians, if we’re going to help our world, if we’re going to save souls, we can’t be afraid of the scandal.