Some things never change. The news was dominated by politics, war and social unrest. Many had hoped that fresh leadership in the Senate would usher in much needed reform, but the new leaders were beholden to the same old power structure and special interests. Though times were relatively peaceful, ethnic conflicts continued to erupt here and there, and so the military kept a watchful and active presence throughout the world.
Resentment over the new census fueled rebellion in the provinces. Many had moved a considerable distance from their birthplace and they didn’t appreciate being compelled to return to their hometown to be counted. It was more than the inconvenience of the journey—everyone knew that the goal of this charade was to transfer more money out of their pockets and into the coffers of Rome. These matters dominated discussions at the city gates and dinner tables around the world.
And so it was that nearly everyone missed the most significant news event of the year. Everyone, that is, except a few shepherds, a couple of elderly folks in Jerusalem and several political leaders from the Far East (not all politicians are bad). The news? A peasant girl had given birth to a baby boy in Bethlehem. Hardly a headliner—except for the fact that this baby boy would change the course of human history. His birth in that backwater village became the moment by which all other events in time would be measured.
It is easy to understand how most of humanity missed the event. People tend to be impressed by all that appears big and powerful. We are captivated by the trite and titillated by the trendy. But the machinations of the politically powerful do not set the course of history any more than the trends of popular culture do. Those who try to read the signs of the times through the lens of popular culture or power politics will miss it every time. So what qualities enabled a select few to recognize the really important thing God was doing back in Bethlehem?
What about the shepherds on the hills outside Bethlehem? They were a simple and lowly folk. Shepherding was often reserved for the youngest member of a family. If an adult was given the task, it was not because he had a sterling resume. To these simple folk, the revelation of the babe came and the glory of God was revealed. Perhaps their simplicity made them the most likely candidates to hear from God. Though the LORD is on high, yet He regards the lowly; but the proud He knows from afar (Psalm 138:6). Also, The LORD preserves the simple … ” (Psalm 116:6a). God even commends a certain type of simplicity. We are to be “… simple concerning evil” (Romans 16:19).
Our savvy and sophisticated culture prefers cynicism to simplicity. The “wise” of our day would have us believe that issues of truth and morality are much too complicated to be known. And the more complex something appears—the more indecipherable—the more appealing it is to the many. But with God, it’s different. If we want to be among those who recognize His hand in history, we will resist cynical tendencies in ourselves and our society. We will prefer simple truth to complex sophistry. We will view the trends of our culture through the lens and light of God’s revelation. We will quiet the din of worldly clamor to listen for the voices of angels.
A well-known Christmas carol identifies the second group who saw what God was doing in their time as kings, but the Bible calls them “magi” or “wise men.” They were diviners of signs and stars; schooled in reading and interpreting the ancient texts. They were not kings, but advisers to kings, politicians of a religious stripe. And these particular political leaders from the East were truly seeking God.
Today, many people seek spiritual enlightenment from the comfort of their own living rooms. They can tune in to the latest popular preacher with their television remote control or surf the eclectic spiritual galaxy with the click of a computer mouse. But what does it really mean to seek after God? Truly seeking after God involves a devotion, a determination that requires the seeker to set aside comfort and convention, to pursue with abandon the One who alone is mighty to save.
Something within those wise men led them from the comfort and safety of their prominent positions to make the long journey to a foreign land. When they found Him whom they sought, not in a palace but in a tiny impoverished Jewish village, they were not disappointed. They worshipped Him and gave gifts. And they were able to partake in God’s messianic promise, though they were outsiders: “And you will seek Me and find Me, when you search for Me with all your heart” (Jeremiah 29:13).
The third group able to recognize what God was doing in their time were saintly sages, two elderly folk whose hearts were attenuated to the promises of the Scriptures. Anna was a prophetess. Simeon was waiting for the consolation of Israel. Together, they represented those who studied the Word of God and believed it. They knew that human destiny was not dependent on the power of the sword or political manipulation, but on the sovereign plan of God. They understood that this plan would be entrusted to a little baby boy. This was God’s way. Simeon said, “Behold, this Child is destined for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign which will be spoken against” (Luke 2:34). When we understand the Scriptures, when our hopes and our dreams are rooted in the Word of God, neither appearances nor outward circumstances will sway us. Thus, Simeon and Anna held in their very arms the One who would redeem Israel.
God chose to reveal His Son’s coming to the simple and lowly, as well as to wise—albeit foreign—seekers and finally, to faithful Jews who had set their hearts on the promises of His coming. In a sense, the Messiah was much like those to whom His Advent was first revealed. He came as a lowly shepherd, one who was not esteemed but who faithfully cared for those in His charge. Like the wise men, He journeyed far from the comfort and status of a royal court to present Himself in a humble place. And, like Anna and Simeon, He knew and believed all of God’s promises.
Those of us who proclaim the gospel should be encouraged that “wise men still seek Him,” while at the same time, the gospel is simple enough that those whom the world deems lowly and unsophisticated can embrace it. And yes, there are devoted Jewish people who want to know what God has in store, wherever it may lead them, and they will not miss out on what God is doing in our time.
As we face the turn of a century, a brand new millennium, many fear the future with all of its uncertainty. But those of us who know and believe the Bible have great hope. We know that the course of history rests not in the hands of humanity or in the programming of computers but in the sovereign plan of Almighty God. Two thousand years ago, He confounded the wisdom of this world by sending His Son to this planet to save sinful human beings. Very soon, He will send His Son once again, to rescue His saints and to judge the world. As we wait for His return, let us be like those who were ready for His first coming. Let’s not miss the signs of the times, but let’s be watching and waiting and working for that great day. “Therefore do not cast away your confidence, which has great reward. For you have need of endurance, so that after you have done the will of God, you may receive the promise: ‘For yet a little while, and He who is coming will come and will not tarry'” (Hebrews 10:35-37).