So what, indeed, was the first Noel?

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The Christmas story is full of things that make us wonder.

By the invitation and blessing of God, a virgin conceived and prepared to give birth, traveling to Bethlehem with her fiancé, Joseph.

The ancient people knew that, in the normal course of events, a virgin did not conceive, and Mary knew this, too.

The angelic messenger from God who told her that this would happen also told her that God had a great purpose for her child. For that reason, God would create the baby’s life in her womb. In the end, God alone could take credit for the life the baby would live, the life of Jesus of Nazareth.

There is nothing irrational about believing in the miracle of the virginal conception (in popular parlance, often called the virgin birth). If God is powerful enough to create a universe in which cellular and biological life can exist, thrive and develop, then it is not too difficult a job for God to create new life within a woman’s uterus. It is an act of sheer creation, nothing less.

On her part, Mary agreed to receive and welcome this baby in this unusual way. She could have said “no,” but she said “yes” instead. Nothing was forced on her.

Nine months of carrying a baby meant that the baby grew inside her womb as every human baby grows. This was a real human baby, not a Superman or Martian dressed in a people suit.

At his birth, Jesus Christ would look like any other newborn baby. That he was the Messiah all Israel had been hoping for would certainly not be obvious to anyone.

The Messiah was the deliverer God had promised to send to the Jews. They had been waiting and hoping for the Messiah for centuries. “Christ” is the Greek word for Messiah.

Thus when the ordinary baby boy was born, God marked him as the Messiah by letting more people in on the secret. God sent messengers to shepherds who worked with sheep near Bethlehem.

This is a detail no one writing the biographies of Jesus would ever invent.

You see, shepherds were at the low rung of the ladder, according to the social scale of Jesus’ day. People did not respect shepherds at all, and they were very poorly paid.

But God does not respect our monetary or societal distinctions. God has many good gifts to give those who are lowly and unimportant to people busy climbing the ladder of success. The shepherds were not unimportant to God, and God selected them for a special purpose.

God sent an angel to them. The Greek word is “angelos” and means “messenger.” So we don’t know what angels looked like, but they probably shone with the light of heaven and looked stunning, not at all like the cherubs of Renaissance art.

In biblical accounts, where God sends an angel with a message to a human servant, the ange’s first words are usually “don’t be afraid.” J.R.R. Tolkien thought they must be so great to behold that he made the lordly elves to take the half-way place between angels and men in “The Lord of the Rings.” Tolkien knew that portraying angels would be too difficult, because they are majestic beyond anything we know on earth.

First one angel spoke to the shepherds, appearing to them suddenly and speaking very directly: the angel announced that “today, in the city of David. [nearby Bethlehem] was born for you a Savior, who is Messiah [Christ] the Lord.”

But what if more than one baby had been born? How could they tell which one was this one?

“You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying [on straw] in an oval-shaped stone feeding trough inside a house, which we translate into English as “manger.”

They ran to Bethlehem to find this baby, and when they did see him, they told Mary and Joseph about the angelic message and the special song the angels sang.

This confirmed in Mary and Joseph’s minds that Mary had not imagined the original message from Gabriel, nor had Joseph conjured up the confirmatory message from an angel in a dream. They had not told the shepherds anything, so how could they possibly know? Through the shepherds account of the angel and the heavenly chorus, Mary and Joseph could only find confirmation that all of this had been orchestrated by God.

The shepherds were also of symbolic importance, for in ancient Israel the figure of a shepherd guiding sheep represented God (see Psalm 23). This ancient connection was honored at Jesus’ birth.

Finally, these shepherds were ordinary people, busy with simple tasks, but as James Stewart said, “the place of duty, however humble, is the place of vision.”

The Rev. Mark Koonz is pastor of Emmanuel Lutheran Church. Email him at EmmanuelOffice@wwelc.org or call him at 509-525-6872. Pastors who want to write a column call Catherine Hicks, 509-526-8312 or email catherinehicks@wwub.com

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