Faithfully yours - The greatest story ever told


Neil Strohschein

Neepawa Banner & Press

The “little town of Bethlehem,” about which we sing every year at this time, isn’t nearly as little as it once was. Today it is a city of 75,000 people, mostly Palestinians, located about 10 miles west of Jerusalem. But 2,000 years ago, it was a little town—population, roughly 1,000 people.

So why do we sing about it every year? Because of an event that took place in a cave used to house a few cattle and sheep—an event of which few in Bethlehem took note—an event that was the beginning of the greatest story ever told.

For ancient Israel, Bethlehem was an important historical site. Around 1350 BC, it was identified as the birthplace of King David; a designation it retained long past the day when ancient Israel itself ceased to exist. David’s kingdom was conquered by the Babylonians around 500 BC and its people were deported and resettled in cities and towns throughout the Babylonian empire.

Seventy years later, the Babylonians themselves were conquered by the Persians, who allowed those exiles who so desired to return to Jerusalem, rebuild their city and temple and resettle their land. Within 400 years, they had established themselves as a force to be reckoned with in the Middle East, but they were not allowed to be an independent state. Persia, Greece and Rome all considered the land of Israel to be little more than a colony and its residents to be little more than slaves whose jobs were to provide resources and revenue for the empire.

Like modern countries, Rome took a census at regular intervals. A decree would be issued and everyone in the empire would be required to return to their “home town or city” to be registered and to pay a “head tax (a set fee per person)” to the emperor.

That is how the Christmas story begins. Emperor Augustus issued the decree and everyone in the empire stopped what they were doing, packed suitcases and headed for their family homes. St. Luke, who records this event for us, focuses on two people—a carpenter from Nazareth named Joseph and Mary, his wife. They were descendants of King David and so, despite the fact that Mary was only a few days from giving birth, they set out from Nazareth for Bethlehem.

There, in an obscure part of this little town, Mary’s child was born. His birth was announced to a group of shepherds, who were told that “a Savior, Christ the Lord has been born” and were urged to go into Bethlehem and meet him.

Most of these shepherds never lived long enough to see what this day old baby would become. But we, looking back over 2000 years of history, know that roughly 33.5 years later he would be betrayed into the hands of his enemies, arrested, accused of crimes he had not committed and put to death. And just before he died, he would take on himself the sins of all humanity (yours and mine included) and he would die to atone for them all.

Today, through this man that we know as Jesus, the Christ, forgiveness of sins is declared to you, to me and to all people; and all who believe in him will receive God’s forgiveness, membership in his family, the gift of eternal life and the power to turn from sin and live lives that honour God.

His story and the stories of those who believe in him are the greatest stories ever told. And they all began in the little town of Bethlehem.