To those who are unfamiliar with the Gospel, the celebration of the nativity story at Christmas must seem odd. It is certainly a strange story: a virgin betrothed to a carpenter gives birth to a child in a stable in an unremarkable corner of Roman-occupied Palestine; local shepherds are told by angels that the child is the saviour of all mankind; and astrologers "from the east" (possibly Zoroastrians from Persia) come bearing gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Why is it that we commemorate this bizarre and improbable series of events every year?

The answer can be found in the Gospel of John. The author of this Gospel introduces his account of the life of Jesus with these words:

"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it." (John 1:1-5)

The above passage echoes the creation story in Genesis. John identifies Jesus as the Word (early manuscripts, written in Greek, use the word Logos). In Greek philosophy, logos is used to mean the divine mind, and to Jews in Jesus' day the term was used to refer to God's active and personal involvement in the world. According to the Gospel of John, the Logos that brought the universe into being "became flesh" in the person of Jesus (John 1:14). That child born amid the pungent smells of livestock to a low-status adolescent girl was none other than God incarnate and "the true light that gives light to every man" (John 1:9).

The birth of Jesus was part of a plan that God had put into motion before the creation of the world. The ancient Jewish scriptures which comprise our Old Testament foreshadowed his arrival. Centuries before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah said "the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." (Isaiah 7:14). He also said:

"For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the greatness of his government and peace
there will be no end.
He will reign on David’s throne
and over his kingdom,
establishing and upholding it
with justice and righteousness
from that time on and forever.
The zeal of the Lord Almighty
will accomplish this." (Isaiah 9:6-7)

There are numerous other prophecies pertaining to Jesus. Herod, the ruler of Judea at the time of Jesus' birth, was disturbed by one such prophecy from Micah: "But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you will come a ruler who will be a shepherd of my people Israel." (Matthew 2:6; Micah 5:2) Fearing that he was going to be usurped as ruler, Herod ordered the killing of all boys under the age of two in and around Bethlehem.

The Jews of Jesus' time were conditioned to expect the Messiah (the "anointed one" known in Greek as Christos). Herod was aware of this, which is why he felt threatened by the Messianic prophecies. But Jesus was not the kind of Messiah they expected and his birth was far from the triumphal arrival they'd anticipated. The Messiah was supposed to deliver Israel from Roman occupation and raise it up to a position of supremacy over all the other nations of the earth. Surely such a saviour would be of noble birth and would come as a warrior-king. But Jesus didn't even have a bed to lie in when he was born — his mother laid him in a trough; his father hailed from Nazareth, a backwater town derided by inhabitants of the surrounding areas; the first people to greet his arrival were non-Jews (the Magi from the east) and social outcasts (the shepherds); and his birth precipitated the massacre of baby boys. This hardly seemed like a divinely orchestrated plan.

John 1:10-11 notes that Jesus "was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognise him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." Jesus' contemporaries didn't immediately recognise him as their saviour because their understanding of salvation was too narrow. God's plans went far beyond earthly politics. Jesus did not come to take away the suffering of the Jewish people. He did not seek to force his will on humanity. Rather, he came in humility as "the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29). He came to turn established religion on its head, "for the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ" (John 1:17). He came as "the light of the world" (John 8:12), confounding the darkness (John 1:9). He came in love as a sacrifice for all people (1 John 4:8-10). 

In short, Christ came to a people in need of a saviour, but he was not the kind of saviour they were waiting for. This is still true today. Those of us who are familiar with the New Testament depiction of Jesus still sometimes struggle to grasp what true salvation looks like. We sometimes look to Jesus simply as someone who will deliver us from difficult circumstances if we have enough faith or pray hard enough. He does sometimes deliver us from pain, but what he offers is far greater than worldly comfort. John 1:12-13 says that "to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God — children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God." Jesus offers us eternity as sons and daughters of the Almighty through his sacrifice for us. This is God's answer to the cry of humanity, and what an answer it is!