Luke 2: 1 – 5 (NLT)
“At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. 2 (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. 4 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He travelled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. 5 He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.”
I can’t imagine what Mary and Joseph felt when they realized they had to leave Nazareth and go to Bethlehem. Mary is 9 months pregnant, and there are no luxury cars, speedy trains or any other way of getting there and back quickly. Actually, I can’t imagine the chaos and confusion throughout the land as everyone had to return to the place of their family origin. I realize people didn’t travel then the way they do today. (At one point, I had one daughter in Yellowknife and another in England. Jobs today take us around the world.) But the people in Mary and Joseph’s day had to return to the birthplace of someone who lived hundreds of years before, not a fairly recent relative. For example, all of King David’s descendants sure didn’t live in Bethlehem anymore. So think of the chaos in Israel as everyone had to ‘go back home’ to wherever.
Matthew 1 gives us Joseph’s genealogy. He was a descendant of David through Solomon. Luke 3 gives us what many Bible scholars believe is Mary’s genealogy; she was a descendant of David through another of David’s sons – Nathan. The Old Testament prophesies that the Messiah will be a descendant of David.
Isaiah 11: 1 – 4 (NLT)
“Out of the stump of David’s family will grow a shoot—
yes, a new Branch bearing fruit from the old root.
2 And the Spirit of the Lord will rest on him—
the Spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the Spirit of counsel and might,
the Spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
3 He will delight in obeying the Lord.
He will not judge by appearance
nor make a decision based on hearsay.
4 He will give justice to the poor
and make fair decisions for the exploited.
The earth will shake at the force of his word,
and one breath from his mouth will destroy the wicked.
5 He will wear righteousness like a belt
and truth like an undergarment.”
The Old Testament also prophesies that the Messiah will be born in Bethlehem.
Micah 5:2: (NIV)
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
So Mary and Joseph really didn’t have a choice. They needed to be in Bethlehem when their first son was born. Interesting that the Roman Emperor, Augustus, decided right at that moment to pass a law that required people to return to their family’s place of origin. I really believe that God is in control of this earth, and His plans happen in spite of our human interference. It’s not a perfect world, and Satan does his best to thwart God’s plans, but in the end, God reigns. Jesus will be born in Bethlehem.
While thinking about what all this means to me on a practical level, I realize that I can rest assured that in the long run, God’s plans for me will happen. Sometimes I get so frustrated when my plans don’t go the way I wanted. Actually, a lot of my plans don’t go the way I want. But I’ve also learned that often when my plans get messed up, something better happens. For example, my plans for retirement included lots of travelling and a hope of being very involved in a community project. Then health issues in my family kept me at home almost 24/7 – definitely not what I had planned. That is when I started to write devotional material, something I had often thought about over the years, but could never find the time.
Have you ever experienced something like that? Have you ever realized that your ‘put aside’ plans actually turned out for something better – something that smacked of God’s plans? Take some time to think about that, and thank God that while something may be chaotic and frustrating at the time, He can bring good out of it in the end.
Romans 8:26-28 (NLT)
“And the Holy Spirit helps us in our weakness. For example, we don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. 27 And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will. 28 And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them.”
But travelling to Bethlehem is not the only difficult thing that Mary and Joseph had to face.
Luke 2: 6 – 7 (NLT)
6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born.7 She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.
As a kid, I thought the manger scene was so beautiful. Our church often had a manger scene at Christmas Eve services acted out by some of the children. Being part of that tradition was something all of us kids desperately hoped for. Years later, when our extended family got together for Christmas dinner, all the kids put on their idea of the Christmas story. My oldest daughter was the eldest grandchild, so she usually got to be the director of the play and told all her cousins what to do and say. As parents, we enjoyed their version immensely, laughed behind their backs, but also realized they were learning the Christmas story in their own childish way.
If you look at children’s books that feature the birth of Jesus, the pictures are usually very attractive. Mary is dressed in a lovely clean flowing dress, the colour often sky blue. The animals around the manger are extremely well behaved – or at least they look that way. Or if you see the manger scene in a store or on a lawn somewhere, it’s often very artistically done.
But when you read the real story, it’s a birth in a cattle barn or shed. Can you imagine having one of your babies in a place like that? Dirty. Smelly. Likely not all that protected from the outdoor elements. Animals nearby. My husband grew up on a farm, and several family members are still in the farming business. When I’ve been around their barns, the animals aren’t rushing around, but they’re not still either. I can’t imagine giving birth close to a farm animal. I’d be afraid of being stepped on or pushed around.
Then there would be the issue of being alone with your husband. Joseph was a carpenter, but I’m assuming he was around farming enough that he had an idea of what birthing was like. But I’ll guess he hadn’t attended a human birth; men were usually excluded from that situation. So Mary has been travelling, the best case scenario she’s been riding a donkey. Now she’s giving birth in a stable because there was no room anywhere in town, and it’s in the middle of the night, and her only help is Joseph. I wonder if she cried for her mom?
But in the middle of all these disgusting surroundings, fear, loneliness, pain – Mary and Joseph were the first to see the face of God.
Our song for today is Away in a Manger (Forever Amen) by Phil Wickham