Douglas Adams came up with a character called “Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged”, he has lived for a seemingly infinite amount of time, but instead of being excited by this, he’s bored! He’s watched every single film in existence thousands of times, and has grown so tired his new project is to insult every single person in the universe—in alphabetical order.
We’re looking at the extremely familiar Christmas Story, but I don’t want us to feel like “Wowbagger the Infinitely Prolonged” no, what I want us to do again this Christmas Day is to ask that the Holy Spirit would make it fresh to us.
Look at verses 1 and 2, Luke tells us that ‘In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)’ We tend to just say the year nowadays, but the convention in Luke’s day was to name who the ruler was at the time, in order to know when something was taking place. We do it a little bit in terms of speaking of “Elizabethan” or “Victorian” days.
If we’re comparing Luke’s record to other historical records, it’s difficult to know what census he’s referring to, but censuses were known to happen regularly under Augustus, as taxes were required and registering people made them easier to tax.
Quirinius was the Roman-official in charge of Judah, which is why he’s mentioned.
So, Luke has told us when this event takes place. Have you noticed how many time-stamps Luke has put on all these passages? We’ve had ‘In the time of Herod’ / ‘In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy’ / ‘At that time’ / ‘When it was time’ / and now ‘in those days’. Luke is giving us all the more certainty about the accuracy of what he’s written, in this real world, and he—inspired by the Holy Spirit—is helping us make sure we’ve set the scene on the Christmas Story.
Look at verse 3, Luke goes on to give us the important detail that ‘everyone went to their own town to register.’ This is a key detail, because it explains to us why Joseph and Mary ended up in Bethlehem, the details of which are outlined in verse 4—
‘So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.’
This is understandable. If you’re trying to list families, then it would help to have everyone in the same place at the same time, so no one is left out. A bit like a more upscale version of taking a register after a fire-alarm has gone off… everyone needs to be accounted for.
Look at verse 5, we’re reminded that ‘He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.’ That ‘pledged to be married’ is the engagement that we’ve already talked about, that was mentioned in chapter 1. We’re being reminded of the fact that Mary and Joseph have not yet come together, that this is a Virgin Birth, but also that they are to be together, as the earthly-parents of the Lord Jesus.
You know you have to speak to Ian or Eric if you really want to know anything about cricket, I really don’t have much interest in cricket, however I did happen to see Stuart Broad being interviewed on the television, and he was talking about one of the secrets of how well England have been doing recently in the cricket. He talked about not doing well during one match, several of their players were out, and the players started to talk amongst themselves and to say “let’s try to look for a draw here, because there’s no chance we’re going to win this game. Let’s go for the draw.” But apparently Brendon McCullum the head coach of the England Cricket team, he got them together and he said, “there’s no way we’re going for a draw. Even if we’re down to the last man and he needs a crazy number of runs to win the game, that’s what we’ll go for. Never look for a draw.”
The same intentionality is present to an infinitely greater degree in every element of the true Christmas story. And yet, as we read it, it’s sometimes tempting to think that some of the details are just incidental. No detail in this account is incidental. Every detail has come together to create the most appropriate circumstances that the Lord Jesus needed to come into this desperate world…
- The Emperor.
- The census.
- The Governor.
- The accuracy of Luke in communicating these details to us.
- The need for everyone to return to their own towns.
- Joseph ending up with Mary and the baby in Bethlehem.
- Jesus’s earthly parents.
The whole thing is pulled together like an intricately woven tapestry, and every detail is intentional. For which we can thank God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Because in the end… this is all for the church’s benefit, which is mind-blowing.
Seemingly Disastrous Circumstances
By the time we get to verse 6, disaster strikes— ‘While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born’.
Now, whether Mary had reached the full forty-weeks, and it was unavoidable that they were in Bethlehem during this time, or Mary had not gone full-term, and was having the baby earlier than expected… either way, this was not the dream birth-plan for either Mary or Joseph. They would have liked to have been at home, with their local-church family around to help. And yet, here they find themselves away from home, and the baby is coming!
But then look at the first part of verse 7, ‘and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son.’ Perhaps this is Luke’s medical-background coming through… he speaks of her birth in a very matter-of-fact way. No description of the labour, what it was like, how long it was, or where exactly they were, and who helped—if anyone—but the key fact is there… the baby came!
And then look at the second part of verse 7, not only did the baby come while they were in Bethlehem which they surely didn’t want, but as Mary ‘wrapped him in cloths’ (which I think she would have done anyway… they were poor and would have used what they could… there was no Mothercare baby-blankets in those days). But the other thing we read in verse 7 is that she ‘placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.’
Now, even though the majority of us—if not all of us, will know that fact like the back of our hands, “yes of course the baby Jesus was placed in a manger, yes of course there was no guest-room available for them”. We mustn’t let the full-force of that pass us by…
The baby had to be placed in an animal feeding-trough, because there was nowhere else to put him down to sleep!
And—to cement the tragedy—the reason why is given… there was no guest-room available for them!
Now, this seems weird…
We would imagine that Joseph still had family in Bethlehem, and that they could have stayed with them. Did they stay with Joseph’s family, but end up having to sleep in the animal-area of the house, because it was too late or inconvenient to move anyone from their beds?
Or were they rejected by Joseph’s family on the basis of their assuming that Mary had had this baby outside of a full, proper marriage, and so they took a moral stand?
Or was there no family in Bethlehem by this point, and the search was for an inn to stay in, which was unsuccessful?
Either way, we know that there was no cot for baby-Jesus, only a manger, and no comfortable guest-room for Mary and Joseph.
There’s the swaddling-bands. I’ve been thinking about this recently, because we have a little baby in the house, and the health-visitors don’t let you swaddle the new-borns anymore, but now Boaz is a bit older we’ve started swaddling him—wrapping him in a big blanket. It really helps him to sleep, because it constricts his arms, and he’s warm.
And just think… the Living God—the Lord—needed the same thing. The Lord needed his arms restraining because otherwise he would’ve woken himself up. The Lord needed to be wrapped up to keep warm. It’s mind-blowing, but it was for us his church that he became so limited.
And then there’s the “no guest room available for them” line. This would continue, as Jesus says later on, “the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head”. He was only a passenger through this world, and we are to have the same attitude.
But then also, take note of the fact that his parents were clearly poor. If you’ve got money, you find a room for your baby, no matter what the price. Mary and Joseph didn’t have the price. It speaks of the choice God the Father took to allow his Son to be humiliated… it began here and it got lower, even to the death of a cross. All for us his church!
But then one more thing…
What kind of state was the culture in at this time, where the residents of Bethlehem thought it was okay to not allow a woman who was in labour to have a room to give birth to her baby in!?
This is a mirror on our own hearts and how poorly we’ve responded to Christ, and as a result to those in need.
Search our hearts Father, and accept our repentance!