Dec 20 2014
Luke 2:1-21 The Birth of Jesus
There were no cameras in Bethlehem at the time of Christ’s birth, but Luke describes the scene quite vividly with a number of verbal snapshots. I would like us to take a look at three of his snaps; first his political snap which tells us why Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, second his manger snap which paints a different picture of Christmas to the one we are used to, and third the shepherds snap which tells us why the Messiah in a manger is in fact a sign for us all.
The Political Snap – why they were in Bethlehem
Joseph and Mary travelled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to take part in a Roman census. Caesar had ordered all residents of his empire to register for tax. Each person had to do this at their town of origin. Joseph travelled to Bethlehem, the town of David, because he was a descendant of David.
Here in Kenya people are very familiar with the difference between a town of residence and a town of origin. The town of origin is where your tribe or ancestors come from. Usually it is the place where your wider family owns land.
The Old Testament prophets said that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and I guess a Roman census was God’s way of getting Mary and Joseph to the right place.
The Manger Snap – making the best of a bad situation
This is Luke’s main snap in his album on the birth of Jesus. And it’s an important picture. A baby in a manger is the description an angel would give a few shepherds so they would know when they had found the infant Messiah.
But we modern people have a problem. The word ‘manger’ immediately brings on images of a cute baby with a halo, a snow scene outside the window, reindeer on the hills, and glitter in the trees. But this was not Luke’s concept of the event. In fact we would be much better off if we drop the word ‘manger’ and call the famous contraption a ‘feeding trough,’ which is much more up to date and a lot less weighted with traditional meaning.
In fact let’s put ourselves in Joseph’s shoes for a moment. Let’s look at the whole birth of Jesus from his perspective.
He was not the only descendant of David in the Roman Empire, thousands had arrived to register. Most of these descendants would have stayed with family in the area, but the local Inn was also an option and it had become full. Joseph must have been quite desperate to find a place for his heavily pregnant Mary, and eventually he settled for any space the Inn could offer that had a roof and four walls – and the Inn keeper suggested the stable. Ouch!
Having travelled a long way and needing time to sleep and register Joseph and Mary must have stayed in Bethlehem a number of nights. I can only imagine that they slept on the floor with straw or something similar for cushioning. And then at some point Mary broke the news that the baby was coming. We do not know if she and Joseph were alone, but we assume she gave birth right there on the stable floor. Not the most comfortable option.
I can imagine that the baby lay in Mary’s arms the first night, but at this point Joseph must have looked around for something that could function as a cot. That’s when he noticed a sheep’s feeding trough. He probably emptied it and filled it with straw. It was all about being practical and making a mother and baby as comfortable as possible. The cute, cosy nativity scenes paint a wrong picture. Stables can smell really bad, animals can be really annoying, and a Middle East stable was probably quite hot.
The Shepherds Snap – with a shepherds sign
In Jesus’ day Bethlehem farmed animals for temple sacrifices. Bethlehem is about six miles from Jerusalem and it was a convenient place to buy sacrifices on the way in. So the hills surrounding Bethlehem were full of sheep and their ever-watchful shepherds.
An angel appears to some of these shepherds and says “Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” This is big news. All of Israel was waiting for the Messiah. They thought he would overthrow the Romans and become a Jewish King of kings that would rule the world much like the emperor Caesar did. So an angel giving such news was very welcome.
The angel then tells the shepherds how to recognize the baby. They would find him in a sheep’s feeding trough. You can imagine the shepherd’s reaction, “A what?” But that made the description quite specific. Not many babies sleep in feeding troughs. There was no room for error here.
But there is another aspect to this strange sign. Shepherds saw sheep’s feeding troughs daily. It was part of their equipment. The Messiah in a feeding trough carried a strong message. It told the shepherds that the Messiah was one of them. This would have made great sense to shepherds in Bethlehem because David was a shepherd who became king. And they knew the Messiah would be King of kings.
The shepherds are eager, they said “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing.” They went and found it just as the angel said and they were so enthusiastic they told their story to all who would listen.
But what was their message? It was that the Messiah had come, an angel had announced it, like David he was among the shepherds of Bethlehem, and like with David, great things were about to happen.
Snaps of Beauty – true beauty!
We expect Christmas snaps to be beautiful, we expect snow, reindeer, sparkling trees and a peaceful baby. But as we have seen this was not the real Christmas at all. Yet there is a beauty in the real snaps that Luke provides here. The beauty is found in the humble circumstances of the King of kings.
If we were God we probably would have chosen that the King of kings sleep in a gold plated bed in Herod’s palace. Instead he is in a sheep’s feeding trough because there’s no room for the King at the local Inn. And Jesus’ humble circumstances were to continue. When his parents dedicated him at the temple, they could only afford a poor persons offering – two pigeons (or doves). And Jesus would then grow up in Nazareth – and as Nathanael said “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
Now, if we understand that Jesus is God incarnate, what does this say about God? Can he be egotistical as many unbelievers claim? The incarnation removes that possibility.
So how should we respond? Christmas can easily be a big show when the real Christmas was humble. If we see the humility, let’s share it. I believe a big part of what amazed the shepherds was the humble circumstances of the Messiah; let’s be like them and pass the news on.
Is there a need to? Yes, so many people are put off Jesus by the church. They see churches that are after money, that are all about showmanship. How refreshing to show our unbelieving friends that Jesus was very different. This year make Christmas your opportunity. Reveal the real Jesus to all those who will listen.
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