George Booker
To Us A Child Is Born

(6) “She Placed Him in a Manger” (Luke 2:1-7)

Many of us have our own private feelings about Christmas, distilled from the pleasant memories of childhood — manger scenes and kings in exotic robes, carols and trees, and eggnog and sleigh rides in the snow. It goes almost without saying that the greater part of these have no Biblical basis. Furthermore, it is generally recognized that our traditional date for Christmas is derived from ancient pagan festivals and unfounded church tradition, and is probably off the mark by months.

These popular Christmas accompaniments may be harmless enough in themselves (though it can be proved that many still bear the evidence of their pagan origins). The greater danger arises when the popular celebration of Christmas obscures, and perhaps displaces altogether, the realities of Christ’s birth. It is possible that, even as we become “full-grown” in our understanding of the ministry, death, and resurrection of Christ, we may remain mere “babes” in our understanding of his birth. The imprints of childhood may leave our minds impervious to the sublime and beautiful lessons of these early narratives.

The human drama

A walking trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem — almost 100 miles — and a delivery in a stable may be the source material for countless Christmas songs, but we may be sure these events were not a pleasant holiday lark for Mary and Joseph.

And yet, as we grasp the harsher realities of the story, we are moved deeply by the sheer human drama of redemption. God does not bring salvation to the world by royal proclamation. One might have expected that this climactic manifestation of God to man would be like His earlier ones, only greater. But one looks in vain for burning bushes, pillars of fire, or partings of the sea. God’s Son is born into the world through almost clumsy human efforts. The way of Mary and Joseph is beset by problems, difficulties and embarrassments. Is it any wonder, then, that the same thing happens today; that God’s children even now are “born” in difficult circumstances, and that they “grow up” in the midst of discomfort and travail? So it has always been.

It really happened! It really happened to a young woman, scarcely beyond childhood, and to a young man probably not much older. God could have granted this great privilege to some older (and, we might think, better-prepared) woman, perhaps one of the “temple virgins” who served perpetually at Jerusalem. But He did not.

What does it mean ? Perhaps it is a subtle reminder that there is something for each of us to do, even the younger ones among us. Do we challenge our young people as we should? They are capable of great things, with the guidance of God. There are Divine purposes to be accomplished, and God needs tools — idealistic, dedicated minds in strong young bodies. It is better to try great things, and sometimes fail, than never to try at all. God can work today through any of us, even the youngest and least experienced, if we let Him.

The story of Joseph and Mary is one of the greatest love stories in the Bible. It tells of a love beginning in the freshness of youth, but quickly maturing amidst severe hardships. It tells of a love which is not selfish, but sacrificial and mutually supportive; of a love which is not taking, but giving. It is a great love story because it is centered upon the fulfillment of God’s purpose, and thereby it touches eternity. It is a love story, then, that does not end at the graveside; it is only temporarily suspended. God grant that we all may find love like theirs, with husband or wife if He wills, but certainly with those kindred spirits who make up our greater family, the faithful in Christ.

Caesar and Christ

“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (Luke 2:1)... or... “that all the world should be enrolled” (RSV).

Luke is an inspired historian, who can therefore look into the heart of things and think on a grand scale. The story he presents is a fascinating interplay of Roman imperial authority and obscure Jewish compliance. But even the decrees of mighty Caesar are bent to the Divine purpose. Augustus, with all his armies and bureaucrats, is no more than a servant of God.

For centuries the religion of “freedom” (see, for examples, Rom. 6:18,22; 8:2,21; Gal. 5:1) was destined to contend against the despotic power of a great empire, a totalitarian state which never hesitated to make the lowly masses subservient to its own will. (Such states have not gone out of style, and will not, as long as man is left to rule his own affairs. They have changed their names and ideologies, but not their essential characters.) Even in his birth, the founder of the new religion was tossed to and fro at the whim of the emperor. When he went to his death thirty-odd years later, it was again as a mere random piece of humanity, to be “processed” by the same state, one among many misfits and criminals impaled by Roman nails on Roman crosses.

The state had its purposes, but God had His also. Each purpose was fulfilled, but how different they were! In ordering the enrollment, the state was seeking to achieve greater control over its subjects, and laying the groundwork for taxation. God made use of these materialistic enterprises to fulfill the prophecy that His Son, as the “governor and shepherd of Israel”, would be born in the little town of Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).

“This was the first enrollment, when Quirinius was governor of Syria” (Luke 2:2, RSV).

The KJV uses “taxing” in the Old English sense of a census, although the collection of revenue was probably a secondary purpose too. Luke, in using the word “first”, seems to be saying that another enrollment followed later. The second census, approximately ten years later, is the one referred to in Acts 5:37. (At one time, since secular historians confirmed this census but knew nothing of an earlier one, Bible critics presumed that Luke had made a serious error in chronology. Recent discoveries have quite satisfactorily cleared up this confusion, by confirming the earlier census and substantiating Luke’s record.)

“And everyone went to his own town to register” (Luke 2:3).

Usually the Roman practice was to register people at their place of residence. This was not done in Palestine, probably because Jewish law and tradition attached people to their original tribal homes, not to their current residences. Because Joseph was of the “house and line of David” (v. 4), it was necessary that he return to David’s land of inheritance, Bethlehem in Judah.

It has been suggested that women would not have been required to travel back to their original family homes. Even if this were so, Mary would have desired to go with Joseph, since they could scarcely have been unaware of Micah’s prophecy (Matt. 2:5,6). The decree of Augustus merely provided the reason, or pretense, for their trip.

Significantly, Mary is still called the “pledged”, “espoused”, or “betrothed”, wife of Joseph (Luke 2:5). Even though she had been living in his house, Joseph nevertheless had “had no union with her” (Matt. 1:25), in accordance with his resolution, until after the birth of her son.

From Nazareth to Bethlehem

They left Nazareth and headed south, probably detouring around Samaria, which was customary. (Years later, Mary’s son would scorn rabbinical restrictions, and travel directly through the land of the Samaritans, with wonderful results: John 4.) It was an arduous trip. There were no buses, trains, or automobiles; no motels with hot water, no roadside restaurants. Instead we may imagine a cave, or a grove of trees, with a campfire to scare away wild animals.

What did they discuss in those evenings by the fire? They were cut off from the past by the hand of God, and they faced a future of uncertainties. Where would God lead them? And would they recognize the signs He would surely give them?

That could be us on that road. “Trust in the LORD with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge him, and he will make your paths straight” (Prov. 3:5,6). Somehow it seems so much easier when we are well fed and have money in the bank, and when we know (or think we know) where we will be and what we will be doing next week, and next month, and next year. But what about when the way is dark, and our friends have disappeared; when nameless fears haunt our nights, and God seems a million miles away? Then it becomes all the more necessary that we learn and practice the lesson of faith.

“Riding on a donkey”

The final legs of the journey would take the couple from Jericho to Jerusalem, and then to Bethlehem. Giving the imagination free rein, it is easy to picture the last day of the journey. The sun is well on its downward course as they ascend the mountains east of Jerusalem. The Holy City looms before them, its hues of gold, tan, and brown reflecting the evening sun, as it crouches on the mountains — the “lion” of Judah. Its majestic temple stands out, an emblem of purity in dazzling white.

But there is no time to pause. Bethlehem is still some miles away, and if they arrive too late the inn may be full. So, passing by the city walls, they continue southward in haste. And no one notices them, just a young man, and his wife on a donkey. The city walls stand silent, in the lengthening shadows of evening, towering over them as they pass by.

Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, here is your King! He is lowly, and riding on a donkey (Zech. 9:9). He came to his city for the first time, but for him there is no welcome, only brooding silence. Asleep in his mother’s womb, he passes on, into the gathering darkness. But, Jerusalem, he will come again, once again riding upon a donkey, and you will throw your arms open in joy to receive him: “Hosanna to the son of David.” One day he will come to you, and you will rejoice and shout. But shortly thereafter, you will reject him and turn him over to a cruel cross. And yet another day he will come to you and establish in you his throne, bringing peace to all nations. In that day his dominion will stretch from sea to sea, and from the river to the ends of the earth (Zech. 9:9,10). One day and another, and another again... how his fortunes will be intertwined with your streets and walls and buildings and gardens. Oh Jerusalem, with such mixed emotions will you welcome or repulse this baby in the womb after he is grown to manhood. But not yet...

Joseph and Mary walk over the hill toward Bethlehem and disappear from view. The great city of Jerusalem — with its proud temple and prouder people — is left behind. Soon it is night.

“Her firstborn son”

It is late when they come to Bethlehem, a little town secluded on a limestone ridge about six or seven miles south of Jerusalem. Here, long years ago, the patriarch Jacob laid to rest his beloved Rachel. Here Boaz claimed Ruth of Moab as his bride. Here Samuel chose and anointed the young shepherd David. But Bethlehem (which in Hebrew means “the house of life and bread”), once a bright light in Judah, was now a spent candle, overshadowed by the nearby capital city. Bethlehem, now “little among the thousands of Judah” (Mic. 5:2), was prepared for one final glory.

“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born” (Luke 2:6).

Out of apparent disarray, the right people come to the right place at the right time. How amazing is the providence of God! And the greatest wonder is that His providence still works today.

“When the time had fully come”, Paul says, Jesus was born “of a woman ... under the law” (Gal. 4:4). She partook of the sorrow and pain of childbirth, passing under the curse of the law of Moses and becoming unclean. It was the shadow of a reality still to come, when the baby, grown to manhood, would, of his own volition, come under the curse of that law in his death, so that the curse might be once and for all removed (Gal. 3:13).

“And she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

No human setting could improve upon the luster of this perfect “jewel”. Jesus’ status would not have been enhanced in the slightest if he had been born in a palace.

Human ingenuity would have been baffled to contrive a fitting entrance into the world for God’s Son. But God would rather choose the weak things, and the lowly, so that nothing of the flesh can boast against His glory (1 Cor. 1:29). He bids us enter the stable, where a humble woman, scarcely more than a girl, clasps to her breast a fragile newborn. In the darkness of that special night a tiny cry mingles with the murmurs of the beasts: “O the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God!”

“The ox knows his master, the donkey his owner's manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand” (Isa. 1:3).

Centuries before, God had uttered this plaintive cry. Now, in the stillness of the stable, the brute beasts turn quietly to gaze upon the “crib” where the prospective owner of all creation lies. But outside, the nation of Israel slumbers in darkness, not considering the wonder of the little baby in the manger, the little baby who will one day assert his right to universal dominion (Gen. 1:28; Psa. 8:6).

There was “no room for them in the inn”. They stood at the door and knocked, but they were turned away. Jesus stands at the door today, the door of our hearts, and knocks (Rev. 3:20). Do we have room for him in our lives? Or do we have too many other “guests”, so that Jesus is shunted aside, or given the lowest place? Let us fling open every chamber of our hearts, so that the King might enter and find a home.

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