Today, dear reader, we are breaking a few Advent rules and are going to go ahead and tackle the birth of Jesus. I am well aware that it is not Christmas Eve, and there is a method to this madness. I’m tackling this story now, so that we can focus our attention going forward on how it informs our hopes for the future. And, if we all put up with A Charlie Brown Christmas the day after Thanksgiving, I am confident to go ahead without fear of retribution.
We’ll be following our usual pattern today; read the scripture, and then you’ll see some points to consider below. And you’ll see that we’re actually only taking on the first part of Luke’s birth narrative, as I want us to have plenty of time to unpack the key issues. As we’ve been doing, I want you to consider how this story might inform how we think about participating in God’s work (which, as we’ll see down the road, is a key hope for us!).
Daily Reading: Luke 2:1-7
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
#1: Remember the Empire
A few blogs ago I shared that one of the discoveries of the Israelites in their years of being conquered (by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece and Rome) was that the empires of the world stood in opposition to God’s will. It’s striking that Luke’s telling of this story begins by naming Caesar Augustus, the governor who served him in Syria, Quirinius, and the command to register “all the world.” Luke doesn’t add this many historical background details often, and frankly, it adds little to the actual plot. I believe he names these names to remind us of the situation that Jesus was born into. Jesus was born into a world where the unjust ruled and forced those with less power (like God's people) to jump at their commands. These people laid claim to “all the world” (of course, another character in this story might compete with that claim…) and sought to squeeze all they could out of it for their use. The purpose of a “registration” was two-fold: for taxation and military conscription. It was a way to benefit the Empire at the expense of those whom they conquered. These details remind us of Israel’s unfulfilled hopes of serving God alone (not rendering tribute to or fighting for a tyrant) and being led by a righteous king. And of course, this will not be the last time Roman rulers stand against God’s people or king . . .
#2: It was a house, not an inn.
Bethlehem was not a large enough city to have an “inn” or lodge for travelers. The same Greek word is also used 22:11 to mean “guest room”, and that is a more appropriate translation. Peasants at that time and place kept their animals in the home with them; the people slept on an upper floor with the animals below. So Mary and Joseph are most likely staying with family, but they have no room on their top floor, so they are sleeping on the ground floor with the animals.
#3: Christmas hospitality saves the day.
Before we shake our heads at the people who made Mary and Joseph give birth and sleep on the ground floor, we should note that most of us would not particularly enjoy to have someone give birth in our home. We have no idea what the relationship was between Mary and Joseph and whoever put them up, but that person did make room for them when they were in dire need. Would we do the same?
#4: Christmas was dangerous and messy.
One of the often overlooked aspects of Jesus’ birth was the reality that Mary could easily have lost her life in the birthing process. I said previously that Joseph took a big risk in staying with Mary, but of course Mary’s risk was much greater: it was life threatening. It’s striking to consider that the hope of the world was delivered by a teenage girl who was willing to put her life on the line. Along with the danger, of course, was the usual birthing mess: blood, fluids and more. The point is, there was nothing glamorous or glorious (at least not at the time) about this birth. This is an obvious point then for us: participating in God’s work is often dangerous and messy. Just because we are following God’s will doesn’t mean that we’ll be comfortable, safe and happy. In fact, if we are comfortable, safe and happy this story might challenge us to consider the extent to which we are serving God faithfully.
#5: Beware of expectations.
I think it’s fair to sum up this blog post by saying that the first Christmas was probably not what its participants were hoping for. Being forced to trek across the countryside to appease a tyrant (while being extremely pregnant), having someone give birth in your already packed house, giving birth in a strange place with animals around . . . not a pretty picture. It’s a picture of oppression, poverty, struggle and risk. It certainly does not easily align with Mary’s Song of victory and blessedness from Luke 1:46-55, as it appears the powerful are still on their thrones and the lowly are still at the bottom.
So then here’s the question: How, or why, did Mary continue to respond faithfully in this story, when the birth of Jesus hardly appeared to be full of God’s presence and glory? I believe the answer is that Mary had deep, long-term hope. Mary did not pin her hopes on short-term circumstances, successes or failures. Her hopes rested upon God’s faithfulness and ability to bring life and glory out of death and despair in the long-run. And if we are to follow Mary’s footsteps in any degree then we must do the same. We cannot put our hopes in short-term circumstances or successes; our hopes must be focused on the long-term; on the finish line.
I close today by challenging you: do you know what your “finish line” hopes are? Can you articulate them? Do you think of them often? Take time today to name them, and make it a practices to consider them each day. AND, stick with me a few more days, as we will soon turn our attention to the pictures of long-term hope offered in the New Testament!