So throughout this advent season I am trying to tie my sermon in with the advent reading. Last week we looked at Mary’s Magnificat, because that was the passage. But when looking at the advent reading for today, I was really resistant to preaching a sermon on this passage. Let me tell you why. You see, the passage for today is Luke 2:1-20. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that passage. Actually I love this passage. It is the traditional nativity passage. It is the passage that Linus quotes in the Charlie Brown Christmas special. The one our mind most naturally goes to when we think of the nativity, with the census, and no room at the inn, and the manger, and the shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night.
But for that reason, I typically save this passage till the Sunday closest to Christmas. So when I saw that it was here I didn’t want to preach on it this Sunday, I would have waited until next weekend. But next weekend the focus is on the visit of the magi and for those of you who have heard me speak during the Christmas season in the past, you probably know that I have a bit of a pet peeve when it comes to the magi and nativity scenes, but we will talk more about that next week.
So with that in mind, today we will take a look at Luke 2 although, I think I am going to only cover the first 7 verses rather than the whole story. “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
So one of the things that I love about Luke is the way that he includes details like the names of people and places that help us understand the events he describes in the overall historical timeline. Actually in chapter 1 he mentions that he is writing this Gospel because he wants to provide an orderly account, considering all of the other accounts that were being written, so that Theophilus, the guy he is writing it for, could have certainty about these things that he has been taught. Luke really seems to be approaching his writing of this Gospel from the perspective of a historian and we see that in some of the details he includes.
Now with that also come problems, which we will talk about in just a moment. First of all, Luke fixes this story in the time period of Caesar Augustus and Quirinius. Naming him here helps us begin to fix a point about when actually this occurred. He also adds two other names, King Herod and Governor Quirinius. Those also are historical people, so when we intersect those names, we begin to see a time period for the birth of Jesus.
The information about a census being taken also helps us pinpoint the timing of Jesus’ birth, but actually this is where some of the controversy comes in. Scholars differ on their thoughts about all of this, but it appears that the census Luke is referring to seems to have been recorded elsewhere as being at a later date, that does not coincide with the period where Herod, Augustus and Quirinius’ rules intersect. But there are all kinds of theories that help explain this. And most scholars just pick one of the theories and stick with it. If you want to study that more, you can always talk with me later. But even if the controversies make it hard for us to pinpoint the exact date that Jesus was born, we have it narrowed down to a pretty specific time range of about 2,000 years ago during the period where King Herod and Caesar Augustus overlap by about 23 years.
This census or registration is different than what we might do today. We need to remember that at this time, Israel was an occupied country. It was a province of the Roman Empire. A census at that time from the Roman Empire was typically taken for one of two reasons, either for taxation purposes or for military service. The Jews were exempt from military service, but not from taxation, so most likely that is what this was all about. And Joseph had to travel to the hometown of his family lineage, which was Bethlehem, so that he could register. This helps us understand a little bit of background about the life that Jesus was born into and the mindset of Joseph and Mary as they move forward toward Jesus’ birth.
Bethlehem was about 5 miles outside of Jerusalem. Scholars disagree on the length of the journey from Nazareth. I find it interesting that there are some things that are just so hard to pinpoint historically, not with the Bible, but just in general. Like how far it was from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Scholars suggest that it was probably anywhere from 70-100 miles? Now for us that does not seem so far. We would just hop in our car and be there in less than an hour and a half. But they didn’t have cars. No bullet trains or other public transportation. Not even a raggedy old bus. This trip was most likely done on their own two feet. They might have had a donkey that Mary could occasionally ride, but most likely they were walking for a good portion of this trip.
We do not know how pregnant Mary was at this point, but figuring that after hearing from the angel Gabriel that she was going to have a baby, she went to visit her cousin Elizabeth and was there for 3 months, before going back to Nazareth. And considering the wording of what we see later in this passage, it seems like she might have been in her third trimester when they made the trip. I have never been pregnant, but I have been married to a pregnant woman, and I cannot imagine her having to make this long and hard journey in her third trimester of a pregnancy. As we go through this story, think about the reality of what we are saying.
And then we have the most famous part of the story, for some reason there was no room for them at the inn. Now first of all, this word translated as inn here is not the traditional Greek word for inn. Actually later on in this Gospel, in the story of the Good Samaritan, Luke uses the typical Greek word for inn, so if that is the kind of place he was suggesting here, why didn’t he use that word? This word seems to refer more to something along the lines of a guest room at a home. Actually later on in Luke 22 when Jesus tells his disciples to go and find this guy who will lead them to the place where they will partake in the last supper, he tells them to ask the guy, “where is the guest room” and he uses this word which here is translated for inn. Interesting right?
Anyway, some scholars believe that Mary and Joseph may have come to Bethlehem and were staying with family or friends in like a guest room, or a living area, but it was probably pretty crowded, so it was not conducive to giving birth there, so when the time came for the baby to be born, they moved to the only place that was available for them. The place where the animals were kept. Some scholars believe that during those times the upper area of the home was where the people stayed, and many homes would have a spot in the lower level where they would keep their animals. So it could be that the room for Mary and Joseph might have been some kind of upper room where they were staying with several other people and that there was not room for them up there when the baby needed to be born, so they moved down to the lower area where animals were kept for the birth. It is interesting that Luke never mentions a stable or even animals. The only reference we have that causes us to picture it this way is the mention of a manger, which is a common feeding trough for animals. I read one scholar who suggests that maybe they gave birth more in the family living area of a home and pulled in a manger because it would be a good place to lay the baby.
We don’t know the details, but we have a few things here that help us to form a picture. Just make sure that the picture you are forming fits with the details we do have. Notice that there is no innkeeper even mentioned. And yet people get all up in arms about this nasty innkeeper who did not make room for a pregnant lady about to give birth. This might have been a much more simple answer that doesn’t really have a bad guy involved. It just might have made sense for where to have the birth.
But, while it might not be as involved as we sometimes make it out, it still would have been far from ideal. I think it would have been much nicer for them to have been in Nazareth, in their own home, surrounded by their family and friends, with a more normal delivery.
So that’s the story of the nativity. It is not long. Only 7 verses. Not counting the stuff with the shepherds that comes next. It’s interesting to see what we have made out of it. 7 verses and yet there are books, songs, movies about this nativity story. I have preached on this passage many times and you have probably heard sermons on this passage many times and even read it for yourself several times as well.
So I have a question for you. What do you think we are supposed to get out of this? Is it just the historical account of the birth of the Messiah so that we know a little bit about it or is there some lesson that we are to get out of this story? Is it supposed to reveal something about God or about us or about life? I was wrestling with that question earlier this week. I don’t want to just preach a sermon where I give you little fun facts about the nativity or challenge some of the things that you may have always pictured. So as I was thinking about it, I started thinking specifically about what do I learn about God from this story and it’s details? And I guess one of the things that jump out at me is that I don’t think that God is nearly as concerned as we are about some of the things of this world. He could have easily made this a much easier birth for Mary and Joseph and the baby. He could have given them a midwife or had a better room somewhere, like Bethlehem General Hospital. He didn’t have to make them take an 80 mile journey in her third trimester. He could have stopped Rome from having a census or had it earlier or later. Some might specifically point to the fact that this is what he chose because this was exactly best. That’s probably true, but I also think that maybe some of the things that we get so concerned with are not the main concerns for God.
I am not saying that he doesn’t love us or doesn’t care about our lives, I am just saying that he has a different focus than we do. Sometimes we get so concerned about our comfort or the things of this world, and make those things so important, like God why are things going this way? And I just think that God has more important things in mind. And if it means that we have to travel 80 miles in our third trimester and give birth in a stable, then so be it, if that is what accomplishes God’s purposes and plans.