Typically during this season, many people are thinking about different trips they will be taking to celebrate Christmas—visits to family, going to grandma’s house, taking a long-anticipated vacation, etc. However, given everything going on in our world today, many traditions and/or plans have changed. Christmas will look very different for many people this year and this can prove annoying, frustrating, an inconvenient in many ways. Regardless of what may happen to your plans this year, today, I thought we would take a trip of our own back to the first Christmas. As part of this trip, like last week, we are going to go on another journey to Bethlehem. This journey is recorded for us in Luke 2 and given the four observations we will make in verses 1-7, we are going to learn that God’s sovereignty extends to even those annoying, frustrating, and inconvenient disruptions to our plans. In fact, even these can be used of God to bring us to a place of blessing.
I. OBSERVATION 1: THE COMMAND-7:1-2
The account that Luke provides in chapter 2 connects worldwide significance to the relatively trivial events in Judea (Strauss, ZIBBC, 339)—“Now in those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus…” (7:1a). What began in a small town with a couple of special birth announcements for Elizabeth and Mary is now set alongside the backdrop of the entire Roman Empire. The author suggests that something major is going to take place. What will happen in Judea is going to affect the entire world. At this time, Causer Augustus (“exalted one”) was in power and was responsible for inaugurating the Pax Romana (an unprecedented period of peace and stability throughout the entire Mediterranean region). “The freedom and relative safety of travel afforded by this peace would prove a major factor for the rapid expansion of the gospel message” later in Jesus’ story (Strauss, ZIBBC, 341). These details reveal God’s sovereign control over history. It is in this context on the world’s stage that a decree goes out at the very time when the greatest gift God would ever offer could be introduced to the world. When we consider the journeys God has for his people, we must remember that the Lord is both aware of, involved in, and willing to use even the small details of life to execute his great purposes.
In this case, the decree was “that a census be taken of all the inhabited earth. This was the first census taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria,…” (7:1b-2). Censuses were routine in the Roman empire and were used (as they are today) for a host of purposes (taxation, registration, information, etc.). Many understandably balk at government intrusion into their personal lives and tend to resist what appear to be frivolous requirements and/or hoops that we are made to jump through; however, consider that even these kinds of ordinances and annoyances were used in God’s plan all those years ago to bring this journey to Bethlehem about! Yes, God is not just sovereign over the time and details of a journey; he is also involved in the trivialities we are made to endure that seem, on their face, to be meaningless or unnecessary.
II. OBSERVATION 2: THE COORDINATES-7:3-4
In compliance with the decree “everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city,…” (7:3). It is possible that the Romans here, as on other occasions, allowed their client states (or local jurisdictions) to conduct affairs according to local customs. In the case of this census, Judea may have decided to count the people according to ancestral tribal divisions. Everyone in Judea was made to return to his/her tribal roots to be registered. Talk about an inconvenience! Taking time out of life to travel to your family’s hometown just to be counted seems to have at least provided potential for some frustration. And yet, the people complied, including a man named Joseph.
Let us consider Joseph for a minute (as the spotlight is often appropriately directed to others involved in the Christmas story like Jesus and Mary). Joseph was, by all accounts, a good man, respected in his small town both as a blue-collar professional and in the synagogue. As far as we can tell, Joseph was the kind of man you would wish the very best for. However, though Joseph appears to do everything by the book, several unexpected things had interrupted his rather ordinary life in Nazareth. His beloved Mary, whom he was engaged to and had honored and respected and kept pure, turns up pregnant. Fearing the worst (that she had proven unfaithful), Joseph considers his options and nearly divorces Mary quietly. Imagine Joseph’s surprise when he is visited by an angel in a dream and learns that this baby Mary is carrying is the son of God and that her pregnancy is a result of the Holy Spirit’s power in her life. After submitting to this grand plan and electing to play a small role in God’s unfolding story, Joseph now learns that he must take a very pregnant Mary with him to be counted in the census. This episode in Joseph’s life was anything but convenient, easy, normal, or expected. That said, Joseph’s journey to Bethlehem is exactly what God desired in his life at this very moment in history.
So there went Joseph in compliance with the decree—“[he] went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea to the city of David which is called Bethlehem,…” (7:4b). Bethlehem proves to be the destination of Joseph’s journey. “The House of Bread,” located about five miles south of Jerusalem, was closely associated with King David, being his birthplace and original home. It was in Bethlehem where, even before David, seed was restored to Naomi’s family through a kinsman Redeemer—Boaz. His marriage with Ruth continued the family line that would lead to David. Here, as in Ruth, Bethlehem would prove to be a small town with a big role in God’s plan. This is what the prophet Micah suggests in Micah 5:2.
Micah 5:2-“But as for you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you One will go forth for Me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity.”
Joseph is journeying to this storied but humble location “because he was of the house and family of David” (7:4c). Because Joseph traces his ancestry to King David, he was to be counted in David’s hometown. However, do not miss the significance of this association. Joseph was, in many ways, a part of the royal family of the most beloved and powerful king in Israel’s history—a king who, by the way, was promised a forever kingdom with an even better king who would sit on a forever throne.
2 Samuel 7:16-“Your house and your kingdom shall endure before Me forever; your throne shall be established forever.”
Psalm 89:3-4-“I have made a covenant with My chosen; I have sworn to David My servant, I will establish your seed forever and build up your throne to all generations”
Even Jesus’ adoptive father, his ancestry, and the destination of their journey is being orchestrated by God for important reasons. Every detail is being meticulously managed by the Lord for his glorious purposes. What looks like an inconvenient trip by a man living well beneath his family heritage, is so much more. However, Joseph is not traveling alone.
III. OBSERVATION 3: THE COMPANY-7:5
Joseph traveled “in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him,” (7:5a). Though we have already mentioned a little about Joseph’s relationship with Mary, let us take a closer look at this young girl and appreciate some of what she has been through. Typically Jewish girls during this period of history were engaged between twelve and fourteen years old. This engagement was a far more formal commitment than it is today. In fact, it took a formal divorce to break one off. The girl in this arrangement would even be called the fiancé’s wife prior to the wedding and infidelity would be treated as adultery. Against this backdrop, we ought to understand Mary as a young girl (probably around fourteen) who was following the customs of her day in compliance with all the social and biblical norms. However, her life, much like Joseph’s, was interrupted. She too was visited by an angel and was told that she would conceive and bear a son, though she never knew a man. Even more shocking was that this son would be the Son of God, the Savior of the World! What would people say? What would Joseph do? After wrestling with all these questions and more, she commits herself to the Lord’s plan and concludes “may it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). Unconventional, shocking, and peculiar though Mary’s story may be, it was an important part of God’s story and plan to bring his Son into the World.
The third passenger on this journey to Bethlehem is the child in Mary’s womb—“and was with child” (7:5b). This was the same “seed of the woman” sent to crush the head of the serpent (the devil/Satan) as prophesied in Genesis 3:15. This was the same child who would prove that God was with his people (Isaiah 7:14). This baby would be the Savior of the world, the Christ child, Jesus, God made flesh.
With everyone accounted for, these three—a humble man of God, an even more humble young girl, and the God child in her womb—make their way to Bethlehem in compliance with the decree late into Mary’s pregnancy.
IV. OBSERVATION 4: THE CULMINATION-7:6-7
God has already proven sovereign over the people, ancestry, political leadership, frivolous decrees, and general context in this story. In verse 6 we also learn that he is sovereign over the timing and execution of specific events—“While they were there [in Bethlehem] the days were completed for her to give birth.” At this exact place and at this exact time, the introduction of God in human form would take place and the fulfillment of many prophecies would be fulfilled.
“And she gave birth to her firstborn son;…” (7:7a). The tense of the verb here suggests the end/culmination of a long process/journey. Here the pregnancy (at least in this final stage) runs parallel to the journey to Bethlehem. Both these journeys were now complete—this family had finally made it to their destination and Jesus had finally been born. He is divine by means of miraculous conception of the Holy Spirit, He is king as hinted at by the location of Bethlehem and his earthly parent’s familial connection to David, and He is here! The greatest ever miracle has occurred—God was now incarnate to bring about salvation for his people.
Though such a figure is certainly worthy of incredible fanfare and the most special accommodations, Jesus, like his parents, proves utterly humble and unassuming from the beginning—“and she wrapped Him in clothes, and laid Him in a manger” (7:7b). These traditional “swaddling clothes” were strips of cloth intended to keep limbs straight—a sign of motherly care and affection (Strauss, ZIBBC, 340)—and the manger was a feeding trough for animals. This was hardly the nursery you might expect for the God-child, but God, you see, is even sovereign over these details. These humble accommodations illustrate that this Jesus who can be laid in such places can also take up residence in a heart like yours and mine.
This theme of glory in humility continues as our passage comes to a close and we learn that Joseph, Mary, and the newborn are making the most of their peculiar accommodations “because there was no room for them in the inn” (7:7c). Crowded conditions amid this census forced Joseph and Mary from normal lodging to a place reserved for animals. This could have been a lower-level room or stall for animals attached to a private residence, a cave used to shelter animals, or even a feeding place under the open sky. “whatever the precise location, the commonality and humility of the scene prepares the reader for the paradoxical story of the Messiah, who attains glory through suffering” (Strauss, ZIBBC, 342).
Last week we learned that God can use even tragedies in our life’s journey to bring us to a place of great blessing. In Luke 2 we learn that God’s sovereignty does not just extend to the epic or over-the-top episodes we may be made to endure, but it also supervenes over the mundane, trivial, and small details of our lives. Even little inconveniences/annoyances/interruptions can be used to direct us where God wants us to go. This was the story of the first Christmas. It was a governmental decree for a census that led Joseph, Mary, and her unborn child to the exact right place at the exact right time to bring God’s son into the world—utter glory wrapped in utter humility. Had it not been for Joseph’s willingness to remain with Mary, Mary’s willingness to say yes to God, and their collective obedience to the God-appointed leaders of their day, the first Christmas would have looked very different.
As we reflect on what this may mean for our lives, consider the hoops that you and I might be made to jump through, the small but inconvenient changes that disrupt our day or alter our plans. While we might be tempted to rail against these as curses, perhaps we ought to consider that even these are not outside the scope of God’s sovereignty. In fact, he might just be directing you to the exact right place at the exact right time for a specific purpose. Perhaps even these things are being used to bring you to a place of blessing or paving the way for an opportunity to be a blessing to others.