Journey to Bethlehem
December 19, 2010
For the last several years Moody Radio in Chicago has asked me to do a series of “word pictures” describing the events surrounding the birth of Jesus. Nancy Turner, host of This is the Day on WMBI-FM, introduces me and then lets me tell the story in several short segments interspersed with Christmas music. You can listen online to the 2010 version of the program.
I always find it an exciting challenge to rethink some of the great events surrounding the birth of Christ. What follows is not complete by any means. I don’t include anything about the shepherds or the Magi even though both groups played crucial roles in the Nativity story. To include them would make the “journey” too long for radio. I have chosen instead to focus on Joseph and Mary and the birth itself.
I hope this creative retelling will do your heart good as we prepare to celebrate the birth of our Lord.
Part 1: Merry Christmas, Caesar Augustus
The traditional Christmas story from the Gospel of Luke begins this way: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world” (Luke 2:1). Most of us read those words without giving them a second thought.
Actually, Caesar Augustus was the greatest of the Roman emperors, greater even than his granduncle, Julius Caesar. It was said that when he came to Rome it was a city of brick, and when he left it was a city of marble. Caesar Augustus reigned as emperor for 41 years. During that time he gave to the world the famed pax romana, the great Roman Peace that spread across the Mediterranean world.
His greatest single act–the one which would have the most lasting effect on world history–was to call for a census of the empire. The census would produce a list of property owners for the purpose of collecting taxes. It was a thoroughly secular decree, the kind of thing governments have been doing since the beginning of time.
Historians tell us that it is not likely that the whole empire was enrolled at the same time. Given the slow system of communication in those days, it might have taken several years for the census to be completed in some of the outlying provinces. A lot would depend on the willingness of local rulers to cooperate.
When Augustus died, they mourned as if a god had died.
When the time came to take the census in Israel, it is possible that a compromise was made to take into account Jewish custom. The Romans ordinarily enrolled men where they were currently living, but the Jews counted families according to their ancestral hometowns. That would explain why Joseph and Mary had to return to Bethlehem at a most inconvenient time–in the ninth month of Mary’s pregnancy.
This much is certain. Caesar Augustus never met Joseph or Mary and he never knew of a certain Jewish baby born in a village outside of Jerusalem. When Augustus died, they mourned as if a god had died. Little did they know his call for a census had been used by God to bring His Son to the earth.
So, Merry Christmas, Caesar Augustus. You played a part you never knew and paved the way for the birthday of a King.
Part 2: Mary’s Choice
When the story opens Mary is “pledged” to Joseph. That meant that she had formally agreed to marry him but the “wedding” had not yet taken place. The “pledge” and the “wedding feast” were usually separated by six months to a year. During that period the couple did not live together and did not consummate their marriage physically. Following the custom of that day, Mary would live with her parents and Joseph with his. After the public wedding feast, Mary and Joseph would live together as husband and wife.
Everything in Luke 1-2 happens against that background. Mary is a teenager living with her parents, waiting with happy anticipation for the day of her wedding.
It is right at this point that God breaks in. He is about to ask an unknown teenage girl to take part in something so shocking as to be totally unbelievable. What God asks Mary to do will change her life forever.
Gone are the happy dreams of a beautiful wedding; gone are the days of sweet anticipation; gone are the carefully-thought out plans for the wedding feast; gone are the hopes for “the most beautiful wedding to the most wonderful man who ever lived;” gone are all her girlish hopes of a quiet life in the home she would personally decorate.
It will all happen, but not the way Mary expected.
She will be married, but not before rumors spread through the countryside. There will be a wedding feast, but not the way she planned. She will have a home and children, but over her family will rest an uneasy cloud of dark suspicion.
It will all happen, but not the way she expected.
In the history of the church Mary has often been portrayed as a kind of misty, other-worldly figure. If you look at some of the great paintings of Mary, they make her look so peaceful and beatific that you almost forget she was a real person. That’s a shame because Luke makes it clear that she was very real, with very real doubts, very real questions and very real faith. Nowhere is this seen with more clarity than in Luke 1:38.
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May it be to me as you have said.” Then the angel left her.
This is one of the greatest statements of faith in the entire Bible. Perhaps it happened something like this. It’s the middle of the afternoon and your mother tells you go fetch some water. On your way to the well, you encounter a man who turns out to be the angel Gabriel. He tells you that even though you are a virgin, you will conceive and give birth to a child who will be the Son of God. When you ask how, the angel says, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Luke 1:35).
What do you say to that?
Mary said Yes. Yes to God, Yes to the impossible, Yes to the plan of God.
Did her heart skip a beat when she said Yes? There she is, teen head tilted high, her hands trembling just a bit, wide-eyed, nervous, open-mouthed, questioning but not afraid, wondering but not terrified, unsure but not uncertain. When the angel said, “Nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1:37), Mary took a deep breath and replied, “May it be to me as you have said.”
With those words Christmas came to the world.
Part 3: Mary Believes the Impossible
Let’s not underestimate what it cost Mary to say Yes to God. From that moment on, she faced the incredulity of her friends (“Oh Mary, how could expect us to believe such a bizarre story?”), the scurrilous gossip of the neighborhood, and the whispers of promiscuity that have lasted 2,000 years.
Mary knew–or would soon realize–that saying Yes to God meant misunderstanding and public shame. Gone was her pure reputation and with it her dreams of a quiet, happy life in Nazareth. In the future her life would many times be happy, but it would never again be quiet.
Since we know the end of the story, we may tend to overlook the possibility of divorce. But Mary had no way of knowing how Joseph would respond to her pregnancy. Would he blow his top and walk out on her? Would he humiliate her publicly? Would he divorce her?
Mary had every reason to worry about Joseph.
As it turned out, Mary had every reason to worry about Joseph. He didn’t blow his top or try to humiliate her, but he did intend to divorce her. Only an angel’s intervention kept that from happening.
That, too, was on Mary’s mind. By saying Yes, she risked losing the man she loved. Her whole future was on the line.
All these things were just the beginning. Mary could not know what the future would hold. Before it was all over, she would experience heartache, opposition, slander, confusion, anguish, despair and loneliness. In the end she would face the greatest pain a mother can endure when she watched her son die on the cross (John 19:25).
Mary couldn’t know all those things. Perhaps if she had known, she might not have said Yes. But it’s just as well that she didn’t. Sometimes we say, “I wish I knew what the future holds for me.” But you really don’t want to know. It’s far better that we don’t know what life will bring us in 10 or 15 years.
Mary didn’t know the full cost of saying Yes. But having made her decision she never looked back. Those two aspects of her life may be the greatest things we can say about her:
1. She believed God when it seemed to be impossible.
2. She never looked back.
God said, “Are you willing to believe the impossible?”
Mary answered, “Yes I am!”
Without that Yes, there would be no Christmas.
Part 4: A Very Good Man
Joseph has been rightly called the forgotten man of Christmas. It is natural that most of our attention should focus on Mary since she gave birth to Jesus. Nowhere in the birth accounts do we have any recorded words of Joseph. He appears on the stage of history for a few moments and then disappears. Here is what we know about him:
-His father was Jacob.
-His family hometown was Bethlehem in Judea, but he lived in Nazareth in Galilee. That meant that Joseph and Mary had to travel about 80 miles in order to register for the census.
Nowhere in the birth accounts do we have any recorded words of Joseph.
-He is from the royal line of David. The genealogy in Matthew 1 makes that clear.
-He was a carpenter by trade.
-He was a poor man. We know that because when he and Mary presented Jesus in the Temple, they brought two birds (either doves or pigeons) to sacrifice (Luke 2:24). Jews only did that when they could not afford a lamb.
-He was a keeper of the Law.
How old was Joseph? We don’t know the answer for sure, but many writers agree that he was probably a young man and possibly a teenager.
Now Mary turns up pregnant. Joseph only knows one thing for sure. He’s not the father.
What words describe a man at a time like this? Anger . . . Confusion . . . Frustration . . . Embarrassment . . . Shame . . . Rage . . . Disappointment.
What did he say to her? What did she say to him? Did she tell him about the angel Gabriel? If she did, can you blame him for not believing her?
Did he say to her, “Mary, how could you? You were pledged to me. We were going to get married. I was going to build a little house for us in Nazareth. Mary, Mary, how could you do this? Why, Mary, why? I kept myself for you. Why couldn’t you keep yourself for me?”
I think Joseph cried harder that day than he had ever cried in his life.
Matthew 1:24-25 are insufficiently celebrated as great Christmas verses. They reveal Joseph’s finest qualities:
When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she had given birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
Every step he takes testifies to his greatness:
1. By marrying her quickly he broke Jewish custom, but he protected Mary’s reputation. She was pregnant and he wasn’t the father but he married her anyway.
2. By keeping her a virgin until Jesus was born, he protected the miracle of Jesus’ conception by the Holy Spirit against slander by unbelievers.
3. By naming the baby he exercised a father’s prerogative and thus officially took him into his family as his own son.
The story in Matthew 1 is told exactly as a man would tell it. I like Joseph. I wish I could meet him. He strikes me as a very good man.
We give more attention to Mary and rightly so. But Joseph deserves his credit too. He is a man of faith, struggling with his doubts, persuaded to believe what God has said, and ultimately acting upon his persuasion.
Joseph stands as a model of what a godly man looks like:
Joseph was tender when he could have been harsh.
He was tough when he could have been weak.
He was tender when he could have been harsh.
He was thoughtful when he could have been hasty.
He was trusting when he could have doubted.
There is one other line of proof about the kind of man Joseph was. When Jesus grew up and began his ministry, he chose one word above all others to describe what God is like. He called him Father.
Part 5: Away in a Manger
The hours passed in the lonely stable. Finally the pains seemed to be as one. The moment had arrived. Mary cried out, straining with all her might, and fell back onto the blanket. Nothing. Then a tiny sound, a whimper, then a loud cry. It was a boy, a beautiful, healthy, brand-spanking-new baby boy.
Joseph held up the baby for Mary to see. “Let me hold him,” she said. And she did. There she lay for a moment. Now the sleep she had fought for hours came to her eyes, the stress of the long trip finally catching up with her. More than anything in all the world, she wanted to go to sleep. But before she did, she picked up a rough piece of cloth, tore it in strips, and wrapped the baby tightly. Then she looked for a place to put him. The only place she could find was a feeding trough–carved out of stone, rough-hewn, with bits of food stuck to the bottom. It was perfect. She laid him in the feeding-trough and then lay down to go to sleep. It had been a long, long day. As she drifted off to sleep, she wondered where they would go in the morning.
He didn’t sleep just yet. Too much to think about. What a lucky man he was. He looked first at his wife-so tired and yet so beautiful-and then at the baby boy-surely the most beautiful baby in the world.
It happened just as the angel said it would.
How strange, yet how fitting that it should all end like this. It had happened just as the angel said it would. He didn’t worry about naming the baby. The angel had taken care of that. “Give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
How strange that it should happen to him-Joseph-just an ordinary carpenter. And to Mary-an innocent teenage girl. Who could figure it all out? Immanuel, the angel said, God with us. Mary, who had never known Joseph, now delivering her first child. “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son” (Isaiah 7:14).
That’s the way it was that first Christmas night 2000 years ago. Baby sleeping, mother dreaming, father thinking, and God watching over it all.