Bible reading: Luke 2:1–7
For my 30th birthday, some of my best friends bought me two tiny antique coins. One had the head and name of Pontius Pilate on it, and the other that of Caesar Augustus. These two tiny denarii are precious to me. They are evidence from outside the Bible that the Gospel writers got details of what they were writing about correct. In our reading today we are told of the reason for Joseph and Mary travelling to Bethlehem, even though they lived in Nazareth.
We know that hundreds of years earlier, the Messiah’s birth was prophesied, and was to take place in Bethlehem, but Joseph and Mary lived in another town. Again we see the hand of God in ordinary circumstances. A census is called and everyone has to return to his ‘own town’ – the town of his family’s origin – to be counted. The whims of the bureaucracy of a superpower conspire to bring the unborn Son of God into the town where it has been predicted the Messiah would be born.
The Christmas story is not wish fulfillment. It is not a case of ‘I want it to be true and so I believe in it’. Luke locates the story in the era of a specific Roman governor’s particular census – we know when this happened. Luke is a doctor, a man of science, a Gentile who writes his history having thoroughly investigated his sources. History is important, and these events actually happened; Jesus’ birth is not a fantasy or ethereal moral principle – it is a verifiable historical reality. God is staking a claim for our attention on Jesus of Nazareth. God is entering time, initiating relationship with us in a way that we can observe, scrutinise and make a decision about for ourselves.
But because of the upheaval of people, there was nowhere for the holy family to stay. And so the heavily pregnant Mary and her concerned husband find themselves consigned to the innkeeper’s stable. Lest we get caught up in the romanticism of Christmas, this historical detail roots the story in the earthy reality of poverty, dirt and inconvenience. The time has come for the birth of Christ; all of history has been straining towards this moment. But it happens in real time amidst the physical challenges of blood, sweat and tears.
Pause to reflect:
The moment has arrived – time has been rushing towards this event, when Jesus will be born. God has arranged the prophets, planned the ancestors, chosen the mother, and now the bureaucracy of an empire to bring the details into place. Christ will be born in Bethlehem. In human history. Meditate on this and allow God’s sovereignty over time to thrill you.
Lord, let not our souls be busy inns that have no room for thee or thine,
But quiet homes of prayer and praise, where thou mayest find fit company,
Where the needful cares of life are wisely ordered and put away,
And wide, sweet spaces kept for thee; where holy thoughts pass up and down
And fervent longings watch and wait thy coming.
Julian of Norwich (1340–1426)
1. In the anticipation of Christmas Day and amidst all the practical arrangements, how can you keep central the amazing truth of Jesus coming into the world?