Sunday, December 20, 2009

A Very Special Night

(Luke 2:1-20)

Around the age of twenty years, a young Gaius Octavius Thurinus was adopted by his great-uncle, the Roman politician Gaius Julius Caesar, and also given the name Gaius Julius Caesar. He later received the honorary title of Augustus, and was then later renamed Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus. Augustus was the first emperor of the Roman Empire, reigning from 27 BC until his death in AD 14.

In 4 BC, Augustus issued a decree that in every region controlled by the Roman empire, the inhabitants were required to record their names and have their goods rated at a certain value, so that the emperor would understand how rich every country, city, family, and house was. Judea was included in this census--while Herod ruled Judea as king, he did so as a servant of Rome and Augustus. This census was done as a preliminary to taking a poll tax in the provinces, which followed a few years later. This initial census took place during the time that Quirinius was governor of Syria, which he controlled from 4 BC to AD 1. Interestingly enough, the actual taxing took place during his second instance as governor, from AD 6 to AD 11.

The usual Roman method of census was for the individual to enroll from their place of residence. But it was the Jewish custom to enroll by tribes and families. Both Joseph and Mary were of the family line of David, and would have enrolled where the family had its landed inheritance--Bethlehem. The timed journey of the couple from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem was necessary to fulfill the prophecy of Micah (Micah 5:2). Without Mary, Joseph or Augustus being aware, God was able to manipulate people and events so that His Messiah would be born in Bethlehem.

It seems that the city of David was overflowing with his descendants that had returned home to be enrolled. It also seems that Mary and Joseph were not the first to arrive, perhaps because Joseph had led their journey at a careful pace out of consideration for Mary’s condition.

The formal lodgings in Bethlehem were filled, but Mary and Joseph managed to find something. Luke says that they found a stable or stall, possibly attached to one of the inns that they visited in search of rooms.

We do not now how long the enrollment process took, but we do know that while the couple was in Bethlehem, the time came for Jesus to be born. Mary closely wrapped the newborn Jesus in a long, narrow cloth in a manner that was done in the Near East during Bible times.

The “manger” where Jesus was laid is thought to have been a feeding trough for animals in the stall or stable. Tradition suggests that because of the numerous rock outcroppings in the region, Jesus was born in a cave. If this was the case, the manger may have been cut out of a rock wall.

God did not announce the joyous event of Jesus' birth to dignitaries in palaces but to lowly shepherds. Along with agriculture, tending flocks formed the basis of the economy of Palestine. What’s more, sheep raised on the hillside around Bethlehem may have been destined for temple sacrifices in Jerusalem, just six miles to the north.

Some of Israel's great heroes were shepherds, including Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David. Several passages in Scripture characterize God as a Good Shepherd. And yet, the occupation of shepherd was held in low esteem, especially those who were hirelings rather than owners. Shepherds lived most of the year outside, away from town and townspeople.

When the angel appeared to the shepherds, they were appropriately surprised and frightened. The shepherds were not just impressed by the visible brightness of the scene, but by the radiance of God’s own glory.

The angel told the shepherds not to fear and then explained that he brought Good News, not just for the Jews, but for all people. The angel then tells them the words that Jews had longed for centuries to hear--this was the Christ, or the Messiah, God’s anointed One. But not just the Messiah, but also the Lord God Himself! The angel then gave the shepherds a sign by describing how they would find the baby--not in a palace or even in a grand home, but wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger or stall.

As if the shepherds had not received enough of a shock to their systems, they when beheld a sky filled with angels that praised and gave glory to God. The angels also announced that God wished peace upon those whom God favored.

Once the angels were gone, it did not take the shepherds long to decide that they were going to find this baby. We do not know how long it took, but we know that they found the baby Jesus and Mary and Joseph, just as the angel had described.

The excited shepherds told the couple everything about their experience and what the angel had told them. Mary took in everything they said. She treasured it, or held it in high value and considered it often in the years to come.

In the end, the shepherds returned to their flocks and to their lives. But they did so rejoicing. This Christmas, how can you proclaim the birth of God’s Messiah? What can you do to help others know that Jesus has come?


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