From A Throne To A Feeding Trough
When was the last time you went to see a Christmas pageant? I quite enjoy Christmas pageants myself, especially those where the events surrounding the birth of Christ are reenacted. One concern I have, however, is that those who watch the pageants are sometimes unable to separate biblical truth from artistic license.
How well do you know the Christmas story? You've heard it a 100 times, but have you got it right? I remember what a shock it was for me to learn, as a teenager, that the wise men were not witnesses to Jesus' birth. (My apologies to those who set up the Nativity scene in front of Fraser.) I was shocked to learn that the wise men visited Jesus somewhere between 6 and 18 months after He was born. I was also shocked to learn that there were not necessarily 3 wise men. Have a look. Nowhere in Scripture do we read how many wise men there were. All we know for sure is that there was more than one.
Why is this important?, you ask. Getting a particular biblical narrative right is important because of our human tendency to believe as true aspects about God that are not found in the Bible. Most of the deficient theology I come across is the direct result of an individual allowing local cultural standards, personal experience, and personal preference to shape their understanding of truth.
Examining the details revealed in any biblical account is important. Why should the Christmas account be any different? The accuracy of our beliefs surrounding the Christmas account are at tremendous risk when we consider that we are regularly exposed to inaccurate depictions of Christ's birth--inaccuracies found on many Christmas cards, on many television specials, and even in some of our favourite hymns.
Turning our attention now, to the first 7 verses of Luke chapter 2, my goal this morning is twofold. First of all, I would like to see if we can gain some greater clarity as to the actual circumstances surrounding Jesus' birth. And secondly, in examining the actual details surrounding Jesus' birth, my hope is that we might gain greater insight into the character of God.
First, to the details. We learn, in verse 1, that Emperor Augustus had issued a decree "that all the world should be registered". The reason for this registration is not given by Luke, but extrabiblical accounts site taxation as the primary reason for registrations of this time period.
Luke tells us that "all went to their towns to be registered"(v.3). And even though Joseph and Mary were living in Nazareth, they went to register in Bethlehem since Joseph was "descended from the house and family of David"(v.3, 4).
Let's stop and think about this. In Canada, it is fashionable to belly-ache about paying taxes. It is bad enough that taxes are taken off our wages. It is bad enough having to mail in our taxes once a year. Can you imagine having to travel almost 200 km on foot, or by donkey, to pay your taxes? 'If they want my money they can come to me and get it!', I can hear you say. But this isn't Canada we are talking about. This is Palestine under Roman control. It doesn't matter how far away you live. It doesn't matter how many months pregnant your wife is. When the Emperor says, 'Register', you register.
Now picture this, you are watching the annual children's Christmas pageant, and what happens? Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem on cue. There they are greeted by the innkeeper who regretfully reports that there is no room available-- 'Sorry, no vacancy, just like the sign says'. Mary and Joseph continue along until they find someone who lets them sleep in the barn.
Is this the way the birth of Jesus took place? Do the articles in the Presbyterian Record have it right? Was Jesus really born homeless?
Let's take a look at chapter 2, verse 7, where our translation reads that "there was no place for them in the inn". Scholar, Kenneth Bailey, confirms what we could find out for ourselves--the Greek word, "kataluma", literally means "guest room", and not "hotel" or "inn". Luke reports that Jesus was laid in a manger. Why? Because "there was no place for them in the guest room"-- "there was no place for them in the kataluma".
This interpretation is strengthened by the fact that "kataluma" is the same word used by Jesus in Luke 22:11. In this verse, Jesus instructs His disciples, "you shall say to the owner of the house, 'The Teacher says to you, 'Where is the guest room(Where is the kataluma) in which I may eat the Passover with My disciples?'".
The "kataluma" is the guest room, it is the upper chamber of a house. It is not a reference to Palestine's version of 'The Holiday Inn'. There is a different Greek word that is used when one is speaking about public lodging. If we turn to Luke, chapter 10, verses 34 and 35, we read about the account of 'The Good Samaritan': "(The Samaritan) went to him and bandaged his wounds, having poured oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two denarii and gave them to the innkeeper".
Clearly, the reference here is to paid, public, lodging. This is the equivalent of our 'Holiday Inn'. Now guess what? The Greek word here is "pandocheion", not "kataluma".
It is unlikely, therefore, that Jesus was born in some cold, impersonal, cattle shed. It is unlikely that the only witnesses to Jesus' birth were Mary and Joseph.
What is more likely, is this: Joseph was returning to his homeland to register according to the decree of the Emperor. Having come from Bethlehem and from the "family of David", presumably Joseph would still have family there. Of course, there would be many from the "family of David" besides Joseph. They too would be returning to Bethlehem to register. Mary and Joseph arrive, but there is "no room in guest chamber"-- "there is no room in the kataluma".
Either some of there relatives got there first, or the guest room had been prepared to accommodate food preparation and dining--the way the guest chamber was prepared for our Lord's supper with His disciples. The only room remaining then, would be the front room--a room that would shelter some of the animals at night; a room that would have feeding troughs stuffed with hay; a room that could be swept clean in the morning and used for other family activity.
This is something we can relate to. We visit family at Christmas, and what inevitably happens? Uncle Harold from Calgary commandeers the guest room before you can get there. And rather than sending you to stay at the 'Holiday Inn', your family gives you the honour of sleeping on the floor in the play room; or they pull out for you the sofa bed with the metal bar running through the middle of the bed.
In a similar fashion, Jesus was not born in some impersonal stable, but rather in a front room--a front room that was as likely to have aunts and uncles as it would have oxen and sheep.
Finally, the shepherds arrive with a message from the angels. In verse 18, we read the response of those present for Jesus' birth, "And ALL who heard (the shepherds message) wondered at the things told them". ALL? What do you mean "ALL who heard"? ALL of both Mary and Joseph? You get the picture. Jesus was not born all alone. He was born among family who were returning home.
Of course, there is much more to Christmas than Mary and Joseph returning home. There is more to Christmas than you or your children returning home. Christmas is about God--it's about the Lord of Lords, the King of Kings, the Prince of Peace, the Saviour, coming home. We couldn't get to God, and so Christmas tells the story of how God got to us.
The Gospel of John explains that the same God who created the universe, put on our "flesh and dwelt among us"(Jn. 1:14). I like the way Eugene Peterson's translation puts it, "God became one of us and moved into the neighbourhood".
What do we learn about the character of God from the Christmas account? I think we learn many things, but certainly 2 things stand out. Our God is a humble God. He was born wrapped, not in royal linens, but in "bands of cloth"(Lk. 2:7). He was born, not in a palace among kings, but in the front room of a house--likely among relatives and animals. God could have retained a measure of His glory in human flesh, but as Paul tells us, He chose to "empty Himself"(Phil. 2:6); He chose to become like us in every way but sin.
Surely our God is a humble God, and through His humility we also see that our God is a loving God. God was not obligated to come to us. As Jesus describes in John 3:16, God was motivated, not by duress or by compulsion, but by love when He sent His Son to earth.
To think that the Son of God set aside His glory for us. To think that the Son of God would come to earth knowing that His arrival marked the beginning of a divine rescue mission that would end with His death. This is the God we worship. This is the God we love. Amen.