December 30, 2018
Norwalk First United Methodist Church
Faithful: Christmas through the Eyes of Joseph
(Borrowed heavily from Adam Hamilton’s book, “Faithful”)
First Sunday after Christmas
The Journey to Bethlehem
It is not uncommon for a pastor to officiate at weddings where the wife is pregnant, or the couple already have children together before getting married. But in biblical times, if a woman was found to be pregnant by her fiancé, which was frowned upon but not entirely uncommon, the marriage ceremony was unlikely to be postponed.
We learn in Matthew that after Mary told Joseph of her pregnancy, he was visited by an angel as he slept, commanding him to wed Mary. Matthew then tells us: “When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife.” In modern times, there used to be more shame associated with a wedding where the bride was expecting a child. The custom was that the bride’s wedding dress would not be white; wearing a different color was a kind of public sign that the couple had not waited until their wedding night to be intimate.
But many times, meeting with couples who are expediting their wedding, I remind them that Mary and Joseph’s wedding was expedited because she, too, was expecting when she married. Mary and Joseph were married in Mary’s hometown of Nazareth, since scripture tells us that they were there when Emperor Augustus demanded a census be taken. I’m sure Joseph had to accept the snickers and whispers behind his back as family and friends alike assumed he’d taken advantage of Mary prior to the wedding.
After the wedding, the couple seemed to stay in Nazareth rather than returning to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem. Maybe Joseph wanted Mary surrounded by friends and family through her pregnancy. After all, it is within Joseph’s character from what we have learned so far, that he would be thinking of Mary’s well-being. Would you pray with me?
Luke tells us in scripture, “In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria.” At regular intervals the Roman government conducted a census in various parts of the empire. In ancient Rome it happened every five years. By the time of Augustus, the census was only once every fourteen years. One individual was appointed to oversee the entire census, and local people were assigned to go to each village and make the counts. The Romans wanted to register each person in the empire and ascertain how much property each possessed, in order to determine the taxes to be collected across the empire.
Adam Hamilton writes in his book on Joseph, titled Faithful, this: “Once the Romans obtained an accurate census of a town or village, they would determine how much tax that village would have to pay. Some people in the town would bid on the opportunity to become the tax collector, whose job was to collect from neighbors the amount required by the Romans plus the tax collector’s share.” Hamilton ends, “Whatever the tax collectors took in beyond the required amount of tax was theirs to keep as salary.” Now you see why the tax collectors in Jesus’ day were so hated.
The penalties for failure to appear for the census were serious. Senators who violated this requirement were removed from the senate. Men of the equestrian class lost their horses. But for the ordinary subjects of Rome such as Joseph, who were not citizens, the penalty was much more severe: imprisonment, confiscation of property, scourging, or slavery. This is why there was urgency for Joseph to return to his hometown. He had no choice but to go back to Bethlehem and comply, even though Mary was pregnant. It was also probably God’s will that Jesus be born in Bethlehem according to the scriptures.
Writing seven hundred years before the birth of Jesus, Micah foretold that a future king of Israel would come from Bethlehem, where King David had been born, and would reign forever: As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces, one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you. His origin is from remote times, from ancient days.
Adam Hamilton writes, “It’s interesting how God works in our lives. If we pay attention we’ll often feel the nudge of the Holy Spirit guiding us, just as I suspect Joseph felt. As we pay attention, listen, and act accordingly, we find ourselves in the midst of something God is doing to accomplish his purposes in our lives. We speak of this as God’s providence.”
He continues, “Joseph and Mary were undoubtedly upset by the census and the need to travel for nine days to Bethlehem just before Mary would give birth. But God took the emperor’s decree for a census, nudged Joseph to take Mary with him to Bethlehem, and caused Jesus’ humble birth to take place in Bethlehem, the very place the magi would go to find him.”
So, Joseph and a very pregnant Mary set out from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It is thought that they possibly followed an ancient roadway known as the Way of the Patriarchs. And even though the Jews and the Samaritans did not have a good relationship, this route cut right through the heart of Samaria. It was the shortest route but involved traversing the hills and finally the mountains that divide the Holy Land. It could also be hostile territory.
If Joseph had a donkey for Mary to ride, the trip would have still been exhausting and painful for her. I doubt that she was smiling and happy as many of the famous paintings portray her. This journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem surely was uncomfortable, unpleasant, and frightening. In Mary’s time, women died in childbirth with a frequency that led to an average life expectancy of only thirty-five. The trip Joseph and Mary were making was filled with frightening possibilities.
They set out for Bethlehem reminded once more that they were living under Roman occupation. Mary probably left in tears, saying goodbye to her family and hometown at the moment she needed them the most. This was a journey that neither Mary nor Joseph wanted to take. It was forced upon them.
This situation has often happened to us as well in our lives. At times, all of us find ourselves on journeys we don’t want to take. Sometimes, as with Mary and Joseph, the journeys happen because of someone else’s decisions or actions. The journeys may be painful, and we may find ourselves brokenhearted or deeply discouraged along the way. We might even think that God is punishing us or has abandoned us. But God promises to sustain us, even though we may walk through the darkest valleys. God tells us to turn our burdens over to him, and he can make something beautiful of them.
Have you ever been forced on a journey you didn’t want to take? It may have been your parents’ divorce, or your own. Maybe it was an illness or a move or the loss of a job. Maybe it was the death of someone you loved dearly. I’m not suggesting that God caused these things to happen or that they were God’s will. They are simply part of life. But God goes with you on these journeys, and God’s providence has a way of bringing good and beautiful things from the pain, heartache, and disappointments we face in life. That’s what Mary and Joseph discovered.
When you think of your journeys that you were forced to take, think about Jesus. Nearly half of Luke’s Gospel is devoted to Jesus’ journey to the cross. We know it was a journey that he did not want to take. But Jesus on his final journey knew somehow that God would redeem his suffering and use it to transform the world.
Well finally, Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem. Luke 2:5-7 says this: While they were there (in Bethlehem), the time came for Mary to have her baby. She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom. Notice it says guestroom. That is the accurate translation, not “inn.” Here is what we know about Joseph and the area of Bethlehem in the first century.
Joseph was from Bethlehem, so he would not have to stay in an inn. He could stay with his relatives. Also, Bethlehem was a small village in the first century, and so it’s unlikely there was an inn. Jerusalem was nearby and would have provided public lodging. Also, people did not have barns as we know them. They did, however, frequently build their homes atop naturally occurring caves. When doing so, they often brought their animals into the caves at night or, if not into the caves, into the main common space in the home.
Mary and Joseph were probably put in the cave with the animals, so that Mary would have some privacy in childbirth. You see, the main house was probably filled with Joseph’s siblings and cousins who were using the guestroom. If Mary gave birth in the guestroom of the main house, it would have made the room ritually “unclean” for a period of time, preventing the rest of the family from staying there. The cave would have given the midwife room for the delivery.
When I visited Bethlehem a few years back, we had the opportunity to go down into that cave to the place where Jesus was born. The Church of the Nativity, the oldest continuously used church building in the world, sits on top of that cave.
Now please notice the humility of this scene. The Savior of the world, the King of kings, the Son of God, was born in a stable where the animals were kept. His crib was a manger, a feeding trough for the animals, where the Bread of Life spent his first night on earth. By the way, Bethlehem means House of Bread. This story is beautiful. When God came to earth, he chose to identify with the lowest and humblest of people. It points to the character of Jesus’ entire life, a life of humility and servanthood.
The theme of humility continues when the angels invited the shepherds to meet the newborn king. And not just any shepherds; God invited the night-shift shepherds, the lowest of the low. Shepherds in that day were on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder. They were not often trusted. They were typically uneducated and poor and were held in low esteem by many.
Listen to what the angel announced to the shepherds from Luke 2: The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you – wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.”
Folks, this is good news. Wonderful, joyous news. For all people. Our savior, our deliverer, our King and Lord was born as a child, wrapped snugly and sleeping in a feeding trough for animals. From the start, God was teaching us through his Son and through the guests who came to celebrate the birth. What they saw in the child, if they really understood, and what we still find, if we really understand, is the glory of God revealed, and peace to all who see and understand and trust him.
This is Christmas, when God has come near, in humility, as a child born in the humblest of ways, surrounded by Joseph, Mary, and the night-shift shepherds. Joseph must have immediately loved the baby, just like we did when our children were born. I’m sure Joseph experienced those same emotions that night in Bethlehem when the midwife handed him the baby Jesus, wrapped snugly.
Prayer: God, how grateful we are that you never leave us or forsake us. Thank you for walking with us on our journeys in life, particularly the ones we don’t want to take. Thank you for working through them and bringing good from them. Thank you for the Christmas story, for coming to us in the most humble of ways, and for inviting the night-shift shepherds to be the first to marvel at Christ’s birth. Help us to trust in the “wonderful, joyous new for all people.” Christ, we trust in you as our Deliverer, our King, and our Lord. Amen.