Saturday, December 26, 2015

The Birth of Jesus Christ (Luke 2).

In order to better understand the story of the birth of Jesus Christ we should know something of the background story to the story of Jesus that we find in the Old Testament. In the beginning of the Bible we are told that God created man in his own image to do ‘God’s Will’ on the earth. Adam was to consecrate the creation in submission to the God and His Word. Yet, man believed a lie, declared independence from God and brought ‘evil and suffering’ into the world. So God banished man from His presence. Then man deteriorated so that God judged the world by a flood but promised to preserve man and the world in order to redeem it. Then God called Abraham promising him a homeland and multiple descendants to bless the world. His descendants multiplied in Egypt but they ended up enslaved. They cry out and God delivers them from Egyptian slavery called them to be a ‘holy nation’. They began to take possession of their land, and consecrate it to the Lord, but the chaotic period of the Judges showed that they would need a king to be a ‘kingdom of priests’. God found a king after His own heart in David and promises David a ‘perpetual kingship’ over God’s people. David’s son, Solomon, developed Israel into an Empire and built the Jerusalem Temple as a dwelling place for God among His people. But, Solomon introduced an idolatry that split Israel and lead to ‘CIVIL WAR’. The ‘Northern kingdom’ was scattered by the Assyrians and the ‘Southern Kingdom’ was carried into ‘Exile in Babylon for 70 years’. The Persians conquered the Babylonians, allowing the Jews to return to their land but the ‘return from Exile’ fell desperately short of the ‘glories of the prophesied kingdom’ and Israel remained dominated by various pagan empires. So the OT ends with God’s people waiting for God to send His 'anointed King' and restore the kingdom and deliver God’s people. Now you can watch and or listen to the story of the 'Birth of Jesus and of the announcement of his birth to the shepherds that is coming from Luke 2
The Roman Emperor, Caesar Augustus, wanted everyone throughout his empire counted in a census in order to tax his subjects. Caesar issued his decree and people throughout the Empire had to return to their hometowns mostly out of fear of retribution. So Joseph left Nazareth in Galilee to go up to Bethlehem in Judea, the town of Israel’s King David, because Joseph was from David’s family line. Joseph took his fiancee Mary, who was expecting a child, and sometime after they arrived in the ‘little town of Bethlehem’ she gave birth to a son. She wrapped her baby in cloth and placed him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the ‘inn or guest room’.

Are you thinking of a fully booked roadside ‘inn’ in the ‘little town of Bethlehem’? While the translation ‘inn’ in Lk 2:7 is possible, Luke in Lk 10:34 uses a different word in the parable of the ‘good Samaritan’ when the Samaritan took the bandaged man to a commercial ‘inn’.  But in Lk 2:7, Luke uses the same word he uses in Lk 22:11 where the disciples say, ‘The Teacher asks: Where is the ‘guest room’, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’ The word in Lk 2:7 more likely refers to a ‘guest room’ crowded with relatives. They were staying, either in a two story house where animals were stored at night on the ground floor or they were in a one story house with a main room and a ‘guest room’. The main room would have had a lower area by the door which (See Kenneth Bailey) was used to shelter animals at night. In either case the manger that was there to feed animals at night became the ‘resting place’ for the child because the ‘guest room’ was full of relatives for the census.

It is not that the people of Bethlehem where ‘too busy’ to help a pregnant woman. Neither should we think of them as being ‘so bad’ that they turned away a woman about to give birth to fend for herself. Are we really to think that in city of David, Bethlehem, a descendant of King David would not be able to find any relatives to give him accommodation? No, the story is told to give us a vivid contrast between the ruler of the Roman Empire, Caesar Augustus, and the child who was born as God’s king ‘Christ the Lord’. To advance his empire Caesar Augustus issued a decree and the lives of the ordinary common people were disrupted so that they could be taxed. Caesar wanted to expand his kingdom and he did it at the expense of common people and woe to all who didn’t comply. However, when God wanted to advance His kingdom purpose He appointed an ordinary villager to give birth to what would otherwise have been a very ordinary common child. Yet, this child was anything but ordinary for he was God’s anointed and the alternative king to Caesar who would usher in a kingdom very different to that of Caesar Augustus.

That night shepherds were in the fields outside Bethlehem watching their flocks. Suddenly an ‘angel of the Lord’ appeared to them, light shown around them and they were terrified. The angelic messenger tells them not to be afraid for he was bringing good news of great joy all people. The ‘good news’ was that a Savior had been born in Bethlehem who was ‘Christ the Lord’ and this was ‘good news’ not just for Israel but for all people. The shepherds were told to look for the sign of a baby born in Bethlehem wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger then they would know they had found ‘Christ the Lord’. So while Augustus was exerting his power over his subjects, one of those very subjects was being raised up by God to be God’s alternative to Caesar and the world’s true Lord. Then a great company of angels appeared praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those on whom God’s favor rests.” The angels departed and the shepherds hurried off to Bethlehem, where they found Mary and Joseph, with their newborn child wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger. Seeing the promised sign as told to them by the angel they were convinced that the child was the savior, Christ the Lord! Those hearing the testimony of the shepherds were amazed and Mary treasured the ‘good news’ and pondered it in her heart. Then the shepherds returned to their fields, praising God for sending a savior and for seeing the Christ child, just as they had been told by the angels.

Luke mentions the manger three times though we’re not actually told that there were any animals there at the time. While the manger does speak of Jesus’ humble beginnings, the child wrapped in cloth and lying in a manger was the sign to confirm to the shepherds that what the angel had said was true and that they had found the Christ. This was significant because it was the shepherds who were told who the child really was. The shepherds had been given the good news by the angel but the others would hear about the child from the shepherds. When Mary and Joseph heard what the shepherds had to say it would confirm what they had been told about the child. Up to this point only Joseph and Mary knew the truth about the child which they themselves were previously told by angels. The news of a rival king to Caesar could have potentially harsh consequences but Mary treasured the news and pondered it in her heart. 

Augustus Caesar, enthroned in Rome, had issued a census in order to tax his subjects and expand his empire at their expense. Augustus had defeated all rivals in a bloody civil war and he had turned the Roman republic into an empire with himself as its sole ruler. He claimed to have brought peace to the whole world and having declared his dead adoptive father Julius Caesar to be divine he had declared himself to be the ‘son of the divine’. Augustus had ushered in the empire wide peace but any nation that dared to upset that peace would be crushed by the Roman military and any individual leading an uprising would be nailed to a Roman cross. Augustus contracted his ‘poets and historians’ to tell the story of Rome as culminating in himself. So many people thought of Augustus as the ‘Savior and Lord’ of the world.   
Meanwhile, in the ‘little town of Bethlehem’ the ‘city of David’ a savior was born who was ‘Christ the Lord’. So while Caesars’ subjects sought to comply out of fear of retribution at the very same time Jesus was born. The Lord Jesus Christ was born as a descendant of David in the town of David. David was Israel’s king whom God had promised a perpetual kingship over the people of God. Jesus of Nazareth was unknown to Augustus and his immediate descendants and most of Jesus life was relatively invisible to anyone outside of Israel. Moreover, Jesus would end up being crucified on a Roman cross and later Roman emperors would try to exterminate Christians. However, in just over three centuries the emperor himself would become a Christian. Then not long after that the empire itself would become officially Christian. This story points us to the truth that the baby lying in a manger and announced by lowly shepherds was Christ the Lord and that Caesar was not!  

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