Well, ready or not, Christmas has arrived. And even though we know it’s coming, the date is the same every year, yet still we find ourselves running about, getting things sorted. And this year it seems strange that Christmas Eve is on a Sunday - giving us a pause before Christmas Day itself.
This morning gives us an opportunity to look back to the very first Christmas, to see what really happened. And we’re in the hands of Dr Luke, the writer of this gospel, who tells us in the very first verses of the book that he has ‘carefully investigated everything from the beginning.’ (1:3). Dr Luke gives us the true story of the first Christmas.
And in this morning’s seven verses, he tells us about the events of the first Christmas - the time, the place, and the circumstances of the birth of Jesus. So let’s look at each in turn, starting with the time of Jesus’ birth.
V1: ‘In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.)’
The focus at the very start of the passage is on the people in power. There’s Caesar Augustus, who is the Roman Emperor; and that hard-to-pronounce-at-carol-services name, Quirinius, the governor of Syria. Augustus was ruling over the entire Roman world - and one word from him impacted on lots of other people.
It’s a bit like today. Our focus and attention can be on the few very powerful people who control the world. With us, it’s Teresa May leading the Brexit negotiations - whatever she decides (or, ok, agrees to with the EU), it will have an impact on all of us when we finally leave the European Union. Or think of Donald Trump. There are fears that he might decide to launch a nuclear missile - which will certainly impact lots of other people. Well, at this point in history, it was Augustus who was calling the shots.
Whatever his reasons, Augustus decides to take a census. It may be that, as the King James Version puts it, everyone should be taxed. It was at least, some form of registration. So the word goes out from Augustus, and everyone is caught up in his demands. We see this in verse 3: ‘And everyone went to his own town to register.’
Someone on Twitter the other day said this: ‘For too long I thought that it was awfully inconvenient for the King to call a census at Christmas time.’ (@ngorlly)
They thought that it’s busy enough at Christmas, without having to deal with a census as well. but it’s not that the census was called at Christmas, but that Christmas called during the census.
Caesar Augustus decided he would call a census, but behind the scenes, God was calling the shots. And God was working through the decisions and decrees of the powerful to bring about his purposes.
The time of Jesus’ birth was the time of the census, but as we saw in Galatians 4: ‘But when the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons.’ (Gal 4:4-5).
In the next verses, we see the place of Jesus’ birth. We’ve already sung about it this morning - O little town of Bethlehem. And in these verses we see how the decree of the Roman emperor impacts on one particular family. The focus shifts from the powerful and important, to the ordinary and (in the world’s eyes) unimportant.
‘So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.’ (4-5)
Joseph is living in Nazareth, in the province of Galilee. But he can’t register there, as he’s not from there. At some stage he must have been a blow-in. And so he sets off, along with Mary his betrothed - his fiancee. A journey of about 70-80 miles - from here to either Londonderry or Dublin. With no planes, trains or automobiles.
Think of the upheaval, the uncertainty, the inconvenience of having to move, having to travel. And yet, God is at work when we’re being shaken up.
Now why does Joe have to go the whole way to Bethlehem? It is the city of David (as we heard in our Old Testament reading). And Joseph belongs to ‘the house and line of David.’ There hasn’t been a king of Israel/Judah for about 500 years. But Joseph is from David’s family, and David’s line.
The old promises that David would never fail to have a son on the throne seems to have fallen aside. But it’s not been forgotten. And perhaps Joseph has the promise given to Mary back in 1:32 singing in his ears - ‘The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever; his kingdom will never end.’
Through the decree of Augustus, Joseph and Mary move from Nazareth to Bethlehem, getting them there just in time for the birth of the baby - as promised in Micah 5 - ‘But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel...’ (Micah 5:2).
You can see how things are coming together - the right time and the right place to fulfil God’s purposes, to bring about the birth of the king. But even as I say those words, the birth of the king, you know that it’s not quite as fancy as the birth of Prince George, or even Princess Charlotte, or the new Prince or Princess to be born in April.
The birth of this king didn’t take place in the Lindo Wing of St Mary’s Hospital in London, with the world’s journalists outside. Nor was it in a royal palace. In fact, try to hear these words as if you’ve never heard them before.
‘While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.’
No maternity ward; no midwife; nobody, it seems, except for Mary and Joseph. The circumstances are humble, poor, and - I was going to say ordinary, but this is far from ordinary. Mary herself wraps the baby in cloths - swaddling bands as the hymn puts it - strips of cloth to provide some warmth. A sign of poverty, of making do with whatever comes to hand. Perhaps, even, a pointer to the strips of linen that would encircle the body of Jesus after his crucifixion.
Mary also places the baby, not in a Moses basket, or a cot, but in a manger. We’re so used to it, we fail to realise how odd this is! It’s the sign that the shepherds will be given to find the baby, because babies don’t normally lie in the livestock’s lunchbox. The feeding trough becomes the king’s bed.
And why did these things happen? The strange circumstances of Jesus’ birth? ‘Because there was no room for them in the inn.’ A thousand nativity plays hone in on this little detail, providing a part for two, three, four innkeepers all saying ‘no room at the inn’ before one takes pity on them and offers his stable.
The inn could simply be the guestroom, with someone else already ‘in’ it - and so the birth may have been in the lower part of the family home, where the animals stayed, rather than a separate stable or outhouse. But however, even in these circumstances, God was at work. Later Jesus would say that the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head - at his birth, a borrowed manger was his bed.
Dr Luke shares his carefully researched history - the time, the place, and the circumstances of the birth of Jesus. And through them all, God was at work - to use the census decree of Caesar Augustus to bring Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the city of David; where in the strangest of circumstances, the Son of David would be born.
On that first Christmas, there was no room for Jesus. This Christmas, are you making room for Jesus?
This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Christmas Eve, Sunday 24th December 2017