Part 2 of the series The Birth of Christ
You can listen to this sermon here.
In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn (Luke 2:1-7).
As a parent, it’s fun to surprise your children on Christmas morning with a gift they aren’t expecting.
There are many surprises in the Christmas story. In Luke 1, there are two surprises: (1) the choice of Mary, a young girl from a small town, to be the mother of the Messiah, and (2) the virgin conception. In Luke 2, we find a few more surprises.
The Humble Birth of Jesus
About 700 years earlier, the prophet Micah foretold, “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). The Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem, but Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth. The prophecy was in danger of going unfulfilled. But God used a decree by the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus (also known as Octavian) to fulfill Micah’s prophecy (v. 1; cf. Matt. 2:4-6).
The purpose of the “registration” (“census,” NIV) was for people of the empire to register for paying taxes. “In calling the census one of the ‘whole world,’ Luke uses the standard description of any event that covered much of the Roman Empire” (Darrell Bock, Luke 1:1-9:50, p. 202). The decree required people to be registered in their ancestral homes. Joseph was “of the house and lineage of David” (v. 4; cf. 1:27), so he traveled to Bethlehem, “the city of David” (v. 4) to be registered.
Verse 2 says, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” Ancient historian Josephus writes that Quirinius ordered a census in A.D. 6 (cf. Acts 5:37). But both Matthew and Luke tell us that Jesus was born during the time of King Herod (Matt. 2:1; Luke 1:5), who died in 4 B.C. This is a complex issue, but there are reasons to believe that Luke was not wrong about the census. (Darrell Bock in Luke 1:1-9:50 gives a good defense of the historicity of Luke 2:1-2.)
Mary also went with Joseph on the journey to Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary were probably married at this time. Perhaps Luke calls her Joseph’s “betrothed” (v. 5) because their marriage was not yet consummated (cf. Matt. 1:25). The virgin Mary was “with child” (v. 5) as a result of the miraculous working of the Holy Spirit (1:34-35), and her baby was due to be born soon. It seems that Mary wanted to be with her husband when the birth took place.
While Joseph and Mary were in Bethlehem, “the time came for [Mary] to give birth” (v. 6). Luke doesn’t give us any details about the delivery of the baby. He simply writes that Mary “gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger” (v. 7). A manger is a feeding trough for animals. Since Jesus was placed in a manger, he must have been born in a place where animals were kept. It would have been a dirty, smelly place. Some say he was born in a cave. Others say a stable. Jesus was born in a place for animals “because there was no place for them in the inn” (v. 7).
The one who would be King was placed in a manger.
We could contrast the lack of concern for Mary’s baby with the world’s fascination with “the royal baby”—the unborn baby of Kate Middleton and Prince William.
’Tis the Season to Be Humble
C. S. Lewis said, “Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.” This is what Jesus did. “Though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:6-8). Almighty God became a helpless baby!
The humble birth of Jesus confronts us with our need for humility.
Paul said to the Philippians, “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:3-5, NIV). But humility is very elusive. The moment I congratulate myself for being humble, I have become proud of my humility. So how can we increase our humility?
Humility is the by-product of marveling in the grace of God.
In Luke 1:46-55 (a passage known as the “Magnificent”), Mary thanks God for what he is going to do in her life. She begins her song of praise by saying, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior” (1:46-47). We will never understand the grace of God until we acknowledge that we are sinners in need of a Savior. Jesus came to be our Savior. On the night of his birth, the angel said to the shepherds, “Unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (2:11). The name “Jesus” means “the Lord saves.” The angel told Joseph that he was to name Mary’s son Jesus because he would “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21). Jesus can never be my Savior until I humbly acknowledge my need of salvation.
Mary marveled that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah. She said, “God has looked on the humble state of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me” (1:48-49). Jesus was born so that God could do “great things for me.” For me! Jesus humbled himself so that he could bring me salvation. It wasn’t that he had to do it. He was glad to do it. The grace of God is surprising. It is this grace that leads us to salvation and inspires us to live with humility.