Pastor Steve Mechem
Luke 2:6-12 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah,the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
The story I am about to tell you is based on the biblical account, some history, and creative license. I do not claim that all the events happened as they are told here (but they might have).
The story I am about to tell you involves characters you know and places of which you have heard, but the way the story unfolds is not quite like watching a Christmas TV special, or singing a Christmas carol, or looking at a Christmas card. We tend to clean things up, to sanctify them, to sanitize them, to make them look pretty.
Let’s begin in Bethlehem. Bethlehem is a small village to the south and east of Jerusalem. It sits in the Judaen hill country and is surrounded by pasture land used for sheep. There are only about 100 residents in this village, most of them make their living in the hills caring for flocks. 100 residents, that’s Oxly, MO, or Sailor Springs, Il or Fickle, Indiana. There is no beautiful white skyline as we see on the Christmas card. There may be 15 or 20 buildings in Bethlehem, that’s it – one or two room mud and thatched roof dwellings with outside facilities. There may be a synagogue in Bethlehem, but probably not.
But our story actually begins some 90+ miles north of Bethlehem. Taking the Jericho Road about 19 miles to the Jordan River and turning left along The River Road takes you to the sea of Galilee where you veer north westerly and work your way across the Galilean hills to the little town of Nazareth. Nazareth is just a smidge larger then Bethlehem, but 3 1/2 miles North by Northwest from Nazareth is the town of Sepphoris.
In 4 B.C.E. King Herod declares Sepphoris to be the next royal city in Galilee. And so, craftsman of all kinds, stonemasons, carvers, woodworkers, and carpenters are hired to transform the town from a Galilean village into a city reflecting Roman splendor.
Joseph’s father, and Joseph, all of 16 or 17 years old, and maybe Joseph’s brothers, are hired to work on the building of Sepphoris. As Jews, they are not allowed to live there, so they settle in the small village of Nazareth.
There, Joseph meets Mary, a young woman of 14 (maybe), meet. Joseph’s parents and Mary’s parents work out a deal and the two are engaged to be married at a later date, probably after money has been saved from the work at Sepphoris.
Mary gets pregnant. A predicament that is not tolerated by her family or her community.
To make matters worse, Joseph Isn’t the father.
There is some weird tale she is telling about how she got pregnant, but nobody’s buying it.
After the initial shock, he sticks with her.
Early in her pregnancy, Mary flees to the Judean hill country to her aunt Elizabeth‘s house to get away from Nazareth for a bit. Beside the family disapproval, the village has turned on her and she no longer feels welcome in Nazareth. Elizabeth is kindly and gets it.
After some time with Elizabeth, she returns home. Finding herself kicked out of her own home, she moves in with Joseph and his family.
Shortly after Mary becomes pregnant, a Roman soldier rides through Nazareth declaring that Cesar is requiring a new census be done, so that the taxation lists might be updated. Unlike the U.S. Census, census takers don’t go door to door. Rather, each male was required to trek back to his ancestral home to register there. The imposition is extraordinary.
For Joseph, his brothers and his father, it means making the 90 mile journey to Bethlehem. This is especially frustrating because these men have decent jobs in Sepphoris. And There is every reason to believe that when they return home, their jobs will be gone.
And most unfortunate for Joseph and Mary is that the time in which Joseph must register in Bethlehem is in the later stages of Mary’s pregnancy.
Out of fear that Mary may not be safe in Nazareth with his family gone, she is still be shunned by the community after all, Joseph and Mary make the decision that she will travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem with Joseph and his family.
Mary had made the trip to the Judean Hill country just a few months before, however, this time is much different as She is in her third trimester. She walks. She rides on a cart. She rides on a horse. She sleeps uncomfortably on the ground, in the cart. Her back hurts. Her legs feel heavy. The baby is doing gymnastics on her bladder. She is on the verge of exhaustion as they trip took several days. And yet she travels with Joseph. His family helps as much as they can, but there is really little help to be given to her.
And It is the rainy season. Every day, in the middle of the afternoon, Heavy rains pelt the travelers
90 some miles. From here to Springfield Illinois she walks. Nine months pregnant she walks. Up and down the hills of Galilee, along the river, up and down the hills between Jericho and Bethlehem she walks.
And finally they arrive in Bethlehem. The quaint hamlet of 100 residents has swollen too many times its original size because of the census. It is chaos. The village pathways are filled to the brim. It is noisy. There is commotion everywhere. It is Bedlam. And imagine that this is playing out in almost every village and town throughout Israel crazy census.
The census taker, actually a tax collector who has been conscripted by the Romans to write down the names of all the males who come to Bethlehem, is set up on the edge of town. The line of people waiting to register is really long.
Joseph’s family leave the line to look for a place where they might bed down for a few days, so that they might register and then head back to Nazareth and hopefully their jobs.
There is no place to be found. People have opened their homes to strangers but everyplace is filled to overflowing. There is no innkeeper to tell Joseph’s family that there isn’t room. There just isn’t any room.
Mary is uncomfortable in the worst way. It becomes necessary for her and Joseph to get out of the line for registration so they might find her a place to rest. They will have to try registering tomorrow. It is the family’s idea that maybe they can find lodging in Jerusalem which is 3 miles to the north but Mary is done. She can not go three more miles.
All around Bethlehem in the hills are caves. Well, shallow caves, more like deep indentations in the limestone. Shepherds use the caves for storing supplies and providing shelter during storms. The caves are also used to house livestock for short periods of time.
The caves are not suitable places for living. They are damp throughout the rainy season, they are grimy, and smell of whatever was stored in them – hay, animals, animal dung.
Mary, Joseph, and Joseph’s family decide to hold up in one of these caves at least for the night.
Unfortunately on that evening, Mary’s water breaks, and she goes into labor. So, as the men try to shuffle out of the way, Mary cries out as contractions increase in severity. She is on the cart, then on the ground, then back on the cart, stretched out in baby birthing position. The work of her labor, along with the dampness of the cave, create a discomfort she would not wish on any woman. And deep into the night, a baby is born.
Born Exactly the same way every baby without medical intervention is born . Through the struggle and strife of a mother’s labor.
He enters the world naked, vulnerable, breakable, subject to the whims of nature and humanity.
After Joseph counts his fingers and toes (cause that’s what dad’s do), they wrap him in a shawl that belongs to his mother and they place him in a feed trough half full of partially chewed hay, Mary collapses from exhaustion.
A short time later, a grungy band of shepherds, still smelling like their sheep, appear at the entrance of the cave. The small candle that has been lit by Joseph’s father has drawn them there.
The shepherds proclaim that God had somehow spoken to them on the hillside and told them that the Savior was born. They seem a bit bemused, as they look at the baby, wrapped in his mom’s scarf, settled in the half eaten hay inside a feeding trough in the corner of a damp cave in the middle of the night in the middle of nowhere.
So, when God has a discussion with God-self and decides that the way to reach humanity is to empty God-self of glory, of immanence, this is what the emptying looks like!
Grace on grace on grace.