We possibly understand what the journey to Bethlehem was like this year, better than at any time in the past one hundred years. I was watching the TV news of Iraqi refugees. Among them was a pregnant woman on donkey with a carpet to sleep upon, blankets, pots and pans, bags of food for the journey, precious belongings, all piled on the small beast whose sure feet trotted on the stony tracks.
An anxious man, with more belongings upon his back, was taking his wife and family to safety. They were leaving their homeland to flee to another country, then another, always being turned away; encountering crooks who charged them to help move them on.
Tribal chiefs were at war with each other and the most powerful country in the world. Well-equipped soldiers from many nations tramp their country in search of the enemy. Decisions affecting their personal future were made in marble buildings half a world away.
It was like that at the first Christmas! Iraq and Judea have a lot in common. The barren Judean hills look exactly like the barren hills of Iraq. The same winter snow on mountain tops in Iraq is falling upon the mountain tops of Judea as it was when Mary and Joseph first came. A heavily pregnant Mary together with her sleeping carpet, blanket, pots and pans, bags of food and precious possessions loaded on an uncomplaining donkey.
Joseph carried tools and his remaining valuables on his back. Their destination was their tribal city. After that, who knows?
They were to flee for their lives as refugees from the murderous King Herod, not stopping until the three of them were in the safety of Egypt that accepted them as refugees. Bethlehem was the place of birth. But it was only a stopping point for registration and birth. Then the refugees moved on until they ended in Egypt.
Did they meet thieves along the way who demanded a heavy price for their safety? Did the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh end up in the hands of middle men in exchange for the promise of safety?
The tribal chiefs are mentioned in the Bible. Luke recorded their names (Luke 2:1) “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.) And everyone went to his own town to register.” And a little later: 3:1-3 “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar—when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, his brother Philip tetrarch of Iturea and Traconitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene—during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the desert.”
These tribes are the descendants of Isaac. The tribes of Iraq are descendants of his brother Ishmael, both sons of Abraham.
The international force today comes from many countries of origin including soldiers from Australia. It was similar in the world into which Jesus was born. Then the Romans pressed men from conquered countries into their armies and marched them far across the face of the empire. They were under the control of Italian centurions and commanders in the same way as American generals direct the war today.
At the time of Jesus, the foot soldiers of the Romans included Huns and Gauls, Kurds and Syrians, Picts and Celts – these were the northern alliance that marched over Judea under Roman leaders. The decisions were made far away in the centre of a vast empire. “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” Ordinary people, like the carpenter of Nazareth and the carpet weaver of Baghdad, fleeing on donkeys because of the decisions made half a world away. This was the world into which Jesus was born!
The birthplace of Jesus in Bethlehem was in all probability a cave. The Judean hills are riddled with caves that are used for storage, as stables, and for living as we see in Iraq today.
Where Jesus was born was significant. It was not the Innkeeper’s fault there was no room in the inn. That was all part of the plan of God. The Shepherds were told: “This very day in David’s town your Saviour was born Christ the Lord! And this is what will prove it to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12) The proof was a baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. Seven hundred and fifty years before, Micah had foretold that a ruler for Israel would be born in Bethlehem even though it was only a small village. That was forgotten until some astrologers came following a bright moving star and asked King Herod where a new ruler would be born.
The scriptures nowhere mention a stable, just a manger. The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is built over a cave identified in the second century as the birthplace of Jesus. The birth of Jesus in such a place was no accident; it was a sign. Of what?
1. A SIGN OF HIS POVERTY.
No birth could have so identified Jesus with the poor than His birth. We spend billions of dollars to celebrate the birth of Christ, but Jesus was born in surroundings known only to the absolutely poor. God cares for the poor. He identifies Himself with the poor when His Son was born in a cave. His whole life would be one of poverty. They fled to Egypt possessing nothing.
At His presentation at the Temple His parents offered a dove sacrifice, the gift of the poor. As a workman in Nazareth He spoke about patches in garments, of a woman sweeping the house to find a little lost coin, and of having to borrow food when unexpected guests arrived. As a preacher He owned nothing but His cloak that served him as a coat by day and a blanket by night. When His disciples each went to his own house, Jesus went out and spent the night on the Mount of Olives for He had “no where to lay His head.”
The Apostle Paul said simply: “Our Lord Jesus Christ, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich.”(2 Cor 8:9) “With the poor and mean and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour Holy.” His birth place was a sign of His poverty.
2. A SIGN OF HIS HUMILITY.
Being born in a manger signified that quality of character that marked Jesus: His humility. The life of Jesus, helped change the world’s attitude towards humility. What was considered a weakness in men, is now considered an essential for greatness.
Jesus said: “For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted.” (Matt 23:12) The life of Jesus was of a great man who never exalted Himself.
Paul once quoted a hymn: “Christ Jesus, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. Being found in appearance as a man he humbled himself and became obedient to death – even death on a cross!” (Phil 2:6-8 )
How we proud moderns need to learn this aspect of the Christian message: that greatness is seen in humbly serving others. The manger reminds us that greatness lies in humility.
3. A SIGN OF HIS IDENTITY.
The shepherds were told they would recognize the Saviour when they found a newborn babe, wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a manger. That was the sign of His identity. The sign of the Saviour was a manger.
The reason for this runs through the Old Testament over every generation: After Adam and Eve sinned their son Abel brought a lamb from his flock and sacrificed it as a sin offering to God. Noah took a lamb after the flood had subsided and the animals and birds were multiplying, and sacrificed to God. Abraham built an altar and sacrificed a ram that had been prepared for Him as a sign of His dependence upon God. The Israelites sacrificed lambs in Egypt and smeared the doorposts with blood that death would pass over them. Moses gave the people of Israel instructions how they were to sacrifice a lamb for their sins each year. John the Baptist looked at Jesus coming for baptism and said: “Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” whom Isaiah had foretold would be without spot and blemish as our sacrifice. Palaces were proper places in which princes would be born, but a cave in Bethlehem was the proper place for the Lamb of God.
The shepherds identified the Lamb of God. One thing a Temple Shepherd could do, was recognize a sacrificial lamb!
Archaeologists have helped us understand where Jesus was born because they have discovered special fields for the sacrificial lambs. Lambs were sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem for the sins of believers. So the Messiah would suffer and die as a sacrificial Lamb for the sins of the world. Flocks of suitable lambs, specially selected and bred without defect or flaw were kept five miles south west from the Temple in Jerusalem in fields called Migdal Edar, which means “the Tower of the Flock”.
These fields are outside Bethlehem. Here the Temple shepherds watched over them 24 hours a day. This was why the shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night in the midst of winter! The Wise Men had to be guided to the place of His birth by a star, but the shepherds had no need of a star to guide them. They knew the manger in the fields of Migdal Edar! The place of His birth tells of His death and of His identity.
4. A SIGN OF HIS REJECTION.
The story of Christmas has Christ born in a manger as the Lamb of God, to be the Saviour of the world and to take away the sins of the world. This would involve sacrifice. Bethlehem cannot be understood without Calvary. The manger must be seen in the light of the Cross. Birth would also involve death.
The true story of Christmas is tough, real, factual. Angels and bright star, shepherds and wise men, yes! But also whips and nails, soldiers and a betrayer, thorns and a Cross. Jesus was to be despised and rejected throughout His life. “There was no room for them in the inn”. That was a symbol of what would happen in many places.
Bethlehem rejected Him as a baby when Herod murdered all the male children. Nazareth rejected Him and cast him out of their city. Decapolis rejected Him when he healed a mentally ill man and some pigs drowned in the process. Israel rejected Him when He would not fit their concept of a military leader to throw off the Roman yoke. He came “to his own people and they received Him not”. Jerusalem rejected Him and cast him out and crucified Him.
No room for Him in the Inn foreshadowed that throughout His life there would be many rejections. He said: “Was it not necessary that Christ should suffer all these things”. The Cross of Jesus was no accident. That rejection was a necessity to accomplish the redemption of mankind. It was foreshadowed even at the time of His birth when the world first had no room for Him.
Today multitudes go on their way careless of the news that One has come into the world to redeem them and give them the free gift of sins forgiven, of eternal life and the hope of heaven. They remain caught in the computer beep of a million cash registers and the charging of billions of dollars to commercialism.
They are too busy to see in the Christ Child the hope of mankind. The purpose of His coming is lost under a pile of discarded Christmas wrapping paper, and the urgency of being ready for after Christmas sales.
We can reject Him, not with cruel nails, but more cruelly, by ignoring Him. If you have not accepted Jesus as Lord and Saviour, make that greatest of all decision at the best of all times. When you think of Jesus coming into the world to save sinners, invite Him into your heart to save you! Do that now!
REV HON DR GORDON MOYES AC MLC