December 16, 2001
Gods complications cause us to adjust our lives to His purposes.
I. Complications (Luke 2:1-3)
II. Adjustments (Luke 2:4-5)
III. Fulfillments (Luke 2:6-7)
MessageIts dark when Joseph and Mary reach the stable, and bitterly cold. Mary is nearly numb with exhaustion as Joseph helps her dismount. Her feet and ankles are painfully swollen. Leaning on Josephs arm, she hobbles into the stable. As she does she is seized with a sharp pain. Against her will she groans softly. Hurriedly Joseph arranges her bedding on a cushion of clean straw and helps her lie down.
For the hundredth time he wonders if he did the right thing in bringing her. Nazareth to Bethlehem is an easy enough journey for a man, but Mary is with child, and five days of travel have totally exhausted her. Now shes about to give birth, and he doesnt know the first thing about midwifing, or where to find someone that does. After making Mary as comfortable as he can, Joseph tends to the donkey. Then he clears a space at the front of the cave for a small fire, on which he heats their meager provisions. Mary is too tired to eat, but huddles near the fire, warming her hands. Joseph arranges a better pallet so Mary can lie near its slight warmth.
Soon Mary is asleep, or appears to be, and Joseph is lost in his thoughts. A gust of wind threatens the small fire and he hastily adds more wood, hoping he has enough to last the night. Again he berates himself for getting Mary into such a mess. He had to come: the registration made that mandatory. But bringing Mary was his choice. It was originally Marys idea, and she was insistent, but the ultimate decision was his.
The thing that had convinced him had happened in the synagogue only two Sabbaths ago. Listening to the words of the ancient prophet Micah, his heart had leaped within him. But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. In the moment he remembered that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, his perspective changed. No longer was Caesars decree just a monumental inconvenience; rather it was part of Gods eternal plan. Nor was Marys desire to go just the irrational whim of an emotionally distraught mother-to-be. No, it was the inner prompting of Gods Holy Spirit.
In the comfort and safety of Nazareth it had all seemed so clear, so logical, and he had hastened to trade some woodwork for a small donkey upon which Mary could ride. Now he cannot help but question his judgment. If coming to Bethlehem was really part of Gods plan, then why was the trip so hard on Mary? Why did God not spare her the pain and discomfort? And why was there no place for them in the inn?
Drawing his cloak close about him, Joseph huddles nearer the fire. The wind seems to be rising and it is going to be a long night, of that he is sure. Mary groans, shivering from the cold. Reluctantly, Joseph removes his cloak and places it over her, for there is nothing else. Already she is wrapped in both bed rolls. Turning back to the fire, he stretches his hands toward its meager warmth.
From the darkness a voice calls, Hello? Before Joseph can answer, the innkeeper enters the cave. Ive brought blankets, he says brusquely, and the wife made soup. Without another word, he deposits the provisions near the fire and leaves. Belatedly Joseph attempts to thank him, but already he has disappeared into the night.
After heating the soup Joseph moves to Marys side. She is awake and he helps her sit up to eat. The soup is hot and thick, and as she eats a little color returns to her cheeks. Suddenly she gasps with pain. When it has passed Joseph asks, Are you alright? I think so, she says in a voice grown small with fear. She has no more interest in food, so he tucks the blankets around her and sits near the fire. Finding the bread and soup to his liking he devours his share, using a crust to wipe the bowl clean.
Filled and slightly warmed, Joseph dozes, succumbing to his fatigue and the late hour. But only a short time later, Mary calls out, her voice reaching him through the fogging maze of sleep. Joseph, she groans, please help me. With an effort he rouses himself and goes to her side. Though the cold is numbing, her hair is damp with sweat. As he kneels beside her, shes seized by another contraction and bites her lip to keep from crying out. That she is in labor is clear even to his inexperienced eye. Yet he doesnt know what to do. Marys contractions are already coming fast and hard, with hardly a break between them, and in spite of Marys determination not to cry out, she wails in pain. Theres no time to waste. Joseph cant stand to leave Mary by herself, yet he must find a midwife. Perhaps the innkeepers wife can fetch one. Frantically he lurches to his feet and starts into the night. Joseph! she screams, stopping him in his tracks. Joseph, help me. The babys coming.
Returning to where she lies panting, he kneels beside her, feeling absolutely helpless. He has never seen anything born. Hes a carpenter, not a shepherd or a farmer. What does he know about giving birth? Between gasps she says, Joseph, you must catch the baby. Dont let him touch the cold ground. Things are happening too quickly, leaving him dazed and uncertain, but even though Mary is in the travails of labor, she directs his every action. Only minutes later, with one final push, she delivers a son into his huge work-hardened hands. Cut the cord, she instructs him, and tie it. Clumsily he does as he is told, marveling at this miracle of birth. He cant help thinking that this tiny creature, so frail looking, is none other than the only Son of God. Though it is nearly inconceivable God has become one of us.
Joseph Marys voice, filled with fatigue and joy, rouses him from his musing. Clean him up and give him to me before he catches his death of cold. There is no water to bathe the baby, who is now squalling his protest at being thrust from the warmth of his mothers womb. Taking some pieces of clean cloth which Mary has prepared for this very purpose Joseph rubs him clean, full of wonder at the perfection of his tiny fingers and toes. Though she is completely worn out, Mary reaches for her son. Jesus, she whispers as Joseph lays him gently into her arms.
This re-telling of Luke 2 is taken from The Indescribable Gift by Richard Exley. It captures not only the wonder of Jesus birth, but also the difficulty of Mary and Josephs situation. Lukes sparse narrative tantalizes us by its lack of detail. Like this author, we constantly fill in presumed answers to unanswered questions. Was the innkeeper kind or cruel? Were Mary and Joseph alone or did they have help? Was it night? Was it cold? We dont know. Yet this brief narrative does give insight which we can apply to our own lives. We dont know the details of the journey to Bethlehem, but we do know that it was a major complication for Mary and Joseph. And we know they adjusted to it by going together, and finding a place to stay. And we know God used it to fulfill his prophecy and move forward his plan.
You may be finding this Christmas season to be a time when complications clutter your plans. Youve been trying to change your outlook a little, to come closer to the Christmas youve always longed for, but things keep coming up. This morning our goal is to get the right perspective on these things. What do we see in Marys life that will help us when the unexpected interferes with our plans. This text seems to show us that Gods complications cause us to adjust our lives to His purposes. That was true for Mary and Joseph, and if we examine our circumstances we will often find it true for us: Gods complications cause us to adjust our lives to His purposes.
I. Complications (Luke 2:1-3)
Lets look at the complications in the life of Mary and Joseph. Luke 2:1-3. In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3And everyone went to his own town to register.
In chapter three of his Gospel Luke will pin down an exact year for the beginning of Jesus ministry, when Jesus was about thirty years old. Luke doesnt know the exact year of Jesus birth, only that Caesar had given a decree that every family in the Roman world be registered for tax purposes, and that Quirinius was governor of Syria. He also knows, as we read in Luke 1:5 that Herod was king of Judea. So what year does this evidence point to? The worldwide tax by Caesar doesnt help much - the Caesars regularly told their governors that all should be registered for tax purposes.
Quirinius was governor of Syria in 6 or 7 A.D., but thats a little late for the birth of Christ. He was also an important official in Syria in 4 B.C., almost a special envoy of the Emperor, and it may be that in this role he began a process for Caesar which he later finished as governor, that of registering every family.
Luke seems to imply this when he says that this was the first registration under Quirinius. In Acts we hear that there were riots during a second registration, likely in 6 A.D. But the compelling piece of evidence is that Herod was the king of Judea until he died in 4 B.C., which was shortly after Jesus was born. 4 B.C. is the accepted date.
As part of the registration, everyone was required to return to his home town. This is a Jewish way of looking at a Roman requirement, which would actually have been that everyone return to the place where they owned land. For Roman tax purposes you had to register your property. So Joseph or his parents must have moved from Bethlehem to Nazareth recently enough that they still owned land in Bethlehem.
These circumstances create a complication. Not that Marys pregnancy isnt complicated enough, having already cast the shadow of illegitimacy on both the marriage and the child, and having branded Mary as a shameful woman. Now Joseph has to go to Bethlehem, and though their marriage is still not consummated, the bond between them, especially after God revealed the truth of Marys claims to Joseph, is a compelling thing. So Mary and Joseph are faced with a dilemma - does she go with Joseph, which is almost sure to be uncomfortable, difficult and possibly dangerous? Or does she stay in Nazareth, which may be safer, but will subject her to the judgment and even the disdain of many who dont understand? Not an easy decision
You and I are faced every day with complications. They may not have the same magnitude of difficulty or distress that Mary and Josephs did, but they are real. This week Ive had a couple of typical complications. On Monday - which was a beautiful, cool day, I decided to take some of my own advice and I came to walk on the greenway at sunset - to slow down for reflection. It was nice, but when I got home I found that my mother was in tremendous pain from a reaction to a particular antibiotic. An hour later it was clear she needed to go to the emergency room, again, and Gail stayed there until two a.m. when Mom was admitted. So we spent time this week at the hospital, which wasnt in the plan. It was a complication.
These can be big things, or they can be small. Lee and Betsy Norbraten are working through the sudden decision by Betsys mom to come and live with them. Its a complication - one they have desired, but nevertheless, one that will require both immediate and long term adjustment. On a smaller level I dealt this week with some software that upgraded my web browser to a version that didnt work well on one of the things I do every week. So I spent two or three hours trying to work around it. In the same way we had the transmission go out on our mini-van this week, and it had to be totally rebuilt. These are typical frustrations of life that have to be dealt with. And we all have them. I talked with Cheryl Kingry briefly this week and told her that the title of my sermon was Complications and she said, isnt that just another word for life. It is. But when we adjust in a godly way to these complications we are adjusting ourselves to Gods purposes and his plan.
II. Adjustments (Luke 2:4-5)
Mary and Joseph adjusted to the complication. Verses 4 and 5: 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. 5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.
How did Joseph and Mary adjust? They went together to Bethlehem. This was about an eighty mile journey, maybe a little less depending on the route. Bethlehem is near Jerusalem, in the Judean hills. Therefore, just as one always went up to Jerusalem, so also one went up to Bethlehem from the lowlands of Nazareth and Galilee. Luke tells us that Joseph went up to register in Bethlehem because he was of the house and lineage of David. It is likely, as I said before, that Joseph or his family still owned land in Bethlehem. But from a Biblical and prophetic point of view the important point Luke was making was that the earthly family of Jesus was qualified to produce the Messiah, because Joseph was a direct descendant of David.
One of the great promises of Scripture is that the Messiah will be Davids descendant. In Jeremiah 23:5, for example, we read The days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely. Isaiah had already said A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse - Davids father - and from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. Isaiah 9:6_7 says For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. . . . He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever.
The prophets also foretold that this son of David would come from Bethlehem, Davids birthplace. Micah 5:2 But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old. This prophecy was clear enough that when Herod asked where the Messiah was to be born his advisors unanimously nominated Bethlehem.
I dont know if Mary and Joseph knew they needed to be in Bethlehem for the birth of the Messiah. It may well be that one or both of them recognized that this was Gods provision for the fulfillment of prophecy. If so then their forced journey would be more a confirmation than a complication. That would also explain, to a large extent, why Mary went - why she took on the risks of that journey. She saw that God was using this complication to fulfill the prophecies. She and Joseph may have been awestruck when the decree to return to Bethlehem came in. We just dont know.
How do we adjust? How do we handle the complications that frequent our lives? You and I both know the kinds of things that are the right answer: slowing down for reflection, spending time in Scripture, spending time in prayer, focusing on God and on Christ. Thats the kind of stuff weve already talked about in this series, and many other times: bringing the needs of our hearts and lives to the Sovereign God.
More specifically, though, I think we handle complications by thoughtfully making adjustments to the circumstances we meet. One of the first exercises in the Advent Calendar was to create a family motto for the Christmas season. My first stab was a motto I read in a Heinlein book years ago When in danger or in doubt, run in circles, scream and shout. But thats not exactly adjusting to the circumstances God sends. A motto that makes more sense is by Marie Chaplan, and also appears in the Calendar There is no better place for me to become like Jesus than in my present circumstances. Even better would be a Biblical motto like I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength or maybe even We dont know what to do but our eyes are on you. Its got to be something that guides us into making adjustments based on a Biblical understanding of God and his purposes.
The real question when complications arise is What would be honoring to God in my attitude and in my behavior in these circumstances? So, for example, when it became clear that my transmission was going to require a major repair it was very tempting to accuse the repair place of making up a problem just to get my money. But I didnt have good evidence of that - just frustration. So I tried to graciously accept the inevitable and adjust to yet another unexpected expense.
III. Fulfillments (Luke 2:6-7)
Mary and Joseph show us that when we adjust to the circumstances God sends we allow him to fulfill his purposes Verse 6: While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and 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.
Luke doesnt overdo the detail in these verses. Just as the actual crucifixion of Christ is briefly described, so also the actual birth of Christ is brief: the details are left to our collective imagination. We imagine, for example, that Mary was in labor as they arrived in Bethlehem and gave birth that night. Nothing in the text shows that, but a feeling of urgency demands it. Nothing indicates the season - it may well have been fall - but we feel it must have been cold - Christmas is supposed to be cold.
In the same way, we imagine that Mary and Joseph were alone at the birth. There is nothing in the verse to prove that, but we feel it must have been a solitary event. Gail and I know what that feels like. Many of you remember that Ruth was born at our home in Illinois on a cold winter night. It was twenty below and all of our help either couldnt get there or were too late. So I had the unforgettable experience of being the only one with Gail when our child was born. I know I was more prepared than Joseph: Ruth was our fourth and we had studied and had done a home birth before. Nonetheless, being there alone wrapped the moment in both wonder and urgency - and its easy to imagine that Joseph and Mary felt the same.
Next we imagine the stable. There is no mention of a stable in the text, but the manger had to be someplace and probably someplace a little protected from the elements.
So, a stable or maybe a cave, which was very common in that region. Unfortunately, we dont imagine with our noses, which would give the best image: smelly straw, smelly animals, smelly dung. No matter how hard Joseph cleaned up, he probably only had a choice between shelter and no stink, and it appears that he chose shelter.
Finally we imagine the swaddling clothes and the manger. It is likely that Mary brought the swaddling clothes with her, not that she tore up some burlap sacks to wrap him. All babies like to be bundled up tightly, and the simplest way to do that is with a piece of cloth. She probably just wiped him clean, which is pretty effective with a new born, and then wrapped him up and enjoyed him. After a while, mom gets sleepy, and usually the baby sleeps too, so Joseph took baby Jesus, and put him in the only place off the ground, in the feeding tray or manger. It might have been wood, but more likely it was a natural or carved depression in the stone of the cave.
Thats the picture - sketched out in a few words by Luke and filled in by our knowledge and imagination. But the point is that Gods purposes were fulfilled in this birth. These verses are the culmination of all that has gone before - not just in Luke, but in the whole Old Testament. Here in the stable, Gods plan for the ages took a leap forward, for God had to become man before he could die for men. As Paul wrote: When the time had fully come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under law, to redeem those under law, that we might receive the full rights of sons. The journey, the town, the stable and even the smell were part of Gods eternal plan of redemption, put into effect at just the right time. When Mary and Joseph adjusted to these complications, they took the path that fulfilled Gods purposes.
Thats what we need to do too. Gods complications cause us to adjust our lives to His purposes. Whatever complications have already come your way this Christmas season, whatever trials, sorrows, stresses have interfered with your desire for the Christmas youve always longed for, they have been sent so that you will adjust to Gods purposes. He probably doesnt have in mind exactly what youd expected for theses days and weeks. But what he has in mind is better, higher, holier and more fulfilling of his plans for you and his plans for this world. With godly attititudes, and through Christlike behavior, we need to adjust to what comes our way. Let me close with a simple story that I think illustrates this well. Its a story of someone adjusting to the complications of their life in a way that fulfills Gods purposes.
8-year-old Joey lived in a low income housing development. Church buses made periodic runs through his neighborhood to gather children for Sunday school and special events. One day some church people invited him to an event, but gave him only 15 minutes to dress before the bus left. Joey ran home and exploded with excitement to his mother. Theres a party at that big church this afternoon, and Im invited.
Joey had never been to a Christmas party before, and couldnt really picture it: his family never had enough money to really celebrate holidays. So he assumed it was like a Halloween costume party. He went to work on an outfit. Fifteen minutes wasnt much time, and their funds were even more limited than their minutes. He rummaged around and thought, why not go as a hay stack? He took his old brown sweatshirt and stuffed it with weeds. He even put straw on the outside just to make it look more real.
Poor Joey was more than surprised when the party was focused on a Christmas play, not costumes. Embarrassed, he hung around the fringes of the group. Then he heard one of the leaders say they couldnt find the manger. Can I help? he asked. Im good at finding things. The leaders explained that what they were looking for was a box full of hay where baby Jesus could be laid. Someone had borrowed the one the church used each year. How could they have a Bethlehem play without it?
Forgetting his embarrassment, Joey, now feeling very resourceful, looked down at his costume: brown sweatshirt, weeds stuffed in it, straw sticking out everywhere. I could be a box of hay. He laid on the floor and announced, Ill be your manger. Let Jesus be born in me!. Let Jesus be born in me. When we adjust that way to the complications God sends we fulfill his purposes.