KMC Scripture notes – 25.12.2021 Christmas Day.
Luke sets out to record history. This decree was an actual event that happened. Jesus was born into a world that was familiar with conflict. The empire had been split three ways on the death of Julius Caesar and the co-rulers were continually striving for supremacy. Caesar Augustus was eventually victorious and held the position of Emperor when Jesus was born. The Empire had descended into chaos, lawlessness, immorality, and corruption. But the new Emperor turned things around. At last there was peace as the strife between the three contenders had ceased with his attaining power; he was a brilliant politician and administrator and he paid the soldiers and restored the Roman economy. At the time of Jesus’ birth the Roman Empire was prosperous. Up to that time, it had been a republic, governed by law, not any single man. Now, however, Augustus changed that (the title Augustus means exalted, sacred). The census in question was to ensure everyone living in the Empire paid tax. The fact that every person responded by going to be registered was evidence of the Emperor’s power. But whilst he issued his decree, considering himself the most powerful man in the world, he did not realise he was actually fulfilling God’s promise made centuries before. The young woman who was to bear the Son of God lived in Nazareth. Why else would she, nine months pregnant, travel to Bethlehem where the prophecy was to be fulfilled, if not to obey an edict by the emperor himself?
Mary was not obliged to go to Bethlehem, but it made sense for her to travel with Joseph. In that way he could protect her from the gossip that would inevitably have occurred in Nazareth and been with her for the impending birth of the child. The journey to Bethlehem was about 155 kilometres. In a direct line it would have wound through the mountainous region of Samaria. Whilst Mary is usually depicted as riding a donkey, no animals are mentioned in Scripture and it is likely she walked. So rather than journeying through rough, dangerous country (as the Samaritans and the Jews were not friendly towards one another), it is more likely that the couple travelled along the Jordan River valley. This would have added another 30 kilometres or so to the journey. So they would have been walking for 5-7 days, taking into account they would not have travelled on the Sabbath.
Luke simply records that Mary gave birth to a baby boy, probably in a cave in Bethlehem. The young mother wrapped Him up and laid Him in the rough, prickly straw in an animal feeding trough.
The shepherds in Bethlehem cared for the flocks of sheep owned by the temple and may well have reared the lambs used for the temple sacrifices. These men would have been social outcasts and their reputation precluded them from being allowed to give testimony in a court of law. Yet it was to them that the Gospel was first pronounced by a single angel who was immediately joined by a host of others praising God.
It seems the men did not hesitate, but went to Bethlehem to find the child. The angel had told them where to find Him. Barclay writes, ‘It is a lovely thought that the shepherds who looked after the Temple lambs were the first to see the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.’
The men left, praising God and told everyone they met; and Mary ‘pondered’ about what was happening and stored the memories up in her heart.
Christmas Day Meditation
Try to picture yourself, stooping down and entering a cave, lit by a single oil lamp, warmed by the breath of animals. Before you is a feeding trough filled with straw, in which lies a new born baby. You know, because you have been told, this is no ordinary baby but Emmanuel, God with us. Imagine yourself moving forward, reaching out and touching the Child’s hand; kneeling down to have a closer look. Imagine the Child opening His eyes and looking at you as if you are the only person in the whole world who matters to Him. How do you feel? How do your heart, mind, spirit feel? Spend time in His presence, beside the manger. What difference will this encounter with the Baby Boy of Bethlehem make for you today and in the days ahead?