The Baby Born in the Humblest of Circumstances – Luke 2:1-7
By: Alistair Brown
I have been to quite a few baby showers in my time, and I enjoy them. Colleagues and friends show their love for people expecting their first baby by blessing them with thoughtful and useful gifts. Just ahead lies the great day when family life is changed forever and the parents will need all the help they can get.
And those about-to-be parents have their eyes opened to a whole new world of things their baby is reckoned to need. Changing mats in increasing sizes to allow for the baby growing. Colorful bibs for baby to wear; actually several for every day of the week. Then there’s the clever grips to make feeding jars secure, and the special wipes whose only purpose is to clean the baby’s pacifier. And how did our four children survive without heating pads to warm general cleansing wipes so baby’s bottom wasn’t subjected to a cold wipe?
Perhaps that last comment reveals that, while I do sincerely enjoy baby showers, there are signs in me of emerging curmudgeonly tendencies. I have heard myself mutter: “How does any baby get by without a miracle blanket swaddler? Or without their Star Master LED Projector Night Light? Or – and here is my favorite – the baby pacifier designed to show red lips and two protruding front teeth while baby sucks away. At least that’s better than the pacifier equipped with a mustache. All this stuff…it’s amazing. I know I’m being grumpy and that isn’t good, but sometimes grumpiness feels good.
Of course we all do know the world struggled by just fine through many generations without these comforts. And among all the babies born with no luxuries at all is Jesus. Luke gives the details.
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.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 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. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
I have vivid memories of when our son was born, the first of our four children. He arrived safe and sound near the end of a long night, and after all was settled I got home, slept for an hour or so, and my next duty after that was to call every name on ‘the list.’ We had a list of at least twenty or thirty people who all had to be phoned with the good news. Steadily I worked my way down the list. In each case I had to give the key information:
- Yes, the baby has come and it’s a boy!
- Name: Alistair – yes, I know that’s the same as mine, and yes, that’s confusing for you. Sorry, but it is the name we want to give him.
- Weight: 8lb 12oz
- Length: 21 inches
- Time of birth: 5:30 in the morning
- Mother and son both well; father coping.
People liked that kind of information. The key facts about the birth can be really important to us.
Not to Luke as far as his gospel is concerned. He doesn’t show much interest in news like time of birth and weight of baby. He wrote a lot in chapter one about who Mary’s baby will be, but now in chapter two there are very few details about the birth. For Luke, who was being born was important. But what happened at the birth matters much less.
But Luke does tell a few things. Here is his story and then glorious truths for us about the plan of God.
Luke describes a census of the whole Roman world ordered by Caesar Augustus, and how everyone went to their ancestral town to take part in the census. Historians puzzle over that. They cannot track a census that exactly fits that description and not at that time. They are also puzzled that people had to return to their own town because, mostly, the Romans did not require people to do that.
But there is no reason to suppose Luke made any of this up. Why would he? And sometimes people with property in another district had to turn up there in person to register, and Joseph may have owned some place in Bethlehem.
Whatever the reason, he set off for Bethlehem, the town of his ancestor King David. With Joseph went Mary who was expecting a baby. It’s not clear why he brought Mary. It could have been required by law. But it might equally be for more personal reasons such as to spare her from spiteful gossip back in Nazareth, or because she was near to giving birth and he did not want to be separate from her.
They set off on a journey which was about ninety miles and would have taken three days. Writers of hymns or poems and story tellers down through the centuries have painted pictures of how arduous that journey must have been for this heavily pregnant woman. Her labor pains are getting more and more severe and the contractions stronger and stronger as she rides on the back of a donkey to Bethlehem.
But story tellers and preachers have vivid imaginations for there is no mention of a donkey, nor that Mary went into labor on the journey, nor that Joseph ran frantically around Bethlehem looking for accommodation because Mary was on the point of delivering her child. There is not even a heartless innkeeper who turned Joseph and Mary away.
All these things could be true, but Luke never mentions any of them. All he writes is: “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them” (verses 6-7).
Bethlehem probably did not have an inn as we normally understand it, but more likely some kind of resting place for people in caravans. An overnight place for travelers would be rough and ready, with little chance of privacy. That may explain why the young couple didn’t stay there. Instead Jesus was born where there was a manger, so probably in a stable, or a cave where animals were kept, or even an open courtyard.
It’s interesting that Luke is specific that Mary wrapped baby Jesus in strips of cloth. Swaddling bands like that were common, but the fact that Mary wrapped her own baby may tell us there was no midwife or any other helper there for her. And then she laid him in a manger. A manger or trough could be used to feed a range of livestock. With clean straw – which it may have had already – it was a good crib for a new baby.
Luke gives us three exciting but challenging lessons.
1. The plan of God can include moving the rulers of the world to fit his will.
Caesar Augustus controlled the known world. His armies were stationed around the Mediterranean and far beyond. He could issue any order and it was carried out hundreds of miles away. In that day, no-one had more power than Caesar.
Except God. God rules, not Caesar Augustus or any worldly power.
Recently I heard a father describe how he saw a tornado coming, and he got his family quickly into the basement. They crouched below ground, while above their heads they heard a massive roaring, crashing, banging, and then silence. Up the stairs the father went cautiously. He opened the door. He should have stepped into his hallway, but he didn’t. “I was outdoors!” he said. “My house – my strong, dependable, luxurious, comfortable house – was gone, completely gone. It was blown away in an instant by the power of that storm. We came out of that basement and we were almost standing on the street.”
There are powers greater than anything we build against them. That is true physically, true relationally, true militarily, true politically and true spiritually and especially about God. For all his armies, Augustus never controlled God, and instead God used him and his edict about a census to bring Joseph and Mary to the city of David where the Messiah was to be born. Micah 5:2 says:
“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,
though you are small among the clans of Judah,
out of you will come for me
one who will be ruler over Israel,
whose origins are from of old,
from ancient times.”
Caesar Augustus thought he controlled the world, but God did and used him for his purposes.
The more we know God, and the power of God, and trust in the goodness of God, the less we’ll fret over the actions of powerful people, whether politicians, or generals, or economists, or industrialists, or any other person who seems to rule. God rules, and he rules supremely and his will is done in this world.
2. The plan of God was for his Son to be born in the humblest of circumstances.
For Jesus, there was no palace, no super-equipped hospital or even a doctor, not even a comfortable home-birth with midwife or family taking care of Mom and baby. Instead, an unfamiliar town far from friends or relatives, a place where animals belonged more than people, and perhaps no-one there except a teenage mother and an anxious father.
For Jesus no trappings of royalty or comfort. No special blankets, no heated wipes, no teether toys, no pretty crib, no twirling mobiles to amuse. The King of kings was born in very lowly surroundings.
Paul says Jesus “humbled himself” (Phil. 2:8). He did. From birth he did.
There is an ancient custom in Britain still observed each year on the day before Good Friday. The reigning monarch gives Maunday money to as many elderly men and women as there are years in the sovereign’s age. It symbolizes the ancient custom of giving alms to the poorest of the land. These days, each recipient gets two small purses, one with ordinary coinage to help with food and clothing and the other contains the special Maunday coins made of sterling silver. It is a lovely old ceremony and a fine gesture.
But, of course, it is only a gesture. The poor remain poor and the monarch remains wealthy. Nothing is changed by the gift.
It is very different with Jesus. Everything changed. He stepped down from heaven’s riches to live among the poorest on this earth. From birth he was identified with those who had no place of their own and no wealth to buy anything to make life comfortable. He came to people in the toughest of circumstances. He was not even born in a place designed for human habitation.
But it was no empty gesture. Because Jesus let go his riches and became poor, we have become the richest of all people. He humbled himself – he was laid down where animals eat – and so it all began, the miracle that would be our salvation and our eternity in glory.
3. The plan of God needs neither our management nor manipulation to keep it safe.
I have noticed a trend in big sporting events. Time after time the person leading a golf tournament, or the team ahead in a football match, ends up losing. They were far ahead, but they faltered and others came from behind and won. Why? The commentators say: “Instead of playing freely and with confidence, they played safe. They tried to guard what they had, and they lost it.”
The story of Joseph and Mary is never one where they are in control. They did not initiate the events, did not determine the timing, did not organize places or dates, and did not even find anywhere good for the birth to take place.
And yet God’s Son was born, safe and well and, in contrast to the line in the old Christmas carol about “no crying he made,” I’m sure Jesus had a very healthy pair of lungs. God had it all in control, and he made it happen exactly as he willed.
We are never justified in being irresponsible, as if it is not important whether we give our best or do right. Not to try is wrong. But we are also never justified in fretting, trying to make God’s will come to pass by our efforts, perhaps manipulating others to fit with what we believe needs to happen.
I watched a nature program on TV which featured the Wood Duck, also known as the Carolina Duck. It was beautifully filmed and delightfully entertaining. What fascinated me was how the duck dives to the bottom of the river or lake, searches with its beak among stones for food and then – and here’s how the narrator put it – “the Wood Duck simply relaxes and the air in his feathers lifts him back to the surface.” And I saw it on the film. No effort. No furious flapping. No panic about getting to the surface on time. When he was finished searching for food, the duck just relaxed, and he was carried back to the surface of the water.
Our Lord knows what he is doing. No need for our flapping and panic. He will lift us by the air, the breath of his Spirit, to our place of safety and place of belonging.
Mary and Joseph could never have made God’s will happen. They simply surrendered and God worked it all out, as he will do also for us when we relax and let him.
And so the Savior of the world was born. A miracle? Certainly, but a miracle planned in the heart of God long before any of us were made, and wonderfully and powerfully carried out so that we might know him and find the joy and wonder of salvation.
May that joy and wonder be yours this Christmas, and God’s deepest love and peace be in your heart. God bless you.
 For background see: http://www.royalmint.com/discover/uk-coins/maundy-money
 2 Cor. 8:9
 Away in a Manger