The Story Week 22
The Birth of Christ
The Story begins with the birth of the King. The opening words of this famous section of Scripture in Luke provide the setting for this, the greatest of all stories, by informing us that Caesar Augustus (Octavian) was ruler of “the entire Roman world” – “all the inhabited earth.” The ancient historians tell us that Caesar Augustus was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar and was a born fighter who clawed his way to power by defeating Antony and Cleopatra and then, through the considerable genius and force of his person, gave the empire a solidness that was to endure for centuries.
He was the first Caesar to be called “Augustus” when the Roman Senate voted to give him the title. Augustus means “holy” or “revered,” and up to that time the title was reserved exclusively for the gods. It was under Augustus’ rule that decisive strides were taken toward making the Caesars gods. In fact, at about the same time Luke was writing these words, some of the Greek cities in Asia Minor adopted Caesar’s birthday, September 23, as the first day of the New Year, hailing him as “savior.” An inscription at Halicarnassus (birthplace of the famous Herodotus) even called him “savior of the whole world.”
Historian John Buchan records that when Caesar Augustus died, men actually “comforted themselves, reflecting that Augustus was a god, and that gods do not die.” So the world had at its helm a self-proclaimed, widely accepted god and savior. Luke, the historian and theologian, wants us to see this as the tableau for understanding the coming of the real Savior. The contrast could not be greater.
Caesar Augustus’ relentless arm stretched out to squeeze its tribute even in a tiny village at the far end of the Mediterranean. Thus it came about that a village carpenter and his expectant teenage bride were forced to travel to his hometown to be registered for taxation. It was a miserable journey. Mary was full term, which forced a slow, rolling gait as she walked those eighty miles. Perhaps, if she was fortunate, she had borrowed an animal to carry her, but whatever their situation, she traveled in the dust and cold of winter, bearing the distressing knowledge that she might have her first baby far from home, from her mother, and from nearly everyone who cared about her.
Seen through everyday logic, Joseph and Mary were insignificant nobodies from a nothing town. They were peasants. They were poor, un-educated, of no account. But she understood who she was and who God was. Early on, after Mary learned she was pregnant with “the Son of the Most High” and met Elizabeth, she sang her great Magnificat, beginning with the words, “My soul praises the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant” (Luke 1:46-48a). And toward the end of her song she said of her son: “He has performed mighty deeds with his arm, he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble” (vv. 51-52).
Joseph and Mary capsulized the mystery of grace – the King does not come to the proud and powerful but to the poor and powerless. As it is so often in life, things were not as they seemed to the world around, because humble Mary and Joseph were the adoptive father and birth mother of the King of Kings. Seven hundred years earlier, the prophet Micah had prophesied: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah [such an inconsequential little town!], out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel!” (Micah 5:2). And now the poor couple’s forced journey to Bethlehem to pay taxes would set the stage for the fulfillment of that messianic prophecy. They appeared to be helpless pawns caught in the movements of secular history, but every move was under the hand of Almighty God. The Messiah would indeed be born in tiny, insignificant Bethlehem! As the virgin traveled, her steady beating heart, hidden from the world, kept time with the busily thumping heart of God.
The baby Mary carried was not a Caesar, a man who would become a god, but a far greater wonder – the true God who had become a man!
The journey left Mary increasingly weary as she trod those dusty miles to the south, and when she and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem they were exhausted – especially Mary. Then the pains began. Perhaps at first young Mary was not sure it was her time and did not say anything to Joseph. But when there was no doubt that it was the real thing, she told him – probably with tears. Remember, she was only thirteen or fourteen years old.
We are all familiar with the haunting simplicity of Luke’s description of the birth: “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn son” (vv. 6-7a).
Luke finishes the picture in verse 7: “She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manager, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
The great historic doctrine of the church is that the Son of God became a real man – not just someone who only appeared to be a man. When he was born, God the Son placed the exercise of his all-powerfulness and all-presence and all-knowingness under the direction of God the Father. He did not give up those attributes, but he submitted their exercise in his life to the Father’s discretion. Though he was sinless, he had a real human body, mind, and emotions – complete with their inherent human weaknesses.
The words of the angel, spoken not only for the shepherds but for all of us, were wonderful, for they promised a Savior. “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (vv. 10-11). It was because of Christ’s incarnation and his perfect identification with humanity – his taking our nature, though without sin – that he could save us. He became “perfect” in regard to temptation by suffering temptation as a real man and putting the tempter to flight (Hebrews 5:8-9). As a real man he became a perfect surrogate for us so he could take our sins upon himself, become “sin for us” (2 Corinthians 5:21), and die an atoning death for us. As Peter explained: “He himself bore our sins in his body on the tree, so that we might die to sins and live for righteousness” (I Peter 2:24).
Soon the angels departed, the glory that lit the countryside faded, the constellations reappeared, and the shepherds were alone. But they allowed no grass to grow under their feet. “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened which the Lord has told us about” So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” (vv.15-20).
The shepherds were perhaps camped about a mile from the inn, and they certainly took off running, leaping the low Judean fences and entering the enclosure wide-eyed and panting. They searched the stalls around the perimeter of the enclosure and quickly found the new mother and her baby among the animals. Immediately they began to announce the good news, telling all who would listen about the angels and this wonderful birth. When they left, the continued glorifying and praising God for all they had experienced.
It is not enough to hear about Jesus. It is not enough to peek in the manager and say, “Oh, how nice. What a lovely scene. It gives me such good feelings.” The truth is, even if Christ were born in Bethlehem a thousand times but not within you, you would be eternally lost. The Christ/Messiah who was born into the world must be born in your heart. Religious sentiment, even at Christmastime, without the living Christ is a yellow brick road to darkness.
The Holy Spirit included this story in the Holy Scriptures so we would not miss the point: the real Savior and King of the world was not Caesar Augustus, nor will it be any great world leader. The Savior of the world is Jesus, the Son of God who came to earth and veiled in Mary’s flesh, was born in human flesh, and now lives in the same glorified flesh at the right hand of the Father.
The Incarnation was real.
Christ’s identification was complete.
His understanding and sympathy are real because he had the same type of physical body we have, and still does.
His complete identification means he can save you, whatever your situation. He is the longed-for Messiah, the King of kings.
That baby, God’s Son, demands our complete allegiance.
He really did come into the world, and because of this, he really can come into your heart.
Let us lay our lives before him because:
In this world of sin,
Where meek souls will
Receive him still
The dear Christ enters in.