Jesus – The Early Years: Born Amidst Bedlam

First in a Series on Luke 2,
Delivered November 28, 1999 by Dr. Ronald W. Scates

Sermon Text:
Luke 2:1-7
1 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 his 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 room for them in the inn.

Christmas is coming. In fact, did you know that there are only twenty-six worshiping days left until Christmas. And on this first Sunday of Advent as we begin the Advent season, I thought we might dip into the second chapter of Luke – Luke’s narrative of the Christmas story, and have a sermon series out of Luke 2 that might prepare us to really celebrate what C.S. Lewis calls, “The miracle of miracles.”: Almighty God in Jesus Christ becoming man, without becoming unlike himself as God.

This morning we are going to look at Luke’s version of the birth of Christ in the second chapter. It is really quite a scandalous story. It is still scandalous to non-Christian ears, though you and I have pretty much sentimentalized and sanitized it so much that the scandal is hard to find.

And so I thought we might begin this morning by listening to a couple of quotes that hopefully might resensitize you and me to the scandalous nature of what we are about to read.

First a quote from the TV show back in the 1980’s called Thirty Something, where Hope who is a Christian, is arguing with her Jewish husband Michael about the holidays. “Why do you even bother with Hanukkah? Do you really believe a handful of Jews held off a huge army by using a bunch of lamps that miraculously would not run out of oil?”

Michael exploded, “Oh, and Christmas makes more sense? Do you really believe an angel appeared to some teenage girl, who then got pregnant without ever having had sex, and traveled on horseback to Bethlehem, where she spent the night in a barn and had a baby who turned out to be the savior of the world?”

Or how about a snippet from an interview with Johnny Versace, the late designer in New Yorker Magazine. When he was asked, Are you religious? Here is what he replied. “Yes, I believe in God. But I am not the kind of religious person who goes to church, who believes in the fairy tale of Jesus born in the stable with a donkey. No, I’m not stupid. I can not believe that God with all the power that he has, had to have himself born in a stable. It would not have been comfortable.”

Is what we are about to read nothing more than a fable, a fairy tale? What kind of God are we dealing with anyway? I would invite you to turn with me and keep your Bibles open during the sermon, to the second chapter of Luke’s gospel, as we take a look at his account of the birth of Christ; a rather underwhelming account of the most earth shattering event ever to take place on the face of the planet. We begin to read at the first verse of the second chapter of Luke’s gospel. This is the word of God:

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.

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. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 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 room for them in the inn.

Join me as we pray: And now Father as my words are true to your word, may they be taken to heart. But as my words should stray from your word, may they be quickly forgotten. Through Jesus Christ our Lord, Amen.

From this text, how can you and I be sure that Mary and Joseph were a part of an HMO? Well it is obvious. She had to have the baby in a stable.

Seriously, I want you to look at this story like you have never looked at it before. It is hard to do. We have read it so many times, but try to pretend that you have never heard anything about Christ. Try to pretend you have never read this before. I want you just to go back and scan these seven verses we just read, and I am hopefully going to help you notice some things you probably never ever noticed before.

Start scanning these verses, and note right off that there is absolutely nothing at all religious about any of these verses as they stand by themselves. If you read this for the fist time and did not know that it was from the Bible, you would have no clue that this was religious at all. If you look at it for the first time and you didn’t know where it was from, you would probably say that this is kind of a hard luck story about a couple who are not married, and they have gone somewhere to register for a census. The husband seems to be a typical guy. He doesn’t call ahead for reservations. There is absolutely nothing at all religious about these seven verses.

But let that be a reminder to you and me of the truth of Christmas. There is absolutely nothing religious about Christmas. Religion is all about man-made ideas, laws, practices, the goal of which is to climb up to justify yourself, to earn your way to God. Christmas has nothing whatsoever to do with religion. In fact, the Christian faith is not a religion, it is a Person. It is about a person named Jesus Christ, who invites you and me into a lifestyle of grace that centers around a personal relationship with Jesus. Because of Christmas, you and I do not have to go through life being religious. Because of Christmas, you and I can be Christian.

And notice something else about these seven verses we just read. There is not one smattering of spirituality in any of these verses. There is no mention of God. Nobody is praying. It merely looks like a bunch of secular events unfolding, and not very important events at that. But the only reason that it doesn’t look spiritual is because you and I have been wrongly trained. We have been wrongly trained so that we do not see God’s hand moving in the mundane everyday events of human life.

Not so with Luke. Luke is a historian, but he is a God-centered historian. And what looks like merely secular profane events, Luke sees much more behind what is really going on under the surface. To Luke, it is more than just Mary and Joseph being swept along because some pagan Roman emperor out of his greed because he wanted hard data so he could tax the people, or out of his egotism because he wanted to know just how big his empire was, calls for a census. A census that sweeps Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

But Luke really knows what is going on here. It is not just secular events. Luke knows Who is in charge. It is not Augustus Caesar, who happens to be the nephew of Julius Caesar. No, Mary and Joseph make the journey to Bethlehem, and it just so happens that there she gives birth and prophecy is fulfilled.

Mica 5, verse 2 says that the Messiah must be born in Bethlehem. Notice something else about this passage. Notice the understatement. Notice the underwhelming way that Luke writes. If Jesus’ birth really is the most earth shattering event that has ever happened in all of human history, you would think that there would be more trumpets, more fanfare, tinsel, lights. That’s what we’d do.

Luke is so matter-of-fact. He is so plain Jane. He is so underwhelming here. It is bare bones text. Why? This is exactly why I think Johnny Versace and his friends are dead wrong. This is no fable. This is no myth. This is no idle tale. If you are going to make up a story, and you want to get people to really buy into it, what do you do? You embellish it don’t you? You exaggerate a little bit to make it more appealing.

Do you notice any exaggeration or embellishment in any of these seven verses? No, none whatsoever. That is because I believe that Luke is so convinced of the absolute sovereignty of God that he has no temptation to try to jazz the story up. He is so sold out to the fact that God can work through the most mundane lack luster human events to bring about the greatest salvation ever, that he feels that he does not have to add any flare to it.

What a testimony to the veracity of the text. What a testimony to the trustworthiness of Luke. What a testimony to the reliability of Scripture. We learn right here that Luke can be trusted. He is not someone who embellishes. He is not somebody who exaggerates. He tells it bare bones exactly the way it happened. And we are going to be able to trust Luke now over the next three weeks as we look into some of the other events of the early years of Jesus.

What Luke is trying to get across here to you and me and those first readers back in the first century, was that the Christian faith is basically a historical faith. It is tied to real lives of real people, real events. That if those people never really lived or those events never really happened, then you don’t have any Christian faith. Luke knows that Caesar Augustus, who thinks he is God, is not God. It is ironic that while this man who thinks he is God issues this edict for a census, at the same time Almighty God becomes man to accomplish your salvation and mine.

Mary, Joseph, Quirinius, Augustus. All their lives are brought together. And Luke knows who is really calling the shots on the plane of history. It is not Augustus Caesar. It is God working behind the scenes. Is that any less true today than back then? No. God is at work in your life. In all of the yucky mundane every-day events, God is working behind the scenes. Drawing you and me to himself. Bringing you and me to hopefully a point where we can bow the knee to Jesus Christ. All tied in to real-life human history.

Knowing history and getting all the facts right, is great. But Christmas will never be anything to you and me other than sentimental drivel unless you and I look in depth at what Luke is trying to say here. Two things I want you to take away as you leave.

One thing that Luke is trying to reveal to you and me through this text is the character of God. How God acts, how God operates in the mundaneness, in the secularization of our society, in the profaneness of common human life.

Robert Stevenson, the grandfather of the great Scottish author Robert Louis Stevenson, was a well-respected, gifted engineer in his own right. He was loved throughout his life. In fact in 1872 on the one hundredth anniversary of his birth, the nation of Scotland declared a celebration to memorialize Robert Stevenson. They had a great celebration, and part of that celebration was a huge parade. And in the parade was a banner carried by a farmer. On the banner were just three words. It said, “One of Us.”

You see despite his great intelligence, despite his great wealth, Robert Stevenson completely identified with the common man and woman, and he was remembered for that. Well, that is exactly what Almighty God was doing right from the beginning. Right at that first Christmas, there in the bedlam of Bethlehem, as the town packed out with visitors who had come to register for this census. In the scandal of a pregnant unmarried woman who is forced to travel on her due date. Forced to bed down in a stable. Forced to give birth to a baby, and only have an animal feed box to put him in. Amidst all of that bedlam, God connects with you and me.

How low can you go? God went that low to bring you and me out of the mire of our sin. To free you and me up from greed, egotism, and all that other stuff that dehumanizes us, and to open wide the doors for real life with Christ. Eternal life in Christ.

There is one other thing that you and I need to take away from this text. That is the reminder that we have got to put ourselves into this story. Christmas does not mean anything until we find ourselves being a part of the story. That is really what the value of some of these Christmas pageants are. As children learn to put themselves into the story, we need to do that as well.

So think about it today. Who are you in the story? Are you Augustus Caesar? Do you think that you are calling all of the shots in your life? Got news for you…

Or maybe you identify with Quirinius, you are just kind of a name, but you are in the background and not really there. Or are you Joseph or Mary struggling to follow God faithfully?

Or maybe you identify with the innkeeper. Take a look at the text in verse seven . Do you seen the innkeeper? No you don’t. Do you know that there is no mention of any innkeeper anywhere in Scripture? One of the most important characters in our Christmas pageants. He is not mentioned in Scripture. We make the assumption because there is no room at the inn that somebody told Mary and Joseph that there was no vacancy.

We’ve got to have an innkeeper! He’s so important to our Christian pageants! Like Mrs. Lombard’s Sunday school class and the Christmas pageant they were going to do. Mrs. Lombard had worked for weeks to get all of the children in the appropriate roles. Wallace Pernell wanted to be a shepard. Mrs. Lombard made him the innkeeper instead. Wally was nine years old. He was much bigger than all of the other nine-year-olds. He was kind of slow, and Mrs. Lombard thought that Wally’s size would add a forcefulness to the innkeeper. And the innkeeper did not have a whole lot of lines.

The faithful night of the pageant arrived. The predictable audience was there, parents, loved ones, and no one was more into the Christmas story as it unfolded than Wally. In fact, he was so much into it that twice Mrs. Lombard had to keep him from walking out onto the stage too early. But then finally that point arrived where it would be the scene of Mary and Joseph going to the inn.

Wally was now on stage. Mary and Joseph made their way slowly up to the inn. Joseph knocked on the door. And Wally said, “Who is there?” And Joseph said, “I am looking for shelter for me and my wife.” Wally opened the door and walked out and said, “You will have to look elsewhere.” Joseph said, “We have looked everywhere, and there is nowhere for us to stay. Please, can we stay in your inn.”

And Wally said, “There is no room in the inn for you.” And then Joseph said, “But you don’t understand. We have traveled so far, and my wife is heavy with child, and she needs to rest.”

And Wally stood there intently staring at Mary. And there was a long pause. One of those pauses that makes audiences a little bit tense and embarrassed. The prompter off on the side of the stage began to whisper loudly, “Wally, say no be gone! No, be gone!”

And Wally came to himself and looked at Joseph and Mary and said, “No, be gone.” And sadly Mary and Joseph turned away, and Joseph put his arm around Mary, and the young mother of Jesus put her head on Joseph’s shoulder and they shuffled off. And the innkeeper at that point was to shut the door and go back into the inn. But Wally didn’t. He just stood there and watched that forlorn couple walk away.

And then the pageant ended as no pageant ever had. Wally’s mouth dropped open. His brow creased. And his eyes began to fill with tears and he blurted out, “Joseph, wait a minute. Come back. Bring Mary with you!” And then a smile beamed across Wally’s face as he said, “You can have my room.” And amidst all of the bedlam of Christmas, that is something you and I need to never forget to do. To offer our room to Jesus. The room of our hearts. The room of our lives. Unless you and I do that, then Christmas remains a fairy tale, sentimental drivel.

Join me as we pray:
Father you are such a great and gracious God. Taking human form, being willing to be born and laid in a feed trough. Lord, you did that for us. Lord, may we be able to have eyes of faith to see beyond and behind the seemingly mundane, nonspiritual things of life, and to realize that you bring a spiritual dimension to everything. That you are at work in and through everything. Moving everything ultimately for your glory and for our salvation. Salvation that comes only through your Son, your gift to us, that love that came down at Christmas, Jesus. Oh Lord, receive us to yourself as we offer you our prayer and our lives in his holy, precious, and saving name, Amen