Luke 2: 1-20

Notes on the Night of Jesus’ Birth

There was an old prophecy found in Micah 5:2: a ruler of Israel, whose reign would extend to all the world and would not end, would someday be born in the obscure town of Bethlehem.  

500 years after the prophecy, how do you get the mother of that prophesied ruler, living in Nazareth, having no connection with Bethlehem, to travel south 70 miles, into Bethlehem (approx. the distance from here to Boston) to give birth there?  (If they bypassed Samaria as was common for Jewish travelers, add an additional 20 miles.) 

Through a decree of Octavian, Caesar Augustus, grandnephew of Julius Caesar.  The decree was to identify all the peoples in Roman territories so that they could be fully taxed.  For Jews who took pains to keep genealogical records, reporting to their ancestral city was the most natural way to count heads.

So Joseph, in the line of David, and his betrothed Mary, go down to Bethlehem, the city of David (1 Samuel 17:12).  “Betrothed” meant that Mary and Joseph were legally married, but the marriage hadn’t yet been consummated.  

Mary was ‘with child.’  Perhaps Mary traveled with Joseph because she didn’t want to give birth alone.  Maybe things in the village were tense for her.  Maybe Mary was facing sneering, or worse, from friends and family and neighbors in Nazareth.  

We know for sure only that Mary and Joseph together make the trek.

Once in Bethlehem, Joseph probably reunites with distant relatives, meets some for the first time.  We can see imagine at least a little discomfort when he introduces family to Mary, and they see her condition, and do a quick internal calculation.  Hmm…

In fact, as you read through the gospels it’s easy to feel sorry for “the highly favored” Mary.  As she is told a few days after she gives birth, because of Jesus, “a sword would pierce her soul.”  Yes, Jesus is good news of great joy for the world, including Mary.  But also, temporary pain.

Luke calmly reports that, while in Bethlehem, it became time for Mary to give birth.  Imagine all the thoughts and emotions and activity that’re compressed in that sentence.

She wraps her son in swaddling cloths – these are strips of cloths, combed to be especially soft, wrapped tightly around a newborn to keep his limbs straight and whole body warm.  

From other sections of the gospel – think particularly of the trading going on at the crucifixion – we realize that cloth and clothes were in short supply.  So, then it’s highly doubtful that Joseph rooted around the barn and discovered some soft cloth that could be used for swaddling.  

I bet Mary had traveled with this cloth in her pack.  She was ready to welcome her son comfortably into the world.  

Which makes the next phrase that much more jarring:

After wrapping him, she laid him in a manger – wait what?  Swaddling cloths that speak of foresight and tender preparation… but then you’re laying your newborn in a manger?  

But in another crisp understatement Luke accounts for that: in the public shelter – probably a better translation than the word for “inn” – there simply wasn’t room.  Joseph and his pregnant wife had to lodge in a stable… or perhaps a cave.  Yes, it’s very easy to preach a few sermons about misplaced priorities from this fact!

Were there animals in the cave, staring as Mary bent over and panted and groaned?  Was a local midwife on the scene, muttering curses at the hard-hearted people of the town who wouldn’t open their houses to this young, very pregnant traveler?  

Was it wintertime?  What time of the day was it?  Can we presume it was night since the angel announcement came to shepherds watching their flock by night?  If so, we ask again, exactly who all was on the scene to welcome the One whom Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer, called the “Sunrise from on high”?  

We’re not told a lot of the details we’re greedy to know.  

If you’re a tourist in the holy land, you can visit the “Shepherd’s field,” about two miles outside Bethlehem.  That night, as all other nights, shepherds were spending the night with their flock.  

What does it mean that the shepherds were the first to hear of Jesus’ birth?  

If Heaven wanted to make an extreme point, the announcement could have first been given to a leper colony, or to a widow or two. 

But the shepherds weren’t fitting symbols of a marginalized class, or the poor, or the suffering.  

They did, however, make a pretty good Everyman.

In searching for a modern parallel to first century shepherds I have landed on your typical Boston Bruins crowd.  Practical, everyday people.  Generally speaking, not given to intellectualism.  Joe Schmos.  

Whatever the parallel, or even if there’s not a parallel – it’s the shepherds – the shepherds! – who are given the first announcement of Jesus’ birth.  And it’s the only announcement delivered by an angel which then comes to a crescendo with a great plethora (that’s the Greek word) of the heavenly armies singing of God’s glory and peace on earth. 

In your mind search through all the Scriptures and even the reliable history books of men and think – has there ever been a scene like this shown to the human race?  A multitude of angels singing and praising God?  

When you open Ecclesiastes, you’re hit with the oomph: the author observes everything just happens over and over again – the sun rises in the east, goes to the west, and then sprints back to the east to rise again.  The wind blows from the north.   Then ‘hey let me try it from this side’ and blows from the south.  Back to the north…

Same.  Same.  Same.  Everything the same.  

But this happened.  One night in the first century, over a grazing field, before a group of Bruins fans, a multitude of the heavenly host praising God.  

Surprise: something new!  Can we, if just for a few minutes, get out of our problems and get out of our heads and let that joy travel across the years and sweep over us?

Here’s the actual announcement:


I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  

“news…for all the people.”  So here we have another tie uniting the human race to one another: Heaven gives all people this news.  

We humans already had some things in common.  We all have belly buttons.  Mamas.  We all sleep.  We dream.  Needs.  Fears.  Want justice. 

And the Scriptures often will zero in on another human commonality: we all are sinners.  

Sin is a sturdy word, but occasionally, to keep the meaning sharp, we should try to call sin by another name.  Here we go, on Christmas morn.  For this morning let’s call sin by another word, an invented one: veno-cancemia-cosis.

Veno-cancemia-cosis shows up all over the place:

Why do you fight with your spouse?  Why are you drawn to bad ideas?  Why are there holocausts?  Why so much shadiness?  Why the silliness?  Why can’t we think clearly?  Why are we so caught up with people’s approval?  Why do we secretly dislike those whom we’re trying to please?  Why the flu?  Why dementia?  Why the bad decisions?  Why the crippling shyness?  Why the slander?  Why the over-priced and poorly made?  Why the avoidance of complicated tasks?

To all of us, these unpleasant things are as close and familiar as dirt.  That’s because in all of us there’s a current of Veno-cancemia-cosis.  

Veno-cancemia-cosis sounds like a sickness, and indeed, as the Book of Common Prayer says, “there’s no health in us.”  We have this sickness.  A weakness.  A foolishness.  A crookedness.  A put-on.  An addiction.  A parasite.  

Though actually, ‘sin’ is the better word, because in addition to all that we just said, ‘sin’reminds us of the crucial aspect to our problems – we fight against and slink away from and yawn before… God – the Life and Light.  Sin reminds us that the origin of our disease starts in our fractured relationship to the God of life.

So we’re united in this disease.  Everyone has these problems.  Everyone with belly buttons and mamas.  ‘All the people.’  

But we’re focusing on a positive thing in common: ‘unto you’ –– unto us is born a Savior.  

Lest we miss the point of this salvation, we’re told in another place: “He shall save His people from their sin.”  Years later, this One would take all of our veno-cancemia-cosis – our sin – onto Himself, bear its penalty, and take our judgment down to the grave, our real guilt never to be used against us again.  Hallelujah!    

The Savior who is Christ – the Ruler – He will save not by leaving us to our own devices but by freeing us from being left to our own devices.  {That’s complicated!}

The Savior who is Christ the Lord –  The Lord answers the question: Who will ultimately win?  In the end, what will have been the decisive factor in how the world ends up, how we will end up?  Not our weak character or cancer or some ideology.  Not our shadiness.  The Savior and His salvation will win the day.  The Lord was born then!

And just in case you missed the obvious point: this is good news – great joy!  The message for you from God this morning is that of forgiveness, victory, acceptance…through Jesus Christ!

Then the angels give the shepherds a sign, the ‘you have arrived’ marker, that will confirm all this to them, let them know the moment they’re in the presence of the Savior.  

Hopefully after all the tellings we’re still able to grasp the weirdness that allowed it to function as a sign.  A baby wrapped in swaddling cloths – obviously a newborn that has been tenderly cared for – yet lying in a feeding trough – a place one might deposit a baby that wasn’t wanted. 

This strange sign puts an exclamation mark on the fundamental strangeness of the whole incident: this mixture of joyful fulfillment and trouble.

The shepherds come to the place and – notice the order Luke gives – see Mary and Joseph and the baby lying in the manger.  Joseph peeks out from between the other names, somehow easily overlooked.  

We wonder, as we read of the shepherds arriving, has Jesus been born in the last couple of hours, and the baby is still laying in the manger after Mary has set him there the first time?  

If so, what a time to welcome in a group of shepherds!  

I never visit women in the hospital after they’ve given birth.  But even the most diligent pastor would wait until the day after the delivery.  

You know to stay away by the photos taken immediately after delivery – the mother is hollow-eyed and dazed. You also remember that her hormones spiking all over the place.  It’s not a good time for any visitors except family.

But that night, in shuffle the shepherds, hopefully as gingerly as they can, but still making a commotion.  They smell of the field and manure, and the scent merges into the stable odor.

What do a group of men, Bruins fans, say about a newborn infant?  He’s… born.  Niiiiice. 

These intruding shepherds are another early lesson for Mary – she is the mother, but this child is ultimately born unto all people.

At the visit, the shepherds made known to Mary and Joseph the visit and announcement of the angels.  

And then the passage concludes with a glance into the private thoughts of Mary.  

Mary didn’t disbelieve that this was good news of great joy, but already knew that it would be mixed in pain.  And she must have sensed something of the gradualness of this process.  There were these pieces of the puzzle, and Mary was laying it all out in her mind.  She had an inner conference about everything she had seen and heard.  A lot to take in.

God allows the Savior to be born in these conditions.  Shepherds are given the privilege of first announcement.  They’re here, and nice enough… but I don’t see them as being transformed, saved from sin.  The Baby is born and yet I haven’t noticed any change in Joseph or myself.  Immanuel needs my milk.  How strange all this is! 

As we leave the first night and this passage and this sermon, we can ask ourselves: is there any overall thrust?  

I think there is. Did you notice that, even at the night of our Savior’s birth, it’s the announcement that takes center stage.?  To say that differently: in our passage, it’s the word from the angels, their announcement, that becomes prominent, takes us most space.  The announcement of the events and conveying of what it means and response to the message have emerged as chief concerns.  

Hearing and Believing the Word is Primary, right from the start of Jesus’ life.  

And regarding a good response to the Word, we’re given two positive examples.  1) The shepherds hear the announcement and respond with enthusiasm and joy, and then spread the joy by spreading the announcement of the Savior born unto us.

2) And we’re given the good example of Mary: Even the mother of Jesus needs to hear – from shepherds even – the message of the Savior Christ.  And she does, and takes it all seriously, sifts through it and attempts to put it into a cohesive whole.  

This is always the case: to respond to Christ the Lord is to lean into the Word about him, hearing, concentrating, digesting what it means, allowing it to change you.  And then passing it on.

Jesus’ people have always been people of the Word – hearing it, bearing it, mulling it over, spreading it.  The question always is, and the implied or overt concern of this ministry will always be: Does the word of Jesus Christ live richly in you? 

Finally, to mention something that took place about three decades after this night.  In his account of Jesus’ ministry Luke records this brief exchange:

As Jesus taught, a woman called out rather crassly: Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts you nursed at.  

And Jesus’ reply to her: Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and keep it.  

Not a bad summary of how to take in the Christmas message.  


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