The Birth of Jesus
1About that time Emperor Augustus gave orders for the names of all the people to be listed in record books. 2These first records were made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.
3Everyone had to go to their own hometown to be listed. 4So Joseph had to leave Nazareth in Galilee and go to Bethlehem in Judea. Long ago Bethlehem had been King David's hometown, and Joseph went there because he was from David's family.
5Mary was engaged to Joseph and traveled with him to Bethlehem. She was soon going to have a baby, 6and while they were there, 7she gave birth to her first-born son. She dressed him in baby clothes and laid him on a bed of hay, because there was no room for them in the inn.
“She gave birth to her firstborn, a son . . .” Such a simple description of an event that’s happened millions of times in this world. Except that this time it was unique. Earth changing.
Luke the historian frames the story in the political history of the day. Augustus, the adopted son of Julius Caesar and the Roman Emperor, had ordered a census. Joseph, in obedience to the Roman authorities, had gone back to his ancestral town to register. Augustus, who by an iron hand had brought peace to the whole empire, was in control.
The scene is too familiar to us from Christmas cards. Our picture may not be quite accurate. “There was no room for them in the inn,” it says (CEV, KJV), and we may have an image in our minds of a cattle shed. But it was not uncommon for animals to be kept on the ground floor of the house, and the NIV may be more accurate in translating verse 7 “there was no guest room available.” Joseph and Mary could have been staying with family or friends. There’s no record of any animals being present (not even when the shepherds came). We don’t know. But however you picture it, Jesus was born in peasant surroundings. The manger will become significant in tomorrow’s reading.
It was Augustus’ decree that had brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, unwittingly fulfilling the prophecy of Micah, who had written that the Messiah would come from Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). So in these seven verses we have Augustus in his Roman palace, and another king, lying in a manger. He would grow up to teach that the people that God regards as “blessed” are the poor in spirit, that it’s the people that are unassuming who will finally inherit the whole earth (Matthew 5:3,5).
Augustus’ empire has gone. The kingdom brought in by that baby is still growing.
“Thou who wast rich beyond all splendour/All for love’s sake becamest poor;/Thrones for a manger didst surrender,/Sapphire-paved courts for stable floor. . . /Emmanuel, within us dwelling, /Make us what thou wouldst have us be. /Thou who art love beyond all telling, /Saviour and King, we worship thee.” Frank Houghton, 1894-1972.