Dec 8, 2019
The Christmas Story
Part Two: A Crisis of Angels & Taxes
By Louie Marsh, 12-8-2019
Christmas is all about the FOOLISHNESS OF GOD.
22 For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, 23 but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, 24 but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. 25 For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men. 1 Corinthians 1:22-25 (ESV)
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. Luke 1:26-27 (ESV)
Mary was a young girl living in the hill country of Galilee in the small town of Nazareth. Situated inside a bowl atop the Nazareth ridge north of the Jezreel valley, Nazareth was a relatively isolated village in the time of Jesus with a population less than two hundred. Today the population is 60,000.
Most young ladies were betrothed at 13 and married at 14 years of age. Those who weren’t would usually marry a year or two later to less desirable men such as Shepherds and spend their days raising children in lonely caves in the hillsides.
Mary was very much in love with a young man named Joseph who was a carpenter. He had been apprenticed at his bar mitzvah when he was 13, now he was 19 and was establishing his own business. Not that carpentry was much of a business in the Galilean countryside. Lumber was rare and most people only decorated the insides of their homes with wooden items. The houses were cut from stone and had small windows high on the walls. Most of them were set against a hill and had a stone doorsill over which hung a cloth drape you pushed aside to enter.
The homes had two rooms. The front room was Joseph’s shop and the back room was the living space with an earthen oven about 6 feet long and 2 feet high. Not only did they cook on it, but during the cool season they would sleep on the earthen top of the oven to keep warm. Near the stove there was tether for a very important family member – the donkey. He was well cared for as he carried lumber for Joseph and many other things as well.
Mary did not yet live in the house but would as soon as they were formally married. Presently she and Joseph were betrothed in what the Jews called the qiddushin. It carried with it the finality of marriage without all the benefits. It was such a strong bond that the only way you could end the engagement was by divorce. In Galilee couples in the qiddushin did not have sexual relations but in Judea to the south they often did.
28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” Luke 1:28-33 (ESV)
Mary was a pious and faithful Jewish woman. And at some point between their betrothal and formal marriage the first Angel of our story appeared to her. It was none other than Gabriel. We don’t know how he appeared to Mary, but he saw before him a quiet, humble 14 year old girl.
“You are favored by the Lord!” He said, “The Lord is with you.”
Mary was both surprised and confused, what could this mean, if it was even real?
Gabriel continued, “Don't be afraid, Mary. You have found favor with God. You will become pregnant, have a son, and name him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his ancestor David. Your son will be king of Jacob's people forever, and his kingdom will never end.”
Mary was shy but not stupid, so she boldly brought up the big flaw in this plan,
34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” Luke 1:34 (ESV)
35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” Luke 1:35-37 (ESV)
Gabriel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come to you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the holy child developing inside you will be called the Son of God. You know your relative Elizabeth? She’s six months pregnant with a son at her age after everyone said she was too old. Remember nothing is impossible for God.”
Mary bowed her head in acceptance answering,
38 And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her. Luke 1:38 (ESV)
She knew there was one way to find out if all this was real, just wait a few months.
She did just that telling no one of Gabriel’s appearance. Soon she was showing and the controversy began. Everyone in little village began to speculate who the father was and what would Joseph do about this?
19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. Matthew 1:19 (ESV)
Joseph agreed that was a good question. He was heartbroken to learn the news. Yet in spite of Mary’s seeming betrayal he still loved her. The fact that she had done wrong didn’t justify him being mean or spiteful. He wanted to right by her even though she had refused to explain to him what she had done, or even to ask forgiveness. Joseph didn’t know that on the tip of her tongue was the greatest secret of all time, yet she could not, would not reveal it. Instead she trusted God to make all things right.
He had three choices. He could divorce her publicly but then the village Elders would demand to know why he wanted to do this. When he told them and swore that he was “without knowledge of her,” the priests would judge her to be an adulteress. The traditional punishment for this was stoning. Such things were illegal under Roman rule, but the Romans were far from Nazareth and wouldn’t know if she was pushed off a cliff on one of their hills and then stoned by the towns people if she moved.
He could not bear to think of that. Another option under the law was to pay to have her sent to a remote place there to have her baby and remain. The third option was to swallow his pride and heartbreak and marry her anyway.
Joseph agonized over this decision for days. Finally he decided to do the just and merciful thing and have her sent away. Exhausted from stress and at peace with his choice he fell asleep. It was in his dreams the second angel of our drama made his dramatic appearance.
20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel” (which means, God with us). Matthew 1:20-23 (ESV)
The angel, who didn’t give his name, said, “Joseph, son of David, don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife. She is pregnant by the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
That’s all he said because that’s all that needed to be said. Joseph sat up wide awake. Now he knew the truth as incredible as it seemed. He must have ran to Mary as soon as he could to tell her this and it was then that she shared her story with him.
God’s promises were true, they thought. The words of the prophet were: “The virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son, and they will name him Immanuel,” which means “God is with us.” Somehow God was choosing to bring the long awaited Messiah into Israel through them. They didn’t understand it but they did understand obedience was fully possible without complete comprehension.
And so soon after Mary and Joseph were joined together in holiness before God.
They were less than 9 months from one of the most titanic events in human history. Mary and Joseph knew what was coming. But like the rest of the world they didn’t fully understand what their first child would accomplish and how he would change the world forever.
Joseph patiently waited till after the birth before he and Mary had sexual relations which would result in children as well. He cared for Mary, worked hard and thought he was ready for this child of God to come. But very soon now, things would happen that would shake up all his plans and show him wonders he could have never imagined.
1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. Luke 2:1-3 (ESV)
Just over 1400 miles from Israel sits the so called Eternal City, Rome. Of course in Jesus day it was the center of the Roman Empire and the known world. Caesar Augustus lived a life of luxury that was not only beyond anything most of his subjects, including Joseph and Mary, would ever achieve but beyond what they could probably even imagine.
Roman historian Dio Cassius tells us that Caesar Augustus was so concerned about the declining marriage and birth rate in the empire, that he passed legislation that made promiscuity a crime. It penalized bachelors in their right to inherit, and bestowed political and tax advantages on fathers of three or more children. It’s likely that one of the reasons that Augustus authorized this particular censuses was to see whether his legislation was working. Another reason of course was to find a way to increase the Empire’s tax revenue without causing riots or revolts. Even the Roman Empire faced budgetary short falls.
Imagine taking two weeks off for everyone to go to their ancestral home to be counted. Well it did happen and we have evidence to show that such traveling was indeed done during a Roman census. A Roman document, dated 104 A.D., has been discovered in Egypt, in which citizens were specifically commanded to return to their original homes for the census. Another census document from 119 A.D. has been found in which an Egyptian man identifies himself by giving 6 different facts about himself including his and his parents name and original village, his age and profession. This document was signed by the village registrar and three official witnesses.
7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. Luke 2:7 (ESV)
Caesar must have known the chaos he was inflicting upon his people, but probably didn’t lose any sleep over it. He had bigger fish to fry and as a Roman was more concerned with ensuring the glory of both the Empire and his family than anything else. Little did he know the part God had picked for him to play in his grand design.
Mary was well along in her pregnancy and Joseph tried to get a wavier for her, but there were none to be had. The Caesar spoke and the people either obeyed or answered to the Legions of Rome.
So they set off. Joseph told Mary he hoped to time it just right so that they would top the rise and see Jerusalem about sunrise of the fifth day. And so it happened. The exhausted young couple saw the golden temple ablaze with beauty as the setting sun spotlighted it before slipping below the horizon. Both agreed that as horrible as Herod was this was one thing he had done right.
If they continued on that evening it would have been a difficult trip. Night time travel was almost unknown during the time of Christ. Only the desperate or those with no other choice would risk the robbers that skulked in the shadows and the evil spirits that were said to roam the night.
The road from Jerusalem to Bethlehem curved broadly and climbed steadily. To their left the drop into the valley was sharp. They could see the shepherds four hundred feet below and sometimes even hear them as they whistled at their sheep.
Mary was uncomfortable after these many days on the donkey but made light of her discomfort. Finally they entered the city of David and at first both Joseph and his young wife must have shared a sigh of relief. At last they had arrived. Now to find a place to stay and relax.
Only there were no places to stay. Joseph had never seen anyplace so jammed with people. There were people everywhere. Camping in the town square and along the roads. Every house was full and the Inn had been long since been filled to capacity.
At that time Bethlehem consisted of one main road running north and south and just two cross streets. The Inn was on the left, built on a rocky cliff and Joseph quickly found out there was no room there. His heart must have sank. What could do now? His very pregnant Mary needed shelter and soon. The situation became even more dire as Mary announced she was beginning to feel what she was sure were labor pains.
Joseph went back to the owner of the Inn and pleaded his case. His wife needed help and needed a quiet and private place to give birth now. Perhaps the owner’s wife reminded his husband of the little cave back which served as stable.
Joseph thanked them and then went to break the humiliating news to Mary. Did he feel shame at being such a poor provider for his wife? Perhaps but Mary was just grateful to have a place to go to prepare for the birth which was going to happen and happen soon.
According to Jewish custom at that time all births were to be overseen by a Midwife. Midwifes were skilled and common in that era. Sometimes they were even called to help at the birth of animals. Did Mary and Joseph have a midwife with them that holy night? The New Testament, the sole source for information about Christ’s birth, says nothing about it either way. So while it is possible we simply do not know.
Mary would have worn a long sleeved garment designed to preserve her modesty throughout the birthing process. She would have been experienced at assisting in many births so what she about to undergo was no surprise to her. God had brought her to his point and He would see her through and bring forth His Son into the world.
As her labor pains increased Joseph tried, with varying levels of success, to be calm and helpful. Both of them know God’s was present with them in the darkness so they did not fear. But neither of these young people from rural Israel knew the wonders and the terror that lay just ahead of them.