Christmas By the Book

“What do you have planned for Christmas?”

Perhaps others have asked you the same question, and maybe your traditions or your schedule have already determined which relatives’ homes will be visited, what meals will be eaten and when gifts will be opened.

Christmas usually is a season of loading the calendar to the brim with activities and logistics. During this past year, plans have been changed and shuffled so much that it is hard to see few “normal” activities at hand. But whether considering a well-defined course of action or a growing uncertainty, we must not forget that God has plans too. In fact, the first Christmas was his perfect plan played out on a cosmic stage. He knew what he was doing then…and he still does now.

Some moments regarding the birth of Christ are clear and dramatic evidence of divine action, like the angels appearing to the shepherds, but other moments threaded through the narrative reveal God’s hand and his plan, but only after delving a little deeper. The moment that usually comes to my mind is Bethlehem. Why were Mary and Joseph going to that particular town anyway? In a word: Rome. A bit of history may be in order to give the cultural context of the world at the time of Jesus’ birth…

A ruler by the name of Gaius Octavius took control of Rome in 31 BC, and three years later the Roman Senate declared Octavius to be the official emperor. Two years after that, they gave him the title “Augustus” or “exalted one.” This title was one that symbolized great authority, a power so mighty that the bearer was believed to hold sway over all humanity and even nature itself. That title has come down to us in the word “august,” which is not only the name of a month on our calendar, but is also used to describe someone or something that is impressive or respected. This is the same Caesar Augustus mentioned in Luke chapter 2…

In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 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 (vs. 1-7).

Under Augustus, a large number of reforms took place. Massive building projects improved the city of Rome’s physical appearance and practical functionality while the extensive system of roads stretching throughout the empire was expanded. The ever-present military and firm rule over would-be rebellions and conflicts ushered in a 200-year span of great peace known as Pax Romana, or the “Roman Peace.”

In addition to these changes, Augustus instituted sweeping tax reforms resulting in a systematic and direct form of taxation in all the provinces governed by Rome. The registration (or census) decreed as described by Luke served three purposes: to identity the number of people under the control of Rome, to establish the number of young men qualified to serve in the military and to calculate taxes to be collected.

None of these intents sat well with the Jewish population. Rome was a conquering, yet pagan, empire ruling over the subjects with an iron fist of military might and occupying the traditional homelands of others, that forced the Jews (as well as all the other nations in the area) to bend to plans of domination and taxation. These political-financial motivations moved Augustus to make the decree, and Joseph and Mary made their way back to the hometown of their ancestor (David) to register: Bethlehem.

But since “the king’s heart is a stream of water in the hand of the Lord; he turns it wherever he will,” we can trust there is more going on than may first meet the eye (Proverbs 21:1). There were two Bethlehem’s in the Holy Land; one was to the north and the other was in the south. God left nothing to guesswork about the location of the Messiah’s birthplace because he specified the southern of the two towns in a prophecy found in the book of Micah…

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days (v. 5:2).

Mary and Joseph traveled nearly 100 long, slow miles along rough terrain as they passed through areas known for extremes in weather, wild animals and roving bandits. At casual glance, it might seem like an inconsequential moment: a baby placed in a feeding trough in an ancient land after being born to an unwed teenage mother on a government-mandated road trip.

As we zoom out and view the whole of history, we see that Augustus, the “exalted one,” in expanding his empire, issued a decree that moved the Messiah, the Anointed One, to the exact prophesied place of birth where he was born the King of Kings. Only God’s hand could stitch such a pattern. A birth that was wholly inconvenient from a human standpoint was nothing short of a holy invasion from God’s perfect perspective. The cry of that newborn was nothing short of the battle cry of a King.

If God can orchestrate the birth of his Son at the right time in the right place, despite what may seem like harsh conditions or unfair circumstances, he can do the same in all our everyday moments of concern. So this Christmas, when your plans are disrupted or delayed, as seasons of unfair and hard moments arise or when you find yourself unhappily trudging to your own Bethlehem, remember that God has a plan in mind, and that plan is good.

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