Bethlehem – Part 1

In Sermon Series by Rachel Schultz

Journey to Bethlehem

Photo: James Stedidl

I don’t know if any of you have ever had the experience of helping to deliver an over-eager baby. Taxi drivers have helped bring a new life into the world; so have flight attendants. There have been missionaries who were pressed into service as midwifes on crowded buses and trains in overseas lands, where someone had to donate a piece of shoelace to help tie off the umbilical cord.

Of course, I know that many of us have had the deeply spiritual experience of watching our own children miraculously emerge into this world. I can tell you this about my own personal experience; I absolutely became a believer in creation, in the miracle power of God, in the divine imprint upon people, in our heavenly Father’s care for each of us. I can never be an evolutionist or an atheist after participating in the birth of a baby. 

In December, much of the world is somewhat tenuously connected to one particular maternity ward story. Luke 2:6, 7: While [Mary and Joseph] were [in the Bethlehem stable], the time came for the Baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a Son. In the world’s terms, that’s a pretty commonplace story. A young female went through nine months of gestation. Her abdomen got swollen; her monthly cycle came to an end. She had morning sickness. Her water broke. She had labor pangs. She pushed and squeezed the hand of her fiancé. And it happened just like every other time: at the end of the story, there was a little Baby lying in a manger. We sing a Christmas carol which suggests that while the cows mooed and there was baa baa baa from the sheep, sweet little Jesus never made a peep. Well, that isn’t true. This was a very real Baby. He was covered with blood and vernix; there was the afterbirth set to one side. Someone cut the cord. Someone stopped the bleeding. Jesus was circumcised on the eighth day, we read in verse 21. 

And just one more thing. One more tiny detail. This Baby being born means that you and I can someday leave this world of heartache and go to heaven. You see, I believe in the totality of the Christmas story. I embrace all of it. Do you believe today that Baby Jesus can save you and your family from your sins? Is that your Christmas commitment? 

We who are Adventists do not bargain away a single part of this miraculous story. We believe in the virgin birth; we believe Gabriel came down and spoke to the shepherds. We accept that the angel choirs sang. We believe the wise men came. Everything. And we especially believe that there was something completely different, completely revolutionary and world-changing when this one little Baby was born on our alien planet. We believe it when the angel says, He shall save His people from their sins. 

To Be Continued

We’re going to spend a couple of brief holiday weeks journeying together through the Luke chapter 2 story. You know, In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. Etc. Sometimes we pastors foolishly decide that we should be able to get enough for one good sermon there. Well, what I found in my studying is that this wonderful saga is a story for the ages. It can’t be told in a hundred sermons. It can never be exhausted. It is a miniseries without end. Please don’t get impatient if it hangs over into January. 

A classic Adventist book called The Desire of Ages has several chapters dealing just with the Christmas story. And I think Ellen White is completely correct in this observation: “The story of Bethlehem is an exhaustless theme. In it is hidden ‘the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God.’ (Romans 11:33) We marvel at the Savior’s sacrifice in exchanging the throne of heaven for the manger, and the companionship of adoring angels for the beasts of the stall. Human pride and self-sufficiency stand rebuked in His presence. Yet this was but the beginning of His wonderful condescension.” Meaning that the Christmas story reaches its powerful climax at Easter and the Cross and the Resurrection. 

Philip Yancey has a line in his book, The Jesus I Never Knew, where he puts it this way: “The God who came to earth came not in a raging whirlwind nor in a devouring fire. Unimaginably, the Maker of all things shrank down, down, down, so small as to become an ovum, a single fertilized egg barely visible to the naked eye, an egg that would divide and redivide until a fetus took shape, enlarging cell by cell inside a nervous teenager. ‘Immensity cloistered in thy dear womb,’ marveled the poet John Donne. He ‘made Himself nothing . . . He humbled Himself,’ said the apostle Paul more prosaically.” 

As we move through this classic story, I hope you will find your own family faith reaffirmed. It is a wonderful thing to be fully Christian all year long, but especially during this season. Our Adventist faith takes Christmas from a shallow, cynical, greedy, fatiguing, commercial Ponzi scheme – and magnifies it into the most eloquent and important theme in the universe. I pray that this will be your experience here during the Christmas season. 

Verse one and two again: 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.) Right away, people who are cynics find a place to hang their doubts. Historical records – meaning, non-biblical – often corroborate things we find in the Bible. But the truth is that this particular census seems to be difficult to pin down. Secular chronicles don’t appear to have this 4 B.C. project listed in their archives. However, it is true that Caesar Augustus did achieve a major administrative overhaul of the entire Roman system, and perhaps this census was simply tucked into the larger endeavor. And there are records of various censuses being performed in various parts of the kingdom. Egypt did them every 14 years, and we have historical records of each of the ones done between 20 A.D. and 270 A.D. In Syria, which contained Judea, it’s probable that the same format was used. 

Another head-scratching issue is that this Quirinius, governor of Syria, definitely did run a census in 6 A.D., which we find mentioned in history and also Acts 5. But that’s ten years too late for this Christmas story. So scholars have argued that Luke must have simply flubbed this part of the story. But it appears that even before the birth of Jesus, Quirinius might have had another previous term as governor or military leader in that territory, and would have been authorized to organize a census during the exact time of this story. 

Here’s the interesting thing. Again, many students have dismissed this part of Luke’s story and said, “Well, he’s a doctor, not a historian; he simply got this part wrong. Let’s move on.” However, documents coming to light just within the last century or so show that Caesar Augustus had done three surveys: one in 28 B.C., then 8 B.C., and 14 A.D. And, considering that there was such political turmoil in Syria and Judea, the 8 B.C. census might have taken several years to really put some teeth into . . . which would mean that it was being collected right at the time this story took place. So as we study God’s Word here, and have questions – not that I think any of you stay awake at night worrying about when these taxes got collected – there’s solid evidence that God has protected the integrity of His Word. 

Here’s the larger point. Luke, a medical doctor, graduate of Loma Linda University, goes out of his way to paint a picture of a very secular world. People working, tending to their businesses, paying taxes. Forcing themselves to be obedient to secular governments. Tipping their hats to the Romans. In other words, living daily lives. And into that mix of secular, 40-hour workweeks, with commuters and IRS withholding and the rough and tumble of everyday life . . . God invades. This story comes right into the world. This isn’t a sterile, fly-by spiritual mission. A young girl gets pregnant. Her boyfriend is a carpenter. Her uncle is a priest. Her aunt is also pregnant. People are traveling; motels are full. 

This story tells me that God wants to come into the lives of this church’s doctors. Into the experience of our lawyers and teachers and dental hygienists. Our stay-at-home moms. And those who struggle to get by on their Social Security check. People raising kids. People who have to come to a Food Bank to keep the cupboard from going bare each month. The Christmas story, Jesus entering our world, happens right in the thick of dust-covered reality. One commentator put it cryptically this way: “God is the Lord of history.” This is My Father’s world. 

Verse three. And everyone went to his own town to register. Now, it was odd to make people do that. The Romans generally knocked on your door and got you where you lived, not where you used to live. However, a Roman-mandated census carried out in Egypt did follow this rule; you commuted on a camel back to wherever you were born. And it’s also been suggested that King Herod, who was the boss of this particular Judean region, might have decided that doing it “by tribes” was the most efficient way, and that the rule of returning to your tribal homeland was his doing. 

In any case, this had Joseph the carpenter going from Nazareth back to Bethlehem. This was a three-day trip. It would be like us driving from California back to Illinois in order to file our tax returns. But a lot of people were on the roads at this time because of this rule hanging over their heads. 

Now, Joseph had to go, of course. As the IRS puts it, he was the head of the household. How about Mary? Some records indicate that all Palestinian women 12 and older had to do the same thing; Mary was also of the family of David and so Bethlehem would have been her town as well. However, most scholars think that it was sufficient for women to simply pay the tax without having to make the journey. 

Why, then, did she go? Well, two reasons. First of all, she was eight months and three weeks pregnant. I’m sure she wanted to be near Joseph. To stay home alone in that very pregnant state might have caused more gossip than there already was. But notice something very interesting. The Old Testament prophetic book of Micah was written 700 years before the birth of Jesus. And what do we find predicted in chapter 5?  But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. The Living Bible: You [Bethlehem] will be the birthplace of my King who is alive from everlasting ages past! 

So a Roman king demands a census. The underlings put out this rule that you have to go to your hometown. Joseph and Mary just happen to be from Bethlehem. She happens to be pregnant and ready to deliver right at this time. She goes there and Jesus is born in the very place where heaven decreed it seven centuries earlier. 

Again, do I believe this story? Do I accept these details as of divine inspiration? You bet I do. I put my life on the line with this story right here, and with the fact that this Baby was born in Bethlehem where and when and how He was supposed to come into our world. 

Verse five: [Joseph] went [to Bethlehem] to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. We all know this story. Some scholars suggest that Mary and Joseph were already married by this time; why, then, does Luke still portray her as just engaged to him? Well, there’s no way to know for sure; however, here’s what Matthew has to say in chapter one after Joseph had his dream visit from the angel. [Joseph] took Mary home as his wife. But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a Son. So if there was a marriage, it was not consummated, as we say, until after this Bethlehem story. Which is why Luke, perhaps, still describes this as an engagement, not a marriage. 

Now, we’re adults and can speak openly about these things. I have had the unexpected experience of performing a wedding for a couple where the bride was already “showing.” And you know, you minister to people where they are. But here is a woman traveling with her boyfriend, it seems, and she is hugely pregnant. The Living Bible puts it: She was obviously pregnant by this time. 

A news item came out back during the holidays of 2006. An exceptional Christian film entitled The Nativity Story, which tells this Christmas drama in glorious detail. It starred a young New Zealand actress named Keisha Castle-Hughes, who was only sixteen and plays the Virgin Mary in this great Bible story. Two days before the opening, the news dribbled out that this high school kid . . . was pregnant. She was going to have a baby. 

So what does the entire world immediately know? Well, there’s a boy somewhere in this equation, and someone on the movie set didn’t chaperone things as well as they might have. We all know that. Virgins do not get pregnant. If a young girl is pregnant, it’s as plain as our biology textbooks that a romantic episode came first. Actually, the Internet tells us that the boy’s name is Bradley Hull, they’ve been dating for three years, and here we are. But this film about a virgin was going to have its international debut in the Vatican, the Holy See. So a spiritual center which proclaims the Virgin Birth had to tell this young movie actress, “Please don’t attend. You’ll embarrass us.” 

Of course, the Catholic Church proclaims two doctrines all their own. One is called the Immaculate Conception, which suggests that Mary was not only sinless in her own life but that she was miraculously kept from ever having even a sinful nature of her own, avoiding what the Church of Rome calls “original sin.” Which enabled her to pass perfection along to her Son. The second teaching is that Mary experienced “perpetual virginity,” that she never did have sexual relations with Joseph or anyone else. They explain the Bible verses about Jesus’ brothers and sisters by suggesting that these were half-siblings from a prior marriage Joseph had had. 

Well, we are Protestants and there is no biblical warrant for either of those ideas. However, in our own circles, liberal theologians in recent years have said to the rest of us: “You’re going to have to let this virgin-birth fantasy go.”  Actresses who play Mary can’t get miraculously pregnant, and neither could Mary herself. That part of the story is just plain not true. The earth is not flat and virgins don’t have babies. A baby comes from egg and sperm, and biology reigns supreme. 

I don’t want to get us sidetracked on this part of the story, but I want to say one thing. We who are Adventist Christians either believe in miracles or we don’t. If the Holy Spirit cannot move upon a young virgin girl and bring the Savior of mankind into this world, then there is also no such thing as Jesus feeding the 5000 with one lunch. No healings. No lepers cleansed. The story of Lazarus coming out of the tomb is pure fantasy. Jairus’ daughter coming back to life: false. The widow’s son being raised up: not true. Eutychus, who fell out of a window, died, and was raised up by Paul: total fabrication. And of course, the resurrection of Jesus Himself is just masterpiece theater, literary fiction. Not to mention our resurrection on the final day of triumph. 

Today it is entirely possible for a virgin, by way of science and centrifuges and in vitro techniques, to have a baby. If the powerful God of all this universe couldn’t do it, then the testimony of the Bible, the sure word of the prophets, and the entire Christian faith collapses like a house of cards. I don’t want to be overly dramatic, but logic dictates this train of thinking. If you honestly do not believe in miracles . . . then what are you doing here? 

Fortunately, we do believe in miracles and we believe in the integrity of God’s Word. If Isaiah, Matthew, and Luke, all writing under the protection of the Holy Spirit, say that a virgin conceived, then a virgin conceived. I heard a pastor once suggest in a sermon that God could have made Joseph have that baby if He had wanted to!  But let’s accept the Bible story just as it reads. 

Two quick points. First, this is just one more evidence that God sent His own Son into the most humble of circumstances. Not just to a poor girl and a carpenter boyfriend. Not just into poverty and a stable. But with this cloud of illegitimacy hanging over not just this story but the entire 33 years. Jesus heard the word bastard His entire life. He was sympathetic to people who were ridiculed and teased and harassed, because that was His daily lot in life. 

Who’s is He?

And one more thing. I think about Joseph, who has his girlfriend come to him with this incredible, unbelievable story. I’m pregnant, but I didn’t do anything. I mean, what kind of a fool does she think he is? His heart is broken. He’s torn between love and disbelief and anger. In his kindness, he decides to dump Mary, but do it quietly; otherwise, she could conceivably be stoned to death. But then he has a dream one night where an angel says to him, “Joseph, hang in there. This incredible story is actually true.” Do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a Son, and you are to give Him the name Jesus, because He will save His people from their sins. 

But let me pose this question. Would any realistic man believe his girlfriend’s story? No. Not a chance. What about it, guys? I wouldn’t. You wouldn’t. And even after an angel dream, you might think, fifty-fifty, that your own hysteria, your obsession with this crazy, wrenching tale caused the dream. It’s likely that even here at Month #9 as Joseph led his hugely pregnant fiancée over the dirt roads to Bethlehem, he was still thinking: What kind of fool am I? 

The baby is born and Dad still has these mixed emotions. That’s not my kid. Doesn’t look like me. He looks like Benjamin the Blacksmith. I wonder which of my friends did this? 

And all at once, shepherds come to the front door of this little stable. They were in the fields, tending their flocks. Suddenly an angel came to them and said: “This is the Baby. The Lord has come. Go to Bethlehem.” They heard an angel choir saying the same thing. 

And maybe for the first time in the last nine months, this fragile young man, who has wrestled with doubts and with suppressed anger, has his faith confirmed. No one could have known this story. This can’t be a plant or a coincidence. There must actually be such a thing as miracles and heavenly gifts; God in heaven must actually have a plan to rescue this lost world, and God chose his girlfriend to carry the King to term. What a transforming moment that must have been. 

And here’s where we come in. I want for us to think about the shepherds some more next Sabbath, but here were some men who took this story and brought it into town. They had an encounter with heaven; they acted upon that gift. They came to Bethlehem to worship, and in the act of worshiping I believe they brought a renewed faith to Joseph, the father of our Lord. 

We all know people who toy with, or struggle with, the Calvary story. They know it by heart; they’ve lived with it for the proverbial nine months of gestation. But it’s never come to birth in their own life; they’ve never owned it for themselves. Sometimes they come here to church, but they’re always observers, not citizens. Along with Joseph and the rest of Nazareth, they said with a shake of the head: “Man, I don’t know.” 

I have visited in my office with sincere seekers who are sometimes with us here, and yet do not believe in the story of the Cross. And I think what is needed is for more of us to really be like those shepherds. We need to burst through the door of their doubts and say with fire in our voice: “We saw an angel in the fields and we believe his message. We heard a choir sing, and the things you have doubts about are being proclaimed in the heavens. This is a story you can believe.” 

Just in recent weeks I have had desperate phone calls come my way. People call up in the midnight hour and pour out their tales of woe, their overwhelming grief. The tumult in their lives are taking a toll. And it’s my assignment at that moment to be a shepherd, to say, “Hang in there despite these trials. There are angels all around us, already paving the way for the new avenues of service you’re going to travel. I have seen the star in the sky.” 

If we build here an unshakable community, a home with lasting convictions and corporate backbone, sure in our beliefs, who can ever measure how many people will come to embrace our Christmas story in all of its glorious fullness? Shall we pray? Lord, thank You for this story of a journey to Bethlehem. Help us to never cut the trip short; may we always believe that it began in heaven, not in Bethlehem. May Christmas be a Christian experience for us, not a commercial one. We ask this in the name of the living Christ Child and our eternal Savior, Amen.


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