Nine Lessons of Christmas Meditations: 7. Inconvenient Circumstances
Reading 6: Luke 2:1;3–7
Luke 2:3,4 everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David
Context: The header for this reading just says, “St. Luke tells of the birth of Jesus” which is about as simple as you can get. This particular reading always feels to me that it is the heart of these readings, the focus of where it is all going. The earth has a problem, there is going to be a future conflict, the one involved is going to come from the family lines of Abraham and David and the previous reading led us to believe there would be a miraculous conception that marks this child out from any other who has been born in the whole of history throughout the earth. Here are the very basic facts of why he was born and why he was born here. This really is big picture stuff, we’ll soon see.
The Reading: If we take it in reverse order, it helps make sense. The baby is born in a stable. Why a stable? Because every other room in town is taken by the time they get there. Why was that and where was it? In Bethlehem, because everyone who could trace their lineage back to David (as Joseph could) had to go there to be counted in a national census, and that meant lots of people many of who had obviously already arrived. Why this census? Because Caesar Augustus, the current Roman emperor had a fit of pride and decided he wanted to know exactly how many people he ruled over in his empire.
The Lessons: Again this is not a passage of Scripture that lays down specific teaching and so we are left looking at what was going on and asking, how do such things happen, do they happen today, and how do they affect us? In other words, what do these sort of circumstances teach us about life, and specifically the Christian life?
Life out of control: Well the very obvious thing here is that sometimes in life we are driven by circumstances that are beyond our control. If you had asked Mary and Joseph what they thought about what was happening, I think we can be fairly sure that both of them would say they would much rather stay in Nazareth so that Mary can have her baby in her home environment. But that wasn’t to be.
When you start thinking about this and consider the last hundred years or so, various similar examples occur. A hundred years or so, many millions would not have wanted to go to war to be slaughtered at the behest of leaders, first of all those who entered into national pacts that triggered the First World War, and then generals who treated soldiers as meaningless machine gun fodder. Some twenty or so years later, another bunch of millions of soldier would have preferred that a jumped up little corporal wouldn’t have been allowed to become so powerful that he provoked the Second World War. In various communist countries a spectrum of twentieth century dictators made life hell for millions more who lived under their power.
God who permits: Imagine a country where everyone repents and turns to God and becomes a one hundred per cent believing nation who turns every difficulty over to God in prayer. I want to suggest that God would stand up for that nation and protect it, but as that never happens, the Lord allows sinful mankind to be released to exercise its free will as it will so that what follows is judgment. One of the most difficult lessons in the Bible is that God, having allowed mankind to be mankind with free will, mostly does not intervene but allows judgment to come through the hands of sinful men. This sometimes means that believers get swept into heaven prematurely (e.g. Stephen and James in Acts). At other times the Lord acts sovereignly to save his people (e.g. Daniel, Shadrach etc. in the Babylonian court and Peter in Acts 12 although that did not stop him eventually dying as a martyr.)
The story of much of the Bible reflects the reality of living in this Fallen World, with people like Joseph and Mary getting swept along into the most inconvenient of circumstances by the whim of one maniac at the top of the pile! (see also the end of Jeremiah with the same thing happening, or the experiences of Ezekiel and others in exile). Belief in God, when it faces this freedom of despots to act as they do, also means we have to cope with the thought that God permits these things as disciplinary judgement, even though examples abound in the Bible of Him being there for His people again and again in the midst of it. These are massive truths that bear down and challenge our belief in a God who knows best and can be there for us in the midst of such trials.
The curse of a family name: it is with slight tongue in cheek that we might also suggest there are times when we wish we were free from our family background. If the world events aren’t bad enough, sometimes our family background, even our genes or upbringing are things we wish weren’t part of our experience. Joseph had to go because he was of the family of David. Very often we are dragged into circumstances that are the making of our particular family – and we may wish were weren’t.
Grace is the Answer: It is not obviously here in this story but we will see how God does provide for this little family but we now need to face this truth in the light of these other almost overwhelming lessons. How can we cope in these circumstances that are imposed upon us. Yes, there are times when our own folly brings the sky down on us, so to speak, but we are talking here of things beyond our control. The lesson of the whole Bible is that first and foremost, God is there for His children and so will be working for our good in however bad the circumstances seen to be (see Rom 8:28). That may involve Him working into the circumstances to bring us through or out of them. It may also mean Him simply providing sufficient grace for us to enable us to cope while still being in the midst of those trying circumstances.
Behinds this story which is so familiar and is read at this time of the year, year after year, there are some seriously challenging things to be faced and thought through. Many Christians, sadly, do not do that and so when those ‘trying circumstances’ come they are heard complaining and fail to seek the Lord for either the reason or the grace to see it through. The implications of these simple verses call for a new degree of maturity in understanding. May we find that.