This is the Christmas story many of us hear at a Christmas service or read on Christmas Day. It deserves to be read aloud with skill. I love to hear this text read. The birth of Jesus, as we have said a few times, rhymes with the story of John’s birth, and we do a real disservice if we fail to read this passage slowly and thoughtfully. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves by wondering what it means for us. It’s a story about Jesus.
From Nazareth to Bethlehem
The opening verses of chapter two connect the birth of Jesus, who is Messiah (and Messiah means king and king means emperor), to Rome’s current emperor, Augustus. The birth of Jesus is part of world, not just local, history. This more than suggests that the emperor is one of the rulers who will be brought down by the birth of king Jesus.
Standing right behind the emperor theme is a taxation theme. Taxation filled the vaults of the powers that be. The names in 2:1–3, then, are oppressors, and those who suffer the most are the poor—like Joseph and Mary.
In submission to emperor and taxation, Joseph and Mary travel to Bethlehem where, ironically, Jesus’ birth fulfills a messianic hope and promise. King David, who was every- one’s image of a future Messiah, was from Bethlehem. Surprising to many of us, Jesus’ birth occurs before Joseph and Mary are officially married: “Mary, who was pledged to be married to him.”
The KJV’s “no room in the inn” line, which has a history of all sorts of speculation in sermons, inaccurately translates the Greek term kataluma. That term does not mean “inn” as in a hotel but “guest room” in the very home in which they were staying. That is, the guest room did not have sufficient space for a birth, so Mary and Joseph went downstairs to the stable where they could find some privacy, where the animals were kept, and she laid her son in a feeding trough. There is no reason whatsoever to criticize some non-existent innkeeper or pretend this had something to do with a woman’s impurity.
The Gospel of the Angel
Bethlehem was known for its sheep and shepherds. To some shepherds an unnamed angel of the Lord appears accompanied by splendorous light, something that evokes the presence of God so overwhelming the shepherds were “terrified.” The angel gospels the shepherds. Here are the big terms to consider: “I gospel great joy, what will be for all the people (my translation), that a Savior has been born today who is Messiah the Lord, in the City of David.” You can’t really get a better heavenly message than that and, truth be told, you can’t be any more overt about some kind of message to Rome, that is, to Augustus. Or about fulfilling promises (cf. Isaiah 9:6). These terms express the holistic redemption of the kingdom of God. The “sign” is now explained—in Bethlehem they’ll find a baby “lying in a manger.”
Because of the Christmas gospel God should be praised, that is, because “on earth” God has given his Messiah-Son to bring “peace to those on whom his favor rests.” Again, we need to resist turning this “peace” into exclusively inner, personal peace. Peace is an earthy, social contagion propagated by redemption and justice.
So the shepherds come into Bethlehem and find it just as the angel said, turning them into gospeling shepherds. They find the baby with Joseph and Mary. The history of art about Mary is that she’s a pensive, pious, even poker-faced young woman draped in blue and white. She was not. That image derives in part from “treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart.” Mary was interpreting, tossing together, or puzzling this specific shepherd-event in light of the previous angel’s messages to her and to Elizabeth. One thing was clear: her son was destined to become the King of Israel, the Messiah. A lot was going on, more than a mind could handle. World history indeed!
I close with an amazing statement that takes us to the deepest level of the Christmas story–God became human for us: “Through the Son, the invisible God is made visible. Through the Son, the unknowable God is made known. Through the Son, the incomprehensible love of God is made tangible” (Strawbridge, Mercer, Groves, Love Makes No Sense, 18).
Questions for Reflection and Application
- How does this section challenge ideas you have heard about the nativity story in the past?
- What are the holistic, earthy implications of this baby king’s birth?
- How do the shepherds’ reactions to the angels compare to Zechariah and Mary’s angelic responses?
- Have you thought of this text as a “gospeling” passage before? Why or why not?
- What do you learn about Jesus in this passage?
Thanks for joining us in the journey through the conception and birth narratives in the gospel of Luke. For the full Luke Bible study from Scot McKnight, visit the FaithGateway store HERE.