Mystery of Bethlehem
The theme we have chosen for this advent season is “The Mysteries of Christmas”. Last week we looked at the Mystery of the Virgin birth, how God Almighty the creator of the Universe stepped into the stream of human history to introduce his Son to the world. In that message we discovered that the Virgin birth was necessary because it fulfilled the prophecy of the Old Testament concerning the coming of the Messiah, the prophet Isaiah 7:14 All right then, the Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (which means ‘God is with us’).
And really if you were God and you were coming to the earth, it would be a special occasion and it should happen in a special way. And I know that there are those who say “Well a Virgin birth is impossible.” Sure, but the same God who wrote the laws of nature surely is able to step outside the laws of nature.
So if you have been following the story, the Angel Gabriel appears to Mary and tells her the exciting news, she’s going to be a mom, even though she is still a virgin, they work out the details but then there is the entire process of telling her parents and her fiancé, in Australia we’d say that would be a bit of a sticky wicket. And you can imagine that Joseph, the man she was engaged to wasn’t all that excited to hear the news. “You’re pregnant and you want me to believe the father is the Holy Spirit. Got news for you little lady, I didn’t just fall off the turnip wagon, we are through and maybe you can convince sell that story to some other sucker.”
And really you can’t blame him. Sure we know the story but he didn’t until the same angel appears and tells him in Matthew 1:20 As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. “Joseph, son of David,” the angel said, “do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit.” There was more to the conversation but the end result is found in Matthew 1:24-25 When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.
Have you ever noticed how people communicate? Some people give you just the essentials, and others go to great extremes to make sure that you know the entire story and everything that led up to the story. I just want to shake them and say “Spit it out.”
Matthew and Luke are like that as they tell the Christmas story. Last week when I looked that the Virgin Birth I looked at Luke’s account. And he spends 30 verses and over five hundred words telling us the story. And that doesn’t include the back story that he tells about how Mary’s cousin Elizabeth became pregnant.
What does Matthew do? One verse, forty words: Matthew 1:18 This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit.
The same thing happens with the events that follow, Matthew tells us in Matthew 2:1 Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. Which if you just want the story is kind of cool. Kind of Like “Denn was born in Chatham when Diefenbaker was King.” But really that doesn’t tell you the whole story does it? Why Chatham? Mom and Dad weren’t from the Miramachi, they didn’t stay there very long and I didn’t go back for almost forty years.
Matthew answers the “where” and when rather nicely Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of King Herod. But there are a lot of questions that he leaves unanswered. And some of those questions are answered in Luke’s account and other’s we have to dig for. The most obvious question is “Why Bethlehem?” If we pull down one of our trusty maps we discover that Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph lived is up here, twenty four kms from the southern tip of the Sea of Galilee and thirty kms inland from the Mediterranean Sea, a small village that was obviously the family home to both Mary and Joseph. And Bethlehem is way down here, about 120 kms away. For us that isn’t an insurmountable distance depending on how you drive and what the roads are like it would take you between an hour and two hours to make the trip. When I was in Sierra Leone I made a trip of eighty kms going from Makeni to Kamakwie hospital in four and a half hours but this trip was worse than that.
Mary was not just pregnant Luke tells us about the trip in Luke 2:4-5 And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. Obviously pregnant. Hmm, love what it says in the KJV it says she was great with Child. And you know what I mean; there are some women who are obviously pregnant and others who are great with Child.
120 kms, across rugged terrain, if you believe Christmas Cards Joseph walked and Mary rode on a donkey. That makes sense but we don’t know it for sure. Maybe they both rode donkeys or maybe they both walked. Most of the time the drawings and paintings imply they are all by themselves making the trek but most likely they were travelling with a group or in a caravan probably for the safety that numbers provide. But regardless of whether they were travelling alone or with a group it was doubtful they could cover more than thirty kms a day and so the trip would have taken a minimum of four days and possible as long as a week.
But the question remains: Why? What would possibly possess you to head out on a journey of this type with your wife who was great with child?
Matthew tells us it was a Matter of the Past The problem in Canada is that we have no real sense of history, oh we can talk about Cabot and Champlain and Frobisher, we can point people to a 250 year old church in Halifax and a 350 year old house in Quebec, and in two years we will be able to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the first church service on Caton’s Island. But really we are just babies. Sure it’s been four hundred years since the European settlement of Canada began but 400 years isn’t much. There was a four hundred year gap between the Old and New Testament.
Bethlehem is one of the communities that is sacred to the Jews, Christians and Muslims and all for various reasons but what they all share is that those reasons lie in Bethlehem’s past.
The first time Bethlehem is mentioned in the Bible is in Genesis 35:19 So Rachel died and was buried on the way to Ephrath (that is, Bethlehem). This is Rachel, the wife of Abraham’s Grandson Jacob and it happened 1700 years before Christ was born. 1700 years. Do you have any idea what our history was like 1700 years ago? But I regress. It was also in Bethlehem that the story of Ruth took place; you can read all about that in the book of Ruth. It is a great story of integrity and Character. But for the Jews the most important thing about Bethlehem is that it was the birth place of an unlikely King. Which would be a great title about the birth of Christ but isn’t.
If you are familiar with your Old Testament history you will know that in the early years of Israel they were ruled by Men and women called Judges, some who were good and some who were not so good, but the people of Israel wanted to have a king like all the other kids. And so a man named Saul was appointed King. And if you think we sometime pick people with unlikely qualifications today listen to this 1 Samuel 9:2 His son Saul was the most handsome man in Israel—head and shoulders taller than anyone else in the land.
He might have been tall and good looking but he stunk at being a king, he started off well, he was obedient to God and tried to do the right things but eventually he started to think that he could do better by himself. And so it was decided that they would need to find a new King and the search was on, God appointed the Prophet Samuel to find the new King 1 Samuel 16:1 Now the Lord said to Samuel, “You have mourned long enough for Saul. I have rejected him as king of Israel, so fill your flask with olive oil and go to Bethlehem. Find a man named Jesse who lives there, for I have selected one of his sons to be my king.”
And maybe you know the story, Samuel arrives in Bethlehem and tells Jesse the news and it was kind of like Cinderella, Jesse trots all the boys out for Samuel to take a look at. The first one out of the gate impresses Samuel and he says 1 Samuel 16:6 When they arrived, Samuel took one look at Eliab and thought, “Surely this is the Lord’s anointed!”
But God reminds him in 1 Samuel 16:7 But the Lord said to Samuel, “Don’t judge by his appearance or height, for I have rejected him. The Lord doesn’t see things the way you see them. People judge by outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” Possibly a lesson we still need today.
And seven sons were brought out and seven times God said “Nope” until finally 1 Samuel 16:11-13 Then Samuel asked, “Are these all the sons you have?” “There is still the youngest,” Jesse replied. “But he’s out in the fields watching the sheep and goats.” “Send for him at once,” Samuel said. “We will not sit down to eat until he arrives.” So Jesse sent for him. He was dark and handsome, with beautiful eyes. And the Lord said, “This is the one; anoint him.” So as David stood there among his brothers, Samuel took the flask of olive oil he had brought and anointed David with the oil. And the Spirit of the Lord came powerfully upon David from that day on. Then Samuel returned to Ramah.
That boy who was tending sheep of course became King David who took Israel to her peak of military and political influence. And it was from his lineage that the Promised Messiah would come, but more than that it was prophesied that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, the birth place of David. Hundreds of years before Mary and Joseph set out on their journey the prophet Micah wrote in Micah 5:2 But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past.
Let’s always remember that the New Testament does not stand alone that the back story can often be found in the Old Testament. If you remember the Christmas story the Wise Men were directed to Jerusalem by the star and when they inquired about the baby king they were looking for King Herod asked the priests and religious leaders what the Magi were talking about. Their answer is found in Matthew 2:5 “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said, “for this is what the prophet wrote: And then they quoted Micah 5.
And so part of the why to Bethlehem lies in the past.
The lesson we learn is that not everything can be judged or answered in the here and now. That applies to why we do things and how we do things, the yesterday often helps explain today. How we treat people often goes back to how we were treated by people in our past. Our world view can often be explained by the teachers and influential people from our past. You can’t really understand Cornerstone until you understand our history.
Now let’s skip over to Luke’s version of the story
Luke 2:1-4 At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee.
Luke Tells us It Was A Matter of the Present: You understand the significance here right. There would come a time that Jesus’ bona fides would be questioned. Was he really the Messiah? Did he really fulfill the prophecies? Was he really who he said he was? And the teachers of the law would look not only at whether or not he fulfilled them but how he fulfilled them.
Maybe people would think it was all an elaborate scam thought up by Mary and Joseph. You know when people are expecting their first child they often dream of what that child will be and do when they grow up. Maybe they will be a Doctor or Prime Minister or the next Sydney Crosby, or perhaps the next Tiger Woods, without the entire adultery thing.
So maybe Mary and Joseph were hoping that their little boy would grow up to be the Messiah and they knew the Messiah had to be born in Bethlehem so while Mary was great with child they made the four day trip. You say “That would be crazy Denn!” You watch the news? I’ve seen people do crazier things.
I’m not saying that is what happened, I’m just saying that eventually there could be potential for people to think that’s what happened.
But what if they didn’t have a choice, what if it could never be said that they were all part of a grand plan to scam the world into believing that their son was the Son of God by choosing to have their child in Bethlehem?
Not only that but this prophecy thing was important stuff, not to be trifled with. What if there was the chance that even if Mary and Joseph were given Angelic direction to go to Bethlehem they hedged. You know at the last minute decided they didn’t want to put the extra miles on donkey, or Mary wasn’t feeling well or Joseph had gotten behind in some of his carpentry work, or didn’t feel he could take the time off with a baby on the way.
So while they might choose to disobey a heavenly decree, for whatever reason, and don’t judge them, they would be much more apt to obey the law of the land, especially when it was enforced as strictly as Rome enforced it.
The question then is was Caesar used as a puppet? Or was the divine plan simply put into place to coincide with the plans of Rome? Paul wrote in Galatians 4:4 But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. Not anytime but the right time.
I don’t know if the Micah prophecy had even entered into Mary and Joseph’s thoughts, if with all that they were going through at that point in their lives if it was even on the radar. “We need to get the nursery ready, buy a crib, get a donkey baby seat and go to Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy made five hundred years ago.” But it was part of the plan. And I’m sure when they heard the news that they were going to have to make the trip to Bethlehem they may not have been thrilled.
“Great just what we need, Mary is ginormous, I have a big job going on for the Steinberg’s, our new house isn’t ready yet and now this.” But it was just what they needed, or at least it was what the Kingdom needed.
But ultimately it was a matter of obedience. Obedience to the laws of man and obedience to the direction of God. Maybe Joseph needed the first in order for the second. God is good; he provides us with a way and sometimes makes it easier for us.
How often do we need that nudge? I am sure there have been times in my life when I have done the right things and come out smelling like roses but I didn’t do the right thing enthusiastically, and maybe not completely willingly.
And sometimes we don’t understand why God allows what he does, and maybe will never understand on this side of eternity so all we can do is believe and claim the promise of Romans 8:28 And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to his purpose for them. Even when we don’t understand it, and may not understand it on this side of eternity and even when we wouldn’t have done it that way.
I mentioned to someone once that I was making a list of questions for when I got to heaven but they reminded me that we would have perfect knowledge when we got to heaven and wouldn’t have to ask those questions because then we would know.
We will be like: there are a few things I’d like to know. And then it will be the big eureka moment. Aha!
You remember the story, the Wise men had stopped in Jerusalem and asked for directions, and King Herod had consulted with his religious advisers who told him about the prophecies of the Messiah being born in Bethlehem and he asked the Wise Men to bring him news of the baby he was planning bad things for the baby Jesus. But an Angel appeared to the Magi and warned them not to return through Jerusalem and so we read in
Matthew 2:16 Herod was furious when he learned that the wise men had outwitted him. He sent soldiers to kill all the boys in and around Bethlehem who were two years old and under, because the wise men had told him the star first appeared to them about two years earlier.
It was a Matter of Sin
There is one mystery of Bethlehem that isn’t as easy to explain and it has less to do with the goodness of God and more to do with the evil of man. And Herod was evil and extremely suspicious that others were trying to take his power, he murdered his wife and mother in law as well as three of his sons. Barlcay tells us that Augustus, the Roman Emperor, had said “It is safer to be Herod’s pig than Herod’s son” Which was a lot more poetic in the Greek where the word for Pig was Hus and for Son was Huios
Some people wonder why genocide like this wouldn’t be mentioned in history. Well, remember that at the time Bethlehem probably had a population of no more than 2000, less than half the population of Kingswood. So we are probably talking the death of 25 or 30 children tops. In a time when murder and unrighteousness was so wide spread the only people who would have been outraged at this tragedy would have been the parents.
But this is one of those questions of “Why didn’t God prevent this tragedy?” Why are there starving children in Africa, why do people get cancer? fifty feet to the port or starboard and the Mont-Blanc would have missed the Imo and the Halifax explosion would have been averted.
Why? because we live in a broken world and because in this case an evil man was in charge. Could God have stopped him? Yep, could God stop us every time we decided, notice I said decided, to sin? Yep, sure could but he has given us this gift called freewill and sometimes we use it to hurt people intentionally or unintentionally.
I would suspect that before Herod issued that order that he thought “this might not be a good idea” and then he went, “Oh well.” Just like we do. But I would never kill anyone, or hurt anyone. I guess it’s all degrees.
Had Herod obeyed the laws of God and of the land which say “Do not kill” the tragedy would have been averted. If Tiger Wood had of obeyed the law of God that says “Do not commit adultery” the media would have had less news to report last week, he wouldn’t have hurt his wife and possible broken up his family. I guess the thing to remember is that we are responsible for the decisions we make.
Joseph and Mary decided to be obedient to God, Herod decided to play the part of the villain but in both cases they were choices they made. So the question is what choices will you make?