This is one of the most famous episodes in Luke’s gospel and in all of the Bible. Luke tells the story of the birth of Jesus so that we may be assured that He is God in human flesh, the King.
The God Who Rules
Herod the king of Judea has already been mentioned by Luke (1:5), and here Caesar Augustus the Roman Emperor and Cyrenius the governor of Syria get mentions (2:1-2). Part of this continues to establish the fact that Luke is concerned with history. His gospel is a record of historical events which he carefully researched (cf. 1:2-3). Not only is the gospel historical (meaning it actually happened), but it is also historically significant. The events of the gospel have impacted, radically affected history, and therefore are significant for all people. There is also a theological point at work, and that is that God works through human powers to accomplish His purposes. Going all the way back to the story of Joseph, what men meant for evil, God superintends for good (Gen. 50:20). Isaiah says that God did the same thing with the Assyrian empire when He used them as a rod to strike His disobedient people Israel (Is. 10:5-12ff). As Solomon says, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the Lord, as the rivers of water: he turns it wherever he will” (Prov. 21:1). This sovereign rule is the basis of our Christian confidence that all things work together for good to those who love God, and nothing will be able to separate us from His love (Rom. 8:28-39). Here, God has moved the hearts of a Roman Emperor and a Syrian governor to raise taxes (Lk. 1:1-3), and in this, He is proceeding with His plan (without asking for permission) for the new King of the World to be born in Bethlehem, the city of King David (Lk. 1:4).
The God Who Tests
We should not miss the extraordinary inconvenience this placed on Mary who was near the end of her pregnancy (1:5-6). She is a first time mom, pregnant out of wedlock, and now required to be away from home right around the time she is due, and of course it turns out that they cannot even find ideal lodging (1:7). Talk about a bad dream! Imagine all of the ways she may have been tempted to fear or be embarrassed, to be frustrated, and at the very least extremely uncomfortable. Childbirth has never been easy, but it was a much greater medical risk in those days as well. On the one hand, this reminds us that God does not promise us a convenient, pain-free life. Jesus says to follow Him means to take up a cross. He assures us that there is good, abundant, truly blessed life in following Him, but He does not promise it will always be easy and fun. On the other hand, this also underline’s Mary’s faith and commitment to trust the word of God. She said, “Let it be to me according to your word,” and we see here that she meant it at nine months pregnant. How do you respond to disappointments and trials? There certainly is a place for prayer that cries out to God for relief, but even this deep sorrow and pain must rest in the goodness of God (Phil. 4:6-7). The Bible clearly teaches us that God sometimes tests our faith. He does not tempt us to sin (Js. 1:13-14), and He always provides a way of escape (1 Cor. 10:13). But God does discipline us, test us, try us, to refine us like silver and gold (Is. 48:10, Zech. 13:9, Mal. 3:2-3, Heb. 12:5-11). Mary knew that her son would be great, but she had no assurance of what that meant for her, but she trusted God anyway.
The God for the Indecent
Don’t miss who receives the first announcement of the new King’s birth. It is not Caesar Augustus, not Herod, not Cyrenius, but a biker gang at a dive bar in Boville, Idaho. Ok, they were shepherds keeping an eye on the sheep in the fields late at night (Lk. 1:8), but it is well documented that these men were not considered the most upstanding members of society. This too is the third appearance of an angel, and it’s getting more and more sketchy. The temple is one thing, but a teenage girl in the country and dirty shepherds out in the fields seems unprofessional and downright indecent. But notice that this means that God is both using the established authorities to accomplish His purposes, and He is not at all bound by them. He can work through the Supreme Courts and Congresses and Presidents of the world, and He is free to work through faithful men and women in a small college town in northern Idaho. Jesus did not send out college educated professionals; He sent “unlearned and ignorant men” who had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13). It doesn’t matter who you are or where you’ve come from. It doesn’t matter how you have failed, how you have sinned, or how you have been sinned against. What matters is Jesus. You don’t bring your decency to Jesus; you bring your indecency. You don’t bring your respectability to Jesus; you bring your shame. You don’t bring your smug indifference; you bring your powerlessness and desperate need. What matters is your willingness to humble yourself, your willingness to fear God and not man, your willingness to be thought the fool, the trouble maker, the outsider. Do not fear but believe that what God has for you is good news of great joy which is for all people (Lk. 2:10).
The sign of God’s Kingdom was a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. On the one hand this is surprising for the seeming lack of nobility, and yet it was announced by angels to shepherds who came and found the baby just as they had been told. It is the very unlikeliness that makes it certainly true. Luke catches our eyes here once again as if to ask, don’t you see? It’s true. God has come into the world. You can trust and obey Him. And when you surrender your life to this God who has come as a Child and yet the King of the World, you have begun to be a child again. And your life also becomes a sign that the King has come.