Have you seen a telescoping spyglass? There is a wide cylinder in which a narrower cylinder rests, in which a yet narrower cylinder rests, and perhaps several more. I think our view of reality is likewise telescoping. We live in the narrow end and view our world through the lens of our own experiences. But we and our experiences are contained within a family circle, and our family circle exists within a community, and our community exists within a nation, and our nation exists within a world.
Most of our attention is given to the nearest circles of reality: ourselves, our family, and our immediate community, which is normal and good. But it is important to remember that we are part of something bigger, and that something bigger is part of something bigger still.
Think again of the telescoping spyglass and how its widest cylinder contains all the others all at once. It is that way with us, where the widest circle is not our nation. It is not our world, or even our cosmos. The widest circle, containing all others, is our God. He is, in the language of the apostle, “All in all” (1 Cor. 15:29).
We do ourselves injury when we fail to see that all things exist within the rule and love of our God. This includes the good and beautiful things, which we enjoy and for which we ought to be thankful. And it includes the hard things we endure, and even the grievous things we can hardly bear. Though we live within all these things, they exist within the encompassing scope of the gracious God’s good intent.
When we fail to believe this, many things disturb our peace and cast doubt on our security. Instead of being an opportunity to know God, life becomes an irritation and a threat. We question whether God loves us, whether we’ll be okay, whether we are enough. We have zoomed out far enough to see the enemies that threaten us and the griefs that might overtake us, but not far enough to see the heavenly Father within whose will all these things exist and to whom they pose no threat.
In verse 1, we read that “Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” I wonder if the Emperor’s decree disturbed St. Joseph’s peace. Things were already difficult for him. Before he got married, his wife had become pregnant in mysterious circumstance and while she was away from home. And now this. The international census, instituted by the Emperor Augustus, had come to Israel.
There are various purposes for a census, but one is universal: effective taxation. Apparently, the Divine Caesar needed to do something about his cash flow. Posting troops around the world was expensive then, just as it is now. It is hard to plan a budget when you don’t know how much revenue to expect. And you won’t know how much to expect unless you identify your sources of revenue; hence, the census.
In Israel, unlike in the provinces, people were required to return to their hometowns to be registered in the census. Had I been Joseph, I expect I would have complained: complained about the Emperor, complained about the situation, complained about the time off work, complained about pretty much everything.
Perhaps Joseph, good man that he was, did not complain. Perhaps he saw that he, and his circumstances, and his work, and even his godless Emperor were all within his good God’s good intent. Whatever may be the case, Joseph went to his hometown; he went to Bethlehem. Luke tells us that he did this because he belonged to the house and line of David. And he took Mary with him.
Why he took Mary is not exactly clear. In other regions of the Empire, only landowners were required to register. Perhaps Mary, who was also from David’s line, was an only child and had inherited property from her parents. Or perhaps Joseph took her along to get her out of Nazareth because of what people there were saying about her. Whatever his reasons, Jospeh took Mary went with him, though she was (as the NIV puts it in verse), “expecting a child” (Luke 2:5), or, as the King James translated, “being great with child.”
It must have been a wearisome trip. Depending on the route they followed, they would need to travel between 70 and 90 miles, much of it uphill. Normally that would take four to six days, but Mary was quite possibly in her third trimester, so it might have taken even longer.
The popular account of Joseph and Mary reaching Bethlehem just as she goes into labor does not seem to fit the biblical text. Luke writes (verse 6) that “While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born…” We don’t know how long they were there, but it is unlikely that they stumbled into Bethlehem just in time for the baby to be born.
That’s not the only inaccuracy in the way the story gets told. The text does not say anything about a hard-hearted innkeeper turning them away. It is true that verse 7 says that there was no room for them in the inn, but the meaning of that word is in question. In its only other use in this Gospel, the word refers to a guest room in someone house. And the one time Luke clearly speaks about a travelers inn, he uses a different word.
So, let’s put those details together, then think about how Mary and Joseph must have felt. They arrived in Bethlehem prior to Mary’s labor. They had been there at least a short time before the baby was born. The inn – or guest room, which is a more likely translation – was unavailable to them. The text says literally (in a word for word translation), “because not to them was there a place in the guest room.”
Perhaps there was no place because other family members had arrived first and already occupied the guest room. But can you imagine a loving family sticking the pregnant girl who was about to give birth in the stable rather than giving up their room for her? It may be that the family disproved of Mary – almost thirty years later people were still making snide comments about Jesus being born illegitimately – and because of that she and Joseph slept with the animals.
This is speculative, of course. But imagine being Joseph or Mary. The family does not take you in. They say: “Sorry, very pregnant girl. You’ll need to sleep with the animals.” How would you feel? Would you remember the telescoping nature of reality and remind yourself that you were safe in God’s care?
From very early in Christian history, it has been said that Jesus was born in a cave. The church of the Nativity is built over the site of the cave that early Christians believed to be Jesus’s birthplace. Because homes were built on the ridge in Bethlehem and the ridge was dotted with caves, this cave may have been below a family member’s house, where his animals were sheltered. It might also have been a cave that local shepherds used for their animals. That seems likely to me because when the angel told the shepherds that a baby who is the Lord Messiah had been born and was lying in a manger – a feed trough for livestock – the shepherds hurried off (verse 16) and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby. They didn’t need to ask directions. They seemed to know where the baby in the manger would be. How did they know? It is possible that the cave where Joseph sought shelter belonged to (or was used by) one of those shepherds.
Luke first introduces those shepherds in verse 8. He says that “there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.” The fact that they were nearby is interesting and a little unexpected. It is unexpected because Bethlehem was not much more than five miles away from Jerusalem. Why does that matter? It matters because there was an ordinance that banned livestock from being kept within an eleven mile radius of the Holy City. (This was because of purity laws.)
So, what were these shepherds doing within the prohibited area? Were they breaking the law? No. There was one exception to the ban, which was a matter of necessity. Animals raised for sacrifice at the temple – and many tens of thousands were needed each year – were permitted within the eleven mile radius. That means that the sheep and other animals around Bethlehem were bred and raised for one purpose: to be sacrificed – frequently as sin offerings – to God.
How fitting that the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world would be born and then raised for a time in Bethlehem! The one whom God presented as a sacrifice of atonement was born where many such lambs had been born, dating back centuries. The shepherds who attended him at his birth had attended the births of thousands of lambs that had been offered in sacrifice to make atonement.
Can you feel the circle within circle of the providence of the all-knowing God? But did any of this occur to Joseph’s mind when he was informed – perhaps by some swaggering Roman soldier – that he must leave Nazareth and travel to Bethlehem at the most inconvenient time and register in a most inconvenient census for a most inconvenient tax? Probably not. But God knew. No wonder Paul burst into praise: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out! Who has known the mind of the Lord? Or who has been his counselor? Who has ever given to God, that God should repay him? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be the glory forever! Amen” (Romans 11:33-36).
Luke began the birth narrative section with Augustus, “Father of his country,” “Savior of the world,” “the Emperor Caesar Son of God” – those were some of his titles. Now he turns from the most powerful man in the world to men who lived at the other end of the social spectrum. Shepherds had no authority or status. They were peasants who rarely owned their own land or even the sheep they tended. But the God who, in Mary’s words, “has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts … has lifted up the humble” (Luke 1:51b, 52b). The shepherds, no less than the Emperor Augustus, were well-known to God, and both they and he existed within the circle of his will.
God’s messenger angel brought these shepherds the good news that the Savior, the Lord Messiah, had been born to them. Notice how personal this good news is. The angel does not say, though it was true, that a Savior had been born to the world, but rather “to you is born this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord.” The shepherds, who were so often excluded from social functions, were included by God, and honored by him.
The angel gave the shepherds a sign. God will, I think, give signs to anyone who will make use of them. I’ve talked to people who say, “If God wants us to believe in him, why doesn’t he just give us a sign?” I suspect those same people pass by every sign that God posts without reading them. If a sign will help, you can be sure that God will give it. That was the case for the shepherds.
This is what I think happened. When the angel told the shepherds, “You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (an animal’s feed trough), they knew just where to look. I don’t doubt that Joseph had already talked to one of these shepherds about using the shelter where he kept the sheep when the weather was bad – and when the ewes were lambing – and so they knew right where to look.
The news that a baby had been born and was lying in a manger might have left the shepherds wondering what help a baby would be – especially a baby born to a poor family who had to use a manger for his crib. Perhaps they thought, “We need an army, not a baby.” But this baby came with backup – not that he needed it. For immediately, the sky was filled with “a great company of the heavenly host” (2:13).
We’ve heard that phrase many times, usually as part of the Christmas story, but we might not understand what it means. The word translated “host” is simply the Greek word for “army.” This is Company A – possibly part of a combat brigade. We often speak of these herald angels as singing, as if they were a choir, but the text says they “were praising God and saying…” Perhaps we would be better to imagine their words as a chant, a kind of marching cadence: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (2:14).
As soon as the army had vanished from sight – though they maintained – and still maintain – a strategic position – the shepherds “hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger” (2:16). The shepherds that kept watch over the sheep found the Lamb that keeps watch over them.
And now, be amazed at our great and glorious God, from whom and through whom and to whom are all things. See again the telescoping reality of his creation. The movers and shakers of the earth – the great ones who have taken titles for themselves and think that they are the ultimate power of the universe – fit easily into our God’s hand and can do nothing to thwart his will. And as we descend from these great ones, circle within circle, world, nations, kings and rulers, we arrive at last at the circle we occupy.
It is filled with ordinary things: with births and deaths; with need and plenty; with love and hate; with beauty and ugliness. In this circle, we go to our jobs – whether we are shepherds or craftsmen. We go to the market. We go to school. We eventually go to our grave. This circle too is within the scope of God’s purpose, and we are held in the palm of his hand.
But because of Christmas, because the Word was made flesh, the God in whom all things hold together was himself held in the Virgin’s womb – and then in the manger crib. The same God who is wholly other is one with us. The One who transcends all things is imminent within them. The God who is ultimate being, the outside cylinder of this telescope reality, is also at the center of its inmost circle. He is all and in all.
The God who exists beyond time, and at all points in time, enters time and dwells with us. “Time is silly putty in his hands,” as the philosopher Peter Kreeft once said. He can compress a thousand years into a day and stretch a day into a thousand years. Time is his accordion, which he expands and contracts as he plays his dazzling tunes.
The eternal God has entered time. The infinite God whom the heavens and the highest heaven cannot contain (2 Chron. 6:18) now dwells in people – first in the Virgin’s womb and now in our hearts. When he came to be born of the Virgin, angel armies stood at attention. When he comes to judge the earth, angel armies will do the same.
On this Christmas Day, we worship the newborn king who is also the Ancient of Days. We glory in the infinite God who once lay in a cramped manger. He did not despise the Virgin’s womb, nor has he despised the hovel of our hearts. Instead, he is making them new from the inside.
On this Christmas day, let us take courage: for this God, who holds emperors and kings and presidents in his hand and disposes them according to his will; this God who made all things and in whom all things consist; this God is, by the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, our God and we are safe in his hand.