In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favours!’ (NRSV)
Emperor Augustus had authority. He was a man of power and influence. People feared him and obeyed.
So, when Augustus issued a ‘decree’ people moved. Each family packed what they needed and left what they did not. Mary and Joseph travelled from one place to another at the order of empire.
And Mary is nine months pregnant.
No doubt Joseph did his best to make the journey as bearable as possible. Perhaps the fact that the rooms are gone indicates he took more time than most to cover the distance. It looks like everyone else arrived before them. It is a precious load they carry.
And there in that stable two new parents did the best they could with the little they had. The child saviour, vulnerable to the cold, was wraped in ‘strips of cloth’ to fight the chill. He needed somewhere to lie down so Joseph cleared the food trough, stacked it with fresh hay, and provided somewhere for him to sleep. They are nothing if not resourceful and imaginative.
It all amounts to a rather strange start.
But this story is not over yet. Heaven is watching these events. Angels are about to appear singing their freshly composed celebratory songs. They will reveal hidden glory to midnight shepherds over all this. Fear will give way to wonder and curiosity. These labourers will leave their watch and search for this ‘sign’.
Yes, all this, according to the ‘angel of the Lord’ is a ‘sign’. The resourcefulness of Joseph and Mary has become, in the hand of God, a pointer to field shepherds of the long-awaited fulfillment of the promises of God.
Others may need thrones and palaces – symbolising their place in the world with armies and ‘decrees’. But God ushers in his long-awaited Messiah by having his angels point common labourers to the handiwork of two imaginative parents: ‘This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger’.
Christmas is a celebration of the strange activity of God. It is a time to look to the ‘sign’ God placed on earth and remember that the hope God planted is true and sure. It is more worthy of our celebration than passing authorities and fear toting armies.
I guess that is why the angels just have to appear and sing the praises of heaven. It is like they want ‘in’ on the action. Maybe they sense that this is the greatest of all moments.
God, in God’s own odd way, has come to dwell among us.