Where we left things last week in Luke 1 is with a teenage girl engaged to be married named Mary, and she was visited by an angel who told her she would become pregnant, but without the usual means. The angel knew this would be difficult to believe, so he gave her a sign that what he said was true, and that was that Mary’s elderly relative Elizabeth was also pregnant. Mary walked 70 miles to find out if that was true, and sure enough it was!
So Mary stayed three months there with Elizabeth before she turned around and headed home to break the news to her fiancé Joseph, to her family, her pastor, etc, that she was pregnant. Before we take a look at how Joseph responded to the news, let’s once again start our time together in the prophets.
Turn in your Bibles to a little book called Micah. Micah was a prophet of Israel about 700 years before Mary and Elizabeth’s story begins. In those days, God’s people were still living in the promised land, but they had massively gone astray. The memories of the great King David were fading as multiple kings ascended to the throne who were full of wickedness and idolatry. God’s judgment on the nation was looming as Micah and Isaiah and others continually preached against the wickedness of Israel’s kings and her religious leaders.
But as almost every single prophet does when he proclaims judgment against God’s people for their sin, Micah also includes redemption and mercy. That even though God might discipline them for sin, he is still for them and will act on their behalf. And as part of that promise of redemption, Micah prophecies these words in chapter 5.
Micah 5:1-5 CSB
So Micah’s prophecy is that even though the people of God are in a season of grief and war and uncertainty and darkness, there is a day coming that will be marked by security, peace, strength. And the thing that makes the difference, the action that makes the swing from war to peace, from insecurity to security, from weakness to strength is a shepherd king from the tribe of Judah, who will come from the tiny town of Bethlehem.
And when I say “king” and “Bethlehem” all the bells go off in our heads, “he’s talking about Jesus!”
But if you’re Theophilus, or anyone else reading this in the first century, who doesn’t have the luxury of singing Christmas carols every year, or reading the account of Jesus’ birth until this letter, you might find this to be a bit of a problem. Mary is leaving Elizabeth’s house probably 3 months along in her pregnancy, and she’s not headed to Bethlehem where the king will be born – she’s headed home to Nazareth! That’s the wrong direction altogether. She’s headed North, when Bethlehem is south.
Now flip back to Luke with me – and we’ll be in Luke 2 which Beth read for us a minute ago.
The last political leader we met in this story was King Herod, so who is Caesar Augustus and what happened to Herod? Well, Herod was a puppet-king for Rome who ruled over Judea, the region around Jerusalem. Caesar was the first emperor of Rome, and King Herod would have answered to him. Augustus was known for doubling the Roman Empire in his 40 years on the throne, instituting systems of censuses and taxation, expanding the network of roads, and working hard to beautify and improve the city of Rome. His reign ushered in 200 years of what we call Pax Romana, or Roman Peace. He was considered a god, as most emperors were, and because his reign was peaceful – he was the emperor of peace. About halfway through his reign, he was so impressed with himself that he renamed one of the calendar months after himself, one we still know as August.(1)
As part of his method of bringing order and taxation to the provinces under his authority, Augustus issued decrees often for registrations and censuses to determine the generations, origins, families, and properties of the people. This would help keep track of how many men he had of military age if he needed to build the army, it would tell him where the money is, who owned land, and for the positive knowledge of where roads, water, banks, etc were needed.
Interestingly, one of the jobs of the people running the census is that they were specifically asked to forbid being unmarried. If you show up at the registration and were of age to be married but weren’t, you could face severe penalties. Rome wanted Romans to produce Roman citizens.(2)
Here is Joseph, Mary’s fiancé, who has to answer to Caesar’s decree, and register himself, his animals, his land if he has any, his bank account, etc. This is very inconvenient for him. It’s one thing for us to get a little letter in the mail: How many people live in your house? Did you get married this year? Did you move? Did you update your home? But for them, it was a lot more involved. Bethlehem sits about 90 miles from Nazareth, so for Joseph, it meant days, maybe even weeks away from home.
I know how long it takes Jodi and I to do our taxes every year – Joseph would have had to take a complete inventory of his entire property, and then plan for a trip that could last several weeks. If Mary was 3 months pregnant when she returned from Elizabeths, it’s very likely that this whole trip would have him gone while Mary’s child was born.
Which he was actually okay with at first. The gospel of Matthew tells us that Joseph responded top Mary’s announcement a little better than you’d expect – legally, he could gather up friends and family, and after the official divorce, take her to the edge of town, beat her, rip up her clothes, and leave her as an example of what happens to people who get caught cheating.
But Joseph was a righteous man, Matthew says, and so he didn’t want to publicly shame Mary. So he would divorce her quietly. But he got a visit from an angel as well, who told him “don’t be afraid to stay the course.” The angel told him to continue on with the wedding plans to take Mary as his wife.
Why would Joseph be afraid to marry her? Because if he did, her shame would be transferred to him. He would have to enter into Mary’s shame; to put his shoulder into the burden she would have to carry, and walk with her through whatever might come.
Do you see the gospel right there?!? That’s why Jesus was coming to earth in the first place! As the prophets Isaiah and Micah watched Israel dive headlong into spiritual prostitution and wickedness, they knew God had every right to divorce himself from his people because of their sin. But what is so shocking about the gospel is that instead of divorce, Jesus entered into the shame of his wayward people to redeem us from our sin! Instead of adding shame and judgment, Jesus would put his shoulder into our burdens and walk with us through our mess.
And secondly, the gospel says Mary is not expendable in the kingdom. It’s not like God is saying, “look your life is going to be tough, and I’m sorry for that, but someone has to do it – it’s for the greater good. Your hard life is a means to an end for the nation of Israel.” Instead, God is saying, yes there will be a greater good for the nation if you do this, Mary, but I see YOU! I care about you! And I won’t let you bear this shame alone.
One of the ways I’ve seen that happen recently even here at River City, was sitting with a couple who had experienced a difficult experience, asking all the questions that we ask in those situations: Why? How could this happen? What is God doing? And yet they said that people kept coming by, texting, calling, stopping in, praying with them, randomly walking up to them and giving hugs without saying anything… that’s what it looks like in real life as Jesus puts his shoulder into our burdens and lets us know – you don’t walk alone. This burden isn’t yours to carry by yourself.
So, Joseph isn’t traveling alone to Bethlehem.
We don’t know how far along Mary is in her pregnancy. Luke doesn’t say. Given the time it must have taken to get ready for this trip, it’s probable that she’s in her third trimester somewhere, so it might seem a little strange that she’s going along with Joseph and not staying home with her family who would be there to help with the birth.
It’s possible that Joseph wanted to have her along with him to prove to the census-takers that though he wasn’t married officially, he did have a wife. Maybe he could avoid the fine for being unmarried if she were there. Or maybe, given the amount of time that Joseph would have been away, Mary would have gone along so that Joseph didn’t miss the birth of Jesus. But the bottom line is – God was using the seemingly random events of Caesar’s decree to get the parents of the Messiah to the right place at the right time, so that Micah’s words of prophecy would be fulfilled.
I’ve listened to my wife exchange birth stories with other women enough to know that if a woman had written this, you’d know a lot more details about the birth. You’d know how many hours she pushed and how much the baby weighed, how long he was, what percentile his head measured, etc.
But Luke says simply: “When the time came, she gave birth, put him in some cloth, and laid him in a manger. The end.” We don’t even know the actual date or the actual year! It was either 6BC or 3BC, and it was probably in September or October. We don’t actually know.
Not what you would expect for a king. You would expect a formal birth announcement with an exact date and time. Pictures. Family. But here is “the Messiah in his own town, “the city of David”, and instead of being kingly and regal and majestic, his birth is humble and dirty and poor.”(3) There is no fanfare to welcome him into the world. Elizabeth had neighbors and relatives with her at John’s birth, but Joseph and Mary are alone. No trumpets or public announcements to crowds waiting to hear what happened. No fancy baby clothes or professional nurses or top of the line medical care…just animals.
The Son of God, born into the world at a certain place and time, though at the same time like Micah 5:2 said, he had no beginning – eternally existing before anything else was made.
Nothing but a feeding trough to hold him, even though at the same time he was upholding the universe by the word of his power.
Here was the Son of God drawing nourishment through an umbilical cord, and then from Mary’s breast, though at the same time he himself the Bread of Life and the Living water that she would need for eternal life.
The king of heaven wrapped only in cheap cloth, although at the same time, he was clothed in all the majesty, righteousness, and the fullness of God.
Born during the reign of a self-proclaimed god, Caesar Augustus, the emperor of peace who expanded the security and stability of Rome which would one day fall, yet Jesus himself, fully God and fully man, being the true Prince of Peace, the shepherd king Micah prophesied about who would establish not only horizontal peace, but peace with God, ushering in an eternal kingdom that will never fall.
The Son of man, and at the same time the Son of God. Fully human. Yet fully divine. Fully man. Fully God.
Why does it matter that he was fully man? Hebrews 4:15 says we don’t worship someone who has no idea what we go through on a daily basis! We have a high priest, a mediator between us and God, who is able to sympathize with our weakness, who understands every temptation you and I face, who knows what it feels like to find God seems very distant and far away. There is not a single thing you can pray to Jesus where he can’t respond with, “I know.” He’s been in our shoes. Therefore, Hebrews 4:16, when we run to God, we don’t find condemnation. We find grace. We find mercy. Was Jesus a human who became God by living a sinless life? No. He was God who became man because he is merciful.
But he wasn’t just man – he was also fully God.
Why does it matter that he was fully God? Because all of us have sinned and fallen short. Sin doesn't make us bad, it makes us dead. And if no one was righteous, no one did good, no one seeks God on their own, then we are all spiritually dead. If Jesus is only man and not fully God, he cannot be the perfect sinless sacrifice required by God’s holiness. If Jesus isn’t God, he can’t forgive sins. He can’t wash away your shame. His blood would be useless. Did Jesus give up being God in order to become man? Emphatically no. That would have been tragic. But as it is, because he was fully God, and did live a sinless life, God raised him from the dead, and now the blood of Jesus CAN wash away our sin, CAN clean us of our unrighteousness, and his blood fully funds the unlimited account of grace that 10 billion years from now will not be a drop less than it is today.
So what do we do with that? What is our response?
Here’s one instance where I like other translations of the Bible better than CSB. I think the translators missed it on this one. Verse 10, the angel said, “Don’t be afraid, for look, I proclaim to you good news of great joy…”
The CSB chose the word “look” when the word is “BEHOLD.” The word behold carries more action than just “look.” To behold something is to take it in, consider it, to let it move you.
On our vacation this summer, we drove through three national Parks – Yellowstone, Grand Tetons in WY, and Glacier in northern Montana.
This picture is from Glacier, where you’re driving on this narrow road on the side of a mountain, where if you were to go over the guardrail, you would not stop falling for a long time. But in all the parks we visited we were all doing a lot of “looking.” Hey guys look at this, hey look at that. But every now and then we had to stop at a pull out to behold. To take it all in, to try and wrap our heads around the magnificence of what we were driving through.
The angel is asking the shepherds not just to look, but to behold; to consider what they know about the prophecies, to remember what they’d be taught, to think about what this would mean for them, for their nation, for their future, and to listen carefully to the words of the angel.
Micah’s prophecy was to sinful people. To those who had rebelled against God’s covenant, his laws, his moral standards, and Micah was prophesying that judgment was on the way. Then he said, the eternal shepherd king, in the strength of the Lord, would show up and bring peace.
Wouldn’t you expect the angels to show up and say “Hey! The king is here! Get your act together down here! What are you doing?!” I mean that’s what I say to my kids when they aren’t behaving. That’s what you say at work when you hear the boss’s voice coming down the hall – quickly close that browser tab where you were checking Facebook and get the spreadsheet back open.
And yet the proclamation of the angels to the shepherds is not BEHAVE, it’s BEHOLD! Oh, church, if we only understood the significance of that. Behaving is all about what you do to stay in line - to earn favor; Beholding is all about considering, studying, being in awe of what someone else has done.
2 Corinthians 5 teaches that this Jesus – who lived a perfect life without one single moment where he took matters into his own hands, not one single moment where he doubted God’s plan, not one single moment where he disobeyed or refused or rebelled against his Father’s plan – took our sin and our shame on himself, wore our nametag so to speak on the cross, not so that he could stand back and say, “ha, I’m better than you. I did what you couldn’t do”, but so that he would be able to say, “Come to me for rest!! I forgive you. I am your healer, your Savior, your king – you are mine and I am yours. Stop striving for something that’s already finished.”
The message of the gospel is not behave, it’s behold! JESUS has done the behaving; you do the beholding! You don’t have to show up in the gathering today trying harder to be a better person, a better version of yourself: Jesus, the best person ever, has given you the perfect version of HIMSELF! The way you become the best version of yourself is when you stop trying to behave and start beholding.
We no longer have to hide in shame because of our past behavior: Jesus took the shame and death associated with our behavior, God accepted the payment of Jesus’ death, rose him to life again to prove the check cleared, and now we are accepted by God not by what we’ve done, but by what Jesus has done!
Friends: The gospel isn’t a checklist: it is NEWS! GOOD news, the angels said, of great joy that will be for all people. It is good news for wealthy people, poor people, middle class people, city people, country people, sub-urban people, conservative, liberal people, communist people, straight people, gay people, trans people, vaccinated people, unvaccinated people, every ethnic group, every race of people, every language spoken, young people, elderly people – the gospel is good news of great joy to anyone who is poor in spirit enough to admit they are a sinner in need of a Savior: the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
You think you’ve messed up too much for Jesus to love you? You think this king is out to get you? You think the message of the gospel is only for people who have their act together? The good news for you today is that your Savior has made himself as approachable as a baby in a barn.
The question you need to answer is, What kind of shepherd will you be? Will you stay in the fields with the sheep and say it sounds too good to be true? Will you harden your heart and say, even if I found him he wouldn’t want me? Or will you take him at his word = search for him, knocking on doors, asking good questions, not giving up until you find him?
We’re going to behold our king this morning through Communion. The only way a holy king could make himself approachable and available to us is if he did something about our sin; if he did something about the giant ravine of sin that stood between us and God. And he has.
- Ibid, 844