Rightly Remembering Christmas

What if we misremembered something that was fairly important? What if, for hundreds of years, we had false memories about something as important as Christmas?

JDudgeon on December 24, 2023
Rightly Remembering Christmas
December 24, 2023

Rightly Remembering Christmas

Passage: Luke 2:1-7
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When did Nelson Mandela die? The correct answer is 2013. But if you asked around, a significant number of people have a clear memory of him dying while in prison back in the 1980s. They’re convinced it happened and are surprised to find out that he was alive for several decades after this time.

Since psychologists began to research this, they’ve used the phrase “Mandela Effect” to describe what happens when a group of people together share a memory of something that never actually happened.

Many examples of the Mandela Effect are fairly minor and unimportant. For example, Darth Vader never says “Luke, I am your father.” He says “No, I am your father.” Mr. Rogers never sang that it was a beautiful day in the neighbourhood. His actual song said “It’s a beautiful day in this neighbourhood.”

These are small examples of us remembering something wrong that don’t really matter. But what if we experienced the Mandela Effect with something that was fairly important? What if, for hundreds of years, we had false memories about something as important as Christmas?

How could that happen? We all know the story of Christmas so well, don’t we? We all know that Mary and Joseph set out by themselves on a journey to Bethlehem, with Mary 9 months pregnant riding on the back of a donkey. We all know that they got into Bethlehem late on the very night that she was going into labour, and that everybody turned them away leaving them no place to rest except in a stable outside of town where it was just them and some animals.

And there, with nothing but what you can find in a stable, Mary gave birth, and it was just her and Joseph, until the shepherds and wise men showed up, and together they worshipped the Christ child.

And with the shepherds was a little boy who decided to help calm the new baby with an extended drum solo.

We all know that’s the story, right?

Except what if it isn’t? What if I told you that many of those details I just shared with you are nowhere to be found in the pages of Scripture? I mean, we know about the drummer boy, but what about some of the others? What if some of the things that we remember about Christmas may never have actually happened?

And what if what really happened is different, but better, and this different but better story of Christmas invites us deeper into the wonder of the the birth of Jesus?

We’re going to answer those questions today as we take a break from our series in 1 Peter to explore the birth of Jesus together from Luke 2.


Luke 2

Luke 2 is the passage that we often think of when we think about the story of the birth of Christ, because of the four gospels it’s what records most of the details we know about the event.

Matthew simply tells us that Mary gave birth to a son, and Joseph called his name Jesus, and after Jesus was born the wise men came to worship Him. That’s it. Very little detail. Mark and John tell us nothing about the birth of Jesus. And so pretty much everything we know comes from Luke.


1. The Decree (vv. 1-2)

Now before we get to Luke 2, we can’t remember how much anticipation the first chapter has built, preparing us for God to be on the move doing exciting things. We’ve had angel visits and prophecies and all kinds of incredible things going on.

And so it’s almost jarring to hear, in verse 1 of chapter 2, that “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered” (Luke 2:1). This is a pretty stiff reminder that Israel was not a free country by this point in history. In fact, Israel wasn’t even a country. It was a group of Roman provinces—Judea, Samaria, Galilee—under the thumb of foreign overlords. It really was “captive Israel.”

Caesar Augustus was the first Roman emperor. Rome had been a republic for some time but he seized ultimate power and set about to bring peace and prosperity to his empire. And around Caesar Augustus developed basically a cult of emperor worship. We have inscriptions from that era speaking about his birth as being “good news” for the world. He was said to be the son of one of the gods, the saviour of the world, and his reign was one of peace and hope.

And he sent out a decree that the world should be registered. In other words, a census, registering the people in all the provinces of his empire so they government could know who all was there. And Luke wants to ground this firmly in history because he says, in verse 2, “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.”

In other words, not “once upon a time, in a land far, far away.” No, this is history and Luke grounds this in events the people of that day would have understood and would have remembered. And verse 3 tells us that “all went to be registered, each to his own town.”

Now this is also interesting, because typically, from what we know about the ancient world, most census’ didn’t requite people to travel to their hometowns. So maybe this one was an exception, and Luke is the only record of it. Maybe this was a Jewish practice. Maybe Joseph had barely just moved to Nazareth. Maybe he still owned land in Bethlehem and that’s why he had to go back, a practice we have some record of in the ancient world.

We’re not 100% sure, but in any case, Luke tells us that this happened, and we assume his first readers knew what was going on.

Let’s step back and remember the big idea in these first verses that often gets lost in these other details: Caesar Augustus was big, large, and in charge. He was the most powerful human in the world, looked to as a saviour and even a god. And little Joseph and Mary in Nazareth are just two of his many subjects who are forced to uproot their lives to go on a journey at the whims of this foreign ruler.


2. The Journey (vv. 3-5)

That brings us to our second step in the story, which is the journey. Verse 4: “And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child” (Luke 2:4–5).

The language here shows us Luke’s attention to detail. It says that Joseph went “up” from Galilee. We think that he would have gone “down” from Galilee, because Galilee is to the north of Judea. But that’s because we’re used to seeing maps that put “north” as “up.”

They didn’t think that way. They thought in terms of simple elevation. And Nazareth was quite a bit lower than Bethlehem. They would have had to literally climb several hundred feet over a three day journey to go “up” to Bethlehem. This is one of those little details that shows us that Luke knows his stuff.

Joseph “went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem.” This is an interesting detail because “The city of David,” to most people, would be thought of as Jerusalem. The locals knew that Bethlehem was really his hometown, and so Luke includes both this local reference and the name that most others would be familiar with.

And why did Joseph go to Bethlehem? “Because he was of the house and lineage of David.” This is really important because the Messiah was promised to be the son of David. Joseph being of the line of David means that, as Joseph’s adopted son, Jesus had a legitimate legal claim to the throne of David.

It’s also important because the prophets foretold that the Messiah, just like his father David, would be born in Bethlehem. Micah 5:2 records these words “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days” (Micah 5:2). And here we see God using Caesar’s census to move Joseph and Mary into place to make sure that this ancient prophecy was fulfilled.

Don’t miss what’s happening. Through the whims of Caesar, God is moving the pieces into place to fulfill His ancient promises. It looks like Mary and Joseph are mere pawns in Caesar’s great plans. But in reality Caesar is just a pawn in God’s great plans.

And so off Joseph and Mary go, up to Bethlehem. And it’s important we note what the story tells us, and what it doesn’t tell us. It tells us in verse 4 that he went up, and in verse 5 that she went with him, and that she was with child. That’s it.

It doesn’t say anything about a donkey. Could Mary have ridden on a donkey? Maybe. It was a three-day journey. But the story doesn’t mention a donkey.

It also doesn’t say that they were alone. It says that they went up, but not that just the two of them went up. If there was a migration of people from Bethlehem to Galilee around this time, then it’s almost certain Joseph wasn’t the only person having to make this journey back to Bethlehem for the census.

I heard about someone sharing this story with some people from the Middle East and they were shocked that we would think just Joseph and Mary made this trip alone. With Mary being pregnant, they said, there’s no way the women of her town would have let her make this journey with just a man to take care of her.

Now, the text doesn’t tell us that women from her town went along to care for her. Maybe, given the scandal associated with her birth, they would have let her go alone. Maybe that’s exactly why Joseph decided to bring Mary with him, because it wasn’t safe for her to be in Nazareth without him to protect her.

We don’t know. But it is a good reminder that we shouldn’t read hundreds of years of Christmas tradition into this passage and assume too much. Just because it says Mary was with him doesn’t mean that just Mary was with him.

It also doesn’t say that they made this journey when she was nine months pregnant. It just says that she was “with child” there at the end of verse 5. It’s extremely unlikely they would wait until the end of her pregnancy to make a journey like this. Most women at nine months of pregnancy aren’t up for much, let alone a bumpy ride on the back of a donkey for three days.

We do know for sure that they didn’t get in to Bethlehem right as she was giving brith, because of what verse 6 tells us: “And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth.”

That’s what it says. While they were already in Bethlehem, the time came for her to give birth, or, more literally, “The days for her to give birth were completed.” [Martin M. Culy, Mikeal C. Parsons, and Joshua J. Stigall, Luke: A Handbook on the Greek Text, Baylor Handbook on the Greek New Testament (Waco, TX: Baylor University Press, 2010), 68.]

It does not say, “As they got close to Bethlehem, the time came for her to give birth.” It says this happened when they were already there.

So this whole idea of them frantically knocking on doors right as they rushed into town is simply not found in the Bible. Someone invented this idea later on and it got stuck in people’s heads, but the Bible tells us that Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem, and that they were already there when the time came for her to give birth.


3. The Birth (vv. 6-7)

And that birth is recorded for us in fairly sparse detail in verse 7: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).

We should notice how Luke doesn’t embellish this with all kinds of details. He simply said that she gave birth. The ancient world knew that giving birth was hard and painful and bloody. The men would be ushered out of the place of birth but they could still hear the screams. They knew how many women died in childbirth, losing their lives as they brought a new one into the world. No doubt they prayed throughout the process, the only thing they could do.

Luke tells us that Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. We know Mary had other children, but Jesus was her firstborn, conceived by the Holy Spirit, heir to David’s throne.

It says next that she wrapped him in swaddling cloths. This is an interesting detail because this is just what people at that time in that place did with babies. They’d wrap them in strips of cloth to keep their limbs straight. This is nothing out of the ordinary but standard practice for babies.

The reason it’s important here is because, in just a few verses, the angel is going to tell the shepherds to look for a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths. In other words, a baby who had just been born. “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths” is almost like saying to someone today “you will find a baby with their hospital bracelet still on their ankle.” It’s a way of drawing attention to how young they were. And Luke records that detail here to set us up for the angel’s announcement to the shepherds.

Next, verse 7 tells us that she “laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

And here’s where we need to do a bit of work. Because it’s right here that a lot of people, for hundreds of years, have gotten very confused about what actually happened that night. A manger is a feeding trough for animals, and when we hear “manger” we think about our western world where animals are kept in barns.

We also hear the word “inn” and think of a hotel. And this has led to the idea that Mary and Joseph saw a “no vacancy” sign on the hotel, had no place to stay, until a kind soul said “well, I guess you can stay in my barn,” and of course they made it there just in time for Mary to have her baby.

This is not what happened. Jesus was not born in a barn but in a house in Bethlehem.

And let me show you why. Let’s start with the very basic idea of middle-eastern hospitality. In the land of the Bible, both in ancient times and in the present time, showing hospitality to strangers was one of the most important duties you could carry out. Do you remember our time in Genesis last spring, and how Abraham and Lot treated their guests when they visited them? That was what people did.

There is simply no way that Mary and Joseph would show up in Bethlehem and not be given a place to stay. That was not a possibility in that culture. Especially given that Joseph belongs to that town, and could very well have had family in that town. But even if he was a complete stranger, the people in that town would have done whatever they could to show hospitality to these two, especially given that one was pregnant.

Second, we have the word “manger.” Yes, a manger is a feeding trough for animals. But no, animals were not kept in barns. The people in that time didn’t keep their animals away from their house in barns because then they’d get stolen. At night they brought their animals into their homes where they would be secure and provide some heat.

Most homes in that time were very basic. We know this from many examples that scholars in the Middle East can go and see. In the middle was the main room where almost everything happened—eating, sleeping, and so on.  Think of Matthew 5:15 where Jesus said that people put a lamp “on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.” Unless someone was rich, their house was small enough and simple enough that one lamp could give light to all in the house.

Off to the one side of the the typical house was the place for the animals. Often this was built lower than the main structure so that the straw and animal droppings could be contained and more easily cleaned. But it was within the house. That’s why in 1 Samuel 28:24 we ready that “the woman had a fatted calf in the house.” It wasn’t a house pet, it’s just that at night, animals were brought into the house.

And because that section was lower, mangers were often cut right out of the stone floor on the main level of the house, so that the cows, standing on the lower level, could just lean down and eat.

And then you had the guest room. Remember that we said that hospitality was important to these people? Most homes had a space just for guests so that hospitality could be shown at any point. And when Luke 2 says “there was no place for them in the inn,” it almost certainly does not mean a professional motel. That word for “inn” almost certainly means “guest room.”

There’s a few reasons we know that it means “guest room.” The first reason is just our understanding of middle-eastern hospitality. There’s no way that, in that whole town, people wouldn’t have opened their homes up to Mary and Joseph and let them get a room in a hotel. That just wouldn’t have happened.

Second, when Luke’s talks about a professional motel later on in his book, he uses a different Greek word entirely. In the story of the Good Samaritan,  Luke 10:34 says that the samaritan took the man to an “inn” with an innkeeper whom he paid money to. This was a professional motel kind of idea where you pay money for lodging. And in the original language it’s a totally different word than the one used here in Luke 2.

The third reason is that the word for “inn” that Luke does use here is used in one other setting in the New Testament, and there it’s translated as “guest room.” We find this in Luke 22:11, where Jesus is securing the upper room to have the last supper with his disciples. And he tells his disciples to find a man carrying a jar of water, and follow that man into a house, and then “tell the master of the house, ‘The Teacher says to you, Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?’” And that word for “guest room” is the exact same word that Luke uses here in Luke 2.

There was no room for them in the guest room. I’m honestly not sure why the people who translated the ESV put the word “inn” here, but if you have a newer ESV Bible you’ll see a little number or letter and if you follow that to the bottom of your page you’ll either see a note that says, “or guest room” or you’ll see a text note that takes you to Luke 22:11.

The new NIV translation and the CSB translation both get this right when they say, “there was no guest room available for them.”

So Mary gives birth, probably out in the main part of the house, because the guest room had already been given to others. Why were Joseph and Mary not given the guest room? Was it because someone got there before them? Was it because other guests were deemed more important? We’re not told. Either way, even though there was no room for them in the guest room, this particular family in this particular home made room for them in their house and that’s where Mary gave birth.

Which means that it almost certainly wasn’t just Mary and Joseph. There were other people close by. In a traditional birth, the town midwife would be there, and the men would be sent out of the house, and Mary would be attended to by a number of ladies as she brought this child into the world.

So no, it was not a silent night. All was not calm. That should not be the picture we have in our heads. Instead we should think of a young woman, drenched in sweat, in the middle of a bustling Jewish home, surrounded by the ladies of the town who together with her received a crying, messy baby boy.

And we should picture that exhausted young mom, after nursing her baby and wrapping him up in the custom of the day, laying him to sleep in one of the safest places in the house—a manger—surrounded by animals but also a bunch of people who would have oohed and ahh-ed over that baby and celebrated a safe delivery up until a bunch of shepherds knocked at the door.

Verse 16 says that the shepherds found Mary and Joseph and the baby. It doesn’t say there was nobody else with them. They were in a house, surrounded by normal people, the normal people that Jesus had been born to save.


4. Seeing Jesus

So why does this matter? And does this really change anything for us?

To answer the second question, we could say that this doesn’t really change much for us. Jesus was born in the little town of Bethlehem and laid in a manger, with animals nearby, because there was no room in the normal place for guests to stay. Mary and Joseph had little privacy and space to themselves as they became a family together that night. Those are all familiar parts of the story to us.

But on the other hand we could say that this more accurate sense of Christ’s birth does help refocus the story for us in some important ways, and most importantly, it shows us Jesus. Let’s think of three ways that we see Jesus more clearly as we rightly remember Christmas.

1) The Humanness of Jesus

First, seeing Jesus’ birth this way helps us capture his humanity, in that it helps us see that Jesus’ birth wasn’t all that different from most other babies born in Bethlehem in those days. Babies were not born in hospitals. They were born in homes, just like Jesus. They were born without heart-rate monitors or epidurals—just like Jesus. If they were born at night then animals were nearby, just like Jesus. Babies were wrapped in swaddling cloths—just like Jesus.

Jesus was born in a human way, the way most other humans at the time were born.

And that means that the little Lord Jesus, lots of crying he probably made. He was fully human and we should expect that his birth was full of the pain and noise and blood that every human birth was.

And I think it’s appropriate for us to be freshly stunned by this. “In the beginning was the word...and the word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:1, 14). Just think of how messy and vulnerable that process of “becoming flesh” was for him as he entered this world He made—in the same the way each one of us did, as he experienced first hand not only the birth process that He designed but also the curse of painful labour that He, as a member of the Trinity, was responsible for issuing in response to our sin.

He tasted it all. Marvel at the humanness of Jesus.

2) The Jewishness of Jesus

Second, we want to notice the Jewishness of Jesus. There’s something about Jesus being born under the night sky under a stable with animals around that feels fairly international. Ethnically neutral, maybe. Perhaps more western.

But there’s something about Jesus being born to a Jewish girl, in a Jewish house, most likely surrounded by a group of Jewish ladies, most likely welcomed into the arms of a bustling Jewish family, most likely oohed and ahhed over by a welcoming Jewish community, that helps us understand in a richer way that He was the Jewish Messiah. He came, first of all, to ransom captive Israel.

That makes it all the more rich to see what we’ve seen in 1 Peter in recent weeks—that, though the work of Jesus, we’ve been invited into the people of God where, where, regardless of our ethnicity, we are made a new nation together.

That doesn’t feel like a privilege to us if we don’t remember that our natural, human status is outsiders.

We need to, as Paul commanded us in Ephesians 2, “remember that at one time [us] Gentiles in the flesh… were at that time separated from Christ, alienated form the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who were once far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ” (Ephesians 2:11-13).

And The miracle and the wonder of being invited into the new-covenant people of God is heightened as we refuse to ignore the Jewishness of Jesus. Long before we received him as our Lord and Saviour, he was received by the open arms of Jewish people in a little Jewish town. We should celebrate the way we’ve been invited into a family that is not ours naturally.

3) The Kindness of Jesus

Third, how can we miss the kindness of Jesus here? How can we miss how absolutely kind He is to come for us like this? How stunning is his humble love?

And should this kindness not shape our hearts? Should this kindness not, on the one hand, shape our hearts to be able to receive kindness? I was talking to someone recently who was having just such a hard time with letting someone else do something for them. They wanted so strongly to be able to fix their own problems and take care of themselves.

And it made me pray that the gospel would sink deeper into their heart. Because as Christians, look at what Jesus has done for us. Can you imagine how you’d feel if a friend did half of this for you? Think of someone who might drive all through the night in a snowstorm just to come take care of you? How much more should we be amazed at the son of God who came into the world like this to save us?

And should this kindness not shape our hearts to extend that same kindness to others? You’ve heard me say it before, and I’ll say it again, that I think it’s ironic how Christmas, in the west, has become a holiday where so often we only ever spend time with people like us in comfortable settings.

And it’s a time of year that’s so often achingly lonely for those who don’t have family and friends close by.

And then we consider how Jesus who spent his birth day in the kind of setting we’ve seen today.

It’s not wrong to enjoy a cozy Christmas celebration with your family or close friends. Thank Jesus for making that possible. But if our whole life is one non-stop train of cozy celebrations with people we like, aren’t we missing something?

If Jesus is inside of us, and Jesus does what we just read in our passage today, than  should His presence in us not make us look around for the lonely and the needy and the messy people of this world who need him? Whom we can bring him to?

We’re going to end this morning by singing a song about God’s gift to us on Christmas. How silently, how silently that wondrous gift was given. Not silent if you were standing outside the door, but silent as far as the world was concerned. And yet it was through this small and insignificant event that salvation came to the world, and Christ dwells with us even today.

Thank Him for it. And ask Him to shape your heart to bend in the same direction as His, towards a world who still so desperately needs His love.

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