Wednesday, December 21, 2016

No Vacancy (RP1)

            I can speak from personal experience that nothing will make a person stop and think about the priorities in their lives like being sick. Well God has seen to it that I’ve had that opportunity this past year. Between hospital stays and long hours undergoing treatments, I’ve had time to think long and hard about the people and things in my life that are important to me and whether or not I have made room in my life for them—the God I love so much who has always been so very close to me, my wife who has cried too many times over the last year watching me struggle, and my girls who have been so frightened because they know too much about medicine. You know what I realized? Making room for the people who are most important in our lives is an everyday exercise because the minute we stop making room for those people, the world around us begins to creep in and clutter our lives leaving no room for anything or anyone else. So this Christmas I will again be making room in my life to enjoy the Christmas season with my wife, Laura, and with my daughters, Meagan and Elizabeth, who will both be home for Christmas this year. However, most importantly, I will listen for God knocking and make room in my life to celebrate the wonder and joy of God’s gift to humanity—the gift of Himself in the person of Jesus Christ. This will be my final lesson for 2016. Look for my next lesson on January 25, 2017 ( I will be in class from 1/9/17-1/13/17). As always, you have access to over 260 other past lessons on the website in case you’ve fallen behind in your reading.

            Growing up, we never read the Bible in our house. Actually, I’m pretty sure we never even had a Bible in our house. We went to church and we prayed formulaic prayers by memory but we never read the Bible. Even though I believed in Jesus Christ, I knew very little about Him or anything else contained in the Bible for that matter. I didn’t actually start reading the Bible until my early twenties. One of my best memories was Christmas dinner around the table of my in-laws. They weren’t serious Bible readers either but they had Bibles in their home and at Christmas, my father-in-law, or Papa as my girls call him, always read the Christmas story from Luke’s gospel. Later, when my girls were a little older, he asked them to read the story. Of all the traditions from either of our families, I like that one best. With all the rushing around, last-minute present wrapping, and the Christmas dinner food preparations, everyone stopped and made room for Jesus. I’ve been thinking about that this year again as we approach the Christmas season. I’ve been thinking specifically about the idea of taking time for Jesus; specifically welcoming Jesus into these days before Christmas; making room for Jesus during Christmas. It seems a little redundant I know considering it’s “Christ”mas. It’s not that crazy though if you think about it—There’s no room for Jesus in most of our schools thanks to atheists. There’s no room for Jesus at work in the name of fairness to all. There’s no room for Jesus in the market place where money alone is god. There’s no room for Jesus at home where self-fulfillment and the acquisition of more and more “stuff” rules. There’s no room for Jesus in some of our churches where entertainment, popular programs and feel-good spirituality rule supreme. Finally, there’s no room for Jesus in the hearts of many people whose sinful, self-prioritizing lives are their god. For too many of us, Christmas is, or at least has been, a time when there’s no room for many of the things that there should always be room for. For too many of us, we walk into this Christmas season with a giant neon sign hanging around our necks that reads NO VACANCY! The circumstances surrounding the advent of Jesus Christ are the perfect metaphor for our lives in so many ways. With the exception of an angelic visitation announcing the arrival of Jesus to a few backwoods shepherds grazing their sheep, Jesus came to us without any fanfare, pomp or circumstance. Instead, He came to a world that welcomed Him with a great big NO VACANCY! Literally! But, thankfully, He came anyway and the way Jesus came says everything about the depth of God’s desire to be in relationship with us.

Subject Text

Luke 2:1-7

1In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3And everyone went to his own town to register. 4So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.


            We tend to forget about a few very important events that began more than a year before our Subject Text. Luke tells us in chapter one that an angel visited a man named Zechariah and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would become pregnant and give birth to a son who was destined to be God’s servant in the same way that the beloved Old Testament prophet Elijah served God—specifically, to turn the people’s hearts back to God. Elizabeth would eventually give birth to John the Baptist who would, indeed, preach repentance of sins in order to clear the path for relationship with God, and that path led straight to Jesus who John introduced to the people and who baptized Jesus at the inauguration of Jesus’ earthly ministry.

            Six months after an angel visited Zechariah with divine news, an angel visited a young virgin girl named Mary with news that she would become pregnant and give birth to a son. But not just any son mind you, Mary would give birth to the Son of the Most High. Let that sink in for just a moment. We take so many things about the Bible for granted because we know them so well and they’ve become so familiar that they’ve lost some of their intended wonder and gravity. The angel didn’t just tell Mary that Jesus was going to be a king, the angel was telling her that Jesus would be THE King; the long-awaited Messiah. We jump to that conclusion right away because we know the entire story of Jesus. But Mary didn’t know that! Mary had to put the pieces of the angel’s proclamation together. Let me give you the key parts of the angel’s pronouncement that Mary was left to piece together:

·      Jesus’ name is derived from the Hebrew name Joshua and means “the Lord saves,” and
·      Jesus would be called “Son of the Most High,” and
·      Jesus would be the final King to sit on the “throne of his father David,” and
·      Jesus would be Israel’s (and the world’s) eternal King “forever,” and
·      Jesus would establish a kingdom that “will never end.”

Believers read all these things in Luke 1:31-33 in the context of the rest of the gospel of Jesus Christ and already know that He is the Savior of the world. But Mary didn’t have the context. She was a young, Jewish teenage girl who lived in the context of the Old Testament expectation of the Messiah. Imagine being a devout Jew whose country was occupied and ruled by Rome, a Gentile nation. Then suddenly an angel appears to tell you that you will give birth to Israel’s Messiah. Mary’s head had to be spinning. As unbelievable as all that news must have been, at what point do you suppose it dawned on her that she was a virgin AND she wasn’t married? For many people in our culture, being a virgin, even as a teenager, means there’s something wrong with you and becoming pregnant outside of marriage is no big deal. But in Mary’s culture, being a virgin until after marriage was non-negotiable. In fact, being sexually active outside of the marriage covenant meant, at best becoming an outcast, and at worst, being put to death. The angel told Mary that the Holy Spirit would miraculously plant the seed of God within her when she wondered how an unmarried virgin could become pregnant. No big deal, right? Well put yourself in Mary’s shoes and play that through your mind and then tell me how you would explain that. You know, something like this: “Mom, Dad, I have some exciting news! An angel visited me and told me that I would become pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit and give birth to the Savior of the world! Isn’t that exciting?” Don’t kid yourself, Mary was in trouble and I’m pretty sure she knew it. However, God knew exactly the challenges that Mary would face in her community so He convinced her future husband, Joseph, not to refuse taking Mary as his wife even though she was pregnant and he wasn’t the father. Joseph’s humility to be obedient to God even though he knew what people would think of him for marrying a girl who was pregnant with someone else’s child, set the stage for the Old Testament fulfillment that prophesied the ancestral lineage and the geographical birthplace for the divine Messiah which brings us right to our Subject Text.

Text Analysis

1In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2(This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3And everyone went to his own town to register.

            Sometimes it can be difficult to place the biblical text into its proper place in history. However, Luke, a physician who was not one of Jesus’ twelve disciples, gives us a very specific point in time for the temporal context of the gospel of Jesus Christ in vv. 1-2. Luke tells us that the events of our Subject Text occur during the Roman rule of Caesar Augustus who presided over the whole empire with Quirinius as the governor of the Roman province of Syria. The text says that Augustus order a census to be taken of the entire Roman empire. And what was the purpose of the census? In order to determine the appropriate taxation to be assessed and collected from each region within the Roman empire as well as keeping tabs on population distribution so as to determine the military presence necessary in each of the various provinces. No doubt, larger populations probably necessitated a larger military presence as a reminder that opposition and unrest wouldn’t be tolerated. In order to tabulate an accurate census, everyone within the geographical empire was required to return to their own hometown according to v. 3 to register for the census. This was no small matter considering the geographical extent of the empire as illustrated by this map of the empire (Roman empire in orange):

            We know Caesar Augustus because of the biblical narrative but apart from that narrative, people may not be familiar with Augustus. But if I mentioned Marc Antony and Cleopatra, you’d probably recognize those very familiar names from Roman history. Well at that time, Augustus was known as Octavian. Let me explain how Roman history unfolds into biblical history: In 31 B.C., “Marc Antony, painted as the betrayer of Rome who sought to establish a monarchical rule over the Mediterranean with his illicit lover, Cleopatra of Egypt, was defeated at the battle of Actium by Octavian and his forces…In gratitude and in the hope that complete allegiance to Octavian would forestall any future civil wars and the incredible loss of property, security and life which accompanied them, the Senate and people of Rome gave Octavian the imperium, the right to command the legions of the empire and made him perpetual consul…He was given the title Augustus, which denoted him as ‘pious’ and as ‘worthy of reverence,’ and named him Pontifex Maximus, the high priest of the official religious life of the Greco-Roman world…The provinces were glad to accept Augustus’s imperium. He brought security and stability to their agrarian and urban lives—for many, for the first time in their lives! What the Mediterranean needed and wanted was a strong ruler and a clear line of succession. Poets lauded Augustus as the bringer of salvation and good news. (Luke will use the same terms to speak of the significance of Jesus’ birth.)”[1]

4So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child.

            Think about the prophetic significance of what happens in vv. 4-5. Approximately 700 years before the events of our Subject Text, God revealed through the prophet Micah: “But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler of Israel, whose origins are from old, from ancient times (Micah 5:2).” The Messiah was prophesied to come from the line of David and was going to be born in Bethlehem. And then without any warning, world events that don’t appear to be related in any way whatsoever to biblical events begin to unfold precisely the way they were predicted hundreds of years before. If we read past this quickly we miss exactly what these events mean in the grand scheme of our faith. Unbelievers disparage the faith of Christians as believing in myths and fairytales because we can’t present concrete evidence that Jesus is divine and must, at some point, take it on faith that Jesus is who He says He is and did what He said He did with respect to our salvation. And that is true to a large extent. However, that doesn’t mean the Christian faith isn’t based on concrete historical evidence that supports that faith. All the characters in our Subject Text are real historical figures that are represented in both biblical and extra-biblical texts. All the biblical characters that wrote about the Messiah hundreds and even thousands of years before our Subject Text were also figures represented in both biblical and extra-biblical text. Did you know that there are more than 300 prophesies about the Messiah going all the way back to the first chapters of Genesis? We have a handful of them in the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel. Do you want to know the probability of Jesus being the fulfillment of all those prophecies? Well just to give you an idea of how certain you can be that Jesus is the Messiah, the probability of Jesus fulfilling just eight of the Old Testament prophecies would be 1 x 1028. Maybe that doesn’t paint the picture clearly enough for you. Here’s what the probability figure looks like: 1 in 10,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000! That’s the fulfillment of just eight prophecies and two of them are right here in our Subject Text! Yes it still requires faith to believe that Jesus is who He says He is and did what He said He did but it doesn’t take blind faith. Verses 4-5 demonstrate to us that God was always in complete control of all the events of history even though He appeared to be uninvolved for hundreds of years. “From the universal, we now move to the particular. To this point, it would appear that Augustus is sovereign over the whole world; he issues a decree and the whole populace travels here and there in order to participate in the Empire’s tax burden. Now, however, we learn not only how the census related to the unfolding of the angel’s words, but also that a still higher purpose is at work than that of the emperor…this is the first time in the Lukan account of Jesus’ birth that Joseph does anything, though even here he is introduced to us primarily in his relationship with Mary and his inherited status as a Davidide. Both the description of his journey as a ‘going up’ and the designation of his destination as ‘the city of David’ invite the reader to speculate that he is traveling to Jerusalem. Luke upsets such expectations by identifying Joseph’s destination and identifying the city of David as Bethlehem. In this narrative aside, Luke intrudes briefly to render explicit that Joseph is fulfilling the Scriptures and, thus, fulfilling God’s own purpose…As often in biblical narrative, then, we find here a conjunction of intentions. On one level, Joseph’s journey is the consequence of the almighty decree of Augustus. On another, even the universal rule of Augustus is conceived as subordinate to another purpose, the aim of God. One may call this ironic, as if Rome is made unwittingly to serve a still greater Sovereign. But it is also prophetic, for it reveals the provisional nature of even Roman rule.”[2]

6While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.

            Travellers during the time of our Subject Text could usually cover about 20 miles a day if they were healthy and didn’t run into trouble along the way. Considering Mary was probably nine months or close to nine months pregnant at the time, it probably took them a week to make the journey. After traveling the 80 or so miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem, Mary and Joseph finally arrive in the city according to vv. 6-7. Unfortunately, so did all the other people who originated from the town of Bethlehem. It seems clear that neither Joseph nor Mary had any relatives or acquaintances in town because they sought public accommodations when they arrived. And to make matters worse, Mary went into labor. Imagine this scene now—the small city is overrun with countless visitors from who knows where in the Roman Empire. Private homes are filled with visitors (relatives and/or acquaintances) and public accommodations are filled with everyone else. Joseph and Mary are on the outside looking in with “no room at the Inn” and Mary was in a bad way. I’ve been through the birth of two children and I’ve tried to put myself in Joseph shoes. Let me try and explain, in one word, what I would be experiencing at that moment: Panic! So the only thing left for Joseph to do was improvise. So he found and prepared a place for Mary in a stable. A stable! Joseph fixed up a place for her to give birth to the Savior of the world in a dirty barn among the animals. And it gets worse. The text says that after Mary gave birth, she wrapped Jesus in some cloth and “laid him in a manger.” Do you know what that is? You know that little manger scene you have in your children’s books or that cute little manger scene some of you have set up under your Christmas tree? Yeah, it’s nothing like that. A manger is a feeding trough for livestock; donkeys, horses, cows, pigs, etc. The stable was filthy, disgusting, and smelled of dirty animals and their waste. But this is where we find the Son of God, the Savior of the world, the “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isa 9:6).” “The promised king came to his people but did not have enough power to secure a resting place for his birth. The descendants of David descended to a stable to find a place to lay the head of the King of kings. This is how God used earth’s lowest to bring salvation from heaven’s highest.”[3]


            The events surrounding the birth of Jesus are a perfect metaphor for so many of our lives. Jesus, yet unborn, arrives in Bethlehem but there is “no room at the Inn.” God came knocking but there was NO VACANCY. No one seemed to care that Mary was pregnant and was about to give birth to the long-awaited Messiah, but no one in the city had room for Him or seemed to care. But there were some, there are always some, who would make room for Him; who did care. But they weren’t leaders or officials or really very important people for that matter from the world’s perspective. Instead, they were lowly shepherds who got a message from an angel that if they took the time and believed, they would find the One they had been waiting for lying in a manger in the city. Here’s how it happened:

Luke 2:8-15

8And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

            Notice something about this part of the biblical text? The angel came to the lowest class of people. It was an agrarian culture but shepherds weren’t part of the prominent social class. They were poor, dirty, smelly and usually not highly thought of. Notice something else about the text? When God’s messenger came to them and told them about the coming of the Messiah, they went to Bethlehem to see. So what, you might be asking. Well what about the animals they where charged with shepherding. It is unlikely that they herded their animals into the city with them. Instead, it is more likely that they left the animals and went to the city without them. Imagine that, there was something more important than the animals that were given to their charge. As important as their duties were, they made room in their lives for the Savior. There was no room for the Savior in the city of David but there was room for the Savior among the filthy beasts and the lowliest of people. The shepherds demonstrate the attitude so often missing in our present culture. When Jesus knocks on the door to our work, we proclaim that there is NO VACANCY in our work for Jesus. When Jesus knocks on the door to our public schools, we proclaim that there is NO VACANCY in our public schools for Jesus. When Jesus knocks on the door of our relationships, we proclaim that there is NO VACANCY in our relationships for Jesus. When Jesus knocks on the door to our finances, we proclaim that there is NO VACANCY in our finances for Jesus. When Jesus knocks on the door of our churches, sadly there are some churches that proclaim there is NO VACANCY there for Jesus. It is true that Jesus knocks on the door of all areas of our lives and our culture and we are given the choice of letting Him in or telling Him that there is NO VACANCY for Him. But during this Christmas season, I want you to consider something else; something that is necessary before you are able to answer Jesus’ knock in any of these other areas of life. During this Christmas season, take a moment and quiet yourself amidst the noise and rush that is knocking on your life and listen very carefully for a different knock. This Christmas, listen for Jesus knocking on the door to your heart. It doesn’t matter if you’re young or old, man or woman, rich or poor, Jesus is knocking. Jesus knocks at the hearts of all humanity. You need not fear that you are unworthy or unclean, remember that Jesus wasn’t born in the comfort of an imperial city surround by royalty. He was born in a small, back-woods town, into the filth of a stable where he slept in a feeding trough surrounded by dirty animals in the company of smelly shepherds. So during this Christmas season, listen for Jesus knocking on the door to your heart and consider very carefully if you will let Him in or if you will proclaim that this Christmas, there is NO VACANCY for Jesus in your heart.

[1] David A. deSilva, An Introduction to the New Testament: Contexts, Methods & Ministry Formation, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2004), pp. 57-58.
[2] Joel B. Green, The Gospel of Luke—The New International Commentary of the New Testament, (Grand Rapids, MI: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1997), pp. 126-127.
[3] Trent C. Butler, Luke—Holman New Testament Commentary, (Nashville, TN: B&H Publishing Group, 2000), p. 29.

(Audio version; Music: "My King Was Born Today" by: WorshipMob and "Mary, Did You Know?" by: Pentatonix)