Hopefully your experiences at Christmas won’t be quite as messy as the ones depicted in that song, but I doubt if we get through the entire season without at least one thing going wrong. I imagine there will be something that doesn’t go according to my schedule at least as I have it planned. We have high expectations for our experiences at Christmas, because we are culturally programmed for it. We certainly hope it will be the most wonderful time of the year and we put a lot of energy into making it the best time we possibly can have. We plan special parties, special presents, special food and special time off from working. The problem is that it never goes exactly according to our plans. Our own schedule for the season gets messed up and sometimes in terrible ways. We may experience disappointments, harsh words, angry tempers, pink slips, and flat tires. The holiday can bring out some of the worst experiences or at least heighten them by contrast with our expectations and hopes for something much better. The birth of Jesus which we celebrate was certainly not better. The first Christmas was itself quite messy.
The political situation was a mess in the country where Jesus was born.
"At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee." [Luke 2:1-4, NLT]
Israel was subjugated by the Romans. The people of Israel chafed under Roman rule. For all their intellect and cultural advancement Rome was a highly immoral society and worshipers of a pantheon of idol gods and goddesses. A prevailing reason for Rome in conquering other territories was for the purpose of gaining revenue. So Rome imposed another unpleasant burden on Israel through taxation. The people of Israel were required to register and pay their taxes at their tribal home town of their ancestors. Joseph had no choice. His own schedule for his life was interrupted by the government’s requirement. Travel was not a vacation for him. It had not been Joseph’s plan to go to Bethlehem for the holidays. It was expensive, difficult, dangerous and time consuming to do so--in additiona to taking him away from his work and his income.
In all this political, taxation and travel mess God was at work. 800 years before Jesus was born God announced His plan through the prophet Micah.
"But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past." [Micah 5:2, NLT]
If there had been no political upheaval--if there had been no census required by Rome, Joseph and Mary would never have gone to Bethlehem. The whole country’s upheaval and the upsetting of everyone’s schedule which created a mess in the whole country, was all just a way for God to get that one couple to Bethlehem for His Son’s birth.
God knew that Joseph and Mary’s schedule would be upset at that particular time 800 years before they were even born. Before you were born, God knew what would be going on this Christmas time, and through it all-whether it’s messy or easy, He is at work.
The political situation was messy for all Israel but the physical conditions were messy for Joseph and Mary.
"He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them." [Luke 2:5-7, NLT]
It seems strange to me that a very pregnant Mary would make such a journey. They had to travel a distance of 70 miles over rough terrain which would take a minimum of 3-4 days, if not longer because of Mary’s pregnancy. I don’t know how it was decided that Mary would make this trip while pregnant. The census did not require her to be present in person. Joseph could register his entire family on his own. Perhaps Joseph arbitrarily made the decision. Maybe Mary was no longer allowed to stay at home because of her pregnancy or perhaps she was no longer accepted in their home town of Nazareth because she had gotten pregnant during their engagement. Maybe Joseph and Mary thought she had enough time to make the journey to Bethlehem and return to Nazareth before the baby would be born. Although their trip is always portrayed with Mary riding a donkey, there is no record of that in the Bible and it could have been that Mary made the trip on foot. They were a very poor couple. They may not have had great transportation options. The strenuous travel itself could have induced Mary’s labor. Then when it came time for baby to be born, they had no place to stay. Women, can you imagine being in a strange town far away from home, not knowing anybody, and being in labor for the first time? Men, can you imagine the pressure or panic you might feel trying to take care of your wife in this kind of situation? I learned this week that the average temperature in Bethlehem this time of year is 44 and often it goes below freezing at night. We don’t know that Jesus was born in December, but the conditions Mary endured were still difficult. She had no nurse to help her--no mom to hold her hand. It would have been difficult to find clean water. There were insects, mice, manure, and darkness. These were messy conditions and not at all what Mary had expected for the birth of her first child. The whole situation was not according to Mary’s schedule. It was all a mess from what she had planned, but in the midst of this mess God entered the world.
You may go through some mess this year, but in the midst of whatever it is God still seeks to enter the situation and your life. Some people may have an unexpected move. It won’t be by donkey, but maybe with a U-haul truck going somewhere you never dreamed you’d be going. Some may find out they are having a child they hadn’t planned. That child may be a special needs child. Some people may go through physical pain. It may not be like Mary’s labor, but it may be a serious illness or an accident that brings a lifestyle change. Some may have financial problems caused by taxes, or debt, or divorce, or downsizing. You may not be shunned to a back barn, but it may be you are displaced from a relationship that mattered great deal to you. Maybe you will feel on the outside at your work. Maybe you are just lonely. You may feel like no room for you. Wherever you are God is at work no matter what kind of mess it feels like to you.
Added to the political upheaval and the physical difficulties that Mary and Joseph experienced was the unplanned arrival of unknown guests that somebody else invited to the birth of their child.
" That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying, “Glory to God in highest heaven, and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.” When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”" [Luke 2:8-15, NLT]
In the nativity scenes you have seen or have at home there are shepherds, and they are almost always adult male figures. Sometimes there is a young person carrying a sheep and looking Christmassy. The reality is that a great deal of the shepherding in those days would have been done by youths--older children or very young teenagers. And, adults would typically not be out in fields at night. Centuries earlier when the prophet Samuel went to Bethlehem to anoint David as the future king of Israel, David was not at home where the rest of the family was. David was out in the field tending the family sheep precisely because he was the youngest in the family. We don’t know the exact time of day that Jesus was born, but we do know that God had angels announce the birth to the shepherds at night. He chose some of the least and the lowliest to meet the best One who was ever born.
As those young shepherds went from the fields outside Bethlehem to the place where Jesus was in a manger, they passed nearby the palace of Herod called the Herodium. The palace was 4 miles from Bethlehem. Bethlehem was a small village populated by about 200 people then. The Herodium was built on the highest hill around and raised even higher by lowering the surrounding hills and adding that material to make Herod’s hill higher. The palace itself was 45 ft. high with the king’s residence in the uppermost rooms. Herod always wanted to look down on his subjects and he always wanted them to look up to him. His palace garden had the largest pool known in ancient culture. It was 10 ft deep, 140 feet wide and 200 ft long. Even small boats were floated on it. Herod had hot and cold baths in the palace from long distance aqueducts. The young shepherds had to walk in the shadow of that luxury in order to get to God’s messiah in little Bethlehem. Did they question the contrast? While the Savior is in an animal trough, Herod was in his hot tub. The most significant was with animals and the least significant was in a palace. From some people’s point of view this was all messed up.
Someone may look at your life and think it is messed up. Don’t you listen to that. God is at work. You may look at a neighbor, your spouse or your child and say, “You’re a mess,” but don’t give up on that mess. There’s a good chance God is at work in that mess right now.
Jesus’ birth came in a mess politically, physically, and socially, but it didn’t end there. After Jesus’ birth the young family couldn’t stay in Bethlehem and they couldn’t go home to Nazareth. They became refugees in a foreign country, Egypt, where they would have to start all over from scratch. Even after they finally moved back home to Nazareth, Joseph died while Jesus was still a boy and Mary had to raise a miracle worker by herself. She had to control the other boys who didn’t understand their brother and eventually she stood at the foot of a cross while her son slowly died in front of her. All of that was certainly messy. How did she handle all of that? From the time Jesus was born there’s a clue to the way she responded that helped her through every mess.
"After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child. All who heard the shepherds’ story were astonished, but Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often." [Luke 2:17-19, NLT]
Mary kept these things in her heart and thought about them often.
What did she think about and how did it help her through her messes? I think there’s an answer in the Christmas cards you receive or in the nativity scenes you see. You will notice that the scene is clean. The manger is almost antiseptic. The animals are quiet and orderly in picture, and Mary will look quite serene like she never even broke a sweat during labor. That’s probably quite far from the truth of what happened when Jesus was born in the animal stall, stable or cave. But in that Christmas card there’s probably a glow around the child or that scene. I doubt that there was a special light or an aura in that stall that night, but that artist’s glow in the picture is the truth that the shepherds couldn’t see with their eyes that night. In the middle of the mess that was completely out of Mary and Joseph’s control that night, God was most in control. God was there. In every messy time Mary could remember that God was there. “Mary kept all these things in her heart and thought about them often.” And so can you.
Maybe that’s what we need to do. Maybe we need to turn off the tv a while. Maybe we need to turn down the ipod a few clicks and carve out time to think about these things. When life seems messiest, God can enter. When we remember His presence, we understand that the messes are really not as messy we think. God has already taken care of the worst mess we’ve ever been in.
"God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." [2 Corinthians 5:21, NIV]
This is the Good News the angels announced to the shepherds for all the world to know. He took our mess from us and offered His cleanness to us for now and forever.