Luke 2:6-7 (New International Version)
“While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and 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.”
I may have mentioned in a an earlier article that I am studying the Gospel of Luke this year as part of a group and personal bible study. I enjoy reading the bible because it is so multifaceted. It is possible to know any given account by memory and yet read it again and gain something entirely new from it.
No account is better known for many readers of the bible than the birth of Jesus Christ. When I started the lesson which included the verse above, the temptation was to gloss over it because I know it so well. But after reading it, discussing it, listening to a lecture on it, then reading a commentary on the text, many more aspects of Mary and Joseph’s experience began to stand out to me.
If you are not familiar with Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, please read chapters 1 and 2 of the Gospel of Luke in the New Testament of the Bible.
I can remember many elementary school Christmas pageants, where a young boy and girl would re-enact Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay. As one miniature inn-keeper after another in robes fashioned from bedsheets, wearing a fake beard from the costume shop shook his head and shrugged his shoulders at the young couple, Joseph would slump and Mary would sigh, her hand lightly resting on the “baby” (read: pillow) under her rope-cinched waist. How adorable the children looked in their discomfort. But the smiling audience understood, for the couple that the little boy and girl represented, discomfort was just the beginning.
Mary was ready to give birth, which means she was somewhere between 36 and 40 weeks pregnant. She had traveled a long way with Joseph to Bethlehem on a donkey! I won’t even pause there except to say – “Ouch!” They arrived in town only to find no place to bunk for the night so that she could have her baby indoors. Finally Joseph and Mary were directed to a smelly, dark, filthy cave (even if it were clean for a cave, it was still a place for animals – not for people), where Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, Jesus.
I have personally always wondered what difference it would have made to God for Jesus to be born in an inn. I get that Jesus was born into the lowliest of circumstances – and that God had done that deliberately. But honestly, I just never understood why just one inn keeper could not have spared one room or bed for the couple.
I had always assumed that God selected the stable to drive home the fact that Jesus came into the world with no physical or social advantages. While I am sure this is true, I recently learned that the whole stable thing had to do with the culture of the time. It seems that inns during biblical times were run more like military barracks, where men and women were separated. Had Mary and Joseph gotten a bed, they would not have been allowed to stay together. In the cave, Joseph who was Mary’s only traveling companion, would be present to help her during this vulnerable time. It had never occurred to me that God was doing Mary a favor! As the couple faced one closed door after another, I wonder if they appreciated what God was doing for them by denying them lodging.
As I meditated on this, I wondered what thought went through the couple’s minds. Here Mary had agreed to carry the baby Jesus in her womb, despite the fact that she wasn’t married yet – no small task given the culture. Despite his better human judgment, following the direction of the Lord, Joseph had agreed to marry her. Both had become social misfits despite their innocence. Now that it was time to have the baby, God wouldn’t manage one stinkin’ bed? Clearly if ever a couple was acting in obedience, it was Joseph and Mary. It was their obedience to the law that had them traveling to Bethlehem anyway. Surely God had known about the census. Surely God had put it on Tiberius Caesar’s heart to take a census in the first place, causing Joseph and Mary to have to travel to Bethlehem in time for Jesus’ birth (which fulfilled the prophecy, that God had authored – since the beginning of time). So Mary and Joseph couldn’t have a bed because why?
It is possible that Mary and Joseph were much less cynical than I am. They may have understood God’s plan from the start and/or trusted him without explanation. It was logical that they would look for a place in the inn. Inns were where people stayed when they had to travel. They were obeying the law and God by traveling together to Bethlehem. Now they appeared to be stranded. But God had done this intentionally so that they could be together at Jesus’ birth. I wonder when it occurred to them to stop knocking. I wonder when it became clear that they were going to have to change their plans. I wonder if they were grateful for the cave or miserable because it was – well – a cave.
I know that I have wrestled with God when in times of abject obedience, he has seemed not to provide for me – at least not in the manner in which I expected him to do so. I have worked a job well – only to not be paid. I have spoken out at his direction – only to get cut down. I have given in obedience – only to be robbed. I have trusted – only to be taken advantage of. I have behaved meekly – only to taken for a fool. Honestly, I get confused sometimes. I have warred and fought when I should have been still. I have rested, declaring “the battle is not mine,” when in fact I was supposed to be fighting. As a type A personality, my default position when things go wrong is always to fight to make them “right.” Fighting is never a problem. Being still and letting God be God, however, often is. In looking at Mary and Joseph’s experience, I see how God can use a even an inconvenience to execute his will. But I also see an example of two people who did everything that they knew how, then ultimately trusted God to have his way. That encourages me.
The next time I approach a closed door, I will knock prayerfully, but with persistence. I will do everything in my power to make sure that I am doing my part, living up to my responsibilities – not presuming upon God to do for me those things I can do for myself. I will knock or pound, walk around, look for other ways in, all the while asking God to direct me. If I get nothing accomplished after having done everything I know how to do, then I will stay in God’s face for my next instructions. In the meantime, I will do whatever he gave me to do last and purpose to stay connected through prayer and meditation, while remaining vigilant as I watch for movement on the horizon. When all doors are closed to me by his hand, I, too will seek out the cave and carry out whatever task is at hand.
I will praise him because regardless of how my situation appears, I can trust that he is working in it for my good and for his glory. Regardless of what my circumstances look like, He is still God and I am not. Therefore He deserves all my praise. Most importantly I won’t assume that when things go awry, that my version of how they should be is necessarily God’s way. I will ask him, because working with him is so much more fulfilling than working against him.
So the prayer becomes, Lord help me get out of my own way so I can depend on you fully.
Be blessed, Family.
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