So we know this story already, right?
There’s Mary and Joseph wandering the streets of Bethlehem at midnight, looking for a place to have their baby. And there’s the mean inn-keeper saying, “you can’t come in here. There’s no more room!”
And Mary says, “Oh, Joseph, whatever shall we do?”
And Joseph says, “I simply don’t know, Mary, darling.”
And then there’s starlight shining on a cozy little stable. So Mary gives birth to the Baby Jesus, and lays him in a nice clean manger, while the nice clean animals gather around to gaze softly upon the Saviour of the World…
Now, that is a very nice story. It’s one great disadvantage, though, is that it is almost completely unbiblical.
Seriously: look at the text. There’s no stable mentioned. And no inn-keeper.
But now some of you are going to say, “wait, wait, wait. Look here, it says, ‘she laid him in a manger’. That implies a stable. And look at this bit: ‘because there was no room for them in the inn’. That implies an inn-keeper.”
Well…yes, it does say that, in many of our translations. And if we go back to the original Greek, it does say, “she laid him in a manger,” which might seem to imply a stable. But when we check out that second bit, you might see that your bible has a footnote attached, or — if you have one of the newer translations — it might say something completely different. That’s because, in the Greek, the sentence actually reads, “there was no room for them in the guest room/upper room.”
So: this was not an inn; it was a private home.
“Sure,” some of you might say, “but that doesn’t really change the story. Mary and Joseph were still wandering the streets at midnight, but they were knocking on private homes. And when there was no room, off they went to the stable.”
Well, okay. But, again, the text doesn’t actually say anything about wandering through the streets of Bethlehem at midnight. All it says is, “she laid him in a manger because there was no room for them in the upper room.”
So where did this idea come from then?
Well, they were added, by tradition, hundreds of years later, by people who first misunderstood that word “inn”, and then misunderstood eastern culture. That traditional Christmas Story, with stables and inn-keepers and cold wintry nights, is a European invention.
But in actual fact, Jesus was born in the east. In Asia. And this book — the Gospel of Luke — was written by an Asian. And Luke’s version of the Christmas Story is a quintessentially Asian story. It’s about the collision of races and religions. It’s about corrupt, oppressive governments and poor migrant workers. It’s about injustice, and sedition. It’s about the crushing weight of tyranny, and a people’s longing for something more: a country of their very own.
And the first clue is right here in the way Luke begins: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.”
See? I read it, and it means nothing to us. We’ve been trained to totally miss the point. We generally skip past this part so we can get to the inn-keeper and the stable.
But we forget the effect these words would have had on Christians in the Roman Empire. Remember, Luke first wrote this gospel to Christians suffering under the Emperor Nero. Claudius Caesar Augustus Germanicus Nero.
Now if you remember your history, you also remember that Caesar Augustus Nero was absolutely brutal. He tortured thousands of Christians to death. So when Luke, writing to these persecuted Christians, starts his Christmas Story with the words, “Caesar Augustus issued a decree…” — that is a name to send a chill of fear through every Christian reading it! Of course, Luke is writing about Caesar Augustus Octavius, not Caesar Augustus Nero — but when you’ve been traumatized by one Caesar Augustus, you’ve been traumatized by them all.
Which raises the question: why does Luke want to start his story by freaking out his readers?
Because he wants them to know that the oppression they are suffering is nothing new: it happened to Jesus’ parents too.
So he writes, “in those days, Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” In other words, Caesar wants to count everybody…so he can tax everybody.
Which is bad news in any century, as I’m sure you can agree.
But to make matters worse, Luke then tells us in verse three that “everyone had to go to his own town to register.”
And here, again, I read this and it means nothing to us. We think, “so what?” If the Malaysian government suddenly said, “okay, everybody: balik kampung so we can count you properly!” it would be a pain, we would complain bitterly on FaceBook and like each other’s posts, but in the end we’d all take a few days leave, balik kampung, hang out, eat, gain two kilograms, and then come back to work. Cincai la!
But Joseph was a poor migrant worker. A trip like this would have cost him far more than it would have cost us —
But now some of you are thinking, “wait, what did he just say? I thought Joseph was a carpenter?”
Well…yes. But when we hear the word “carpenter”, we tend to think, “dude who makes furniture”. Really, the Greek sense of the word is closer to “dude who works with his hands”. So yes, Joseph worked with wood; but he probably built houses, not furniture. In fact, he was probably more like those Bangladeshi migrant workers who are out there in our city right now, building skyscrapers: he was most likely an unskilled construction worker, one of hundreds.
Here’s Joseph’s story as it ought to be told:
Joseph grows up in Bethlehem, but there’s no work. The local economy is depressed.
Then he hears that far to the north, two states away in Galilee, the city of Sepphoris has been destroyed by an earthquake. King Herod the Great wants to rebuild it. There are thousands of jobs available! So Joseph migrates. He rents a room in the small town of Nazareth, and walks to work in Sepphoris, about seven kilometers away. The rebuilding project takes over twenty years to complete —
— and by the way, everything I have said so far is supported by archeology. Nazareth really was a town of migrant workers who worked on the rebuilding of Sepphoris; which is perhaps why Nazareth had a rather low reputation: it was a lot like those temporary plywood shanty-towns we see here in KL where workers live for a few years while they’re building a skyscraper. No wonder Nathanael, when he heard that Jesus was from Nazareth, said, “whaaat? Nazareth sucks, man!” (check it out, it’s right there in John’s Gospel, Chapter One) —
— so while Joseph is living and working in Galilee he meets this nice local Jewish girl called Mary (according to tradition, Mary was born in Sepphoris). So Joseph gets engaged. And then Mary turns up pregnant. And Joseph’s thinking, “man! She seemed so nice, too!” But an angel tells Joseph, “it’s okay! Her child is from the Spirit of God, not some other dude.” So Joseph decides to stick with the engagement (you can find that part in Matthew’s Gospel, Chapter One).
And now: here’s this decree from Caesar Augustus, which requires every person to balik kampung. No big deal to people like us! But for Joseph the migrant worker? — this trip is going to cost him. His fianceé is big pregnant, he’s got to walk the distance from KL to Ipoh, and then he’s got to stay there for who knows how long. Oh, and every day he doesn’t work is a day he doesn’t get paid. He has no health insurance. He has no “leave days”. He has practically no rights at all. The emperor has decided he wants more money! and as always it is the poor, the stateless, the migrant workers and refugees who pay the highest price.
So what else can Joseph do? He leaves work. He takes his very pregnant fianceé with him. And when he finally arrives in his kampung, he goes from house to house, asking for shelter, but no one will let him in —
Now, does that make sense to you? The idea that Joseph went balik kampung and couldn’t find anywhere to stay, not even at a hotel…well, maybe that makes sense in northern Europe. I don’t know. But in Asia, when you balik kampung, there’s always room for one more, am I right? So when you show up with your pregnant wife, you stay in your old bedroom. But if your aunt and uncle are already in there, well then you stay in the guest room. And if your cousin or somebody else is already in there, if the whole house is jam-packed full like it’s Hari Raya or Chinese New Year or something — well, you can always camp out in the yard, in the car-port, where the animals are kept. Not very comfortable perhaps, but hey! It’s cheap, and you’re home with family!
And if your wife happens to have her baby there, well…it would make perfect sense to lay the little guy in the manger, which is probably the only piece of furniture there. Unusual? Yes. But not crazy, like this idea that Joseph had nowhere to stay in his own home town!
So you see what I mean when I say this is actually an Asian story? Mary and Joseph were not wandering the streets of Bethlehem, desperately looking for somewhere to have a baby. They were at home, in Joseph’s dad’s car-port, “because there was no room for them in the upper room.” See, Luke is actually describing a pretty normal lower-class Asian family’s house. And all this has been confirmed by archaeologists: poor peoples’ houses usually had a room for animals on the ground floor — and then the family lived on the first floor, in the “upper room”. So when too many guests came, and there was “no more room in the upper room”…the overflow slept on the ground floor, with the animals. There’s no isolated and lonely stable in this story; just an ordinary Jewish home, filled to overflowing because of Caesar’s greedy census.
And this completely changes the point of the story, doesn’t it? The traditional Christmas Story we’re so familiar with is about poor Mary and Joseph looking for shelter on a wintery night. It’s cute! — but not biblical.
The biblical Christmas Story is about poor Mary and Joseph whose lives are turned upside-down by the careless greed of a power-mad emperor. This is a political story.
And Luke makes that even more clear in the next part, where he introduces the shepherds.
And of course we know this part very well also: the angel appears in verse ten, “don’t be scared! I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This is how you’ll know I’m telling the truth: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Then the host of angels, singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” So the shepherds run into town and sure enough, there’s the baby lying in a manger of somebody’s house. Unusual? Yes, unusual enough to serve as a distinctive sign, but…again, not as crazy as a home town boy with no place to stay.
And here, again, we read this and it means nothing more to us than a cool story about angels and shepherds. We totally miss the angel’s extremely seditious language. When he says, “I bring you good news of great joy!” — that is how the birth of a new emperor used to be announced in the Roman Empire. When the angel says, “a Saviour has been born to you!” — well, archaeologists have discovered stone incriptions in which Caesar Augustus calls himself “Saviour of the World.” And when the angels sing, “on earth, peace to men…” — you guessed it: Caesar Augustus prided himself on bringing peace to the whole world. Granted, he did it by conquering, killing, and enslaving the whole world! — but Caesar was not the kind of guy to let details get in the way of good propaganda.
So what is the angel really announcing? He’s announcing the birth of a new emperor, a new kind of emperor, an emperor who will bring true peace to the earth — not by killing and enslaving his enemies, but by winning them over to himself as their true king.
And that is political talk, isn’t it? That is seditious talk.
Luke’s point here is this: “You remember that guy Caesar Augustus, who called himself ’Saviour of the World’ and ‘Prince of Peace’? You remember how, in his greed, he wanted to tax the whole world? Well, when he did that, he planted the seeds of his own destruction. His census forced Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem — so that God’s prophecies would be fulfilled! Eight hundred years before this, the prophet Micah had said it would happen: “But you, Bethlehem, even though you’re just a small kampung, out of you will come one who will be Ruler over Israel.”
Caesar Augustus has just cut his own throat. And he doesn’t even know it yet!
And what was true of Caesar Augustus Octavian at the birth of Jesus was true of Caesar Augustus Nero seventy years later, when he tried to destroy Christianity; and it is true, even today, of Caesar Augustus Trump, and Caesar Augustus Najib. These men all serve at God’s pleasure; they will judged by God’s standards. They look like they’re in charge! but they’re not. Every move they make to oppress God’s people just feeds the fires of God’s judgement against them.
Which is very Good News, isn’t it!
But small comfort, perhaps, when rulers like Nero come along. When your family is hunted down and arrested, just because you are Christians; when you don’t get that promotion you needed, just because you won’t lie or pay bribes; when your kids don’t get placement, just because they’re the wrong race, the wrong faith — in those moments this Good News rings a little hollow, doesn’t it? When you pray and pray for God to come and save you, and he won’t — then what good is this Good News?
In answer to that question, Luke introduces us next to Simeon and Anna.
In verse twenty-two he tells us about Jesus’ first trip to the temple in Jerusalem, forty days after his birth. His parents make the journey for two reasons: so Mary can make the required sacrifice to purify herself from the birth, and so they can consecrate their son to God’s service. But just as they are entering the temple an old man suddenly shows up, takes the baby and starts to shout and sing:
“Sovereign Lord, now I can die in peace! My job is done: I’ve seen your salvation, just like you promised. You really are going to save me! And not just me, and not just Israel: even non-Jews too!”
And Mary and Joseph are like, “…wow. Just: wow.” Because, even though they know their son is the Messiah — the Anointed One who was supposed to come and save Israel — they were shocked to hear that their son would also be saving non-Jews too!
Because in those days, good Jews stayed away from non-Jews. Non-Jews were dirty, perverted, God’s enemies, and the enemies of Israel. Jews could understand God sending his Messiah to save his people Israel — but to save non-Jews too, people who hate the One True God?
But the old man isn’t finished. In verse thirty-four he says to Mary, “don’t be so surprised! This child has not come here to unite Israel so we can conquer the world, and kill all the non-Jews. Actually, he has come here to divide us, to separate out God’s true people from God’s false people. Some of God’s true people are out there among the non-Jews; and some of God’s false people are right here in this temple, pretending to be good Jews. They are going to fight back against your son, reject him — and you, Mary, are going to suffer personally because of it.”
And just then, Luke tells us, an old lady shows up, a prophetess, and she supports what the old man said. And this makes sense, because God’s law requires at least two witnesses to confirm the truth of things: for Simeon alone to speak was not enough; Anna also needed to confirm what he said.
And here, again, we read this bit and we tend to miss something significant: do you realize Luke has given us more personal details about Simeon and Anna than he has about Joseph or Mary?
And if we think back to Chapter One, we realize he did the same with Zachariah and Elizabeth.
Huh. So: what does that mean? Usually when a writer takes the time to really introduce a character with a lot of detail, we know those characters are significant characters.
So what is so significant about these four people — Zachariah, Elizabeth, Simeon, and Anna? What do they have in common?
Well, first: they are all old. They are also all extremely righteous. And they have all lived lives of disappointment and grief, waiting — longing! — for God’s salvation to come to them, to their people. And they have all remained faithful to the very end.
These four elderly people are the heroes of Luke’s Christmas Story. These are the people he wants us to pay attention to. These are the examples he wants us to follow.
See, Luke is acknowledging that this world is still ruled by corrupt and oppressive emperors and kings. He is telling us that the birth of this baby is the beginning of the end for all of them — but we have not yet reached the end.
So Luke is acknowledging that years may pass, years of disappointment and grief and unanswered prayers. But he is showing us that we are not the first to suffer in this way; and he is showing us, through the lives of Zachariah and Elizabeth and Simeon and Anna, how to live faithfully while we wait for our salvation to appear.
Friends, how can we do any less? They lived on that side of history, not knowing for certain what shape God’s salvation would take. We live on this side: we know the rest of the story! Are we going to be less faithful than these old people, or are we going to be more?
Friends, we have all experienced unanswered prayer. Many of you are praying for a godly spouse to share your life with. How long have you been praying? Two years? Five? Ten? It feels like forever already, doesn’t it? Anna lived as a widow for eighty-four years before God rewarded her with her greatest desire. In light of her faithfulness, how can we ever consider giving up and marrying a non-believer?
Many of you are praying for Malaysia, that corruption and cronyism would become a thing of the past, that all people in this nation might live free. How long have you been praying? Ten years? Twenty? Zechariah the priest served faithfully for decades in a temple system ruled by corrupt and greedy high priests who rigged elections to make sure only their family members got into positions of power! In light of his faithfulness, how can we ever consider giving up and going away to some other part of the world where all the hard work has already been done for us?
Faithfulness, friends: this is Luke’s challenge. The baby king is born. The young emperor has taken his first breath.
So don’t give up now!
Luke’s Christmas Story is almost done. In verse forty-one he tells us that when Jesus is twelve years old he accompanies his parents to Jerusalem to celebrate the Passover Feast. And we know this part: Mary and Joseph leave Jesus behind by mistake, and after three days of frantic searching they find him in the temple with the teachers. And Mary says: “Jesus Emmanuel Bar-Joseph, you get over here right now! Your father and I have been worried sick about you!”
And the boy Jesus says, “…why didn’t you just look for me in my Father’s house?”
But his parents didn’t understand what he meant — though, of course, we do.
And then, Luke says, they went back home to Nazareth. Which seems anti-climactic, until we notice just one small, subtle, literary trick that Luke plays on us.
See, back in verse forty-two, Luke tells us that “they — the parents — went up to the Feast”, and Jesus followed them. But in verse fifty-one, Luke tells us that “he — Jesus — went down to Nazareth”, and the parents followed him. The difference is even more explicit in the original Greek. And what does it mean? It means that up until this point Jesus was a child, under the direct authority of his earthly parents. But now he is under the direct authority of his Father, God. He still honors and obeys Mary and Joseph, but from this point on he is preparing himself to win God’s Kingdom back from those who have stolen it.
In his subtle way, Luke is telling us that from now on — and until the end — Jesus is in charge. Caesar Augustus’ plan to tax the world has back-fired on him: he no longer has any real power, no matter what it looks like.
And this is where Luke finishes the first “chapter”of his book. It opened with an old, barren, disappointed, disbelieving priest in the temple. It closes now in that same temple with a strong, wise young prince, a prince destined to go out and win for himself an everlasting kingdom.
I suggested earlier that the true Christmas Story is a quintessentially Asian story. In particular, it is a quintessentially Jewish story. The Jews were — and in many case, still are — a people haunted by the grief and glory of their own history under God. And Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth is no different.
We find here, in his writing, hymns of praise to God! — followed by laments. We find joy and sorrow intermingled. We find the light of God’s glory…over-shadowed by death.
Here, Mary wraps Jesus in cloths and places him in a manger; at the end of Luke’s book, Jesus is again wrapped in cloths…and placed in a tomb.
Here, the angel says, “Today a Saviour has been born to you!” At the end of the book, Jesus says, “Today…you will be with me in Paradise.”
Here, Simeon says, “my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the sight of all people, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and for glory to your people Israel!” But at the very end of Luke’s second book, seventy years after Simeon died, the Apostle Paul says bitterly, “this people’s heart has become calloused; they hardly hear with their ears, and they have closed their eyes…therefore I want you to know that God’s salvation has been sent to the Gentiles, and they will listen!”
And there Luke’s writing ends: with Simeon’s promise unfulfilled, his prayer unanswered. Luke wrote to comfort Christians in their grief — even while he himself, as a writer, was wrestling with his own disappointments. When will the people of Israel turn and embrace their true Messiah and King? When will all the Gentiles finally see the light of God’s salvation? Luke doesn’t know; and that is how he leaves it. And the only reason he has the courage to write so honestly is because he believes God will keep his promises. Like Zechariah, Luke believes that ultimately God will show mercy to all Abraham’s children. Like Simeon, Luke believes that one day “all flesh shall see the salvation of God”.
All flesh: Jew and Gentile, Asian and European, male and female, slave and free. And that is why Luke’s Christmas Story is not simply an Asian story; it is a human story. All flesh longs for salvation from corrupt and greedy emperors. All flesh suffers grief and disappointment. All flesh prays to have their prayers answered, and weeps when they are not. All flesh is looking for peace on earth, for a true King! a wise King! the kind of King who would give everything for his people, instead of taking everything from them.
And here, we have found him! wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.
Let us answer God’s call, then, and let us be faithful to him down through all the long years; like Zechariah and Elizabeth, like Simeon and Anna, let us hold on to what our God has promised us: that one day we shall see our salvation with our own eyes, a light for revelation to the whole world.