“Does this look like a palace to you?” Exclaimed the father of the household. He was frustrated by our entrance and our search for the baby Messiah. Should we expect to find the king in a lowly village home?? Like the shepherds in the fields we would find him wrapped in swaddling cloths, in a manger.
Several of us entered this small one room dwelling Sunday evening pretending to be pilgrims making our way to Bethlehem to see Jesus’ birth. There was a live nativity scheduled for two evenings and many from the surrounding area spread the word.
We probably had no business being in Bethlehem, the city of David (Luke 2:11) for the census Augustus decreed.We had a little passport that said we were from the tribe of Gad. Ha! Nevertheless, we journeyed through ten “stations” being led by an excited shepherd who was anticipating the birth of a king. This particular household was the one of those stations. They didn’t want us to come in. In fact, after knocking, they said they’d just turned away a pregnant mother and her husband and discouraged us from thinking that a king would be found anywhere nearby. This, of course, was no palace! [Scholars and historians are noting, though, that Jesus was most likely laid in a manger that would be found inside a typical home, where the animals were brought inside every evening. They point out that Joseph and Mary, being of the family and lineage of king David, would’ve been expected to arrive….but may not have been able to use the guest room. Because of the census, Joseph and Mary weren’t the only ones traveling. It would also be shameful to turn away people in need, especially a pregnant woman! Think about it, if shepherds had come upon a newly born child with its mother in a cave, wouldn’t they have had the decency to alert their own wives to attend them? “Baby, its cold outside!” Ha!]
Traditionally, we’ve heard that shepherds were considered unclean because of the nature of tending sheep. Perhaps, their work could be compared to that of construction workers, farmers, or fishermen; any kind of work that routinely caused concern of contracting infection or contaminants. More importantly, shepherds were no elite class. They were peasants, raw characters, lowly and outcast. Society didn’t share the popular affection we tend to associate with them today. Yet, angels sang their message of the newborn king not to the powerful or religiously popular of the era, but to shepherds. The birth of the heavenly king was not in a luxurious palace, but in a manger where the “fringe” of society were invited and welcomed as honored guests!
A contrast becomes sharper as we search Luke’s account (2:1-20). The ruler of the known world, Caesar Augustus (2:1) decreed that a census be taken. This causes Joseph and Mary to head to Bethlehem, where the royal family of David resided. Two different kinds of kings are in view, and therefore, different kinds of kingdoms also. Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. Apparently, after civil war Augustus claims he’s brought justice and peace to the entire world. Songs and poems were written about him becoming ‘savior’ of this world, its lord and king. People even worshiped him. Can you begin to see a contrast of kingdoms? Is Luke contrasting Augustus, 1400 miles away in the Eternal City of Rome, with Jesus, born in a manger in a small village?
The manger serves as a signal in the story. It sharpens the contrast of Augustus’ kingdom and God’s. Augustus’ kingdom, like many that preceded, ruled through oppression and brutality. The manger welcomes the “weak and outcast” while the palace in Rome oppresses and exploits them. Although the setting of the the manger is weak and vulnerable Luke is calling attention to the fact that this baby was already the King of the entire world, the real Son of God. His kingdom is a kingdom of true justice and true peace. This truly was and is good news!