The most reliable of Adam’s descendants will fail—fail others, fail himself, and fail God. That is, all except One.
Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13); the clear and present manger supersedes the clear and present danger. The One born in Bethlehem, Almighty God in human flesh, has come to bring peace, forgiveness, and salvation. Fear translates into awestruck joy when the angel proclaims the grace-filled Word of the Lord.
Promises. We’ve received them, and we have made them. We have trusted others and been entrusted by others. We have suffered let downs; and we have let others down—probably more frequently than we would care to admit.
With vacuous words, we speak either to ourselves or openly to surrounding skeptics,
“I’ll pay you next week. I promise.”
“This time is different. I really will be faithful. I promise.”
“I’m not like other people. I keep my word.”
“I have learned my lesson. I will never do that again!”
“The check is in the mail.”
On and on it goes. Promises, promises. Empty promises. Such unmet words preach their own sermon with reliable redundancy: Set your hopes on people, and you will be disappointed. Set your hopes in a relationship to meet your deepest longings. Disappointed. Trust in no one but yourself. Terribly and tragically disappointed. Even the most reliable of Adam’s descendants will fail—fail others, fail himself, and fail God.
That is, all except One. In Luke 2:1–14, the physician-author vividly recounts the birth of this One glorious Exception. He is not only trustworthy; he is truth itself. He is not only reliable, but the Redeemer. He is not only the Promise, but the divine Deliverer in the flesh.
The Bread of Life
It was an ordinary night in Bethlehem. Well, not quite ordinary. The little borough was probably bustling. Mighty Caesar had decreed a census be taken. Like ants at a picnic, citizens sprung into dutiful action.
Lives interrupted, they forcibly returned to their hometowns to get tallied. Why the count? Well, some things never change. Government and governors in all ages have found their way into wallets. If the first century Jews are in any way like the rest of us, no small amount of resentment filled the air, as they made unwanted excursions to ensure they would render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Not only did they spend money for this trip, these particular travel expenditures guaranteed they would part with even more money in coming days!
While the displaced travelers surely begrudged the king’s bean counters, merchants would have smiled about their own accounting, as pockets swelled with the flowing cash of the needy travelers. Visitors have no doubt crowded into Bethlehem to fulfill their civic duty. Storeowners entertained the weary pilgrims – food and hospitality, the Bethlehem way. Bethlehem, after all, means “house of bread” and nothing quite speaks of hospitality than guest accommodations, a warm fire, and piping hot fresh bread.
But such hospitality was not to be, at least not for everyone.
A pregnant woman, weary after a long journey with her betrothed, secured accommodations outside an inn (Luke 2:7), where she was to give birth. The immediate reason for the less than optimal accommodations, we do not know. Luke does not tell us. But with this recounting of the events, he highlights the staggering incongruity of the bedding for the Son of God—a manger, a feed trough. Such unthinkable condescension warrants further consideration.
Imagine the local folks in Bethlehem and the other census travelers. The scene surely seemed unremarkable, uninteresting, even unworthy of a second thought. Yawn…. Just another inconvenient decree of the king. Just another night in Bethlehem. Just another clueless peasant couple, hoping for happiness, only to be disappointed… Oh, and just another baby.
But any such oblivion differs markedly from the cosmic and redemptive significance of the happenings. Having now appeared in Bethlehem in an unprecedented way, God acts in stunning grace and speaks in sweetest grace to a group of shepherds (Luke 2:8–14):
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly 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.”
On the hillside outside Bethlehem, sleepy monotony gets rudely jolted. The shock comes by no ordinary alarm clock; it is too early for sunrise and the radiance too bright for the sun. Blazing light and angelic chorus shatter any boredom in the Bethlehem borough. An angel speaks and then other angel voices converge, proclaiming the always reliable and now realized Word of God.
This fulfillment had been a long time coming, but as the God of Scripture makes abundantly clear, its actualization was never in doubt. To whatever degree questions persisted through the generations, the doubt dwelled only on the human side. Human perceptions and impatience simply do not align with divine purpose and the nature of divine faithfulness.