There are places today (governments, nations) in the world where it looks like our God has little leverage and where his people face severe threats. It is easy for us to make the mistake of thinking that His hands are tied and nothing good can happen. We can become paralyzed by anxiety and fear the future of our children. But we don’t need to cross our fingers and hope for the best. When God appears absent, there is hope because he works best in obscurity.
Tucked within the familiar Christmas story (Luke 2:1-7), Luke shares a message of hope--that in times and places where it looks like God’s hand are tied, He may, in fact, be doing something profound, but doing so in obscurity.
Caesar Augustus, “son of God”
Caesar Augustus (Luke 2:1) was the great nephew of Julius Caesar, adopted by him and treated as a son. Upon Julius Caesar’s death, the Roman Senate declared him to be god. So it was that when Augustus took the throne, he announced that he was “the son of god.”
Caesar had big hands. He was Rome’s greatest administrator and a superb team builder. He ruled for 41 years (very impressive by Roman standards), extending the empire’s borders and creating what history knows as the “Pax Romana,” the Peace of Rome.
It was safe to travel the length and breadth of the Roman Empire because Caesar’s Legions ruled with iron discipline. Caesar ruled with an iron grip. And there was no room for any other ruler in his empire. Well, so he thought.
Vast Empire and Deep Pockets
Because Caesar needed deep pockets to maintain the borders of his vast empire, he ordered a tax for the whole Roman world. By imperial decree, a census would be taken to assess the tax.
His empire-wide decree created turmoil everywhere, forcing entire families to leave home and travel long distances to register in their forefather’s home towns and cities in order to comply. No one had a choice. When Caesar spoke, you didn’t hesitate or debate about obeying.
On the Road South
This is why Joseph, whose Davidic family roots were in Bethlehem, in southern Israel, found himself on the road from his home in Nazareth in northern Israel, traveling on foot a hundred miles south with a very pregnant lady in tow (Luke 2:4). Joseph and Mary arrived in the south, in Bethlehem, as latecomers, along with hundreds of other Jewish people of Davidic descent.
They came to register for the census. And this is how it happened that pregnant Mary—far from home—just happened to be in Bethlehem when her firstborn son was born (she had at least six other children (Matthew 13:55-56).
Luke’s Focus: God, not Joseph and Mary
What is the point of this story? Luke’s eye is not on Joseph and Mary’s search for a place to stay or on an insensitive innkeeper who coldly refused to give a pregnant woman a bed.
“Devotional” Christianity’s take on Luke 2:1-7, whether expressed in popular contemporary songs or literary prose, trivializes God and sensationalizes the human aspects in the story. There was no such innkeeper. Joseph and Mary are not the parental heroes of Luke’s familiar but misunderstood Christmas story.
Sensationalizing Joseph and Mary
Luke omits any reference to their faith in God, their parental love which drove them in a rush to find a place to deliver a baby; Luke does not view them as celebrities. Joseph and Mary are not the heroes of the story. But we might be forgiven for thinking such if we listen to popular, musical “devotional” renderings of Luke 2:1-7. Today’s music leaves us impressed by the love of Joseph and Mary. But Luke is impressed by someone else.
I really don’t intend to rain on your fried chicken picnic here. Traditions die hard, I know, especially when such misguided traditions are reinforced by entertaining Christian music, replete with snappy visual images. But Luke’s real focus (God) in 2:1-7 is worth our attention because of the hope it ushers into our soul as we enter a new year.
So, if I rained cats and dogs on your picnic, please forgive me. I’ll buy you more fried chicken. But, please also consider Luke’s intended message of hope for you.
Like all other Jewish people, Joseph and Mary are simply obeying the laws of Caesar Augustus. They, like everyone else, had no choice. They are not major players in Luke’s account. Luke makes this clear.
Caesar: Puppet on a String
Luke is showing us that even the mighty Caesar Augustus, self-proclaimed son of God, was not a major player either; he was simply a weak and easily controlled puppet. He believed that he was the son of God, in control. He believed he was the one with power. He thought he was “the man.” The rest of the Roman world thought the same thing. But Luke was not impressed with Caesar.
God the Puppet Mover
In reality Caesar was an unknowing agent in the hands of a sovereign God whose promise (Micah 5:2), written hundreds of years before, was about to be fulfilled. Caesar thought he was the power broker moving throngs of people and legions around. But God’s unstoppable hand was moving him. Caesar was a mere puppet on a string. It was God’s fingers that made him dangle. The “chance” of a census had made it happen.
How is God Going to Get This Done?
See, hundreds of years before, God had promised the prophet Micah (5:2) that the Messiah would be born in the Bethlehem of the south (rather than the Bethlehem of the north). But Mary lived a hundred miles away, with no reason to ever make the journey south. She did not hail from David’s lineage. She had no family in Bethlehem. And she was just weeks away from the birth of her first-born child, Jesus.
So, what was the likelihood that God’s promise in Micah would actually be fulfilled? How can we get pregnant Mary—living in the north—to be at the right place (in the south) and for her arrival to coincide exactly with the birth of her son? How was God going to pull this off?
He didn’t send an angel to Mary to tell her to move quickly. Neither did an angel appear to Joseph ordering him south of the border. Neither of them volunteered to move south. They were clueless. So, how was the impossible going to happen? Easy.
God moved the mind of a secular ruler to issue an imperial tax decree. By that decree, everyone—even pregnant women--must return to their forefather’s hometown to register for the census, in order to assess a tax for Caesar. Joseph—from David’s line--and his entire family must register in Bethlehem - no exception for a pregnant woman in the last trimester. It is commanded that all obey.
Joseph and Mary Obey the Government
So this tax decree by Caesar, the most powerful man in the world, put Joseph and Mary in the right city at just the right time to accomplish God’s redemptive purpose. Mary delivered the Messiah in the most unlikely but at the precise place and at the most unlikely time.
God pulled it off without having to cross His fingers. Joseph and Mary did not obey God to fulfill His promise. They obeyed the government, a secular government. But the government—Caesar Augustus--first obeyed God’s irresistible impulse. God is the major player in the story. He is the hero. He caused His promise to be fulfilled. He simply used a tax ruling.
A Faithful God is Luke’s Hero
The method and precision with which God’s obscure promise was fulfilled is simply breathtaking. The God of Jewish Scripture is Luke’s hero. The zoom lens of his camera is angled toward the faithfulness of God alone. Joseph and Mary are simply pawns on a chessboard.
Christian Music that Trivializes God
I wish today’s song writers would observe Luke’s story carefully and attain the precision that comes from hard work. Then (and only then) that could compose musical poetry for us that celebrates God’s faithfulness and His incomparable and trustworthy sovereignty.
To do otherwise—by focusing on the non-existent “innkeeper” or on Joseph and Mary’s “frantic” search for a place to stay—devotional Christianity gone to seed--is to trivialize our awesome God, rob Him of His glory, sensationalize human beings, and jettison hope.
God’s angels agree. The army of angels proclaimed immediately afterwards, “Glory to God in the highest,” (Luke 2:14) not glory to Mary or Joseph. The angels’ song focused on the real hero of the story. George F. Handel also seemed to get Luke’s point (“And the Glory of the Lord”).
Augustus a Ripple, Jesus a Tsunami
Today, Augustus, once the glory of Rome and epitome of political power, is only a tiny ripple in the grand river of history. Jesus, the Son of God, born in obscurity in the midst of a tax census, today rules as Lord over the world of men and women.
Fast-Forward to 2017
Consider the places today where it seems that secular government ignores God and where He has no leverage. Consider the nations where God’s people face severe persecution. Having considered such, there is no need to cross our fingers and hope for the best.
Meditate on the Hope in Luke’s Story
We can be confident that the same sovereign God who moved an obscure couple to travel to a small backwater town in southern Israel at the right time to the right place so that an obscure promise would be fulfilled precisely, that same God is still doing great things where it seems like He has no leverage. Our faithful God works best in obscurity.
Luke’s story of the birth of Jesus is eloquent proof that we have no need to fear tomorrow. When we can do no nothing, God is doing something profound in obscurity.
God has Not Retired
Our God has not changed nor lost His zip nor His control. God has not retired or moved into an old folks’ home. There are no vacancies in the trinity. He doesn’t need to be replaced by human heroes, even Joseph or Mary.
God Rules Over Washington, D.C.
God still can use government decrees, even tax rulings, to accomplish his purposes and fulfill His promises. He even can fulfill His promises when we obey the government, even a secular government. He rules over the Democratic and Republican parties. He has all the leverage He needs.
He is sovereign over Congress, the Supreme Court, and the Executive branch. They are nothing. God is everything. Trust Him and His Son, Jesus, who is Lord of all history, Lord of the past, present, and future—yes, even your future.
God’s Eye is on Us
And that same sovereign God has his eye riveted on you, your family, your geographical moves, and your life, from first heartbeat to last.
You may feel obscure, but you are not obscure to Him. He works in obscurity. He works through you. He sees you. You are important to Him. He will fulfill His promises to you, as well. God is the hero of Luke’s Christmas story. He is Luke’s hero. Is he yours?
Let God Alone Be the Theme of Our Songs
Let our hymns, anthems, and favorite contemporary songs crown God alone as Lord. Let our music celebrate His goodness and mercy in Jesus alone, adore Him alone, express our faith in Him and His Son alone, and motivate us to look to 2017 with confident faith and steadfast hope in Him alone. Joseph and Mary would agree. They do not want the limelight or the glory.
God of the Ages
“God of the ages, history’s Maker,
Planning our pathway, holding us fast,
Shaping in mercy all that concerns us:
Father we praise you, Lord of the past.
God of this morning, gladly your children
Worship before you, trustingly bow:
Teach us to know you always among us,
Quietly sovereign—Lord of our now.
God of tomorrow, strong Overcomer,
Princes of darkness own your command.
What then can harm us? We are your people,
Now and forever, kept by your hand.
Lord of past ages, Lord of this morning.
Lord of the future, help us we pray:
Teach us to trust you, love and obey you,
Crown you each moment Lord of today.”
Thank you for reading this. May the sovereign God’s abundant mercy and grace pursue you and yours in 2017 through Jesus Christ, Lord of our today and our tomorrows.
 The so-called “inn” of Luke 2:7 actually refers to a guest room (cf., kata,luma; same word used in Luke 22:11). The Greek word for an “inn,” used in Luke 10:34 (story of the Good Samaritan), is a completely different word (pandocei/on). There was no room in the guestroom for Joseph and Mary. It would have already been jammed to the max with travelers because of the world-wide census.
 I took a quick survey of the lyrics of popular contemporary Christian artists—allegedly taken from the Christmas story of Luke 2:1-7—and not one of the songs reflects Luke’s point. I am sure I missed some songs, but the ones I observed fail to give credit to God. Israel’s God is trivialized or Joseph and Mary are sensationalized. Devotional Christianity—in books and music--needs a funeral. But I’m fighting the city hall of tradition, I know.
 Canadian hymn writer (1915—2008). She has authored a number of excellent contemporary hymns.
 Margaret needs to be replaced by another Margaret in view of her death in 2008; so, is there a woman out there who knows Scripture well and can write poetry? Why not pick up Margaret’s mantle! We need many women like her—who refuse to be sucked into the vortex of shallow “devotional Christianity” that trivializes God in song and sensationalizes people, who takes Scripture seriously, observes it carefully, and interprets it correctly. Oh Margaret, where are you? We need you!
 We sing it at GBC to the tune of, “Bunessan.”