His Name Is Jesus


As I watch the shepherds exit the scene at the manger full of rejoicing, Luke is silent about the immediate days after the birth until the eighth day. This is when we read that circumcision occurs and this Son of God born to Mary and Joseph is officially named Jesus as the angel had spoken before Jesus was conceived.


I cannot help but wonder how long Mary and Joseph stayed in Bethlehem. No doubt they were still there for this event. What is not stated is whether they remained there until the days of Mary’s purification were completed which would have been 40 days.


Mary would have been recovering from the birth and they needed to accomplish all that the law required of them before the return home. The number of days of purification  were determined because this was a male child and it would mean going to Jerusalem which  was only about seven miles from Bethlehem.


If I imagine them staying in Bethlehem for almost a month and a half, I wonder if they stayed in the stable the entire time or if they found other lodging as the crowded city thinned out a bit. Perhaps by then some relative’s home had enough room for them. That would have also been a source of other provisions as well beyond simply a roof over their heads.


The Law of Moses required this purification at the forty-day mark for a male child. She was also to bring a burnt offering to the Temple. A lamb was required, but if the couple was poor they were permitted to bring a turtledove for the burnt offering. A sin offering was also required at the same time and this would have been another turtledove or pigeon. If these were too expensive, then fine flour, as an offering would be accepted.


Luke tells us in the passage about the turtledoves being brought so it clearly suggests that Mary and Joseph were poor. They were not in abject poverty or we would be reading about flour.


As I read this and so many Old Testament passages I am reminded of how many animals were slaughtered, how much blood was spilled over and over again to cover the sins of the people, to attain atonement. And it was never enough.


My heart overflows with gratitude for the “perfect lamb” offered as a sacrifice once to atone for all my sins when I receive Him.


 As the scene in the Temple opens with Mary and Joseph making the sacrifices required by Mosaic Law, we have his name pronounced. Jesus.


Then a man, Simeon, whom Luke describes as devout and righteous, enters the scene. Luke tells us Simeon came into the Temple “in the Spirit”. We learn that this is no ordinary man because he has been patiently waiting for the consolation of Israel, the Messiah. God had promised him that he would not die before he saw this child. What an incredible promise and gift!! What an honor for Simeon!


And now the one, who has been so blessed, takes Jesus in his arms. I can only imagine the joy that flowed through Simeon as he gazed into the face of this baby, Jesus, Son of God, Consolation of Israel, and the Messiah.


Simeon blesses the child and praises God while also proclaiming who Jesus was as well as His purpose of salvation. He also blesses Mary and Joseph. Then he speaks prophetically to and about Mary telling her what this child was appointed to be and do. Did a chill run through her when he said a sword would pierce through her own soul? How she must have wondered at it all and Luke tells us she and Joseph marveled at what Simeon said.


But God was not done confirming His Word. The prophetess, Anna, a widow of 84, also is in the Temple at just the time this was all happening. Anna worshipped with prayer and fasting day and night according to Luke. She appears to be standing with Simeon as he has been speaking possibly and she appears to affirm as well this child would provide for the redemption of Jerusalem.


I know this story is familiar to you as it is to me, but as I slowly pause as I read these passages I am once again struck by the multiple details God aligned from the very beginning assuring Jesus would be born at the exact place and time He had said would occur.


How often does the Lord bring about details that may seem like a coincidence in our lives that actually lead us as He, the Good Shepherd, would choose as a result His love and care for us?



 Have a blessed Christmas and a New Year full of anticipation for His return for the Second Advent. I will return January 2, 2019.





A Peaceful Night Sky Shattered



Just about the time I am envisioning the shepherds abiding in the fields with their flocks during the night watches, my reverie is lost with the sound and sight of an angel entering the inky night sky. Scripture clearly states the shepherds were frightened and I have no doubt that I would have been as well. The sky may have been dotted with stars, but suddenly an angel floods the night sky with light and the sound of an unearthly voice. Picture your response to a UFO if an image of an angel is a bit too hard to capture.


I might think the shepherds were frightened because they did not know what they were seeing. There was likely more than a little shock going on as well, but as I reflected on it a bit more I wondered about another possibility.


Could it be their knowledge of the history of Israel reminded them of other times an angel or angels appeared? If so, they might have recalled that it was not always simply to share good news. Sometimes they came to bring judgment under God’s orders such as when strangers appeared to Lot with the news that Sodom and Gomorrah would be destroyed. The shepherds did not know whether the message was for their good or their destruction until the angel speaks.


One example that can give me a possible glimpse happens in the movie series of the Lord of the Rings where Cate Blanchett appears as Galadriel. In some scenes she appears as one meant only to help and guide. In other scenes her appearance reminds me of a power within her that I cannot fully understand nor trust.


Clearly, they were not aware of what had already happened in Bethlehem or that a lamb more precious than those they tended had picked them to first behold Him. These simple shepherds are the first to see Him, not the wise men or anyone of high station.


I also need to remind myself that the earlier scene of the birth in Luke is now converging with the scene of the shepherds that have been abiding in the field.


How would the reverberation of an angelic host sound? I wish I knew.


 I cannot help but believe that the stillness of the night and the dark starlit vaulted canopy under which they tended their sheep would have provided the perfect setting and acoustics for the dramatic entrance of the angel and then an angelic host.


In that singular moment, the shepherds receive a momentary taste of the sounds of heaven.


 I can perhaps only get a glimmer of that sound when I think of how Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus never fails to cause my eyes to well with tears as it sweeps over me each time I hear it.


And what does the angel share with them? First, the angel seeks to calm their fears. They are told not to be afraid because the news they are about to hear will bring joy not only to them, but will be for “all the people”.


What a seeming paradox! These least likely shepherds, considered to be of no account by the people of the day, will not only be the first to hear but will also be potentially the first to tell others about this miraculous event. After so many years, prophecy has been fulfilled on this night. That is made clear by the declaration it occurred at the right spot, the city of David.


The Messiah has come. Nothing will ever be the same again. A Savior, their Redeemer, our Redeemer, has been born.


 The news is so breathtaking that an angelic host enters the scene singing praise to God.   When I see “heavenly host” in the passage, I do not immediately think army, but that is what is meant. An army in the night sky? Almost any one of us would be shaking as we see an army appear in the sky.


“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased”


 Then, nearly as abruptly as they appear in the sky, they return to heaven leaving the awe-struck shepherds once more alone under a starry night sky. The evidence of their faith comes when their response to the heavenly messengers is to go to Bethlehem to see what has happened and what the Lord has made known to them.


Some images we see show the shepherds gazing up into the sky at a bright star, but the sign the angel spoke about is not a star. The sign is a baby lying in a manger. Sure enough upon entering Bethlehem, they find just such a scene with Mary, Joseph and the baby. I wonder if Mary and Joseph were stunned with the appearance of these visitors.


What I do know is that the shepherds went away praising God and made this discovery known as well as what the angel had spoken to them. They bring the Good News.


So many hundreds of years later, when anyone of us first discovers the Good News, we too go away praising the Lord and telling anyone we know.


Even if this news is not new to you, I pray you will see it with fresh eyes this season so you experience the joy of the shepherds. No matter what your station in life, know He has chosen you even as He chose the shepherds.









And Shepherds Were Abiding



If you have been journeying with me through the Christmas scripture passages of Luke and Matthew this month, you know that the next scene is that of the shepherds.


Once more, the pictures and images of shepherds at the birth of Jesus don’t give us much information about them and might also depict them differently than would have been the case.


Even though I grew up on a farm, we did not own sheep so I needed to look elsewhere to learn more about who shepherds traditionally were and what I can  imagine from the short passage in Luke 2 about them.


Of all the things I have read about shepherds, few resources have had the impact on me as much as that of Margaret Feinberg’s book, Scouting the Divine: My Search for God in Wine, Wool, and Wild Honey. She looks at the metaphors Jesus uses so often. The chapter about sheep and shepherds (The Good Shepherd) captures a much deeper understanding of how Jesus teaches us about our relationship with Him. Margaret gives a first hand glimpse as she spends time with a shepherd learning more about this powerful image Jesus gives us.


Shepherds appear throughout the Old Testament and in the New Testament as well. I am not sure I always ‘caught’ that this was not a role that was held in high esteem. I can certainly get a glimpse of that when Samuel is seeking to anoint the next king of Israel.


After he has looked at all the sons of Jesse and sees none of them are God’s choice, he discovers the youngest one is missing from the group because he is out tending the sheep. Jesse cannot believe this youngest boy, a simple sheepherder, would be the one chosen. And yet he is.


In Luke 2, the seemingly ‘least likely’ are again chosen. This time they (the shepherds) are chosen to be the first noted visitors of Jesus after His birth.


Shepherds who tend sheep and lambs daily are honored as the first to attend to the Lamb of God.


Even though sheep might be a livelihood for some, those left to tend the sheep were often the youngest and weakest family members who had few skills for anything else. This might mean children, older men no longer in their prime, or even perhaps older women would compose the group.


It seems odd to me that the youngest and weakest were given such a difficult and dangerous job. Shepherds were exposed to extremes of heat and cold. Supplies for their own welfare were few and needed to be stewarded and protected. Shepherds also needed to be very watchful and on guard at all times to protect the sheep from robbers, predators, and the terrain itself, which was often rocky.


They also needed to seek out any sheep that were lost after wandering away and find food for the flock later in the fall and winter when none was available.


Shepherds provided for what the sheep needed right now.  


Those of us in the Midwest might envision the pasture as a lush grassy one common in this part of the United States, but the fields near Bethlehem looked more like the picture below.



The sheep pastured constantly in open fields so the term ‘abiding’ was used because the shepherds stayed there throughout the day and night. Usually they would use tents or huts to provide shelter for themselves.


So with that background, I envision the shepherds outside Bethlehem as a group that is both older and younger than images of the scene might depict. Possibly an older woman would have been in the mix as well. I see them with eyes open and on the alert to watch over the sheep and lambs in their charge. What a heart they had for their charges.


Shepherds were first to see the Lamb of God.


At the time of Jesus birth, we see the least likely are chosen, a pattern that follows Him all the way to Calvary. That never fails to give me hope.


The other message that breaks into my awareness is the shepherds are accorded the honor of first seeing the one that would also be called “the good shepherd”. The Good Shepherd would be as fierce and protective, as loving and as much of a provider as those who gazed upon the manger. He would also be described by John the Baptist in John 1:29 as “the Lamb of God”


I wonder if the shepherds had any awareness of how much Jesus would identify His role with theirs.


The shepherds were not simply window dressing in a set. What would He have us understand about His choice of them?


His choice of us?



No Room in the Inn




When I left off telling the story, Mary and Joseph had traveled the more than seventy miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. I could lament about the inconvenient time for Mary. After all, she was nearing the end of her pregnancy. It would not have been an easy trip and she would have needed to travel slowly, but to fulfill biblical prophecy she needed to be in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus.


Consider all the details that God arranged for this one monumental moment in history.


Look at the sequence of events and how perfectly they aligned. Certainly when all of them are considered, this was not coincidental. Caesar Augustus, if he knew the prophecy at all, would have had no desire to bring it to fruition by requiring the trip to Bethlehem.


By all accounts, Bethlehem was not a large city and would be crowded with the people who were required to go there to register for taxation.


Even if there were relatives in the city to provide shelter, it would not be surprising they would not have enough room for all the relatives who might need shelter. The inns of that day, such as they were, would have been crowded as well by the time Mary and Joseph arrived. Others who could have traveled more swiftly would have gotten the first spots.


What I know is that Luke tells me there was “no room in the inn”, but what was an “inn” in that day? It can be hard for me to envision it if I use the same word for an overnight or many day stay in this day.


What would it have been like for Mary who might already be having signs of early labor to know she and Joseph had no place to stay that they could count on?


How would Joseph be feeling as he sought shelter for his wife knowing that she might be ready to deliver the baby at any time? He knew he needed to find a place of safety and shelter. It was up to him, but in his mind he may well have thought, surely God has provision given all He had told them.


Inns of the day were often square erections that were open inside. Travelers could stay there and have room for their animals if they were traveling with them. The rear part of the structures was used as a stable. Because the countryside was rocky, sometimes these spaces were a grotto or cave.


Despite the primitive conditions, I am confident Mary and Joseph would have felt great relief when they found a spot near the back of this inn or cave. Even though scripture does not tell us, Mary would possibly have been advancing in labor by the time Joseph gathered hay or straw for her to lie down.


If the inn was full, would there have been any woman, any midwife there to provide help and comfort? Would Joseph be her only help to aid in the delivery and to seek to comfort her as she felt contractions coming faster and harder?


I rest in the assurance that God provided for them even though I do not read how. God had left nothing to chance for this night. Everything would fit together perfectly with the Old Testament prophecy.


I can see Joseph searching for things he thought they might need. They had brought so little with them. When he noticed the manger, he saw a possible bed for the baby. He cleared out all the old hay or straw and searched for fresh bedding for the baby and moved it closer to Mary.



Whether or not anyone else was present, Luke, the physician, tells us that Jesus was wrapped in swaddling cloths and placed in the manger Joseph had prepared.


What were swaddling cloths?


Traveling long distances in the Middle East in those days often could result in hardship and trials of many kinds. Resources tell me death was not uncommon on such a trip and if it occurred, the body could not be carried to the journey’s end.


As a result, it was common for travelers to wrap a thin, gauzelike cloth around their waist multiple times so if someone died on the journey others would be able to wrap the body for burial. These cloths were referred to as “swaddling clothes”.


Could it be that Joseph had such cloths wrapped around his waist and as he looked for something to wrap the baby after delivery, this was what was available for him to wrap Jesus?


If so, then Jesus who was born to die for us was wrapped in burial cloths at His birth.


Trip to Bethlehem




As I reread the passages of scripture about the birth of Christ and try to imagine living in that time, I am reminded of how many gaps in the story leave me wondering what was happening.


I know about Gabriel’s visit to Mary as well as the angel’s visit to Joseph. I know that soon after Gabriel’s visit Mary made her way to her cousin, Elizabeth, and that she spent three months there. If my imagining were accurate, Mary would have been about three months pregnant when she returned home.


Joseph’s dream and the angel means they are going forward to be husband and wife, but exactly when that happened scripture is silent. To be betrothed in that time and culture was as sacred and binding as the marriage which is why Joseph could have asked for a divorce when he heard Mary was pregnant. Sources tell us that betrothal could be from six months to a year in length. Did Mary and Joseph go on to be married right after she returned from seeing Elizabeth?


Scripture does not tell me that. The next thing I see clearly is that Caesar Augustus demands the entire world is to be taxed or some translations say, “registered”. This requires a trip to your hometown to be registered.


For Mary and Joseph, it means they need to make preparations to travel from Nazareth in Galilee to Bethlehem, the city of David, in Judea. The trip of about seventy miles or so would certainly not be easy given Mary’s pregnancy. How many miles could Mary manage to travel on foot in a day? How long did the trip really take the couple since Mary may likely have been eight months pregnant?


Pictures in books and Christmas plays portray Mary riding a donkey with Joseph leading the donkey. Usually they are seen alone and yet scripture does not say she rode on a donkey. The least expensive mode of travel in those days was walking and most people would likely have walked, but perhaps a donkey was made available for Mary given her pregnancy. We do not know.


Her pregnancy seemed to be advanced by then which would make traveling uncomfortable no matter how she made the trip. Walking would be exhausting even if she were used to walking great distances. Riding a donkey (if that occurred) would not be easy either even though donkeys were considered to be strong and sure-footed.


If I consider the time and culture, it is likely a group of people traveled together to Bethlehem since the entire world was to be taxed or registered. Neighbors, friends, or family would possibly travel together. This would have provided safety and companionship for the long journey.


Can you imagine the challenge Mary faced?


I read about their search of a place to stay in Bethlehem, but what about the nights when they were traveling on the trip to Bethlehem?


I see often in the Old Testament the importance of hospitality to the Jewish people. A prime example was Abraham. During feast times when the people often traveled to Jerusalem, Jews were expected to take into their homes as many guests as possible to provide shelter, safety and food. Despite all the potential travelers to register, who provided for Mary and Joseph on their long journey?


Scripture does not tell us the route they took. A check of resources suggests there could be two possible routes. The shortest was the trade route through the center of the region, but it was also more demanding. The flatter route was through the Jordan River Valley, but it was longer.


nt-11Imagine Mary, perhaps only 14 years old, making this trip during her first pregnancy. It would be reasonable to think it might feel scary.


So many unknowns would have faced her about the trip itself and then there were all those nagging questions about what labor and delivery would really be like. No matter who tells you about it, nothing can quite prepare you for such an experience.


We don’t know how many weeks it was until she was to be delivered. Would she feel concern that she might go into labor and delivery on the trip there?


Visitors to the area can still follow the trek between Nazareth and Bethlehem today and it is known as The Nativity Trail. I think that would be a fascinating walk. This is a photo of the area.



Scripture picks up the story as they reach Bethlehem. We do not know how long Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem before the time came for her to give birth to Jesus. We sometimes get the impression Mary delivered soon after their arrival, but in truth we do not know.


The trip would be a challenge for Joseph as well as he sought to care for Mary, provide as much comfort and assurance as he could. I wonder if Joseph reassured Mary with the stories they both knew well about God’s provision for His chosen people throughout all the generations to that point.


Undoubtedly, they traveled on this incredible journey with many questions, but there were certainties as well. God had chosen them and the Son of God was carried by them to be born in Bethlehem.