“About that time Caesar Augustus ordered a census to be taken throughout the Empire. This was the first census when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to travel to his own ancestral hometown to be accounted for. So Joseph went from the Galilean town of Nazareth up to Bethlehem in Judah, David’s town, for the census. As a descendant of David, he had to go there. He went with Mary, his fiancée, who was pregnant. While they were there, the time came for her to give birth. She gave birth to a son, her firstborn. She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger, because there was no room in the hostel.”
“Why was Jesus born in Bethlehem and not Rome?”
I saw this question posed on Twitter the other day and it got me thinking. Yes, I realized it’s all about what was prophesied about Jesus, but why that town? If God knew that the center of the action would be Rome at that time, why not make a different entrance? The story of Jesus connection to Bethlehem begins in the book of Ruth in the Old Testament. In seminary, my Hebrew exegesis class translated this book, which I thoroughly enjoyed. The book in English begins this way: Once upon a time—it was back in the days when judges led Israel— there was a famine in the land. Standard story stuff. However, the word “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” so the actual Hebrew reads, “there was no bread in the house of bread.” Much more interesting than “there was a famine in the land”. Knowing that Jesus’ home town was known as the House of Bread makes his words in John 6 even more poignant:
“Jesus said, ‘I am the Bread of Life. The person who aligns with me hungers no more and thirsts no more, ever. I have told you this explicitly because even though you have seen me in action, you don’t really believe me. Every person the Father gives me eventually comes running to me. And once that person is with me, I hold on and don’t let go. I came down from heaven not to follow my own whim but to accomplish the will of the One who sent me.'”
John 6:47-51 “I’m telling you the most solemn and sober truth now: Whoever believes in me has real life, eternal life. I am the Bread of Life. Your ancestors ate the manna bread in the desert and died. But now here is Bread that t ruly comes down out of heaven. Anyone eating this Bread will not die, ever. I am the Bread—living Bread!—who came down out of heaven. Anyone who eats this Bread will live—and forever! The Bread that I present to the world so that it can eat and live is myself, this flesh-and-blood self.”
To us it’s a great message, but for the people in that time, he was saying, “You want bread? Let me tell you something, I’m from Bread Town, and I’ll do you one better. I am bread so awesome that once you get a piece of this, you’ll never be hungry again.” (For some reason, Jesus became Tony Soprano). Bread is a food that is common to all cultures. It is also a very basic form of nutrition, a staple. It comes in a lot of forms, flavors and textures. It can be both practical and decadent, fancy and sturdy. It’s what Jesus told us to eat to remember him. It’s how we come together as a community – the breaking of bread.
“But you, Bethlehem, David’s country, the runt of the litter— From you will come the leader who will shepherd-rule Israel. He’ll be no upstart, no pretender. His family tree is ancient and distinguished. Meanwhile, Israel will be in foster homes until the birth pangs are over and the child is born, And the scattered brothers come back home to the family of Israel. He will stand tall in his shepherd-rule by GOD’s strength, centered in the majesty of GOD-Revealed. And the people will have a good and safe home, for the whole world will hold him in respect— Peacemaker of the world!”
The other reason I think Jesus didn’t come from Rome is that he wasn’t meant to come from somewhere big and important. He has the genealogical cred to back up his claim to be the Chosen One, and it’s reinforced by his home town. His ancestor is the most famous of all the kings of Israel, David. And how did David start out? A shepherd. In a small town. Who were the first folks to hear about the birth of Jesus? Shepherds. See where I’m going with this? Jesus spoke truth to power but didn’t come from power. Had he come from Rome, political power would have been expected.
Jesus birthplace tells us who he is and what he came to do. It also shows us who we are to be
God, my shepherd!
I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.
Even when the way goes through
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.
You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.
Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.