In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.
So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them (Luke 2:1-7 NIV).
It started even earlier this year. It was bad enough that millions of people began storming the Bastille's of Best Buy, Banana Republic, Target and Toys R Us in the predawn hours of the Friday after Thanksgiving. Now you can clean out your favorite store right after you've cleaned your Thanksgiving plate.
Black Thursday is the new Black Friday. Last year 81 million people shopped on Black Friday. But the number of Black Thursday shoppers is rising. 22 million shopped on Turkey day in 2010, up from 18 million in 2009.
They weren't shopping, but Joseph and Mary understood the craziness. Augustus had declared a census so that he could tax the people. Historians tell us that during his reign, Roman men and women did not want to get married so they got promiscuous. Marital rates went down and so did birth rates. So Augustus legislated a turnaround. He made promiscuity a crime. He gave advantages to fathers of three children. And bachelors would no longer have the right to inherit nor could they secure good seats at the games.
Maybe he wanted to gauge his success, but for whatever reason, he ordered several censuses during his reign. These were the basis for taxation. And it was because of his decision, some fifteen hundred miles away, that Joseph and Mary started their trek to Bethlehem.
Eighty miles on the back of a lumbering donkey and Joseph and Mary arrived in his ancestral town. Others would have arrived, too. Bethlehem was busy! The Christmas season had begun and they did not even know it.
And, just like last minute shoppers, Joseph apparently showed up at the last minute. Maybe he had work to do in Nazareth and had to build another table set before he could leave. And maybe this census came at a really bad time for him. Too much going on and too many rumors had already been circulating about who the father of Mary's child was.
Work and stress and finding extra money for taxes for the Romans may have made him put off getting to Bethlehem until he finally rolls in with his betrothed on their "used but paid for donkey" and she has to have the baby in a manger because there is no room for them in the inn.
Kind of like you might be feeling today. You've got appointments to meet and bills to pay and even your day off wasn't because of all the things you had to do. May I offer you a suggestion? Follow Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.
You see, they were ready for the arrival of Jesus in their busy lives because they had taken time to hear God. Sure, the angel spoke to each of them. But as Jewish people, they had practiced pausing in the morning, at midday, and in the evening to offer prayers to God. Then they would stop one day a week. No work. No busyness. Just rest, relaxation and renewal. Because they did, Jesus came to their lives.
And when you do the same, the One that was born in Bethlehem will be born in you.