Third Advent: The Response of Townspeople to the Miraculous

Luke 1:57-80                     Luke 2:4-6

Over these past weeks of Advent, I have immersed myself in the lives of those who lived on the periphery at the time of Christ’s birth.

I have also begun to see the essential participants in the holy birth with a new perspective.

I have begun to realize that perhaps the most overlooked and oftentimes erroneously maligned participants in this Christmas miracle are the townspeople: those in Elizabeth’s village and those in Bethlehem.  

These individuals have much to teach me – and perhaps you – during this third week of Advent. 

First Elizabeth’s community. 

The townspeople had no idea Elizabeth was pregnant. She had remained in seclusion for five months; even then, who would have thought a woman Elizabeth’s age would be pregnant!?

Zechariah, in his angelically-imposed silence, couldn’t share Elizabeth’s truth with the community (Luke 1:20)!  No one knew!

Mary was only aware of Elizabeth’s pregnancy because an angel gave her the miraculous  news (Luke 1:36). 

I imagine when Mary went to see Elizabeth she was looking for confirmation of the angel’s word regarding God’s activity in the lives of both women. (Luke 1:39). 

I also imagine that Mary stayed with Elizabeth for three months (Luke 1:56) in order to support her cousin during the last trimester of the older woman’s pregnancy. 

But then Mary left and Elizabeth delivered her son. 

Notice the response of the townspeople at the birth: sheer JOY that God had showed mercy to Elizabeth by giving the elderly couple a future of new life and hope! (Luke 1:58) No skepticism and curious probing, just overwhelming joy!  

The only other thing we know about the townspeople was when they challenged Elizabeth in the naming of her son.

Without following the cultural precedent to name the baby after his daddy, Zechariah, or after one of Zechariah’s male relatives, Elizabeth named the child, John (Luke 1:59-61).  They’d never done things that way before!  This breach of protocol put a damper on the townspeople’s joy over the miraculous. 

It was now that Zechariah spoke, after nine long months of silence, in affirmation of Elizabeth’s name choice: John means “God is gracious.” Gracious, indeed! 

The reaction of the townspeople to Zechariah’s affirmation of his wife’s choice?  Total amazement and speculation about all they had witnessed – what on earth was going on?  

In explanation, Zechariah sang praises to God and prophesied regarding this miracle baby’s future!  (Luke 1:67-79)

This was a lot for the townspeople to take in, but I imagine they rallied around this new family and helped raise this child as ‘he grew and became strong in spirit.’  (Luke 1:80)

The townspeople in Elizabeth’s life affirmed the work God was doing in and through her and Zechariah. 

They supported the couple, shared their joy, and accepted the miracle as an opportunity to participate in the work of God. 

God was doing a new thing and the townspeople appear to have embraced what had happened even if they didn’t understand the details. Their flexibility in embracing God’s work is amazing, yet how often we overlook this teaching.

I wonder

  • Could I – and possibly you – joyfully accept a divine miracle for what it is, or would we always probe for a ‘rational explanation;’ only able to accept God’s work on our own terms?
  • Do we struggle to allow God to be God and hold God accountable to fitting into human paradigms and protocols?  
  • When things change around us, do we see God doing a new thing as the Holy One moves among us and works through us, or do we push back because ‘we’ve never done things that way before?’
  • How easy is it to ‘help’ when our own lives are in order! When we have extra:
    • Time
    • Money
    • Room
  • How easy it is to be happy when someone is given another ‘chance to succeed’ especially when we are doing ok ourselves! Even so:
    • How often do we look for someone else to be responsible for those in our midst in need of care? 
    • How relieved are we when someone/government agency shows up to let us off the hook?

But then – 

  • How much do we wish to be like Elizabeth’s neighbor’s as we care for the children in our midst and live into the ‘it takes a village’ mentality?
  • Are we willing to do what needs doing to ensure the success of the children otherwise lost in our communities – mindful that even the most affluent communities have children and families in need of our care?

+ + +

Then, there are the townspeople Mary interacts with… 

How different things were for her!  

We hear absolutely nothing about the reaction of the the young girl’s family to her pregnancy, much less the reaction of the townspeople; but then, Mary wasn’t around much after the angelic visitation. 

The only relative recorded in scripture as rejoicing at the Mary’s pregnancy was Elizabeth early in the young girl’s pregnancy. (Luke 1:39-45)

When Mary returned home, it seems Joseph accepted Mary’s pregnancy in silent obedience to God’s will (Matthew 1:18-25). His response appears to be lacking in joy; perfectly understandable! This was going to take some processing!

Then the couple headed to Bethlehem.

In Christmas movies, we see Mary and Joseph arriving in Bethlehem ‘just in the nick of time’ before the child was born, but that’s not what scripture says; check it out (Luke 2:6).

And while there is no mention of the townspeople in Bethlehem at all in scriptures, their attitude toward the holy couple has often been speculated upon in those same movies. The movies typically present the townspeople as unbelievably calloused toward the young couple’s predicament, but there is absolutely no basis for this.

I mean, those people had their own stuff going on – times were stressful! 

Not everyone in town were Bethlehemites; they were from all over ‘the entire Roman world.’ Some of those arriving in town were Jews of the Diaspora who had stayed in far off places following the Babylonian exile. They were only in Bethlehem because Caesar demanded everyone travel to their ancestral towns to be counted in tax-motivated census.   Luke 2:1-3

Many of those folks had absolutely no connection to Bethlehem beyond a distant relationship to David, that king from long ago who was born in Bethlehem (1 Samuel 17:12).  What a field day Ancestry.com could have had with that census!  

The point is, people were packing into Bethlehem: strangers in town, strangers to each other; looking for places to stay; with a high probability that there was more than one pregnant woman among the crowds as well!

I can only imagine the chaos in that ‘little town of Bethlehem.’ Even though the Christmas carol sings of ‘how still we see thee lie,’ that descriptor wasn’t even close! 

So, with all of this going on, who would have paid attention to Mary? 

She was just one more face in the crowd – one more person other folks had to compete with for food and lodging.

When it was time for Mary to deliver, she had no village women to support her as she had supported Elizabeth. 

No midwife to help with the delivery. 

I imagine Joseph did his best to help her, even though men were never included in such intimate ‘females only’ experiences. 

The Prince of Peace would be born unnoticed among townspeople – indeed, within a world – in disconnected chaos. 

We can be so quick to malign the townspeople of Bethlehem, but that is unfortunate because those people weren’t evil, they just were trying to survive and had little space in their hearts and minds for anyone else’s needs beyond their own.

They had no idea that the Son of God was being born in their midst – surely if they had known they would have behaved differently!  

Even so, they missed an opportunity to rejoice at the birth of the One Who came to bring peace to their lives, hope to their future, light to their darkness.  

We tend to judge the townspeople of Bethlehem but….

I wonder – 

  • How caught up in our own lives are we that we overlook the drama in the lives of others – particularly as we consider the challenges over the past several years!
    • A touchstone for that ‘inability to see’ is found in the news almost every day when tragedy strikes:
      • He seemed so normal…..
      • She was the last person I ever thought would need some help…..
      • They seemed to be the perfect family……
      • If he had just applied himself……
      • If she had only asked (I wonder why we haven’t asked her?)….
    • We never know what is going on in the lives of others unless we are willing to include them in our lives – embrace them as part of our community – and make the way together.

No matter what is going on in our own lives, we are called by God to notice and respond with glad and generous hearts toward:

  • The economically disadvantaged
  • The physically and mentally challenged
  • The marginalized 
  • The silently suffering ones who hide their pain behind fragile smiles

They, too, are children of God, part of our family, worthy of being celebrated, affirmed, and served just because they live! 

+ + +

These are some of the many reflections those townspeople have for us, and I for one, am grateful for their teaching!

So,…..

Unlike the townspeople in these scriptures, we know the identity of the One born ‘back then’ – does that knowledge make a difference in how we live?

This Advent season, what if we committed to living life as we may never have done in the past?

What if we chose to notice the lives being lived around us and chose to participate in life together, sharing struggles, sharing joys, and offering each other the miracle of new life and hope in the world? 

With such choices we just might experience the true miracle of Christmas as the chaos of the world is replaced with the joy and peace found in Christ. 

The miracle must begin somewhere – what better place then within our own hearts, our own communities, our own towns?

This might be one of the greatest teachings of Advent!   

And to God be the glory!  AMEN.

I have included a wonderful prayer by Scott Cairns in the “In the Stillness” section of the blog you might want to pray this week.

Published by Pastor Catharine

Retired ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I have a Master's of Divinity and Doctor of Ministry (with an emphasis on Spiritual Transformation of Community) from Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.

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