We combined our tenth and eleventh lessons, covering both Joseph’s role in the arrival of baby Jesus and the town of Bethlehem and its part in the nativity story. And we ventured a little ways from home, taking our kids on a bit of a field trip to a little town about half an hour from the city we live in. We piled the kids in the car, picked up some donuts, and drove through acres and acres of recently harvested farmland. On the way we asked the boys questions about what they were seeing and had them describe for us what they saw, what they thought of the rural setting and what kind of people they might imagine would live so far from the city. A few times they asked how much longer it would be and if they could please eat their donuts in the car. But we wanted them to wait; we wanted them to be patient; we wanted them to sense the longing and weariness that Joseph and Mary must have felt as they journeyed to Bethlehem from their home in Nazareth.
When we arrived in the center of this little town they’d never heard of, our plan was to have a little picnic at the local park. But, because it was misty and wet, we piled into the back of our Suburban and broke out the donuts and milk. Jackson read to us from Matthew 1:18-25, and we talked together about how Mary and Joseph had been betrothed to one another. We discussed what betrothal meant and how shocking and saddening it must have been for Joseph to learn that his bride was already with child, and that he had planned to end their arrangement quietly. He must have cared a great deal for Mary to want to treat her with as much respect as possible, though quite puzzled by her circumstances. But all that changed when an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph, explaining to him that the child Mary was carrying was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And more than that, this Child would save His people from their sins! So, Joseph did exactly as the angel had commanded him: he took Mary as his wife. Just as Mary had obediently accepted God’s will for her, so Joseph accepted what the angel explained to him and acted in obedience to what God was calling him to do. What a perplexing and awkward place to be for them; yet they both responded, without question, in humble and quiet obedience.
In the same way that neither Joseph nor Mary were remarkable characters, by human standards, so the little town of Bethlehem was rather obscure as well. With a population of only about 500-1000 people at the time of Jesus’ birth, Bethlehem didn’t have any of the sights and sounds of the big city of Jerusalem. And this little town we’d driven to on this rainy morning was a lot like Bethlehem, with a similar population, nothing remarkable to see, and a rather simple way of life. We read together from Luke 2:1-4, about how Caesar Augustus had issued a decree for all to be registered and how Joseph and Mary had to travel to Bethlehem and stay there until the registration was completed. Because, of course, Joseph was of the house and lineage of David, it was necessary for his little family to be present in David’s city when the census was taken. So we talked with the boys about how God uses simple, non-glorious people and places to unfold His glorious plans. He carries out His plans in ways that are very much unlike the ways the world would do things. Here, He didn’t use powerful, beautiful, talented, remarkable people, and He didn’t choose the flashy lights and bustling sounds of the mighty city. He chose a small, relatively unknown town and two simple people, from a simple way of life, to be entrusted with the birth of our Savior. Such is the way our God accomplishes His purposes: He uses the weak and poor to do His work, so that He alone receives the glory.
Because “Bethlehem” means “house of bread,” we thought a trip to a small town in rural Kansas, where they grow wheat, and a breakfast of donuts, were fitting illustrations for our lesson.