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I recently took a trip to Israel to visit the sites significant to the story of Jesus and to the Christian faith. Columbia Seminary of Decatur, GA organized the trip generously funded through the Cousins Foundation of Atlanta. We, of course, visited Bethlehem, located in the modern day West Bank and part of the Palestinian territories. We had to pass through a heavily armed checkpoint to get to Bethlehem. The newly created wall that separates Israel from the West Bank runs right on the edge of the town.
The experience reminded me that governments, especially under the impulse of protecting their citizens, can severely disrupt the lives of the people living under their jurisdictions. At the very least, the existence of the wall makes passing in and out of Bethlehem much more complicated than it was before for both Palestinians and Jews, not to mention foreign tourist.
It was a government intrusion on the lives of Mary and Joseph that even brought them to the town of Bethlehem. Having seen how the order to separate the West Bank from Israel is enforced made me wonder: How was the order that all the world should be enrolled enforced? Was it voluntary or did the Roman Army go through every village and hamlet with guns forcing people out of their houses to be enrolled? Hard to imagine Joseph and Mary making that 6 day journey through some rough and treacherous terrain, and Mary nine months pregnant, without some forceful persuasion on the part of Rome. Unfortunately, Luke omits these details, leaving them to our imagination.
Voluntary or enforced, the census was a hardship for Mary and Joseph, and perhaps many of their compatriots. While the census may seem to serve only the purposes of Caesar, Luke mentions it because it did get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, and served to fulfill the prophecies of old that identified the Messiah would come out of Bethlehem. Thus, God seems to use what we might call questionable human intentions (the census) for God’s good purposes.
This is the hope of faith. Paraphrasing what Joseph told his brothers in Genesis 50:20, what we mean for evil, God means for good. It makes me wonder, what good might come out of that wall that runs near Bethlehem? The Christmas story and the role of Caesar’s unintended consequences makes me hope that God has something in mind beyond separating one people from another and that someday peace may once again be born in Bethlehem.
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