(A) Introduction. (Read the reference)

Luke uses so few words to tell such a great story; so few words to describe a scene that has made an indelible impression on mankind. So few paid any attention to the simple couple making their way to Bethlehem but the eyes of heaven were upon them.

(B) An unlikely coincidence.

It didn't seem at all probable that Jesus would be born in Bethlehem. Nor did it seem probable that the decree of Caesar Augustus had much to do with the will of God. However, the census came at just the right time. The necessity of Joseph being registered in his hometown and the couple's lack of family in Nazareth meant that both husband and heavily pregnant wife travelled together to Bethlehem. So the prophecy of Micah was fulfilled: But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times. Mic5v2.

There are many unlikely coincidences in Scripture: Joseph was in prison with Pharaoh's butler and baker, Pharaoh's daughter who found the baby in the bulrushes was childless, Jesus died on the very night the Passover lambs were slain and Paul's sister's son just happened to overhear the plot against the little apostle's life. God is not a victim of circumstances. He is never at a loss. He is always in control. I can look back over my life and see how apparent coincidences were responsible for putting me where God wanted me to be.

            I know Who holds the future,
            And He'll guide me with His hand,
            With God things don't just happen,
            Everything by Him is planned;
            So as I face tomorrow
            With its problems large and small,
            I'll trust the God of miracles,
            Give to Him my all.

(C) A difficult journey.

Mary was 9 months pregnant when she undertook the long journey of 75 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It is highly likely that she walked all the way. The expectant mother had a fairly robust attitude to life. Last week another woman with a robust attitude to life died: Jane Tomlinson who although riddled with cancer rode across America in 2006 to raise money for charity.

When I visited Pioneer Camp in the summer I was told that some parents had a less than robust attitude to 'roughing it'. One lady had protested that it was unhygienic for children to wash in cold water!

Many of God's servants through the years have adopted a robust attitude to personal comfort, convenience and safety. They have followed on in the footsteps of their master who when he went to sleep at night often had nowhere to lay his head. They have taken inspiration from Paul who told the Corinthians: I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my own countrymen, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false brothers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. 2Cor11v25to27. There are many Christians, even today, who rough it for Christ sake. Only yesterday there was an item on the news about a doctor and his wife from England who were treating the sick in one of the most isolated and inhospitable parts of Afghanistan.

We are called upon to be good soldiers of Jesus Christ and cannot expect to get to heaven on flowery beds of ease!

(D) An opportune arrival. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. v7.

While they were there - the babe was born at just the right time to be born in Bethlehem. God's timing was immaculate. Jesus was born at the right time in other ways too. There was an expectation among the Jews that Messiah's arrival was imminent. A devout remnant, of whom Joseph, Mary, Zechariah and Elizabeth were representatives, existed in Israel who looked forward to the redemption of Jerusalem. Conditions in the wider world favoured the spread of the gospel. A common language was spoken, good communications existed and law and order was maintained throughout the Roman Empire. Many proselytes to Judaism had been made among the Gentiles. The fields were fast ripening to harvest.

There is a right time for great change - the Jewish exodus from Egypt, the return from exile, the establishment in the 20th century of the Jewish state, the reformation, the abolition of the slave trade, the break up of the Soviet Union, revival and, indeed, individual conversions. We cannot force God's hand but we need to remember what Moses wrote so long ago of the Israelite slaves in the land of Egypt: The Israelites groaned in their slavery and cried out, and their cry for help because of their slavery went up to God. ... So God looked on the Israelites and was concerned about them. Ex2v23to25.

(E) A restrictive practice. She wrapped him in cloths. v7.

Mary wrapped cloths, like bandages, around the baby Jesus - as though he were an Egyptian mummy! This is not very good for a baby! A baby needs to wriggle and exercise its limbs. Yesterday, I watched a mother put her toddler back in his pushchair. My word, did he wriggle - just like a fish in the angler's grasp. Still it was a good sign! The swaddling clothes are a sign that Jesus was restricted by his humanity in many different ways. He:

    (a) Obeyed his parents.
    (b) Abided by the law of Moses.
    (c) Needed to acquire knowledge just like any of us. He had to learn to speak and to read.
    (d) Was limited by the lack of scientific and medical knowledge at the time. Jesus provided no fresh insights into the cause of diseases.

Yet in spite of these limitations Jesus was able to live in complete obedience to his father in heaven. He led a blameless life and in everything he pleased God. He finished the work the Father gave him to do.

We are all limited by: lack of ability, temperament and disposition, inadequate education, our age, health, family and church circumstances. We shouldn't use our limitations as an excuse for not doing the best we can. We should be careful, too, before trying to throw off what restricts us. It is possible to be like Jesus and to be in the will of God notwithstanding our difficult situation. Many characters in the Scriptures exemplify this - Joseph, David, Daniel, Nehemiah and Esther. The harem of the pagan king Xerxes was not the ideal place for a young Jewish girl to be. Mordecai was able to say to Esther at a time when the Jews faced annihilation: "And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?"

(F) A borrowed cradle. And placed him in a manger. v7.

A staw-filled manger is not the ideal resting place for a baby. A woman expecting her first baby does not anticipate putting it to bed on a heap of straw. Better provision than this is made. Money is invested in a cot, carry cot, pushchair and pram.

God did not consider that poverty was any great disadvantage to his son - although, of course, abject poverty would have been. Joseph possessed a skill and could earn his silver penny a day - enough for a decent, if simple, meal. However, the fact remains, Jesus never possessed much. When he died the Saviour owned only the clothes he wore. Jesus was buried in a borrowed tomb!

The Lord taught: "Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; a man's life does not consist in the abundance of his possessions." Lk12v15. It is very hard for Christians to take this seriously. This year, while playing cricket with her son, I have been reunited with one of my old pupils - Kate. She said to me recently, "I would love to be rich. Wouldn't you like to be rich, JR." I replied, honestly, "Not particularly." Then I asked Kate what she would do with her wealth. "Buy a boat, JR. Go on, you know you would like to be rich." I reminded Kate that there were many things money could not buy: Good health, a long life, talent, love, virtue and achievement. I would much rather be a brilliant cricketer than a multi-millionaire!

Jesus possessed nothing but he achieved so much. He is the Saviour of the World and for the last 2000 years he has saved a countless multitude. Of what other mortal man do we sing:

            Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts,
            Thou, Fount of life, Thou Light of men,
            From the best bliss that earth imparts,
            We turn unfilled to Thee again.

Countless Christians have followed in Jesus' footsteps. Their personal wealth has been minimal but their achievements staggering. William Booth is a good example. As I have written elsewhere: He started out as a pawnbroker's clerk in Nottingham but founded a Christian mission that swept through the world and in the 21st century is the one voluntary organisation which the federal government of the United States regularly makes responsible for disaster relief.

(G) A heartless world. Because there was no room for them in the inn. v7.

The innkeeper did not put himself out to find room for a heavily pregnant woman. None of the guests volunteered to relinquish their room to someone whose need was greater than theirs.

I hardly need to remind you that men and women can be heartless. In the early 19th century the treatment of slaves in the West Indies and Americas was appalling. This is the testimony in 1793 of David George a slave who bought his freedom: I also have been whipped many a time on my naked skin, and sometimes till the blood has run down over my waistband, but the greatest grief I then had was to see them whip my mother, and to hear her on her knees, begging for mercy. She was master's cook, and if they only thought she might do anything better than she did, instead of speaking to her as to a servant, they would strip her directly and cut away. I believe she was on her death bed when I got off, but I have never heard since.

In 21st century Britain their are many examples of heartlessness: the bad treatment of frail and helpless old people in care homes, the way the press hound celebrities discovered in a fault and the unforgiving reaction of those in authority to politically incorrect behaviour.

Thank God not everyone is heartless. In one of my other expositions I recount a visit to my aunt who suffered from Alzheimer's disease. She was in the final stages of that dreadful complaint. My aunt could no longer walk, feed herself or talk. I asked my uncle Joe how he managed. He said he couldn't but for the help of three ladies - one cut Betty's hair, another trimmed her toe and fingernails and a third bathed her. All of these low paid workers showed Betty respect and were kind to her. I know of several old folk who love their carers - because they are cheerful, sympathetic and helpful. I have been in a Christian care home - at Great Finborough, and seen the gracious, considerate and good-humoured way the staff treat the residents. The hospice movement brings solace and peace to so many because of the expertise, commitment and compassion of the nurses. Christian charities, like the Leprosy Mission, exist to reduce the suffering of those whose lives are blighted by disease, hunger and ignorance. And so I could go on .... .

(H) A loving mother.

Mary did the best she could for her newborn son. She was a loving, resourceful and godly mother. Mary was God's special gift to his son. There are few more precious blessings than a loving, Christian mother. I thank God I had one.

Throughout his life Jesus was prepared to accept all expressions of love however misguided. Mary wanted the best for her son but her ambition for him was not God's will. Martha showed her devotion by preparing a big meal in his honour. Peter was prepared to fight for Jesus. Mary Magdalene clung to him in the garden. Jesus needed to rebuke all four but nonetheless he knew those that loved him and forgave their mistakes.

Today Christians still wrap Jesus in swaddling clothes - the swaddling clothes of sentiment, ritual or doctrine. I believe many who, like Mary, make the mistake of restricting Jesus, love him and will be forgiven their shortcomings.