I love the children’s nativity at our church – it’s one of the highlights of the Christmas season for me. Tea towels have never looked more festive, shepherds have never looked more cute. It’s a time for our children to enjoy dressing up and retelling the tale of the baby born in a manger with a star overhead, and visitors coming from afar.
I love this.
And yet the actual events that are being acted out here by our kids were very different.
The Bible tells us that Shepherds came to see the baby in the manger.
“…the shepherds said to each other, ‘Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the lord has told us about.’ They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. After seeing him, the shepherds told everyone what had happened and what the angel had said to them about this child.” Luke 2:15-17, NLT
Well – first of all –Mary and Joseph found themselves without any lodging following a long duty trip to Bethlehem – this sounds horrible. Could you imagine travelling for hours on a long haul flight in Economy, only to find on arriving that your accommodation had fallen thru and you had nowhere to sleep? This was Joseph’s situation with his pregnant wife.
Next – a manger was an eating trough for animals. The poor couple found themselves needing to borrow the livestock’s eating trough to use for the baby. How do you think the animals reacted to that? Don’t you think the livestock was going to be pushing and bumping them out of the way? Stuffing their heads in to the trough…licking and chewing what they could get hold of? What a nightmare. This doesn’t sound very “calm and bright”, does it? Actually to me it sounds pretty stressful!
And then – the shepherds arrive. In Jewish culture, Shepherds were the lowest of the low. They were people who lived outside with animals; a solitary smelly existence. David Instone-Brewer says, “When the Jews asked whether a piece of bread had gotten too mouldy or was still edible… then they would ask…well would a Shepherd eat this? If the answer was NO…if not even the even the lowest of the low would touch it … then just throw it away!” Basically, Shepherds were stigmatized in Jewish culture. And Luke’s Gospel tells us that it was shepherds who came to visit the baby Jesus first.
How do you feel when a homeless person accosts you on the street? For myself – I wish I could say I was always welcoming, and always quick to offer help to that person. But I can’t. Why? Rightly or wrongly – it often makes me feel uncomfortable when a homeless person stops me on the street. I don’t know what to say to them – I find their plight difficult to look at – and on top of all of that, sometimes it has been some time since they had a good bath or shower!
Joseph and Mary had the 1st century equivalent of poor homeless visitors coming to see their new child. Not the most auspicious of guests.
The original Nativity was stressful for the people involved, it was uncomfortable for the family and it attracted the undesirables of Jewish society.
And then on top of all of this – Matthew’s gospel tells us that…
“Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the reign of king Herod. About that time some wise men from eastern lands arrived in Jerusalem, asking, ‘Where is the newborn king of the Jews? We saw his star as it rose, and we have come to worship him.’…They entered the house and saw the child with his mother, Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him.” Matthew 2:1+11, NLT
Now – surely – we finally get someone arriving to dignify the proceedings. At last – we get kings visiting the baby Jesus? Right?
Wrong. The arrival of these people was also an awkward encounter for the family to endure. Why? Because these wise men weren’t Jews. They came from far away pagan lands, people who studied the stars. The Greek word for the wise men (Magi) is the word we use to get our word “magician”. It is thought that these individuals came from the Old Testament Babylon.
There is a historical link between Israel and Babylon, we can see this in the book of Daniel in the Old Testament. Daniel was a Jewish man who was taken to live in pagan Babylon where life was difficult for a Jew. There were many alien customs there, there was pressure to worship the Babylonian King as a God. And – there were magicians, astrologers and wise men living there.
The Magi who visited Jesus probably came from there …a pagan country…the enemy nation…evil Babylon. A 1st century Jew would have been very suspicious at the arrival of such a Gentile person.
So – lets summarise our nativity so far. We have stress for the family, we have uncomfortable and difficult living conditions too, we have Jewish undesirables accosting them in the Stable. And now we also have the 1st century Jewish equivalent of “the enemy” coming to say hello to them.
You know – I love the carol “Silent Night” – but I do wonder whether the events surrounding the first Nativity were anything but quiet and restful! Stressful and uncomfortable sounds like a better description to me.
And this causes two thoughts to occur to me.
FIRST – if the Nativity accounts in Matthew and Luke’s Gospels are made up stories, if the Jesus birth narratives are fabrications, if they are just intended to make Jesus seem more important than he actually was…then I don’t buy it. I don’t agree with the thought that these Nativity accounts are made up. Because I really don’t think a 1st century Jew would have written a story like this. As David Instone-Brewer suggests, “This story is so crazy, it must be true!”.
If the author wanted to impress a Jewish audience with a fabricated account, Matthew’s Gospel would probably have had the local Jewish Leaders and the Priests coming to visit the Christ child. After all – Priests and Leaders were the people that 1st century Jewish culture esteemed and respected. So to hold up Jesus birth as an important event…you would want him to be recognized by those sorts of people. Right? Instead – what we get in both Matthew and Luke’s Nativity account is the opposite. Jewish undesirables and suspicious pagans are the one who welcome Jesus Christ into the world. That’s crazy. What’s the point of saying that? There is no point…unless it is just simply a true historical account of what really happened on that first Nativity.
SECOND – the account of Jesus life is not an easy one. Jesus is not some ancient equivalent of a Marvel superhero from today. Jesus life was difficult and scandalized from the beginning. He faced misunderstanding and stigma all his life. He lived an ordinary and hard existence. Yet at the same time – he is the most extraordinary person who has ever lived. His earthly life was surrounded by suspicion. Yet in reality, he is also God in human form…God with us. God who created the Universe and he is worshipped and adored in heaven.
“Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” Matthew 1:23, NLT
So it strikes me that – when our lives feel hard, when we suffer times of pain and suspicion. When we are numbered with the undesirables in society…Jesus is standing right along with us. He knows exactly how we feel because he has had it worse himself. And if that is the case – if Jesus is standing alongside you and I in our situation right now – then it means that no one has fallen too far. No one is a lost cause. No one is irredeemable for Jesus. In fact, Jesus Christ is an expert at rescuing lost causes.
“For this is how God loved the world: He gave his one and only Son, so that everyone who believes in him will not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16, NLT
This Christmas – we might have misunderstood just how stressful and how uncomfortable the first Nativity was. But to Jesus – it really doesn’t matter. He experienced it all so that he could reach out to us in our loneliness and our brokenness and save us. That was his Father’s intention on that first Nativity. It’s still Jesus’ intention today. Why not let him reach you this Christmas?
Though he was God,
he did not think of equality with God
as something to cling to.
Instead, he gave up his divine privileges;
he took the humble position of a slave
and was born as a human being.
When he appeared in human form, he humbled himself in obedience to God
and died a criminal’s death on a cross.
Therefore, God elevated him to the place of highest honor
and gave him the name above all other names,
that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue declare that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Philippians 2:6-11, NLT