Whether we realize it or not, I think almost everyone has subconsciously conceived their own idea of what the scene of Christ’s birth looked like.
For Hallmark, it’s Charlie Brown and Lucy costumed in robes and surrounded by other favorite Peaunts™ characters. For Christmas lawn decorators, it’s a tiny stable with a glowing Baby Jesus and His parents, Mary in blue and Joseph in pink (I never understood that.) And for most others, the Nativity scene is a collaged stained glass masterpiece of serene, haloed Mary, bending sweetly over a sleeping infant.
I was not there the night that Jesus was born (surprise!), yet none of these depictions seem to align Biblically with what it must have realistically been like.
The word that first comes to my mind is chaos.
The night may have been holy, but with the decreed census of Augustus moving myriads from one town to another, it was anything but silent.
Bethlehem was a hotbed of activity and Mary’s labor pangs began right in the thick of it.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. (Luke 2:4-6)
City of Kingship and Violence
There is that word, Nazareth, again; the town that would reject Jesus, one of their own. And hardly anything better can be said of Bethlehem, His birthplace.
What exactly do we know of Bethlehem, the City of David?
As its name implies, this village was the birthplace of David, as well as where he was anointed by Samuel to be king. Unlike Nazareth, Bethlehem is mentioned more than a couple times in the Old Testament (Gen. 35:19, Judg. 17:7-9, Ruth 1:1-2, 1 Sam. 16:1-13, 2 Sam. 23:14-16).
But this town was not all glory and royalty. In fact, it was the very opposite.
First cited in Genesis, Bethlehem was the burial place of Jacob’s wife, Rachel, after her fatal labor and delivery. Asahel, too, was buried here after suffering death in battle. Later, it was the home of Naomi and Ruth, who both lost their husbands and became wandering widows.
With attributes on opposite ends of the spectrum, Bethlehem grew to become most well-known for its Davidic kingship, and violence.[i]
How fitting that the Greater King David, Jesus Christ, who would suffer an excruciatingly violent death for the world’s sin, should be birthed in Bethlehem.
God knew what he was doing, even when we didn’t (and still don’t).
In her Christmas devotional Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room, Nancy Guthrie writes:
When God sent Jesus, He turned upside down every expectation of what people thought would make Him great. Jesus came as a baby instead of a man. He was born to ordinary parents, not people of prominence or power. He came as a humble teacher rather than a conquering king. And He was born in an obscure little town rather than one of the great cities of the day.[ii]
It was this obscure little town that God chose as the birthplace of His Son. The city to which shepherds would run and kings would be led.
Lamb Born For Sacrifice
The Shepherds have always been my favorite characters of the Nativity story. I often wonder what it was like to be overwhelmed by the glory of an angel chorus speaking the praises of a Baby Savior. Good news of great joy! (Luke 2:10)
It must have been good news for the shepherds to so eagerly depart for David’s City. How could they turn their backs after witnessing something so spectacular?
The shepherds knew that Someone far more spectacular lay in Bethlehem. Someone greater than even these angels. Someone worth praising. Someone to save them.
Perhaps more than anyone, it was shepherds who truly understood just how costly sin was. The ragged men who herded sheep were not ignorant of the animals’ ultimate purpose.
Lambs must be slaughtered. Myriads of them. Because where there was sin, there must be a sacrifice.
With this in mind, we can begin to wrap our minds around the shepherds’ ecstasy over this Heavenly news. We can see why their wearied, dirty feet flew over grass and stones. We can see why they made haste to Bethlehem. (Luke 2:16)
The shepherds recognized the need for a Savior.
“I Came To Call Sinners”
This is where the unfolding of God’s perfect plan begins to answer so many questions. Questions like, Why Mary? Why shepherds? Why Bethlehem? and Why a manger?
It is just as Pastor Alistair Begg said:
…the greatness of God is revealed in his intimacy with us.[iii]
Yet we cannot achieve this intimacy without a firsthand recognition of our deficit. Like a disregarded virgin and disregarded shepherds, we must first identify that we are nothing; that we are His servant (Luke 1:38); that we need a Savior.
In His own words, Jesus did not come for those who were spiritually well, in no need of a physician. He came to save those sick with sin (Matt. 9:12-13).
Listen to what Paul says about this:
For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, so that no human being might boast in the presence of God. (1Cor. 1:26-29)
The Final Picture
The unique profundity of this entire story paints us a picture.
Nothing good was thought to come out of Nazareth. Mary’s pregnancy should have earned her a stoning. Bethlehem was too full. Shepherds were labeled “unclean”. And a manger was reserved for animals.
The union of these aspects proclaims one thing about Jesus Christ:
He made Himself nothing so that humanity—that is, you and I—might experience what it is like to be “something.”
For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich. (2 Cor. 8:9)
Like shepherds, and so many other characters in this story, our uncleanliness kept us from admittance into the holy Temple of the Lord. So the Lord brought His Temple—His kingdom of salvation—to us.
And He did it through the helpless form of a holy Baby Boy.
He made Himself nothing.
[i] Holman Illustrated Bible Dictionary, (Holman Bible Publishers; Nashville, TN, 2003), 194
[ii] Nancy Guthrie: Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room, (Tyndale House Publishers, Inc.; Carol Stream, IL, 2010), 32
[iii] Alistair Begg, Christmas Playlist, (The Good Book Company, 2016), 21