In the Bible the Son comes to us through a set of self-disclosures: as the Christophanies in the Old Testament; as the newborn baby in the New Testament; as the Logos-Word in his coming out; as the adult prophet, Jesus, hiking the Palestine hills with a clan of fringy followers, calling, challenging, and stirring hearts; as the glorified Christ on the Mount of Transfiguration; as the Son of Man dying on the cross; as the Lamb who was slain in Revelation; and as the conquering Lamb in the same book. Each sighting offers new insights.
Each December we focus on his coming as a newborn infant at Christmas. While the actual date of his coming isn’t known—and it isn’t a real concern—the great truth of the event is that he is like us: fully human. And he will remain the human-who-is-God through all eternity. Yet Mary cared for him in all the ways a newborn baby is cared for in his first months of life.
Today we recreate his birth with pristine nativity scenes featuring clean sheets for Jesus dolls, nicely draped children, and newly built wooden mangers. But let’s pause and think about this baby-in-a-manger imagery. What can we learn from the real Bethlehem event?
Humility comes first and foremost. When we actually meet Jesus, the real Jesus, we abandon human glory. That’s not who he is. Personal status is Adam’s turf—where he explored what being “like god” must be like. And when we understand the true manger setting we realize Adam made a bad guess. His model of god was the Serpent’s deceit. The true God-man preferred humility over pride.
Think about it. Bethlehem wasn’t Rome, or even Jerusalem. If not for a prophecy in Micah 5:2, and distant ties to King David, the village wouldn’t be a likely place for the King of Israel to be born. At best it was a lunch stop for ancient engineers working on Jerusalem’s aqueduct connection to Solomon’s Pools, a set of reservoirs three mile farther south. Surrounding hills offered stony pastureland for sheep meant to be sacrificial animals for the Temple in nearby Jerusalem. Picture a spot with few adequate homes—the B&B “inns” of the day. And a shallow cave where livestock usually sheltered served as Christ’s birthplace.
Yet the Father was pleased. He sent an angelic choir to celebrate the occasion. But even that tells us how upside-down the events of the day were: the angels performed for a cluster of shepherds. And no proper mother wanted any of her boys to be shepherds. The job was rough, low status work—so God’s joy was shared with the humble, not the proud.
Bethlehem, then, marked the modest birthplace of a humble savior. One writer put it this way: “Jesus Christ lived obscurely for most of his life, and never travelled far. He was maligned and rejected by many, though he had done no wrong.”
What writer? The reigning Queen of England in her 2016 Christmas message broadcast earlier today. Queen Elizabeth continued, “And yet, billions of people now follow his teaching and find in him the guiding light for their lives. I am one of them….”
The modesty of her statement is winsome. She is one of the best-known public figures of our age and the figurehead of a major nation, yet her ambition is to elevate Jesus as the one she follows. And in that she seems to have seen the Jesus of the gospels rather than the Jesus of modern Christmas glitter.
So there’s a warning to be raised. The infant narrative can be misleading. Many people attend church just once a year and in that visit they see a pristine and wholly static infant. The invitation to “believe” and “be saved” is usually offered, but it seems like a weak strategy. What is there to believe? How does an inarticulate infant bring salvation?
Christmas, instead, calls for us to explore God’s upside-down values. And we need to beware of a church habit of socializing children into a faith that features the inarticulate baby. Real conversion only comes when children, and adults, meet the Jesus who challenged Peter: “Get behind me, Satan! You are a hindrance to me.”
What did Peter say that upset Jesus?
He challenged his Lord’s anticipation of the coming crucifixion. And, with that, Jesus rebuked him for his false values: “For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.” Jesus finished the rebuke by broadening his anticipation, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matt. 16:23-24).
Remember: proud people don’t like to be crucified. But the cross is why God’s Son—the eternal Logos and conquering Lamb—became a baby. And any proper conversation about Christmas must include the destiny of the cross.
So when we who believe in Jesus portray him to others at Christmas, let’s consider the Queen’s approach: always start with the Son’s humility. And then follow him wherever he may lead. It’s a Christmas story that invites a retelling each day of the year.