It’s nearly Christmas and the time for Christmas pageants: baby Jesus, all aglow, in a cross-legged wooden manger with a docile cardboard donkey, a couple of sheep, and Mary with Joseph looking on. Sweet. Yet we can be sure this sterile setting misses the original scene by a long mile.
Think, instead, of an animal stall or partial cave—with the sour smells of “stuff” all around, if not underfoot—and the discarded remains of an awkward birthing. We can hope a midwife was found, but clean towels and hot water with soap were not likely to be seen. The best news we have is that some swaddling cloths were available.
My point isn’t to be a Christmas killjoy, but to make sure we find the glory where it’s meant to be found—which was not in the Bethlehem manger.
The Father, we should remember, sent his Son to a world opposed to him—as it still is. Jesus was in the fallen world as an outcast from beginning to end. His arrival started ugly and it only got worse. The crucifixion—the finale of his time on earth—was even uglier than his arrival. It was the worst sort of death a Roman torturer could dream up.
Yet our instinct to celebrate the manger—as followers of Christ in a hostile world—is proper. We want to elevate Jesus at the rare time of year when the rest of the world pays at least some attention to him. So we clean up the stable, use colorful clothing, sing beautiful songs, and create an antiseptic scene to say: “Look, he really is glorious!”
But God’s actual message was different: “The world opposes my Son—and his birth showed him to be the ultimate outsider in the world he created and whose lives he sustains.”
So as much as the Bethlehem Inn was too full to accept the coming Jesus, so too were the hearts of the nation: full of self-interest and self-sufficiency. It was an ugly scene: God came to his own but they rejected him. He was degraded and despised during his visit. So much so that even today the main icons for Jesus are the manger and the cross—both symbols of rejection.
Where, then, did the glory of the first Christmas actually appear? It came to a group of shepherds working the night shift. This was, in modern terms, God announcing the Son at a local truck stop where a cluster of tired drivers—working night hours to get all the Christmas packages delivered—were startled by bright lights, an angel speaking, and a heavenly choir.
But why this odd selection of an audience by the Father? Two thoughts come to mind.
First, God and heaven could not hold back the joy of the event. Some on earth needed to join the celebration taking place in heaven! The good news was electrifying: now, at last, sin was to be confronted and death finally defeated!
And, second, the best earthly audience, in God’s view, were shepherds. Not the proud crowd, but the ordinary lads! These workingmen lived on the hard ground of humility and self-sacrifice. God regularly found people after his own heart among shepherds—the servant class of that society—and even Jesus later identified himself as the “good shepherd.”
The Father, then, shared his glory with the selfless side of a selfish world. Not with the mayor of Bethlehem; or the owner of the Bethlehem Inn; and certainly not with the leading religious and political figures of Israel who lived a few miles away in prosperous and powerful Jerusalem. These figures, in fact, later killed him. Sin loves to swim in the sea of self-sufficiency and pride—not in the quiet backwaters of a nighttime campfire. So God’s glory came to the shepherds.
There’s a pattern here. Later in Christ’s ministry he showed off his true glory to three of his followers on the Mount of Transfiguration. For a few moments he unleashed a brilliant viewing of his true standing as the glorious Son: cloaked in light and one with his Father. And then he once again became a seemingly ordinary itinerant teacher and healer.
There are more lessons here.
First, this occurred not long after Jesus told his disciples he would soon be crucified. It would be easy for them to see the cross as the tragic end of his ministry and not as the culmination of God’s saving plan. So he gave them a snapshot of his true status for reassurance.
Second, who was the audience? They were three partners of a Galilee fishing company—the ordinary, humble workingmen in their day. Not unlike the shepherds near Bethlehem.
And then we get a final reference to Christ’s glory at the end of his stay on earth. Jesus prayed for all his disciples—believers both then and now—in John 17:24, “Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world.”
So the Son’s glory, we discover, comes through God’s love. The manger, it turns out, is merely a cover that allows the proud folks of this world to dismiss him. Yet all who belong to the humble yet glorious savior will eventually see the “whole show” of his glory in eternity to come. But until then it only comes in snapshots.
So let’s enjoy the glory of a living faith, sitting at the shepherds’ campfire, and let the manger scene remain as humble as it was meant to be.