There was quite a commotion the other day over in the public square. Beside the shadows of some angry people was a makeshift stall with a baby in a manger.
"That doesn't belong on public property!" shouted someone.
"We have a right to put this on display right here where everybody can see it," retorted another.
"No, this is an offense to the Jews, Muslims, and atheists in our community. Take it away!"
"It stays! We have a permit to put it here. This represents the real meaning of Christmas."
The Irony of It All
Overhearing this heated discussion, I couldn't help but be struck by the irony of it all. A group of men had sat down together and decided that it was necessary for the God of the universethe maker of heaven and earth, the creator and sustainer of all things, the giver of life, and the judge of all mento have a permit for a ten-foot square of "public" property! But then, space on earth was never a concern to him. He came, after all, to a stable, and later told his followers, "Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay his head" (Matt. 8:20).
Another thought struck me. The One proclaimed by angels as the bringer of peace on eartheven the Prince of Peacewas the object of this angry exchange. Then again, maybe I shouldn't have been surprised. The anger of men is no surprise to God. On the occasion of the actual eventwhen the Son of God entered human historythe response was decidedly more hostile. "When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under" (Matt. 2:16). It continues now, as then. However, the hostility of men does not thwart God as he accomplishes his purposes.
"When [the Magi] had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. 'Get up,' he said, 'take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him. So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod. And so was fulfilled what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'Out of Egypt I called my Son' " (Matt. 2:13-15).
Still another irony occurred to me during the angry exchange. On another occasion, a different meeting had taken place. There, with good and zealous intentions, a decision was reached. "Keep Christ in Christmas! Secularism and commercialism are enveloping this sacred season. Let's go down to the mall and out to the public park with our shed and infant in a feeding trough. We must not let people forget the true meaning of Christmas."
Had these well-meaning folks forgotten what is written about God's own handiwork? In creation he clearly displays his eternal power and divine nature, but men do not see God there because they suppress the truth by their wickedness. They choose to worship created things rather than the Creator (Rom. 1:18-20, 25).
Had those people who were so eager to protect God's reputation forgotten that the people of Jesus' day were no less distracted by the world's enticements? Had they forgotten that his own people had rejected him, even though he had lived among them? "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him" (John 1:10-11). This attitude of mortals was no surprise to God. Isaiah earlier had told the world that Jesus would be despised and rejected, oppressed and afflicted, "a man of sorrows, and familiar with suffering" (Isa. 53:1-3).
Then I realized that man's rejection of Christ does not alter the eternal purposes of God. King David put it this way: "The Lord says to my Lord: 'Sit at my right hand until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet' " (Ps. 110:1).
So I stood there, pondering the ironies before my eyes. Arrogant men were demanding their rights, vainly imagining that they can rid themselves of God. Sincere but misguided men were feebly seeking to defend the cause of the Lord of glory. All the while, God was neither deterred nor truly served by the strivings of mortals. He says, " 'My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,' declares the Lord. As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts" (Isa. 55:8-9).
Hope for Mankind
What hope, then, is there for mankind? Will people walk in vanity all their days, while God simply goes about his business? Will men stumble along in this world, unsure of God and themselves, either striving to break his chains or weakly trying to make him known? No! God has indeed made himself and his will known. "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the One and Only, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). Jesus said, "I tell you the truth, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be condemned; he has crossed over from death to life" (John 5:24).
I had come full circle in my musings. I was back to the ancient cattle shed and a baby in the hay. This was not a symbol for the angry debaters of God's status. I thought, rather, of the substance behind the symbol and the truth that God's purpose, and the business from which he will not be distracted, is to make himself known to men. God shines like a laser beam, piercing this world's darkness to reach the heart of man's condition. "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light" (Isa. 9:2). "For God, who said, 'Let light shine out of darkness,' made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ" (2 Cor. 4:6).
Christ's arrival at a crude stall where animals ate was but the first step on the road to the cross and the empty tomb. There the true meaning of Christmas can be found. The God of love, who created and sustains all life, does not stand aloof from his creatures. Neither does his holiness and perfection embrace them unchanged in their sin, pride, arrogance, folly, and unbelief. But through the Babe born among the livestock, who offered up his own perfect life, he makes the gracious provision for sinners to come to him by faith. "Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed. We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all" (Isa. 53:4-6).
For whom did God-in-the-flesh perform this wondrous work of bearing sin? Who will receive this great gift? The one who is arrogant? The one who is zealous? The indifferent? No! God replies, "This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word" (Isa. 66:2). By his life, death, and resurrection, Jesus made it clear. He said, "I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies" (John 11:25). Paul affirmed this in one of his letters: "Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to deatheven death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father" (Phil. 2:5-11).
"Well, you folks," I thought to myself as they dispersed with hearts distressed over angry words and ill will, "may you find a place of solitude to contemplate the folly of the argument you just finished. I pray that the Spirit of the living God would pierce your hearts and bring you to your knees before his sovereign throne, from where he sent his only begotten Son to the cradle and to the cross, then to receive him again at his own right hand in heaven, so that "whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).
Mrs. Poundstone is a member of Providence OPC in Temecula, Calif. This meditation was originally sent to several unbelieving family members. Reprinted from New Horizons, December 1999.