Daniel P. Clifford
Big events call for big celebrationsparties, food, balloons, streamers, noisemakers. But when God sent his Son to be born in Bethlehem, he came with much less worldly celebration than you might expect. In fact, many of the circumstances of Jesus' birth, as recorded in Luke 2, were downright pitiable. What does God want us to learn from his sending of his Son in such an unexpectedly lowly way? Here are three lessons from the manger.
First, by sending Jesus in a lowly condition, God reminds us of our extreme need. Jesus came humbly because he stood in the place of people who had been brought very low by sin. God's people need a reminder of their lowliness whenever God visits them, because they may be tempted to think that God's mercy reflects well on them. For example, when God appeared to Abraham, he promised to bless him and make him into a great nation. The people of Israel should have been amazed and humbled by these promises; instead, they started boasting that they were children of Abraham (Luke 3:8). Similarly, we today sometimes feel that we gratify God by our worship or good deeds, turning God's grace into grounds for boasting. But when we consider the Savior in the manger, it reminds us that Jesus' birth was all about God's condescension, not our deserving.
The Virgin Mary, who was a social nobody in the eyes of the world, understood this. When she contemplated how God had chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah, she realized that God's choice was less a statement about her qualifications and more a statement about whom he was saving. The child inside her embodied God's mercy to the lowly and his repudiation of the proud. So Mary rejoiced that God "has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away" (Luke 1:53).
The knowledge that God was bringing a Savior for the humble and downcast must have helped Mary and Joseph to persevere through the hardships that God ordained for them when they arrived in Bethlehem. From what we can tell, no one helped them when they arrived in town. No relative of Joseph took them in. No townsperson offered hospitality, even though God had commanded Israel to care for sojourners. Nobody made room at the inn. Jesus came like a puzzle piece that did not fit anywhereexcept in a manger.
Think about the lowliness inherent in the manger. Most nativity scenes depict the manger standing in a stable, amid piles of hay and adorable, clean animals. But in all likelihood the place was crowded and dirty and smelly. Mary had to give birth in those conditions! She wrapped her baby with cloths and laid him in a feeding trough. The whole thing was extremely rough and rudethe reception, the birth, the crib.
Why? God sent his Son with various "circumstances of more than ordinary abasement" (Larger Catechism, 47) to show us how low he was stooping to save us! It reflects the Lord's great kindness and our great need.
Second, God sent Jesus in lowliness to show us that salvation progresses by his power, not mere human power. When God sent his Son into the world, he took pains to avoid the appearance that any person apart from God certified him or provided him with messianic credentials. The angels announced Christbut they immediately went back into heaven. The shepherds testified to Christbut their influence did not carry beyond Bethlehem. The wise men worshipped Christbut God told them to return to their own country by another way. Anna and Simeon welcomed Christbut they were not figures of influence. The fact is that no mainstream political or religious institution ever got behind Jesus, either at his birth or during his ministry.
It is true that one very powerful man, Caesar Augustus, does come into the story. He gave a decree that everyone in the known world be registered (Luke 2:1). Now that is power! Yet God merely used Caesar to get Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, so that Jesus would be born in that town as Micah 5:2 foretold. Caesar, with all his power, merely functioned to move God's plan along. The newborn baby in the manger embodied far more power than the greatest decree of Caesar. God's power, revealed in that weak baby, reminds us that the kingdom of Christ does not require human validation and does not move forward by the strength of human efforts.
This applies to the way we conceive of our work in the church. God has, I suspect, blessed your church with a biblical order of worship, sound preaching, and good doctrinal standards. Your church may also enjoy effective programs, a nice building, and a budget in the black. These are blessings, but God does not depend on any of these things, any more than he depended on Caesar's decree. We certainly try to serve God faithfully, but his work does not hinge on our best efforts. The work of the church rests entirely on his power and grace.
The same applies to your Christian life. You may find your spiritual encouragement fluctuating greatly, based on your perception of your personal holiness at the moment. This is natural in one sense, because Christians love the Savior and feel happiest when they please him. On the other hand, extreme spiritual highs and lows may come in part from an inadequate perception of the greatness of our King. Do we really believe that our salvation depends on him, and that he is fully capable of carrying it out?
Once again, consider the manger scene: Christ as a baby was already greater than the greatest ruler in the world! He is God's king. The center and power of the church is Jesushumbled for our sins in his incarnation, and now risen from the dead and pouring out his Holy Spirit on us. The church exists by his power and for his glory. Individual congregations may prosper or decline. Personal spiritual vitality may go up and down. But Jesus Christ is the same Savior yesterday, today, and forever. His work does not depend on our power; rather, it is our privilege to participate in his kingdom. The more we grasp this, the more joy and freedom it will give to our service in the church! It is his work. This is another message from the manger.
A final message from the manger is that God does not hesitate to enter into humble places and fellowship with people who seem beneath notice in the eyes of the world. Jesus came so that even "the least of these" might have hope.
The world ranks people according to the respect or admiration they command. To worldly eyes, big players like Caesar are very important. Peasants, shepherds, and small villages are too grubby, poor, and ignorant to get much attention. But God loves to use a small stage to put on a big show. In Bethlehem, God entered into an unremarkable place and made it extraordinary by his saving presence. He fellowshipped with the lowly and raised them to greatness by his favor.
Consider the status of your life. It does not ultimately matter whether your life appears significant in worldly terms. The true significance of your life flows from your connection to Jesus' life. If God has joined you to Jesus by faith, then he is doing something great in you. The Holy Spirit quietly applies the benefits of Jesus Christ to you. He continues to point you to the love of Christ and teach you to obey him. He assures you that you are a child of God. He gives you purpose in life. He safeguards you as you progress toward glory. What could be greater than the power of God, working in you?
Similarly, the greatness of God's saving work gives us hope in the messiness, complexities, and disappointments of life. In the stable, nobody actually had halos around their heads (Christmas cards notwithstanding)! Mary and Joseph had arrived at that place through rejection and disappointment. The manger scene captures something that is true of life in a fallen world. Joy mingles with hardship. Promise mingles with messiness. But in Bethlehem, Jesus entered right in. He fulfilled the promise, and he provided the joy, in the middle of a scene that would otherwise have been sad and unremarkable.
We serve the same Savior, and therefore should not become discouraged when life seems hard or messy or lacking in outward glory. We should never say, "My life is not important enough for Jesus to use." Or, "Something must be wrong because my spiritual experiences are not very dramatic." Or, "My life is too much of a mess to glorify God." When we think about how Jesus was born in a stable, in the company of lowly people, we realize that God does not avoid messes. His work does not depend on our qualifications, but on his grace.
Jesus comes straight into messy human lives. To all who repent of their sins and believe in him, he comes with a promise that he will ultimately take away the mess, the guilt, and the fear of death and judgment. He comes to restore us to God and to bring us into his kingdom. This is the greatest lesson from the manger.
The author is pastor of Grace OPC in Vienna, Va. New Horizons, December 2011.