As you visualize in your mind the scene in Bethlehem at the time of Jesus’ birth, what picture comes immediately to mind? A clear, starry night, filled with heavenly peace? Angels singing songs of joy? Animals in a stable adoring the new-born king? A holy couple, perhaps with halos, gazing at peacefully sleeping baby lying in a spotless manger filled with clean hay?
To me, two words that best describe the scene are filth and humiliation. You don’t usually hear Christmas messages with this theme, but Christmas in the New Testament is not a pretty picture. This is true on several levels.
First, look at the change of scenery for the eternal Son of God. Revelation 4 offers the picture of Jesus’ home before his birth in Bethlehem. A rainbow, resembling an emerald, encircles God’s throne. Surrounding it are creatures dressed in white, with crowns of gold on their heads. From the throne come flashes of dazzling lightning. And before the throne is a sea of glass, clear as crystal (4:3–6). This is what Jesus left in order to live in this sin-filled earth with all its ugliness and messiness. Can we even begin to fathom the humiliation that this change of location involved for God’s Son?
Second, the almighty Son of God comes to sinful earth as a helpless infant. The only way he could communicate his human needs would be by crying, like any infant. (“The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes” occurs only in our songs.) The story of Christmas is the story of Jesus who humbles himself by taking the form of a servant (see Phil. 2:7–8).
Third, if (as most scholars recognize) the so-called “inn” in Bethlehem was actually a guest room of a home of one of Joseph’s Davidic relatives, then our Lord came to those who were his own family, and his own did not receive him (cf. John 1:11). That’s sad—so sad! Jesus was humiliated by being rejected by his own people and by his own family. They made no room for his mother, nine months pregnant and about ready to give birth. Jesus our Lord was despised and rejected by God’s people long before his trial and crucifixion.
Finally, have you ever thought about the conditions under which Jesus was born? Our Christmas cards show a clean stable with hay that looks like cotton. Believe me, there were no FDA requirements that barns had to be cleaned with antiseptic once a week or even once a month. Most likely Jesus was born in filth with the scent of urine strongly filling the stable area. I doubt if Joseph had sterile gloves to deliver the baby Jesus; perhaps he didn’t even know how to serve as a midwife, but there was no one else around. What utter humiliation! Just imagine you were a fly on the wall observing the birth scene—yes, I am positive there were flies, lots of them. Describe what you see.
This was the Son of God being born in the squalor of the earth. This was the humiliation of Bethlehem. Will you be trying this year, as you prepare for Christmas, to portray the nativity as it really was, or as we usually depict it in our Christmas mythology? What messages have you preached during Advent season that are “out of the box”?