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Friday, December 19, 2014

The Purposeful Humility of the Manger Scene

How many of us are willing to become poor to help the poor?  How many of us would become despised to reach the despised?  There are many charities out there with the admirable intent to help “the less fortunate,” but none go so far as to advocate becoming the less fortunate in order to help them.  We want to assist them, while holding on to our position, our comfort, and our reputation. 
Aren’t you thankful that Jesus didn’t feel the same way (Phil 2:5-7).  He came not merely to provide help, or to feed, or to heal, but ultimately to save men from sin, and in doing so He took the form of the lowest among them.  From His birth to His death, He was numbered with the less fortunate.  Christmas is the perfect time to reflect on such things.
There are numerous references in the Gospels, the Lukan account in particular, that point to the humility of the Baby King, as well as indications about why He came the way He did.
1. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?”  So said Nathaniel in John 1:46 upon hearing Philip’s claim that he had found the Messiah.  A variation of that sentiment is uttered by the Pharisees in John 7:52, “Search and see that no prophet arises out of Galilee.  In the first century there was a popular bias among the religious elites in Judea against Galileans.  It is peculiar then that this is the precise locale from which the Messiah would hail.  Luke records in 1:26-27 that Mary, the mother of Jesus, was from Nazareth of Galilee, and all four Gospels note that Jesus was raised there.
2. “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Luke 1:34). The virgin birth, which today we rightly regard as miraculous, at the time was nothing if not scandalous.  (For a more detailed discussion of the shame that would have been heaped upon Mary and Joseph, read this.)  Before Joseph was read in on the Holy Spirit conception, he sought to quietly divorce Mary.  (They were only betrothed, but betrothal was so serious in that culture, that to break it required a legal divorce.)  Why would Joseph want to divorce her?  Because he, like everyone else, assumed that Mary had engaged in immorality – virgins don’t have babies.  Women who conceived out of wedlock were considered whores.  And there is no indication that Mary did anything to correct the predictable assumption that she was just such an immoral woman.  We also know that the stigma did not wear off over time, since we find the Jews in John 8:41 making the not-so-veiled implication that Jesus had been “born of sexual immorality.”
This baby was born assumed to be the illegitimate child of an immoral woman, a prostitute.  It would be difficult to conceive of a more lowly, discreditable beginning than this. 
3. “And she…laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” (Luke 2:7).  On countless occasions when I was a kid, I would run outside to play, forgetting to shut the door behind me.  The common rebuke from my mom came in the form of a question, “Were you born in a barn?”  Of course, she didn’t coin the phrase – I’m sure many of us have heard the same thing.  And what is the implication of the question?  Are you an animal? Are you so uncouth and unrefined that you would leave the door open? 
The Creator of the universe is reported in the Gospel of Luke to have been born in a barn.  And actually, the barn is simply an assumption.  The text doesn’t mention it specifically, but only that the baby was laid in a manger.  It could be that there was not a barn at all, and that He was literally born outdoors.  It could be that all of our Nativity scenes are giving the child an inaccurate upgrade in accommodations.  Whatever the details, this paints the picture of a birth so humble as to be almost degrading.  His first bed was a trough.  He had the birth of an animal, both in terms of location and company (more about the shepherds next).  The only thing notable about the situation, from a human perspective, was the humiliating circumstances.
4. “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” (Luke 2:8).  When a child born to kings and queens, the wealthy and powerful, who in society takes note?  The whole world.  But only those in the upper echelon are given the privilege of greeting the child in person.  This is true no matter what era of history is being discussed. 
But what about the baby in Luke 2?  Who were the first to know of His birth?  Who were the first to come to greet Him?  It wasn’t just happenstance that the first to hear were shepherds – an angel of the Lord went to them specifically.  Shepherds were not high-class individuals.  Because of their trade – caring for sheep 24 hours a day – they were considered unclean peasants.  Sheep are dirty and smell bad.  Therefore, shepherds are dirty and smell bad.  And yet, shepherds were the first to hear of the baby’s birth, and were in fact told, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior…”  And they were the first invited to come and see Him. 
5. “…and to offer a sacrifice according to what is said in the Law of the Lord, ‘a pair of turtledoves, or two young pigeons.’” (Luke 2:24).  Leviticus 12 describes the procedure for an Israelite woman to follow for her purification after childbirth.  She was to be considered unclean for a period of seven or fourteen days, depending on whether or not the baby was a boy or girl, after which she was to be purified for 33 days or 66 days.  After the days of her purifying were complete, she was to take to the priest a lamb a year old for a burnt offering, and a pigeon or a turtledove for a sin offering, “and he shall offer it before the LORD and make atonement for her” (v7).  But v8 says, “And if she cannot afford a lamb, then she shall take two turtledoves or two pigeons…”
The baby in Luke 2 wasn’t born with a silver spoon in His mouth.  He was born poor.  His parents could not afford a lamb, so they offered a pair of birds.  They were, as we might call them today, “the less fortunate.” 
Isaiah wrote, “he had no form or majesty that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him. He was despised and rejected by men” (53:2).  By all earthly accounts, this baby was not even average.  Those who were average would have regarded Him as a poor, smelly animal born to a whore from the wrong side of the tracks and adored only by the lowest element of society. 
Was this all bad luck?  A series of unfortunate oversights on God’s part?  No.  Matthew 2:22-23 tells us that God intended for the baby to be a Nazarene.  His mother was not immoral – in Luke 2:30, Gabriel told her that she had found favor with God.  God, Joseph, and Mary all three knew that the birth would be regarded as illegitimate, but they went forward with the plan.  God prophesied that the baby would be born in Bethlehem, the city of David (Mic5:2), and He who turns the hearts of kings moved Caesar Augustus to order at exactly the right time, so that the baby would be born on cue, when there would be no place for them to stay in the inn (Prov 21:1; Gal 4:4).  He chose the shepherds.  The whole picture happened just as God wanted.
Why?  Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55 is clear:
 46 "My soul magnifies the Lord,
 47 and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
 48 for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
 49 for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
 50 And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
 51 He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts;
 52 he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate;
 53 he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty.
 54 He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
 55 as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever."
He was to be a lowly Savior for lowly sinners.  The angel told the shepherds that this good news would “be for all the people.”  No one would have to climb their way up to Him.  No one was too down and out.  No one was too far gone.  He would come to them.
We have a Savior who was willing to get His hands dirty to save sinful men.  He left the heights of heaven to become the lowest of the earth that He might save all who believe.  Let’s meditate on that and worship Him.

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