“When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” Luke 2:15.
This past March, my wife and I were given the unique opportunity to follow in the footsteps of the shepherds and: “Go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.” The rock covered hillside in the picture above is the actual location of the angel's announcement to the shepherds.Of course, in Bethlehem today there is no longer a humble stable to visit, for the large stone 'Church of the Nativity' now stands above the place it is believed that Jesus was born. But as impressive as it was to walk through a lavishly decorated 5th century church, I found it difficult to envision the events of the Nativity in that setting. There was no barn, no animals, no straw and no manger. In single file we walked around the right side of the lavishly ornate church altar and descended down a narrow stairway into the 'Grotto of the Nativity'. Far from the Christmas-card image, the place of Christ’s birth is a dimly-lit rock cave.
But even there, the rough and humble surroundings of the first Christmas have given way to marble facings and gaudy decorations. In the words of biblical scholar E. M. Blaiklock, the cave is “hung and cluttered with all the tinsel of men's devotions”. The original manger carved in the stone is still there, although you can't really see it. At some point in the late 4th century they decided to encase the rough stone cut manger in marble and place a silver manger above it. St. Jerome, whose own cave was nearby, did not approve: “If I could only see that manger in which the Lord lay! Now, as if to honour the Christ, we have removed the poor one and placed there a silver one; however, for me the one which was removed is more precious . . . .” Today, the silver manger is gone but the marble encasement remains, flanked by golden lanterns, with an ornate silver star encircling a small hole above the original manger. The closest I could get to the real manger was to get down on my hands and knees and reach down through the hole and touch the stone beneath...
All of this got me thinking – Why do we feel the need to dress up the nativity? Does Jesus humble entrance into this world still make us uncomfortable? Does the smell of straw, animals, and manure make us want to clean things up, just a little? Do the unsanitary conditions in which Mary and Joseph had to endure labor and delivery of the Christ-child almost make us a little embarrassed? I mean we're talking about the 'Prince of Peace' after all.
But you see if Jesus had wanted to be born in a palace, he could have arranged it. If he had wanted to be born into a royal family, with ideal circumstances complete with an abundance of power, prestige, and possessions, he could have easily made it happen. But he didn't. Instead, Jesus chose to leave all of that behind in heaven's glory, and to enter the world in the most humble (even embarrassing) of circumstances. Why?
Because Jesus came to meet us exactly where we are.
He didn't come to impress us – He came to be one of us. He didn't come to rule over us – He came to serve us. He didn't come to condemn us – he came to save us.
You see Jesus didn't dress himself up when He came to us... and that means we don't have to dress ourselves up in order to go to him.
And yet just like they covered up and decorated Jesus humble manger with lavish decor, we often feel we must do the same with our lives. And so we work hard at being a nice person who does nice things and believe that is what will make us acceptable to God. But it's not.
In order to become acceptable to God we have to completely humble ourselves to go to Jesus in the exact same way that the shepherds did 2,000 years ago – we go to Him just as we are.
Remember when the shepherds heard the angels good news, they had no time to get changed or clean-up and so still smelling like sheep, they went to Him. Humble men went to the humble stable and met the humble Savior. Had they arrived at a palace they would have been kicked out before even getting in the door... but in the smelly stable the smelly shepherds fit right in! So not only were they were not kicked out, but they were instead welcomed and given the honor of being the very first visitors to see Jesus face and welcome the Prince of Peace into the world! So touched were they by that encounter, that they left that day transformed, singing God's praises, and telling anyone who cared to listen all about it.
The shepherds went exactly as they were and you can to – Angry, addicted, afraid, broken, bitter, bereaved, depressed, disillusioned, doubtful, heartbroken, helpless, numb, stubborn, tired, or unsatisfied – Go to Jesus exactly the way you are and He will receive you.
No decorations required.
But also remember, that though Jesus receives us as we are, he does not leave us as we are. For when we give him our complete selves (good, bad, and ugly) He takes our lives and begins making something beautiful – for our good and His glory!
May God bless you and yours richly this Christmas!
~Pastor Danny Groening
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