By Mark Scott
The Christmas narrative has everything necessary for a great story. There is political intrigue, conflict (international, national, ethnic, and marital), anticipation (the key to every good Christmas), the drama of a delivery room, fear, and amazement. Good stuff.
But one thing that makes an impression about the Christmas story is how simple and unadorned it really is. God often brings to us the profound in the midst of the ordinary. On December 26th, The Bethlehem Gazette probably read, “Joseph and Mary, a boy, 17 inches long, 7.7 lbs.” Nothing stunning. Babies are born every day. Big deal.
Don’t misunderstand. The birth of a virgin-born son is no little thing. The eternal Word becoming flesh (John 1:14) does not happen every day. I am not trying for a heartbeat to denigrate the uniqueness of the birth of the Son of God. But I encourage you to consider how the only Gentile to write a life of Christ (Luke) shows, in the Christmas story, how God fills the seeming insignificant with his presence and makes what might have been mundane into profound mystery (see Luke 2:1-15).
First, we should notice the insignificant places. The real “happening” places in the world at the time were Rome and Syria. Indeed, they are mentioned in our text. The influential people lived there. People who ruled others lived there. The lifestyles of the rich and famous were recorded there. No one cared much about Palestine. It was a small political football that got kicked around the Roman Lake (Mediterranean Sea). No one cared about the Holy Land—except God.
Our story gives passing mention to Rome (center of the inhabited world) and Syria (gateway to the East). But the focus is on little places, such as:
Bethlehem. Granted, Bethlehem was the city of the great king (David), but in the time of David or Jesus it was nothing to write home about. It had little clout and less size. Some rich biblical history was attached to it, but it was not where you’d go on your honeymoon, let alone for the birth of your first child.
Nazareth. Mary and Joseph are from Nazareth. Today, it spreads out over the hills in Galilee. But not so in Jesus’ time. It was, like Bethlehem, puny and insignificant. In fact, Nathanael later asked of Nazareth, “Can anything good come from there?” (John 1:46). That’s not a compliment. The prophets predicted that Jesus would be called a “Nazarene” (Matthew 2:23). But we don’t even know specifically in the Old Testament where that quote comes from (cf. Isaiah 11:1 as the best guess).
Manger. Why would someone who is writing a great story underline a common cow trough three times? Is this more than just factual reporting? Is something being implied theologically? Can a God who is so high stoop that low? Wrapping a baby in swaddling clothes (tight-fitted clothes) was not much of a sign for others. But a baby in a cow trough is the way of God in the world.
Fields. That is where shepherds do their thing. They watch sheep in fields. The sheep in these fields, which bordered Bethlehem and Jerusalem, probably were to be used in the sacrifices in the temple. Their day of reckoning was soon approaching. The sheep might play an important role in Israel’s redemptive history, but the fields are just holding tanks for sheep. The first Christmas took place down “on the farm.”
Is it just possible that Bethlehem, Nazareth, the manger, and the fields become key places in God’s self-revelation? Could it be that there really are no little places in the world? Maybe when God comes near, all the little places become big!
There is a little town of about 250 people (Tyro, Kansas) about two hours from where I live. The highway goes through it so fast you dare not blink. But the church there runs just under 1,000 in attendance. How did that happen? Maybe it’s not where you live, but what’s happening there in the name of God that matters.
Second, we should notice the insignificant people. The important people of the world are mentioned in verses 1 and 2: Caesar Augustus—now there is a person of power. We know, by his name, Augustus, how important he is. The other important person named in the text is Quirinius—now there is a person of clout. So important is he that he had two governorships in Syria. These men were the movers and shakers of the day. When they spoke people listened. They could call for taxes and the response was, “So let it be done.”
But our text gives only passing reference to these men. And that is probably done so as to root our story in history. They are not the key players. Our story focuses on a poor (or at least lower middle-class) young couple from Nazareth. Mary and Joseph even had rather common names. Joseph is some kind of craftsman (cf. Matthew 13:55), and Mary could be embarrassingly young. But they are mentioned five times in the text not counting the pronouns.
Our story focuses on shepherds. That fact alone could get this book killed at the publisher’s desk. Shepherds have some descent press in the Bible. They have a rich heritage. But, by the first century AD, the glamour of a biblical shepherd had all but disappeared. These people were despised similarly to tax collectors. They were social outcasts as evidenced by being banished from inside the temple. Besides, they always smelled like sheep. But don’t miss this: of the 20 verses telling the Christmas story, 13 are devoted to the shepherds. What does that say? And, why would a Gentile spend so much time telling us that?
Our story focuses on the innkeeper—well, not really. In fact, he is so insignificant he is not actually mentioned. It’s amazing how much press he gets in the average Christmas pageant. There was no room in the inn, and someone had to tell them, “You can’t stay here.”
Years ago, church soloists liked a song called “Ordinary People.” God uses ordinary people—just like you and me. It reminds one of 1 Corinthians 1:26, “Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards; not many were influential; not many were of noble birth.” Let’s face it: the people in the Christmas story were nothing to write home about. Neither are we. Maybe when God comes near, all the little people suddenly seem to matter.
Finally, we should notice the insignificant event. The event in this story that made the headlines was, in a word, taxes. It is still the lead story on the front page today. Imagine the disruption these taxes created in the ancient world!
But our story just mentions the taxes as a historical marker. The real news is the birth of this baby. For the believer, this birth is anything but normal. There was fulfilled prophecy. There was the appearance of that star (Matthew 2:2, 9; Numbers 24:17). There were the angelic appearances. There was the virgin’s conception in the first place. But think about it—babies are born every day. The means God used to save the world was very special. But the method was quite common. Mary labored, Joseph paced, and Jesus cried.
Could it be that God chose the birth of a baby to start saving the world because everyone can relate to a baby?
Using a baby to save the world might seem strange at first, but how many of us can relate to a king? Paul Scherer, who years ago taught homiletics at Princeton Theological Seminary, said, “God didn’t throw the book at us. He came walking down the staircase of Heaven with a baby in his arms.” Babies don’t crash through closed doors. They just warm us by their mere presence. God knew what he was doing. When God comes near, all little events take on spiritual powers.
Places become more special when God fills them. People become more important when God works through them. Events become more powerful when God acts in them. For the Gospel written for the outsider this is very good news. Christmas announces that all places, all people, and all events matter to God.
Do you come from nowheresville? Take heart, Christmas can happen in your town. Do you have the self-esteem of a slug and feel as if no one cares whether you live or die? Take heart, Christmas announces that you matter to God. Do you feel as if nothing big ever happens in your life? Take heart, Christmas is for you. Did you notice that as the angels announced to the shepherds the good news of the birth of Christ, three times they said, “It’s for you, for you, for you”?
Christians believe the incarnation is very significant. They side with Col. James Erwin, former moon walker and astronaut, when he said, “God walking on the earth is more important than man walking on the moon.” Yes, Christmas is significant, but the story itself tells us that the way of God in the world is still “power through weakness.”
Mark Scott, academic dean at Ozark Christian College, Joplin, Missouri, is a contributing editor with Christian Standard. This essay is adapted from his sermon that appears at preachingstandard.com.