The nativity story is probably one of the most misunderstood episodes of the New Testament. It’s a patently Jewish story – a 1st century Jewish story no less, jam-packed with scads of cultural idiosyncracies and a Sitz im Leben that’s a bit off planet for us modern western folk. Nonetheless, read from a 1st century Jewish perspective, it’s a better story than the one we usually tell. It goes something like this.
There’s these three groups of losers…
The first group is hanging out in the mountains and fields of the Judean region when they get a very strange and undeserved invite. We call them shepherds and typically think of them as humble, simple folk – people at one with nature, animal lovers, passive, kind, etc. In their day however shepherds were considered by most to be the lowest of the low, though not as low as tax collectors (that’s a different but very interesting story). Shepherds would frequently sell and/or eat the animals they were charged with protecting, then lie about it, claiming that the animal(s) had fallen victim to the all-too-frequent predator attack.
In their defense, if I were a shepherd I would have a hard time resisting the temptation for a little snack every now and again. It would be like hiring me to sit and watch bacon for a long time by myself with nobody else watching. Some of it might go missing.
When the “Angel of the Lord” appears in a blinding light, they become “sore afraid,” not because angels are scary, but because they believe that God has finally showed up to mete out their punishment for being such horrible people. What they get is totally different – transformed in a flash from trash to the very Heralds of God Himself. Why? Because they were good people? Nope…
Overall, shepherds were viewed as dishonest and cowardly, definitely not the people you would expect to be charged with running through the very capitol of all Jewishness to announce the arrival of something that everyone at the time was desperately waiting for.
The next group of losers is the triad of “Magi,” travelling from the East, expecting to meet a great king, being led by a star. Again, if you consider what Jewish people were thinking at the time, these people have no business in God’s story – maybe as the bad guys, but certainly not as heroes. To be non-Jewish, and on top of that some kind of “magician,” is to be pagan in the worst sense. To not believe in God, and to place your trust in other powers was considered to be utterly foolish, and not worth the time of day in the eyes of most. Again – trash.
The third group is comprised of the three people sitting amidst the dung, the smell, and the conspicuous absence of human dignity – surrounded by the other losers mentioned above. There’s a baby, and that’s cute, but he’s illegitimate. The mom “claims” that God had impregnated her, but everyone knows what really happened. Her husband initially tried to conjure up some way to get rid of her, but was “visited in a dream” by an angel and changed his mind. Whatever. In his world the only thing worse than a woman who has conceived via adultery is a husband who does nothing about it. We might romanticize something like this, but the people of Jesus’ day didn’t. Adultery was one of the most grievous sins to the Jewish mind. More trash.
So it’s understandable why there were no important people stopping by to say hello to the newborn Messiah. “This can’t be him.” “He’s illegitimate.” “Where are all the other important people?” “A stable?” “He might have the pedigree if he were actually the son of his father.” Considering the general sketchiness of the whole scene it’s easy to see why Herod, the Pharisees, Saducees, Sanhedrin, the wealthy folk and other potentates decided to stay home that night. These people believed that they were conditionally blessed by God. Their obedience to His rules, their devotion, and their wealth made them important to Him. The dishonest, the poor, the pagan were seen as trash because that’s how God considered them. But if the Nativity episode is what the New Testament claims it to be, it is THE most powerful, beautiful, and important event in all of human history. Funny that the most powerful, beautiful, and important people of Jerusalem – at a time when it was believed that the Messiah would show up any time now – weren’t there.
The Nativity invites us to make some drastic changes to our value system, especially as it applies to how we valuate people. Christmas is a time to remember that God typically doesn’t see things the way we do. The people we call losers, God calls kings.
So, you’d better watch out – folk who consider themselves to be more important than others – especially in the name of religion – can easily find themselves missing the party. If you feel like a loser, be comforted. God has opened His doors to everyone. It’s truly a “come as you are” proposition.
If He can be born in a stable, He can live in your heart – and do some really crazy things within.