One night, I asked my children as they lay in their beds, “Why do you think God sent Jesus to be born in a dirty stable?” My five year old son answered, “Because no one had room for him…but one man said they could spend the night in his stable.” His answer was simple and profound. Simple, because he just responded by reciting the Christmas story as he knew it. Profound, because he reminded me that story always trumps theology, the matter of fact details matters more than theorizing, and that God may not have a secret purpose behind why things happen the way they do. Yes, you read that last line correctly.
Every Christmas, I hear people poeticize the irony, the humility, the poignancy of Heaven’s Prince coming to be born in a smelly animal shelter (By the way, there is very good historical evidence to prove that this was not in fact the case, but I won’t get into that here), “Shouldn’t He have been born in a palace?” they say. And then conclude with statements like this, “God did this to show…” or “God wanted us to know…” As if God wanted his favored servants Mary and Joseph and his newborn son Jesus to go through something as uncomfortable and dangerous as that. (What would that say about His fatherhood?) Why do we assume that because Bible stories happened a certain way then God must have wanted it that way? We don’t think that way about Aleppo, or our Loved One’s cancer, or school shootings. No. God did not want His Son to be born in a manger, in a stable or with smelly animals. Because He is a good father, He wants the best for his kids.
God is not proud. He does not demand your finest room, your best appearance, your A-game. Though He is of infinitely greater worth than any government leader or superstar, He is greater precisely because of his lack of distance, absence of ego, and ability to connect with the lowliest. Remember, the worst sinners did not feel uncomfortable around Jesus exactly because he made them feel like he was just like them. And it wasn’t pretend. He was like them. Or should I say they were like him because they, too, were made in the image of God and He helped remind them of their dignity, nay I dare say, their divinity.
Here’s what the Christmas story communicates to us: Jesus will take whatever room you give him. Give him an inch and he will humbly take it…and be born into that inch. But that inch will be so beautiful, so comely, so wonderful, it will slowly attract and convert the rest of your attention and life. Like a newborn baby, that inch, that backyard shed, that one hour a week, or whatever you give him, will grow. God is patient. His life in you may take years or decades to fully mature. But it will grow. And then one day that unexpected inch will be endued with power and authority to challenge all of the wrong assumptions, the broken systems, the injustices that steal our freedom and joy. We get invited and swept up into the cause of Heaven—to bring justice, goodness, order and beauty—into the Earth. And by that time, whether we are young or old, we are no longer doing it for ourselves but for the sakes of others or for generations after us who may never know our names. And as we live that selfless life of service we discover that that quiet inch—that baby we gave a dirty corner of our lives to—has completely captivated us. Our imaginations are on fire. Our affections are constantly stirred. Our love leaks out to the forgotten, the hurting, the unloveables.
Bethlehem got credit for hosting Heaven’s birth into this world. And it barely made the cut. That is the wonderful gospel that we believe: whilst there was minimum investment on our part ("go sleep in the stable"), there was maximum investment on God’s part (Heaven’s greatest treasure paid in full willingly and joyfully for your redemption). Praise God for his humility. Thank him for his deep desire to know us and become our friends. He wants to be born in your life, too. And even if you give him your worst, darkest, dirtiest corner of the basement in your heart, He would say, “You’ve gotta deal. I’ll take it.” And for those who are ready to promote him to bigger and more honorable places in your heart, you can do that as well: “Jesus, come sit at the seat of honor at my table.” And Jesus would say, “Thank you”…Genuinely. But be forewarned: After the meal he may ask for a basin to wash your feet!