For those who are well-familiar with the Christmas narrative from the Gospel of Luke, the inherent strangeness to the story may be missed. When read without either an over-familiarity or a commercialized sentimentality, the Lukan account of God’s advent into the world is fairly extraordinary. I am struck by the way Luke juxtaposes the announcement of the King of Israel—”For to you is born this day in the city of David the Savior who is Christ the Lord”—with the sign of his advent: “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”(1) The God of the universe would be set in a lowly manger, a feed trough for animals. he would be clothed, not in purple finery, but in woven, cloth strips.
Luke’s narrative highlights what seem to be the most ordinary and the most mundane details of Jesus’s birth for many modern readers. And yet, these seemingly ordinary details highlight a God who chooses to display divine glory in the commonplace birth of a human child. The gospel writer’s utter preoccupation with ordinary details reveals the belief that coming of the Messiah and his kingdom would look very different from the kingdom that was expected. And this was extraordinary.
The Bible indicates a long silence of God from speaking directly to the people—a silence that must have seemed an eternity. But out of the silence of that quiet night, the angel spoke and announced what the people of Israel had all hoped for: God is near, the gospel proclaims, born in the same city as your great king of old, King David! The people now would look upon the new David, their new deliverer, who would be their Messiah. The prophet Micah announced this special context as well: “As for you, Bethlehem, too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel. His going forth is from long ago, from the days of eternity.” Out of the silent sky came the news that surpassed all news. The Messiah had come and the world would never be the same again, for a king had been born this day in the city of David—Christ the Lord!
Yet, this king would not be born in an expected palace or even into the household of a priest, like John the Baptist, for example. The glorious place of Israel’s new king would be different than expected: “And this will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger.” Born this day, in the city of David is your Christ, your Messiah. And guess what? You’ll find him in a manger, which is the feeding trough for ordinary farm animals. Who would believe this report? How could the Messiah come with such vulnerability and poverty?
But the manger would prove to be his palace, and the first subjects of the kingdom would not be the influential or the powerful, not the righteous or the rulers. In fact, only a few people actually hear the news. After the silence of ages, God does not come with a shout, but like a whisper into the ears of a few select, uninfluential individuals. God comes as a crying baby needing the comfort and succor of human parents.
Mary, a young girl as yet unmarried, would be the first recipient of this good news. She was young and insignificant, and this announcement of an illegitimate and unexplained pregnancy wouldn’t help her place in that society. The announcement also comes to shepherds—the least influential in that society—young boys, out in the fields, far from their towns and villages, tending to the family sheep. The glory of Israel is revealed to those most would deem inglorious. Israel’s new king is born to a young, unmarried girl, in a town not her home, placed in a manger with animals as the initial witnesses to the birth. The heavenly announcement is made only to a group of poor, unnoticed shepherds.
Unveiling the glory of God through humble means and ordinary details is a point Luke’s gospel highlights in portraying a kingdom that would upend many cherished expectations. The Almighty God, who created heaven and earth, who created the shepherds and the animals, Mary and Joseph, was the same God who chose to be glorified in human flesh as the baby Jesus. In the dependence and vulnerability of an infant, God’s glory is revealed. Humble circumstances with unremarkable witnesses reveal the greatness and glory of God. Humility, from the very beginning, is one of the hallmarks of Jesus’s Kingdom. Dr. James Denison elaborates on these extraordinary circumstances: “As a young child, [Jesus] was celebrated by foreign Magi, not of his own people. He spent his public ministry touching lepers, welcoming Gentiles and prostitutes, discipling tax collectors and other despised people, and offering the gospel to all who would receive it. His birth proved the words: ‘God so loved the world that God gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but receive eternal life.’”(2)
In a world that confuses glory with glitter, glamour, power, and prestige, would we see God’s glory in this seemingly inglorious package—cradled in a feed-trough, presented to peasants, and announced to the least and the last? For all who would wonder at this kind of birth, this kind of king, and this kind of God, they are welcomed to draw closer to the manger and the stable.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Luke 2:11-12.
(2) James Denison, blog entry, 2007.