By Bill Goad
Many of us will be familiar with the Christmas Nativity – the picture or model of characters from the Christmas story. We often see these on Christmas cards and in churches. Mary is crouched down beside the newborn Jesus who is lying in a straw-filled manger. Joseph, her husband, leans over close to her shoulder and then, further out, on one side, a handful of shepherds with their sheep and lambs look on in wonder. On the other side, Magi, dressed in expensive robes and embroidered turbans present their mysterious gifts.
Everything is arranged and posed for the perfect photo opportunity.
The original Christmas events, of course, were nothing like this! The Magi likely arrived some considerable time after the birth (up to two years), so they never met the shepherds. Having just given birth, Mary probably did not feel like smiling for the camera; and then there would have been the smell! A variety of animals are in close proximity to everything that comes with them.
But what the scene does show us is a snapshot of the kind of people God wants us to be and the kind He can use to fulfill His purposes in the plan of redemption. In the gospel of Luke, we learn that nine months before this manger scene, Mary, a young and innocent teenager, had said ‘yes’ to God’s announcement that the Holy Spirit would grow a new life within her, even though she faced the risk of being shamed and losing her husband-to-be, Joseph. In an extraordinary moment, when we might imagine the angels in Heaven holding their breath in anticipation, she simply said, “May it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1: 38). Trust in God and simple obedience to Him were the foundation of her response.
We first meet Joseph in the gospel of Matthew, after he has found out the news about Mary’s pregnancy. The feeling of betrayal in his heart would have been overwhelming, but even before the angel fills him in on the details and puts his mind at rest, his plans to call off the wedding are filled with genuine kindness and compassion. This descendant of David has a heart like God’s.
Staying true to their betrothal, Joseph and Mary remain together, and when the Roman governor calls for a census, they head towards Bethlehem, to fulfil the requirement that everyone should go to their city of origin. There, in a lowly stable, the Savior of the world is born. On the night of the birth, local shepherds have an encounter with an angel, then see the sky lit up with thousands more. Why would God choose to herald the greatest news of history up till that time to these lowly shepherds? Shepherds were not found in the upper echelons of society. But they also did not suffer from the pride that often afflicts the elites. God made his announcement to humble servants who were willing to go where He told them the savior was and to spread the news of the savior’s birth to others.
Finally, stargazers from another land were drawn to the Christ-child. Strangely, these pagan astrologers, who had heard of the Jewish prophecies of a Messiah to be born, studied the signs more faithfully than did God’s chosen people; and when they saw the star in the East, they recognized it and followed it to the lowly stable. They even felt compelled to honor the boy Jesus with gifts that speak of royalty (gold), relationship with God (frankincense was burned in the temple) and a message that, somehow, his death will be important (Myrrh). The Magi were seekers and worshippers. They were people who recognized God’s leading and simply obeyed, even though they had only a glimmer of the light from God’s word.
So, what lesson can we take from the familiar Nativity scene? Well, as we see it in pictures or re-enactments this Christmas season, let us remember that God has not changed since the time of Christ’s birth. He still seeks to draw to himself and to use for his purposes those people, of whatever station in life, who will seek Him, believe and trust Him, humbly obey Him, and share Him and His love with others. Each of us can be one of those persons. God calls each of us. Let our Christmas gift to Him this year be that of humble trusting obedience and willingness to tell others of the greatest Good News ever. His gift to us, then, will not just be the birth 2000 years ago of the Savior, but the daily blessings of His love, joy, peace, and wisdom here and now, and even greater, when Christ comes again in all of his glory, very soon, the blessing of the wonder of hearing these words: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Enter now into the joy of thy Lord.” Those words will far surpass the joy of “Merry Christmas,” which is now a greeting just for a short season. But then, we can look forward to an eternity with our glorious risen Savior-Christ the Lord.