In the wonder of the holiday season, I often find myself wondering where all the wonder went. It’s been 2000 years (+/-) since Jesus was born and it seems that since the close of the book of Acts we just don’t see encounter the awe and wonder of God in our world today. Evil seems to make it’s presence known, but in the kingdom of God, largely, it seems that all is calm, and not-so-bright…and that’s what got me thinking.
When we recount the Christmas story, we recall the extraordinary humility in which Christ came into our world. The census, the crowded town with no room at the inn, and the humble plod to someone’s stable where Mary was forced to give birth alone and lay her baby in a feeding trough amid the filth of barn animals. We marvel at how fantastic these circumstances were and conclude that God only works in the exceptional and extraordinary, and that people like you and me must wait for God to move in the ordinariness of our little lives…as if he isn’t working already. We need to know something: We’ve been wrong.
First, let’s look at the Christmas story. Mary was engaged to Joseph who was ordered by way of the census to return to the town of his father, which was Bethlehem. This is where his family is from and so it stands to reason that Joseph would have family in town with whom they would stay. It’s very unlikely that Mary would go into labor just as they are pulling into town with Joseph pounding on doors asking if there happens to be any room. That’s great for creating tension and drama in a movie, but it isn’t very historically or biblically accurate. Our protagonists would have left with plenty of time to make the journey to get into town and most likely stayed with Joseph’s family in Bethlehem…in a house. How heartless do we think the people of Bethlehem are that they’re going to tell a pregnant woman about to give birth, “Sorry, we’re a little crowded in here, you’ll have to stay in the barn.”?
Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem after a long journey and were most likely staying with family by the time Mary started labor. “But what about the whole, ‘No room in the inn,’ thing??” There are only two places in the Bible where we find the word “inn,” both in the New Testament. One place is in the parable of the Good Samaritan, where he takes the wounded man to an inn and cares for him. This word is like what we envision–more like a Motel 6, a lodge, or something. The other use is found in the Christmas story, and it’s a different word. The word there means “guest room” and this was typically an upper room in the house where newlyweds and travelers would stay so they could have a bit of privacy. It was small–just big enough to sleep in, and therefore there was no room…for Mary to have the baby, in the guest room. Notice, in the biblical account we aren’t told there was no room for them to stay in upon their arrival, we are only told that she had lay Jesus in a manger because there was no room in the “guest room.” With family around and people coming in and out to help Mary with the birth, there was not enough room so they had to bring her somewhere else.
Jesus was laid in a manger, a feeding trough. Because they couldn’t have Mary stay in the guest room, they had to move her downstairs to the large front room. This room was a larger area that opened up to a patio or porch where animals could be loaded and unloaded, then fed and bedded down. It’s like having an attached garage. Mary was moved down here so family could help, and when the baby was born, they were able to swaddle him and lay him in the hay-filled manger (feeding trough) that separated the animal’s area from the room where the people would be so he could keep warm when he wasn’t being held. All this to say, that in spite of all the movies and children’s plays we’ve seen, Jesus’ birth was not as horribly humble as it has been portrayed over the centuries in paintings and nativity scenes. In fact, his birth was extraordinarily ordinary.
The miracles were in the less obvious things. In Mary, a teenage nobody, chosen to be the mother of the Son of God through a virgin birth; in Joseph, an ordinary, poor carpenter and an honorable man who would be obedient to God and care for Mary…and raise the Son of God; in the political culture that compelled the emperor of Rome to call for a census that moved this young family to put them in the right place at the right time so that the Messiah would be born, fulfilling prophesies thousands of years old.
The awe and wonder is in the work of God behind what we see. This gives me a great encouragement! My own life can seem so subdued and ordinary. My daily grind can leave me wondering if God has forgotten I’m even here. Could God really do anything of lasting value and worth through me? Yes he can! In fact, I am convinced he has already. We want to see the miraculous for our own sake. If we are really living for the glory of God, we will be much less concerned about “what we get to see” and much more concerned with simply walking in obedience to God–no matter what it looks like to us–for His glory. How plain my life and ministry can seem, but what is God doing behind the seen? He has this amazing propensity for making the ordinary, extraordinary. Live your life for the glory of God, seek him with all your heart and in all your ways and see what He can do in, through, and around you.