Jesus was born in a crowded, dirty place, forced by a clueless landlord to compete for space with transient visitors, stinking muck and the priorities of a world which put money and status above compassion. Perhaps you think I am talking about the stable in Bethlehem, but I am not. Back in the late winter of 1977, Jesus was born in the chaotic stench of my unbelieving heart. Each time He is born anew to someone here in this world, the inn at Bethlehem comes to life again.
It was a humble spot, fit for the poorest travelers, including Mary and Joseph who had expected to find a place there. And on that night, it was quite overwhelmed by the influx of strangers compelled to register for the Roman census. All the corridors and corners were already occupied. The floor by the hearth was taken. The kitchen maid’s grubby pallet likewise. No one puts a young woman in labor into the stable unless there is literally no other option. Donkeys, oxen and camels (unclean in Jewish law) jostled together, snorting, braying, stinking, eating and defecating in an open-air shed, over capacity.
How closely this resembles the situation of the human heart when Jesus enters!
We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. (Is. 64:6) Jesus would never have come at all if our hearts weren’t uncleanable except by Him. Every corner is covered with the filth of sin and selfishness. The vilest murder is not so much worse than a gift to charity when done without any regard for God. When Jesus first comes to us, adrift in our confusion, He finds a heart that knows no proper reason for being in the world, a heart which lives for something other than its created purpose, a heart which commits cosmic treason with every, bloody beat.
The human mind is, so to speak, a perpetual forge of idols. (John Calvin) The heart where Jesus is absent is home to a changing array of guests in an unsuccessful attempt to get its own deepest needs met. It lives for itself: the grumpy, clueless landlord who determines which guests take the best rooms. And in those rooms we put our favorites: self-righteousness, money, control, affirmation, sexuality, even good things like health, education or friendships. Sanctification is the life-long process of casting out all the strangers who have lodged above the Lord. Whatever special comfort you require for your happiness might be in danger of competing with Christ for your heart even now.
The stable where Jesus was born was humble and ordinary. Less than ordinary, really. No one would have thought to look for a king inside. If God had not pointed it out to a select few, Jesus’s birth would have been effectively hidden by the meanness of its location. If a king wouldn’t be interested in that stable, why would God? Some of us feel that way about our lives, too. I am no one important, nothing special, too defective to notice. But our God delights in choosing the weak things, the poor things, coming in ordinary moments to ordinary people. In fact, He comes only to those who know they are powerless. “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Cor. 12:9)
Would you have wanted to be anyplace other than that dirty, crowded stable in Bethlehem when Jesus was born? Imagine seeing the Savior of the World as He first appeared, a newborn baby, praised by angels, swaddled in cloths and lying in a manger. No, there was nowhere more glorious than that hidden, humble stage which was avoided by all except one couple in extremity. The unclean became worthy. What was crowded became still. The ordinary was made holy. And, yes, I am still talking about my heart and yours. He chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. (Eph. 1:4) When God enters, the vilest, wretched place becomes holy ground. You become holy ground: the intersection of earth and Heaven, a haven where miracles occur, a creche where God breathes and a cathedral where hope is born again.
And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us, and we saw His glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1:14)