Crowded, Dirty, Humble, Holy

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!

Dirty

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.

Crowded

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.

Humble

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)

Holy

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)

Star of Wonder

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light (Is. 9:2a)

We live in the twilight, in a land of uncertain shadows and pockets of night. As the partial light shifts, so do our perceptions. Our searching feet grope for the path ahead; our fumbling hands fail us; we struggle to recognize friend from foe. We need a light that will not go out.

In a world where fire was the only defense against darkness, our ancestors worshiped the stars. Those ghostly, inexplicable lights in the sky represented warmth, sight, travel, food, in short: life. To the ancients, the stars revealed signs and omens, activity in the heavenly realm which directed the earth below. Consider the tides, magnetic fields, asteroids and eclipses which show us they were not altogether wrong. And when an image was wanted to describe the brightness of an angel who fell from grace, he was likened to a star (Is. 14:12). But that so-called “son of the dawn” brought only more darkness as he tumbled to earth.

But at Christmas time we remember that God placed a brilliant star in the heavenly night to announce the coming of the Light of the world (John 8:12). That glorious star was a portent, as of a god or a god-man, the promise of a greater light to come. Very few recognized its significance and perhaps fewer still walked its rays to find the source of its secret: a baby in a manger who is called the bright, morning star (Rev. 22:16). In this case “morning star” means the sun, the brightest star in our sky, a symbol for God Himself (Ps. 84:11). He came to help us see the world as it is, to see one another in love and to illuminate His Father, the God of creation and redemption.

The Apostle Paul reminds us that even now we see only dimly. The light of God is shrouded by the clouds of our atmosphere. The broken pieces of the world refract its brilliance, creating the shadows we fear. But a day has been promised to us when the shadows shall all flee, when our confusion shall be at an end, when no fire or moon or physical sun will be needed because there will be no more darkness (Rev. 22:5). We hold in our hands the lamp of God’s word which shines its rays into the circle of our existence, but even that flame is a temporary measure.

When you watch the lights twinkle on your Christmas tree or your neighbor’s shrubbery, when you admire all the stars decorating the cards in your mailbox, when you notice that streak of glory riding high over every nativity scene this holiday season, remember that it is a flickering reminder of the true light which came into the world two thousand years ago and will come once again. Be comforted and encouraged until the day dawns and the morning star rises (2 Peter 1:19) in all its final, celestial glory.

Let us, with the humble shepherds and prescient wise men, come to Him this Christmas – and SEE.


If this time of year is difficult for you, see our help-for-the-holidays handout.

Reimagining Mary

The Nativity scene.

Do not be afraid, for you have found favor with God. (Luke 1:30)

Sweet Mary. Beatific, maternal, pale and serene, she appears quite other-worldly in our Christmas nativities. An angel proclaimed that she would be called “blessed,” and so she has been. From time to time she has even been elevated beyond her human state, a sort of demi-goddess, interceding between earth and heaven, the perfect mother of a perfect Son.

 

At the risk of shocking your sensibilities, I want to suggest a different portrait altogether. Mary is a well-known celebrity today, but she began as a nobody. Before God approached her through the Angel Gabriel, she counted for very little. She was probably an adolescent, probably poor, possibly an orphan, but we really don’t know. Like thousands of young Jewish girls of her time and place, she walked unnoticed through the world, valuable largely as an extra pair of hands. Her life was measured by her utility, and she was nothing special in that regard. Picture her in your mind as not particularly beautiful, not particularly bright, not particularly talented. Pockmarks, acne, missing teeth, a bit clumsy, too talkative, her laugh annoying, her gait ungainly, all these are possible. Perhaps it feels blasphemous to see her that way, but it is probably closer to the truth than the enhanced, marbleized and haloed versions we typically imagine. Her son, fashioned from only one set of human genes, “had no beauty that we should desire him.” (Is. 53:2)

 

Mary found inexplicable favor with God. This she was told when she received the gift of the Christ, placed inside her body by the singular action of the Holy Spirit. He approached her, chose her, implanted divinity inside her, that she might bear God’s only Son into the world. She was nothing, and then she was amazing – fertile, lovely, loved, important, meaningful, glorious and blessed – not because she stood out from the crowd but because God chose her, acted upon her and lived within her.

 

Astonishing and alarming as it may seem, this is also God’s work in you. We were born as Mary was, ordinary, broken people, chosen by God to be changed. As Christians, we now carry the Christ within our hearts as she carried Him in her womb, that we might bear God’s only Son into the world. Our mission, like Mary’s, comes through pain and struggle. It is a commission to be accepted rather than an honor to be earned. The Divine inside transforms the ordinary. No matter who or where you are, you began as nothing, but now you are amazing – fertile, lovely, loved, important, meaningful, glorious and blessed – because God chose you, acted upon you and lives within you. Do not be afraid for you have found favor with God. Rejoice, as Mary did, and bear Jesus into the world, your world, with peace and joy this Christmas.

 

My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. (Luke 1:46-48)

 


I am indebted to Pastor John Haralson of Seattle, Washington for the idea for this devotion.  https://www.graceseattle.org/resources/sermon/3268/mary-filled-with-christ