Interim Pastor Doug Marshall
Thought for Meditation:
Despite our efforts to keep him out, God intrudes. The life of Jesus is bracketed by two impossibilities: a virgin's womb and an empty tomb. Jesus entered our world through a door marked "No Entrance" and left through a door marked "No Exit."
Peter Larson, “Prism” (Jan/Feb 2001)
Dr. Ken Bailey is a Biblical scholar, lives up in New Wilmington, but he spent most of his career in the Middle East. He approaches the Bible from a Middle Eastern perspective. He knows how the people live there which gives him insights about the biblical stories. About thirty years ago he wrote an article that showed how we have many misconceptions about Christmas, simply because we don’t know the culture.
The traditional story, that we all know, is that Joseph and Mary traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mary was pregnant. On December 24th they saw the sign, "Bethlehem; elevation 59’ and Mary started feeling her first labor pains. They went to the local Motel 6 but it was full. The innkeeper told them that they could stay in the barn, which is where Jesus was born. It was cold out, but the barn gave them some protection from the winter weather. There was no bed in the barn so they put Jesus in the manger. Shepherds came from the fields to see Jesus. The next day three wise men came and brought Jesus gifts. And they lived happily ever after. Unfortunately, that isn't quite the picture we find in the Bible.
For example, tradition says there were three wise men. That story is in Matthew’s gospel, yet it never says there were three wise men. There were three gifts – gold, frankincense and myrrh. But there may have been three or twenty three wise men.
Another misconception is about the date of Jesus birth. We usually think of it happening on a cold winter’s night at the end of December. Yet Luke tells us that the shepherds were in the field. In the winter the shepherds always brought their sheep back into the village and stayed in their own homes. It was only in the summer months that shepherds stayed in the fields. Early Christians didn’t even celebrate Christmas. It wasn’t until the 4th century that Christmas was celebrated in December. Since we have celebrated Christmas in December for 1600 years we assume that Jesus was born in the winter.
We usually think that Jesus was born the night they arrived, but the wording Luke uses seems to imply that they may have been there several days, maybe even weeks or months, before Jesus was born. If Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem for a couple of days and if they couldn’t find a better place to stay than in a barn, Luke was trying to show us that Joseph was an incompetent husband and the people of Bethlehem are cold-hearted. Hospitality is part of the Middle-Eastern culture. Everyone is expected to welcome strangers and people in need. Bethlehem was Joseph’s home town. He had family there. That is why he had to go back for the census. As a son of the village everyone would have opened their home to him, especially since Mary was pregnant.
Probably the biggest misconception we have has to do with the idea that Jesus was “laid in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7). To understand that we need to know what a typical Palestinian home was like. Most of them were one room homes. At one end was a small lower level. This was the area where the animals stayed at night. The cattle, the sheep, the chickens and any other animals would probably sleep in this area. During the day they would be taken outside into a courtyard, or into the field.
About four feet up from this lower level was a larger main room. This was the family room. The family would cook, eat, sleep and live in this room. There were steps from the lower level to the upper level.
Between the lower level and the upper level there was a wall. There would be a hole dug in that wall. The hole was used to store hay for the animals. That hole was called the manger. On top of the roof of the home there was a guest room for any company that would come. The Greek word for this guest room is kataluma (kataluma). Do you remember the story of the Last Supper? Jesus told two of the disciples to follow the man carrying a jar of water. When they got to the house they were to ask where the guest room was, the kataluma. That was where Jesus and his disciples were going to celebrate the Passover. The word for inn that Luke uses in verse 7 of our passage is kataluma. The inn was the guest room of a home, not a motel. 2000 years ago they didn’t have Motel 6 or Holiday Inn.
Think of the story this way. Mary and Joseph arrive in Bethlehem and stayed in the home of family members. After several days or weeks, Mary gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him in bands of cloth, which was what they did with babies, and then laid him in the manger. Someone listening to the story would think, “The manger! They must be in the family room. Why aren’t they in the guest room?” Luke explains, “There was no place for them in the guest room. It was full.”
This is a different picture than the one most of us are used to. Ken Bailey’s article came out in January of 1988. The editors said that it came out too late to spoil any Christmas sermons, but since then I’ve had a hard time with typical Christmas pageants. Rather than Jesus being born in a barn, in a world that did not welcome him, Luke paints a picture in which Jesus was born in a simple home, surrounded by family and friends. Here is the beauty of this image – Jesus is someone we can relate to. He is like us.
Our world is filled with a variety of people, of all different types. However, if you look at the news, the only people who seem to matter are the celebrities; politicians, entertainers, sports stars. These celebrities are the ones who are important. They are the ones who make a difference in the world. They are the ones we are to try to emulate. I’m not putting any of these celebrities down, but to be honest, I don’t feel connected to them. I have more in common with ordinary, middle-class people. If Jesus had been born into a rich, aristocratic family it would have been difficult for common people to relate to him. We would probably wonder if we were good enough, rich enough, or talented enough to have a relationship with him. We would probably never quite feel worthy enough for him.
In the same way, if Jesus was born into a poor and destitute family it would be hard to relate to him. I know what a barn is, but I’ve never had to sleep in one. I’ve never been homeless. Maybe some of you have experienced poverty but right now most of us are not poor, even by the standards of the United States, much less compared to the rest of the world. It is hard to relate to a Jesus who was so poor and alone in the world.
Luke’s message is that Jesus isn’t part of the elite, upper crust, who are so far above us that we will never be able to connect with him. Neither is Jesus so far below us that we can’t relate to him. Jesus was born into a simple home, surrounded by family and friends. We can be connected to Jesus because he is one of us. Jesus is like us.
The cover article for the December National Geographic is about Mary, the mother of Jesus. Mary is said to be “the most powerful woman in the world.” Over the centuries she has had more influence than any other woman. The article made an interesting statement. It said that the reason she is so popular is that she is more accessible than God or even Jesus.
We long to be connected to God, to something bigger than we are. But for many people God is so far out there, transcendent and omnipotent that normal people can’t relate to him. God is distant, unapproachable and unknown. There is no personal relationship with God. The good news of Christmas is that in Jesus Christ we learn that God is like us. He is not so rich and mighty that we can’t reach him. He’s not so poor and lowly that we can’t relate to him. He is one of us.
Jesus is not an outsider whose demands and expectations are unrealistic and unattainable. He is one of us and therefore he has the right to demand perfect obedience and complete surrender. We can’t write off the commands of Jesus as irrelevant because he doesn’t know what our lives are like. Jesus knows the struggles and pain of life. He knows the joy and boredom of life. And he calls us to commit our lives completely to him.
God’s commands are not beyond us, nor below us. Neither is God’s love beyond our reach. Luke’s message to us is that in Jesus Christ our transcendent and all-powerful God is intimately and personally involved in our lives. God, the creator of the universe and the Lord of all creation, has become one of us. God wants a personal relationship with us. That is why God came as a little baby, born in a simple peasant home, surrounded by people who are just like us.
Sometime during this Christmas season, I invite you to reflect on your image of God and your image of Jesus. Realize that in Jesus God has become just like us. Jesus is one of us and wants a personal relationship with you.