On my parent’s coffee table every Christmas sat a nativity scene. There was a wooden stable with a kind of Bavarian peaked roof. There was a cross-legged wooden manger with clean hay in it.
Baby Jesus lay dressed in swaddling clothes of white and gold. Mary sat behind the manger in white and blue, with a beautiful, porcelain face. Joseph stood beside her, looking down on them. There was an angel on the roof, a female one (ever notice how angels look like Barbie dolls with wings?) The shepherds were smooth shaven, in earth-toned robes, always carrying a sheep on their back. The Wise Men stood there in fancy dress. There were sheep, cows and camels peacefully resting nearby. Everyone, even the animals, looked adoringly at the Child. It was a domestic scene, the perfect family.
I was grown before I realized that it was wrong in almost every aspect. The stable wasn’t a stable. It was a cave underneath the inn. The manger wasn’t wood. It was probably stone. Animals don’t stay still in their stalls. They snort, snuffle, and generally get in the way. Instead of friendly beasts, think fleas and lice. The shepherds were probably Arabs, not Jewish, and they definitely were not clean. The wise men didn’t even arrive until two years later.
The Nativity may have been a miracle, but for Mary and Joseph it was a mess. They had no help. If something went wrong with the delivery, was there even a midwife there to help? Joseph was a carpenter, not a doctor, so how was he supposed to help deliver a baby?
Mary didn’t look fresh and clean. After all, she just had a baby! Childbirth is a messy business. I’ve seen a lot of women after they had just given birth, and not one of them looked as fresh as Mary. She had just been through fourteen to twenty-four hours of hard labor and pain. As far as that carol that says, “The Little Lord Jesus no crying he makes”—have you ever seen a baby that never cried? The Bible never suggests that Jesus didn’t cry.
There is one thing that the Christmas scene gets right—the most important thing. The Son of God was born and changed the world forever.
We’ve sanitized that scene in our minds, and in doing so we’ve made it into something that it wasn’t. Jesus wasn’t born into a perfect world or a perfect family. Jesus was born into a world like ours—where people get lost and run out of money, where travel arrangements get messed up, where there is noise and desecration, and strangers drop by unexpectedly and become a burden on us. He was born into a world where people get sick and die, and we can’t always know which will happen. He was born into a world where people can be cruel. Herod, callous and unfeeling like that innkeeper, or late, like the Wise Men, or cold and tired like Joseph and Mary. He was born to experience all these things—poverty, homelessness, bigotry, and the shame, not because we deserve it, but because we are born into this world.
This is a messy world. For a time, His parents were refugees in Egypt. The king tried to kill them. When they finally returned home, they tried to reestablish their lives after two years absence. Joseph seemed to have died early, so Mary knew the frustrations of raising kids by herself. Jesus and his brothers did not get along. Later in life, they tried to have Him committed as a lunatic. Jesus knew how hard it was to work as a tradesman. He knew the frustration of taking on a big job for a rich man, and have him make up an excuse to not pay. He knew about paying taxes. The Roman tax code changed about every other day, and you were expected to keep current on it or be cheated by the tax man. He knew what it was like to work all day on a piece of furniture, only to have it break on you.
Whenever he preached, he was misunderstood. Wherever he went, people wanted to argue with Him. Some thought that he had a demon. Jesus had a successful ministry, but it melted away by the time he was crucified. As his followers increased his critics decreased, until the world killed Him.
None of this would have happened in a perfect world. In a perfect world, the good are rewarded, the wicked are punished, children never grow up hungry, and parents never fight. This isn’t our world.
Jesus was crucified, because perfect God met Imperfect humanity, and people just couldn’t stand it.
But even so, Jesus loved this imperfect world. He loved even the people who crucified Him. He loved the cheaters, the liars, the crooks, the proud, the vain and the pompous. He loved the gossips and drunkards and prostitutes. He loved the kings and beggars. He loved them, not because of their sin, but in spite of their sins. John 3: 16 says,
“For God so loved the world that he gave His son.”
Jesus chose to live in this messy world, so that he could bring this messy world something better.
The cross was messier than the manger. The cross was a place of shame, of injustice, of blood and pain. It was the worst death the world could give Him. But He loved us, even from the cross.
If you could ask Jesus if He would do it again, I believe he would answer “yes”. To see people change was worth it. To follow the will of his father was worth it.
What about you? None of you will have a perfect Christmas. You may not get everything you want. You’ll fight with relatives. You’ll be rushed and hurried. You may even get sick. You have to pay the bills. But in the midst of all this imperfection, the perfect still exists. The perfect is the love of God. Christmas is not perfect, but it reminds us of the one pure and perfect thing that ever came into this messy world.