Every year, we encounter Nativity scenes...all set up on someone's lawn, staged in familiar poses, pink and blue, plastic and lights. Or we see a Living Nativity...we feel sorry for the folks who are participating in it, knowing how cold we are in our parkas and how cold they must be in their cotton costumes. Or we receive Christmas cards, with endless variations on the "Mary holding the Baby/Joseph hovering nearby/shepherds in awe/Wise Men with gifts" theme.
We encounter this seasonal scene so often, is it possible that it loses its wondrous quality? Do we smile rather than fall on our knees in utter gratitude for the majesty and message this scene so softly delivers? Have we ceased to hear the angels sing, drowned out in the noise of our modern age?
Come, stand with me. Let's look into the manger with eyes willing to see anew this familiar picture. It is indeed a holy night. But: Everyone who journeys to this manger has something that will challenge them. They will have to give something up…but, oh! on that very night…they will have something to gain!
THE THREE WISE MEN...
They give up the safety of their homeland, traveling from Persia to Israel. This is a risky journey. They carry valuable items for the newborn King. They have only a star to follow. What did their compatriots think as they load up and head out? These men have a reputation. These are men of books, stars, and maps. What if they are wrong? They are traveling to a foreign land…Will they be accepted by the people of that land? Will they arrive on the appointed day and time? Will they be able to get in close to the action? They are not Jewish. They are bright guys…wise men… possessing a lot of head knowledge…But they must follow that star! Despite the danger to self and reputation, they must go. Yes, there is a lot to lose, but look at what they will gain!
The hardest journey for these men will be only a distance of 14 inches--from their heads to their hearts. They fall down on their knees once they come near to the Baby King. Any doubts they carry with them are cast into the light coming from His precious face. The very gifts that made their trip so dangerous are now placed at His side. Each gift reflects this Child:
Gold: It is precious beyond measure, and must be burned in fire to purify it. He is precious beyond measure and His excruciating death will purify us from our sins.
Frankincense: It is burned to release a sweet fragrance. His death will release the sweet fragrance of the penalty paid, to be inhaled by all those who believe.
Myrrh: It is an aromatic resin with a slightly bitter taste. It is used for embalming but also for healing. His death will be bitter but His Resurrection will be the healing of our souls.
These men give gifts and yet now into their empty hands are given the greatest gift of all: They look upon the face of God. Their hearts now know God.
They give up watching their sheep momentarily. That is their job, their responsibility. They are in the outskirts of town. They are low in status but they will break through that and go into town, emboldened by the message they hear. They risked scorn and disapproval--Do angels really sing praises out where people like you may hear them? Oh, come on!
But here they come--nothing will stop this excited band of men, whose ears still ring with the heavenly chorus. Their gain? They are going into the manger to witness this Baby. They are trusting God to watch their sheep. He is the God of the big things--like this News and the voices of praising angels! He is also the God of the little things--keeping the flock together while the shepherds seek and find His newborn Son.
A room for an expecting mother? No can do! The town and the inn are so crowded. He is frantically busy. Yet, wait a minute. He is willing to direct the desperate couple to a cave where it is quiet and out of the wind. He takes a moment to look into the eyes of this soon-to-be father and remembers the day when his son entered the earth. He is willing to take extra moments to direct the couple to the cave, so that they will not be disturbed.
He was willing to help, even if he couldn't do something monumental. A small kindly offered favor drew a mighty blessing from the Most High.
He had to give up his fear or at least, not allow it to paralyze him. Has Mary betrayed him? Is she lying to him? He is wounded by the possibility of her infidelity…doubt, anger, consternation, and hurt all swirl in his heart, wounding him over and over. As a craftsman, whose reputation in the community keeps his trade alive, will it be done in by whispering? What will others think? He feels such shame for Mary and his hearts seizes up when he ponders the consequence of her actions: death. All these questions and more challenge him to the very marrow of his bones.
Yet, he will hear the voice of God as he sleeps and will rise out of his slumber a determined man--he will provide for Mary. He will gain a walk...not just any walk, but one beside the Son of God. He will raise the Boy, teach him to hew wood, and to cut stone. Someday this very Child will hang from a wooden cross and lie behind a large stone. But Death will not hold Him for long. Joseph cannot see what the future holds, but he knows Who holds the future.
She gives up her reputation. She will give up peace. Her sense of what is normal will be replaced with a fear of husband’s distrust or reprisal, of public humiliation, of even death.
But she will gain the smile of God. She will nourish the Son of God Who will someday nourish her. She will comfort Him when He cries and she will comforted by Him, even as He hangs on a cross and gives her a new son to care for her. She will treasure much in her heart, to sustain her in the days when she cannot understand Him, and when she must stand beneath His cross. But her greatest treasure will be when she beholds Him once more: glorified and radiant on that future Sunday morning.
Is that the end of story? Has the gentle Christmas card scene prevailed? No. The three Wise Men will leave Bethlehem, hearing of the butchery by King Herod. They will hear of the order to slaughter all male children under the age of two to root out this future King. In their grief, they will cling to the promise of "Peace on earth, good will to men."
Joseph and Mary will leave to Egypt, far away from everyone, to avoid the coming slaughter. It is not their Lamb's time yet. They will long to return home someday. In the future, when they hear of Herod's death, their joy will turn once again to fear as they learn of Herod's son on the throne. They must go and settle in yet another village. Do they ever stop looking over their shoulders while Jesus is small? Will evil men come for Him to take Him to His death? Not for now. But someday, He will go willingly. His cross is our gain.
IF YOU DOUBT THAT GOD LOVES THE WORLD, LOOK INSIDE THE MANGER.
IF YOU DOUBT THAT GOD LOVES YOU, LOOK AT THE CROSS.