In the year 1223, a year before he died, Francis of Assisi visited the town of Greccio, Italy. According to his first biographer, Thomas of Celano, “The humility of the incarnation and the love of the passion so occupied his memory that he scarcely wished to think of anything else.” It was Christmas, and Francis called upon a nobleman in the area and said, “I want to do something that will recall the memory of that child who was born in Bethlehem, to see with bodily eyes the inconveniences of his infancy, how he lay in the manger, and how the ox and ass stood by.” And so they prepared a manger, and filled it with hay, and brought in animals, and put a baby in the manger, and everyone stood around in the darkness with torches and candles, while Francis sang the Gospel story.
That was the first nativity scene, and it was an idea that caught on quickly, and spread.
Today, our nativity scenes have come a long way from the rude crib erected by Francis. We have inflatable cartoon figures on front lawns. A webpage devoted to weird Nativity scenes shows some made from bacon and spam. Some feature rubber ducks, or dogs, dressed as the characters in the story. Some include Santa Claus. Some are set in the Wild West, with cowboys, others in the frozen North, with Eskimos. Some show the characters as white, some as Asian, some as African-American.
Here’s one we have. It’s soft. It’s cute. It’s something a baby can play with. It is safe.
How different from the actual scene.
I’m going to focus only on Matthew’s account this morning. There are no shepherds. There are no angels singing in the sky. There isn’t even a manger. Jesus is born according to the promise. He is born in Bethlehem. And when he is born, a star is scene by magi in the East. Not kings. The word “magi” originally meant priests of the Zoroastrian religion, from Persia, what is now Iran.
The idea that they were kings comes from Christians reading the story in light of Isaiah 60, and Psalm 72, which speak of kings coming to his light, and presenting gifts of gold and frankincense.
But let us stick only with what Matthew tells us. Chapter 2, starting with verse 1:
Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.
According to verse 16, by the time they got to Bethlehem two years had passed. They had traveled from 500 to 1000 miles or more—as the crow flies across the desert. Had they taken the better route, up the Euphrates River into Syria, and then South through Lebanon, it would have been another 300 or more miles. We don’t know exactly, because we aren’t told these things. But this is clear—they didn’t get there the night Jesus was born. They weren’t there when the shepherds described by Luke were there. Substantial time had passed. In verse 11, Jesus is called a παιδίον, a child, not βρέφος, an infant, as in Luke. And the magi find him in a house with his parents—not a stable—and there they present their gifts.
And there’s another figure in the story. Herod the Great. Let’s say a little about him. He wasn’t ethnically Jewish, but was from Idumea, or Edom, and had converted to the Jewish faith. His father was an official of the Hasmonean kings, and Herod, at 25, had been named governor of Galilee. He connived and plotted with the Romans, got the Roman Senate to name him King, and he ruled as a Roman puppet for 37 years. He was brutal toward his people, toward religious leaders, and his own family, having a number of them executed. He lived a lavish lifestyle, built magnificent palaces, and rebuilt the temple.
And the Biblical record and history agree that he was paranoid.
And so, verse 3, “When Herod the king had heard these things, he was troubled.”
And he called his scholars together to find out what the prophecies of the Bible said about the Messiah. And they tell him, “Bethlehem.”
Now Herod, armed with this information, summons the magi. And he asks them when they saw the star. And then, verse 8: “And he sent them to Bethlehem, and said, Go and search diligently for the young child; and when ye have found him, bring me word again, that I may come and worship him also.”
How did they know to go to Bethlehem? Herod told them. They had seen the star in the East, they knew to go to Israel, but they didn’t know where. Herod’s scholars searched the Bible, and from the Bible they knew the place had to be Bethlehem. And Herod sends them on, pretending to be a sincere believer who would also worship him.
Verse 9: “When they had heard the king, they departed; and, lo, the star, which they saw in the east, went before them, till it came and stood over where the young child was. When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceeding great joy.”
Now the star reappears! And it leads them the final five miles south to Bethlehem.
They present their gifts. There is no record of their conversation. It doesn’t say how long they stayed. But verse 12: “being warned of God in a dream that they should not return to Herod, they departed into their own country another way.”
And Joseph also has a dream. An angel appears and says, “Arise, and take the young child and his mother, and flee into Egypt, and be thou there until I bring thee word: for Herod will seek the young child to destroy him.” And the family leaves in the middle of the night and flees.
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by Jeremiah the prophet, saying, “In Rama was there a voice heard, lamentation, and weeping, and great mourning, Rachel weeping for her children, and would not be comforted, because they are not.”
We make the scene so adorable. We make it inviting. We long to be there.
But that’s not how it was then.
Mary and Joseph were in the stable, according to Luke, because no one wanted them. No one would make room for them. Nobody in the town cared about a pregnant woman.
Magi from the east search for him, according to Matthew, but his own people did not. They knew where to look, but they didn’t go. It was only five miles away from the palaces and temple of Jerusalem, but they couldn’t be bothered.
And the scene ends not in radiant light, or in cuddles and cuteness, but in violence and bloodshed, babies and toddlers torn from their mothers’ arms and slaughtered on the order of an insane king.
But Jesus survived by fleeing his own land.
It was as John wrote in his gospel,
“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” And, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.”
Already in infancy the prophecy of Isaiah was true: “He is despised and rejected of men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief: and we hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we esteemed him not.”
The story of Christmas at once shows the lengths to which God will go to save us and the lengths to which man will go to reject him.
God sends his son, to share our suffering.
Man uses that vulnerability to attempt to destroy him.
God sends a great gift to his own people.
But it is strangers and aliens and outcasts who receive him.
Those who stay in safe places, in the comfort of palaces and religious institutions do not receive the gift. It is given only to those who step out in faith, and go to the place where God leads them, and fall down in humility and worship him. Salvation is never found in preserving what is. It is found only into stepping out faith to claim God’s promise of what can be.
And the message of the story to us is what Jesus said to his disciples:
Then said Jesus unto his disciples, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross, and follow me. For whosoever will save his life shall lose it: and whosoever will lose his life for my sake shall find it. For what is a man profited, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul? or what shall a man give in exchange for his soul?
What are you clinging to? What is keeping you from following Christ? What beliefs do you treasure that you think you will have to abandon? What possessions or practices or habits do you hold so close that you fear letting go of them?
We are at the end of a year. 2011. Now is the time the world is making changes. Thinking of losing weight or giving up smoking, paying off debts, spending more time with family. Most will never be kept.
But Jesus asks more. Not a simple resolution to give up something trivial. He wants your whole life. He wants your very being. He calls you to die to self and follow him. He calls you to leave all behind, and go off on a journey of faith, to seek him, to bow down before him, to worship him.