We know so little about Jesus’ birth. While it has been the subject of billions of dramatizations and endless speculations, the historian Luke gives it all of one sentence: “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
It is almost frustrating, isn’t it? If I had been writing the story of Jesus’ life, I would have written paragraphs and pages. I would have explained why Mary was traveling with Joseph to begin with, why no one in Bethlehem welcomed them into their home, why there was no better place for them to stay than a barn, who was with them when that baby was born, and so much else. I would have filled out all of those details and removed all of the speculation.
But you know what? I probably would have drowned the story in detail. We see it often in the Bible: God does not give us all the details we want, but he always gives us the details we need.
When it comes to the birth of Jesus, we get all the details we need to understand one thing with the utmost clarity: Jesus comes as the least. Luke opens this part of his account of Jesus’ life with the name of Caesar Augustus, the mighty emperor, the man who can speak a word and make millions of people do his bidding. With a word he can force them to travel significant distances to do something as simple as register for taxation. This is Caesar the strong, Caesar the proud, Caesar the powerful. He is the greatest emperor of the greatest Empire, and the mightiest man on the planet.
And then Luke switches his attention to a little baby, born in the most ignominious circumstances. Born to a virgin, born away from home, born in a barn, laid to rest in a feed trough. The contrast is powerful and undeniable.
We would imagine, of course, that the Messiah would be born high, a son of great privilege. We would expect that he would be born in circumstances more befitting a king. He should have been born to royalty, not to peasants, he should have been born in a palace, not a barn, he should have been born surrounded by the finest doctors who would have safely ushered him into the world.
But no. Everyone in town turns away his parents. They have nowhere else to go, so he is born in a barn and is laid to rest in a feeding trough.
Why? Because God will teach us something through Jesus. He will teach us that we see this world completely backwards. He will teach us that the way to be great in God’s eyes is to be nothing in the world’s eyes. He will teach us that the way to exaltation is through humiliation, that the way to go high is to go low. And he will teach it first and best through his very own Son, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” He came as the least, and he came for the least.
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