Chapter 1

What's Wrong with This Picture?

Every Christmas, in our living room, we put out our manger scene—a small, rustic-looking stall, crude but charming, busy with sheep, shepherds, camels, wise men, and two babes in the manger. (The second baby, put there by our youngest child, is from another long-lost set.)

When Dad connects the lights, and Mom adds some appropriate seasonal foliage to cover the top of the stable, it provides all of us a warm, wonderful holiday experience.

The problem is that I’ve gazed upon this manger scene so long that I’ve become numb to it. I’ve heard the story so often that I’ve stopped thinking about it. But when I do think about it, I realize that this scene isn’t normal. And God doesn’t want me to view it as pretty and quaint. He wants me to be appalled, even bewildered and confused; because when I am, I have to think about the scene rather than ignore it. What happened at the manger wasn’t designed to put me in “the holiday mood.” It was intended to shake me to the roots of my soul.

Christmas is the day we celebrate the entrance of the eternal, omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent, all-righteous, all-holy, and glorious God into our world. When I stop and consider this fact and then look at that scene of the baby Jesus in the manger, I scratch my head and say, “What’s wrong with this picture?”

Four words in the story of the first Christmas should challenge my mind, not anesthetize it. “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (luke 2:12, emphasis added). The God of the ages, too glorious to look upon, is lying in a feed trough. The God before whom Moses and Isaiah fell down on their faces, and from whom the cherubim hide their faces, is in a filthy stable. If this story were merely myth, we could smile warmly and safely ignore it. But this isn’t myth. It is fact.

Lying in a manger. These four glorious words describe far more than the place where baby Jesus was laid. Here is a message from God, a parable in four words, a testament in wood and straw that contains more truth than would fit in a volume of books.

A Sign for the Shepherds

At the time of the census decreed by Caesar Augustus, which demanded that all the citizens of the entire Roman Empire had to return to their hometowns to register, Bethlehem must have been swollen with people. The streets must have been congested, the homes crowded with relatives, and the inns bursting at the seams. In these circumstances, how would a group of shepherds find the child they were seeking? There could have been mothers and babies galore. Which one was the right one?

All the babies were wrapped in some kind of cloths, so that didn’t narrow it down. The sign for the shepherds was that the baby would be lying in a manger. Even in that ancient time and place, a stable for a birthing room and a manger for a crib would have been unusual. This scene was strange, and it was intended to be.

Imagine the shepherds entering Bethlehem, searching for the manger, eagerly listening in the night for the sounds of a crying baby to guide them. Finally their faithfulness was rewarded. They found the promised Savior, Christ the Lord, in the form of “a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Now the shepherds knew without doubt that God had been leading them. The manger was their sign. Without it they had no compass and no hope. The baby in the manger was the Great Shepherd who led these sinful men to a carpenter and his young wife, and, ultimately, to Himself.

The scene—father, mother, baby, and manger—was a promised sign to the shepherds, confirmation that they were not on a fool’s errand. The shepherd’s themselves were a sign too, a billboard for the Christ child’s earthly parents. Their appearance provided a sense of peace and rightness to the bewildering turn of events of giving birth to this miraculous child in such unmiraculous surroundings.

A Confirmation for Mary and Joseph

What we celebrate each year may have been a terrible ordeal for Mary and Joseph. Was this what Mary envisioned when Elizabeth, her friend and relative, had prophesied that she would be blessed and honored (luke 1:42)? Mary had great faith, but was it challenged when she entered that stable, heavy with child and exhausted from the long journey from Nazareth?

Somehow I doubt that this young woman found her circumstances inspiring. When her labor pains began, with no midwife to help her, when she and Joseph were alone in a stable “celebrating” the arrival of the heavenly child, promised through great miracles and dreams, did they ever ask themselves, “What’s wrong with this picture, God?”

Then the shepherds arrived, sharing their angelic vision and the all-important sign they had been given—a sign to the world—a baby lying in a manger. Not in a palace or an ornately decorated crib befitting the Son of God. Not in a cozy room with proper comforts for a woman in labor, but in a cold stable. And yet the baby was right where He was supposed to be—lying in a manger. When they saw these rugged worshipers, did Mary and Joseph sigh in relief? Did the joy of confirmation flood their souls, washing away any doubt that might have accumulated in their hearts?

I think it did. The heavenly pronouncement from the shepherds was an additional confirmation that their present circumstances were holy to God. There had been no divine mistakes. This was precisely the place God chose to showcase His entrance into our world, wrapped up so tight in swaddling cloths that He couldn’t even move.

This grand entrance did not fit His person or His glory. But in it, we begin to see glimmers of His purpose.

No Room for God in the World He Had Made

The eternal God lying helplessly in a manger is an object lesson impossible to ignore. This scene puzzles the critics, and rightly so. It is not uncommon to hear critics of Christianity speak of the wrathful, vengeful, judgmental God of the Old Testament. But would such a God suffer Himself to be disgraced by lying helplessly in a manger? No, the manger scene reveals as much about the mercy and love of God as do any of His words or acts of compassion.

“There was no room for them in the inn.” Those familiar words ring out across the centuries. Yet in truth, there was no room for Him anywhere. And this scene, forever frozen in time, reminds us not only of His character but also of ours. The Creator returned to a decidedly hostile world, not with divine wrath prepared to destroy all that would treat Him with contempt, but in divine mercy prepared to endure all that we could throw at Him. Could God’s mercy and love toward our hostile and rebellious world have been any clearer than when He was found lying in a manger?

When we are having difficulty conjuring up an appropriate Christmas spirit, we need only picture the God of eternity enduring that filthy and incredibly humiliating setting. It was His love for us that put Him in that manger. And as we picture Him lying in a manger we see something we’d never have understood otherwise.

So We Could Understand

In our world, important people tend to associate with other important people; they seek each other out. And being seen with the right people in the right places can take you far. So it is with no little confusion that we view God humbling himself so drastically before us. Yes, us. You and me. We were the reason He left His glory. We’ll never really understand it, not completely anyway. We know what He did, but for the life of us we can’t figure out why.

When someone greater than us humbles himself before us in some way, it is a powerful gesture. We are amazed and moved that someone of such stature and status would do such a thing. When someone gives us a gift we don’t expect or deserve, we are touched. So when I think about God in a manger, I am amazed, touched, and, above all, grateful.

God humbled himself in a way that a shepherd, or a child, or a tax-gatherer, or a fisherman, or a woman with a checkered past, or a self-righteous Pharisee, or even I would understand. While lying in a manger, God was sending a message that tells us what we desperately need to know about Him.

Anyone Could Approach Him

The God-Child was announcing in a dramatic way that He had come to be available, to be accessible. He hadn’t come to isolate Himself, or to hobnob with only the important people. He had come to mingle with all, to receive them with open arms and put Himself at their disposal. All this He conveyed by simply being found lying in a manger!

A common feeding trough for beasts of burden hosted the God-Child Himself. “Why?” we ask ourselves. Why indeed! For us! God humbled Himself before us so that we would realize that there was nothing He wouldn’t do to bring us into relationship with Him.

What’s wrong with this picture? Not a thing! Because the primitive scene of our God lying in a manger reminds us of this precious truth: We’re no longer alone.