Have you ever seen a live nativity? Instead of plastic figures of shepherds and wise men, a live nativity scene has actors in costume, and for an hour or two each evening you can drive by and see them. The shepherds bow and worship, the magi present their gifts, perhaps Mary rocks her baby in her arms, or else Mary and Joseph simply admire him. It’s unlikely, even at a live nativity, that they have an actual newborn present. The “baby Jesus” might be a toddler, or even an infant, but you wouldn’t want to keep a real baby out in the cold for very long. Even a live nativity scene will often use a doll, or even just pretend there is a babe wrapped up in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger.
Contrast that scene with the night Jesus was born.
Joseph and Mary had to travel because of the census that was being taken. The Bible describes Mary as being “great with child.” She traveled in that condition with her husband (betrothed was a much stronger relationship than engaged) to Bethlehem. We would probably say she was “very pregnant” and in any terms Bethlehem was the middle of nowhere. Try to get the plastic figures and the children in bath robes out of your mind for a moment. These were real people. Mary was probably 13 or 14 years old, and although she and Joseph had been visited by the angel and believed, we have no idea what the reaction of their families was like. Even if people kept their comments to themselves, there were likely many judgmental looks cast their way. Bethlehem was little more than a village, so there were probably few rooms at the inn to begin with. They were far from home, sleeping with animals, exposed to the elements, and Mary is in labor. Even in ideal conditions they would have had no medical instruments, anesthesia or even a doctor present. Now imagine having your baby surrounded by barnyard animals.
Of course Joseph and Mary were not your typical first time parents. Read the Magnificat in the Gospel of Luke. We already know that Joseph was a righteous man and that Mary was favored by God among women. Both had been visited by an angel, and they traveled to Bethlehem full of faith in God. Yes, that was a real baby wrapped in cloth and laid in the manger that night. But he was far from typical as well. Joseph had been instructed to name him Jesus, “for he will save the people from their sins.” The shepherds were sent to the city to find a “Savior, Christ the Lord.” The sky was filled with the heavenly host, and a bright star appeared to lead the wise men from a far. The birth of any child is a miracle; but this was Emmanuel, God with us.
The manger was more than an empty bed of straw. Jesus is no mere plastic doll, and for that matter no mere human being. Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit of God, and is no less than incarnate deity. Colossians 1 describes him as the image of the invisible God. Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus is God. “For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” God was in that manger. Jesus is more than a prophet, more than a Jewish rabbi. He is neither a guru nor a hippie. Jesus didn’t go around muttering pithy sayings, or being nice to every person he met like some first century Mr. Rogers. He is Emmanuel, God with us, Son of God, Son of Man, first born of all creation, maker of heaven and earth. One day the stars will bow down to him as he sits on his throne as King of kings and Lord of lords. But 2,000 years ago his mother Mary wrapped him in rags and laid him on a bed of straw in a animal’s feed trough. God drew near to mankind like never before, and for 33 years walked the face of the earth. The angels proclaimed Glory to God in the highest, unnoticed by most of the world. The wise men brought precious and valuable gifts. But the greatest gift was rocked to sleep in Mary’s arms.
Look in the manger again. The next time you open a Christmas card or see a nativity set, think about it for a minute. This is not a children’s bedtime story or just another fairy tale. God is in the manger.