Can I admit Bethlehem has been my least favorite place to visit in Israel? It’s dirty and run by the Palestinian Authority. It didn’t feel safe.
Standing in Bethlehem the first time, I couldn’t help but think there had to be a hundred of better places for the Messiah to have been born.
And as a father, I cannot help but feel Joseph had similar feelings that night so long ago despite the angelic assurances he had received months earlier. His pregnant young bride was ready to pop (as my wife’s OB/GYN so delicately described the last days of pregnancy). Joseph and Mary were far from home, in a manger cut into the side of a hill. With one glance, he knew his son’s first cradle would be a trough carved from stone. Braying donkeys would announce the birth.
While perhaps a “little town,” Bethlehem was hardly inconsequential. It is mentioned more than 50 times in the Bible, mostly in the Old Testament. Everyone who cared to know, knew it is where the Messiah was prophesied to enter the world. But in a manger?
We have sanitized the scene; there are no animal droppings, no flies, no dirt and grime. At Christmas we focus on idyllic images of a young mother receiving gifts from three wise men, not a blood bath in the streets of Bethlehem ordered by a jealous king clinging to power. We imagine a sweet babe in swaddling clothes, not that child growing up to be horribly murdered on a cross.
We sanitize His arrival to feel better about ourselves. After all, Consumermas cannot be bothered by the recognition of our deep-rooted sin and desperate need for a savior.
In the moral economy of the Holy God, Jesus came not as He deserved but as we needed him.
He was born next to excrement, because so are our attempted good works in the eyes of God, to borrow from the Apostle Paul. Jesus had to arrive in the dingy streets of the overcrowded Bethlehem. He had to be a stranger in a strange land. He had to walk on rough ground. He had to stand in for you, for me, for those who would believe in Him.
For God and sinners to be reconciled, Jesus had to live sinlessly through the worst of experiences so He could be the perfect sacrifice. Jesus didn’t deserve to be born in a Bethlehem manger any more than we deserve the mercy He so lovingly offered at the cross.
George Whitfield’s glorious hymn gets it just right:
Hail the heaven-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Sun of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth,
born to give us second birth.