Wednesday, January 22, 2014

The Babe Lying in a Manger

Life of Christ 7

          Humility. That is the word that hangs like a signboard over the advent of Jesus Christ.
          His parents were humble. By this I mean that they were not famous or wealthy; their station in life was humble. There are those who would assert this is not the case since both Joseph and Mary were descended from the line of David. That is certainly true, but David lived nearly a thousand years before the time of Christ, and he must have had many descendants in Israel after a millennia.
          One of the evidences of Joseph and Mary's humble station in life is the very facts surrounding the famous Christmas story that takes place in Luke 2.1-7. The taxation and census that called them from Nazareth to Bethlehem was a property tax. You may recall that the Old Testament instructs landed property to always remain in the family line, and, if sold, it had to be returned at the Year of Jubilee (Leviticus 25). As a family's descendants multiplied over time the title deed to these properties became rather involved, with many distantly related people all having a small percentage of ownership in the land in question. Thus, when the Romans wanted to tax property they had to first identify how many people owned what percentage in order to fairly assess the tax. Joseph and Mary, both being descended from David, would have owned some small percentages of properties in the Bethlehem area, and thus they both had to make the journey there from Nazareth. This, of course, also explains why it was so crowded when they arrived, as many other people were required to travel there for the same reasons. If Joseph and Mary had been one of the primary descendants of David they would have owned more percentage of the property. They probably would have been living in Bethlehem already, or barring that, they would have had much nicer accommodations available to them when they got there. They obviously didn't, however. They were not royalty; they were just common, ordinary, everyday kind of people.
          The location of Jesus' birth was humble. The inns of Jesus day were not rambling buildings with a hot fire burning in the cozy common room, rather they were square, one story structures that were not even enclosed. Along the two side walls and the back wall of this structure open rooms were available, completely unfurnished, with only a roof and two side walls for protection from the elements. The fourth side of each room was entirely open facing a common courtyard in the middle. Travelers would pay a small price for the privilege of staking their animals in the courtyard directly in front of their room, and would furnish their rooms with whatever they brought with them. It was actually kind of like camping with the addition of a touch of privacy and sturdy wall between you and whatever lurked outside.

          It was to just such an inn that Joseph and Mary arrived that cold December night. I can imagine how relieved Mary was, in her condition, to find shelter out of the wind, and on a floor up off the cold ground. I can imagine how relieved Joseph was that they had finally gotten to Bethlehem where such shelter was available – until it wasn't, for the inn was already packed full. I can imagine him finally, in desperation, pleading the mitigating circumstance of Mary's condition, and negotiating with the owner to let them stay in the middle courtyard amongst all the rest of the animals staked there. I can imagine him gathering together what straw he could to make a bed for Mary on the cold, hard ground as she did her best not to complain. And it was there, just one step above a ditch on the side of the road, that the King of Kings came into the world. I think because of this story's close association with Christmas that we have somewhat romanticized the birth of Christ. It wasn't romantic. It was cold. It was embarrassing. It was undignified. It was almost desperate. Above all, it was humble.
          When I was a young man I confess I use to get irritated at God. For instance, He instructs us not to be jealous but He is jealous. He calls for us to be humble, but He is Himself almost proud, demanding glory and praise and exaltation. Wasn't this hypocrisy? What I completely failed to grasp back then is the humility of Jesus Christ, and thus, by extension, God Himself. Jesus' entire earthly career is marked by humility. We see it in the events of His birth. We see it in His chosen approach to life, first as a blue collar laborer and then later as an itinerant, poverty stricken rabbi. We see it in the events of His death, crucified like a criminal between two thieves and then placed in a borrowed tomb. In fact, God's entire decision to offer redemption by presenting His own Son, in human flesh, to die for us, means He humbled Himself (Philippians 2.8). What did He leave? To what did He come? How did He arrive? How did He live? How was He treated? How did He die? There is humility in the answer to all of these questions. It is wrapped up in the very fabric of who Jesus is.
          If holiness is being like Jesus then humility must form a large part of my own life as well. If our very spiritual life is birthed in the humility of admitting our sin and our total inability to do anything about it as we cast ourselves on the mercy of God through belief in the claims of Jesus Christ, well then that humility must continue if our spiritual life is to thrive. Humility is necessary for faith, and without faith it is impossible to please Him (Hebrews 11.6). Humility is a necessary ingredient for successfully serving the Lord, as we must come to Him for 'grace to help in time of need' (Hebrews 4.16). Humility is a necessary prerequisite for growth since you cannot grow without being teachable. Humility is necessary for prayer. Indeed, I do not go too far when I say that it is necessary for every spiritual grace.
          The simple truth is that humility is something that everyone comes to, sooner or later. Some come to it early, humbling themselves under the mighty hand of God (I Peter 5.6). Others come to it later, in chains, on their knees before the Ancient of Days on that Great White Throne (Philippians 2.10). But all, without exception, will come to it.
          My friend, there is no good reason to wait to be humble until Judgment Day. Indeed, there is every good reason to humble yourself now. Wonderful blessings come our way when we humble ourselves. Additionally, it is only reasonable for us to humble ourselves before God when He is so obviously superior and we so inferior. But, most of all, when we humble ourselves we are being like Jesus.
          Humility. That is the word that hangs like a signboard over the advent of Jesus Christ.

          Does it hang like a signboard above you?

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