We’ve all seen the nativity plays. We’ve all seen the nativity scenes. There’s a lovely one out in Oldham town centre. All of them depicting the baby Jesus, overlooked by his parents, some wise men and a bunch of animals in what looks remarkably like the sort of wooden barn you still find knocking about in the countryside if you know where to look.
The problem with this, of course, is that the Bible doesn’t say Jesus was born in a stable. It doesn’t mention a stable. In fact, while we’re at it, it doesn’t mention a donkey or an inn keeper either. What seems to have happened is that we have made hay (I know, don’t write in) with mention of a manger and the word for guest room.
It’s not my intention to lay out here the reasons why Jesus wasn’t born in a stable, but in an ordinary home. Ian Paul has done an excellent job corralling the information in a blog post he re-posts every year. You can read that here. If you prefer another source, TIm Chaffey from Answers in Genesis has written up some of the common misconceptions here. Ian gives the more fulsome, and frankly more compelling, case for why Jesus was born in an ordinary family home.
My interest in this post is not to make that case, rather it is to look at the implications of it being true. If Jesus was born in an ordinary family home in Bethlehem, what does that means for us in practice?
On the traditional telling of the story in which Jesus is born in a stable, it is frequently stated that Jesus wouldn’t be relatable if he was born in a palace. It is certainly true that, despite being a new born king, Jesus was not born in a palace because he was not going to be that sort of king. But the traditional version misses the fact that being born in a stable is pretty odd too.
But if Jesus was born into a normal family home, he is not an unrelatable king beyond the average person in a palace and nor is he some other-wordly figure born in an equally unusual stable. Rather, he was a normal child, born into a normal family home, just like the overwhelming majority of others born at the time. This means Jesus is entirely relatable because he really was born just like the rest of us.
God with us
Jesus was to be called Emmanuel – God with us. Of course, if he was born in a stable, he very specifically is not with us. He is with the animals where most people weren’t! Out of sight and out of mind, away from the very ones he was sent to be with.
But if Jesus was born in a family home, surrounded by people and family, he is very much with those whom he came for. He is not away from those he came to save, but very much with them, in the place where they ordinarily were. Jesus is very much more with us when he is born in a family home where we typically are.
Entering the mess of the world
Many like to point to the mess of a stable and insist that Jesus was born into the ordinary mess of the world. But, in truth, the mess Jesus was born into was not one of mud, straw and animals but a world that had been blighted by human sin. Jesus was, indeed, born into the mess and chaos of the world in order to redeem it, but it was very much the mess caused by human sin.
This is significant because what makes ‘God with us’ so exceptional is that we are sinners and God, in the ordinary run of things, cannot be in the presence of sin. Or, rather, we cannot be in the presence of a holy God. In taking on human flesh and veiling his glory, man could see God and God could really be with us. That is how Jesus could say, ‘whoever has seen me has seen the Father’ (John 14:9).
If Jesus was born in a stable with the animals – away from people – he might have been born into some physical mess, but he was away from the actual mess and chaos of the sin that caused him to come in the first place. But if Jesus was born in a family home – surrounded by the very sinful people he came to save, who could not see God face to face, who could not enter into the holy of holies in the temple to be in the special presence of God – he was entering the messy world he came to fix and was showing that God was making it possible for mankind to be in relationship with him again.
Whilst Jesus is the God-Man, so not exactly like us, the Christmas story tells of the birth of a real man, born in a real way, in an ordinary town, in an ordinary home. Whilst it was necessarily different for God to be born (virgin birth, born of the Spirit, in whom the fullness of God dwelt), there is another sense in which it was very ordinary indeed. And that is particularly fitting for one who came to be a representative for ordinary people like us.