In my family, I’m known as the Christmas “Scrooge.”
I’ve earned this reputation, not because I’m cheap and stingy when it comes to buying presents, but because of my attitude towards the way most Americans celebrate Christmas. My whining begins in August as I start the countdown in my head: “Four months until Christmas.” The way I look at it, we only have twelve months in a year, and one entire month is dedicated to getting ready for Christmas: planning, shopping, wrapping, decorating, baking, writing cards, going to parties. I resent having to set aside 30 days of my life to prepare for a holiday. You can see why my family gets so annoyed with me!
But what I lack in Christmas spirit I make up for by being a nativity set fanatic. When I travel internationally, I buy nativity sets. They vary dramatically. Some are simple and roughhewn; others are intricate and beautifully mastered. I love to juxtapose a primitive, straw nativity set from Rwanda with a psychedelic, beaded nativity set from Mexico. Even though each is unique in its appearance, the characters – the people of the nativity – are always the same. Every set has angels, wise men, shepherds, Mary and Joseph, and of course, Baby Jesus.
With so many nativity sets scattered around my house, they beg the question: What is it about the incarnation that compels artists to attempt to capture the wonder through wood, clay, metal, canvas, straw and paint? Why did Jesus come to earth as a baby?
We get an unambiguous answer from Luke 19:22: “For the Son of man came to seek and to save that which was lost.” Jesus came to earth to seek and to save the lost. But who are the “lost” referred to in this verse? My nativity sets provide a graphic illustration of those for whom Jesus came.
The shepherds – those of Christmas pageant bathrobes and towels-on-the-head fame – represent people at the lower end of society. They are the stand-ins for those who are just barely getting by, the ones easy for us to overlook and ignore. Shepherds spend the majority of their waking lives with their flocks, not with other people. . Their role was vital in an agrarian society, but nobody particularly valued them as human beings… they just did the dirty work. Yet shepherds were there for Christ’s birth. And they were some of the “lost” Jesus came to seek and to save.
At the other end of the cultural spectrum were the wise men. They were highly educated astronomers, influential and well-respected in their community. Evidently they were not lacking because they had the affluence to travel a long distance to visit Bethlehem. The wise men represent all the people in life who seem to have it made - the popular ones who do well in school… the athletes, homecoming queens, entrepreneurs and super stars at the top of society’s food chain. According to the Scriptures, they too, were part of the “lost” Jesus came to seek and to save.
At the center of every nativity set are Mary and Joseph, and although some manger scenes portray them with halos or saintly smiles, they were just average people like most of us. Joseph was a simple carpenter. He didn’t make much money, or achieve fame and fortune. Mary was a teenager, probably no more than 14 or 15. There was undoubtedly something special about her, but it wasn’t obvious to her friends and family. Most of us aren’t losers, but we’re not necessarily winners either – we’re just “middle-of-the-roaders.” And we’re also part of the “lost’ Jesus came to seek and to save.
The Scripture says even more about the “lost” Jesus came for in Luke 4:16-30. Jesus had just survived 40 days of temptation by Satan in the wilderness and returned home to Nazareth. There, in front of the people who had known him since he was a boy, he began to read to the congregation from the book of Isaiah.
"The Spirit of the Lord is on me because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind. To release the oppressed and to proclaim the year of the Lords favor." Luke 4:18-19
The poorest, most vulnerable people in the world are orphans. Because they have no one to speak for them, they are taken advantage of, exploited, used and abused. Jesus came to give them the good news that they have a Father who cares passionately for them!
There are more men, women and children in prison today than at any other time in history. Many are there due to their own wrong choices, but millions are imprisoned because of human error or corrupt and repressive legal systems. Jesus came to give them freedom!
Most of us aren’t comfortable around sick people; in fact, we seldom even think of sick people until someone we love becomes ill. Jesus made it clear that he cared for our bodies as well as our souls. Jesus came to offer hope of healing and recovery for the sick.
Jesus even sought out and saved the oppressed – those caught in the web of sexual immorality, theft, murder or deceit. Considered untouchable by polite society, these outcasts heard a word from Jesus as well: release!
So where do you fit into the Nativity scene?
The reality is most of us probably don’t relate to the shepherd or the outcasts. You’re probably not even average like Mary and Joseph. Most likely, you are one of the wise men; you’re at the top. So far, life has treated you fairly well. Maybe you did great in school. Your career plans have materialized; you know where you’re going. You may be beautiful… well-liked. Maybe you’re the cool one everybody else aspires to be.
That’s wonderful! But a word of caution: if that describes you, it’s easy to develop an inflated view of yourself. You might believe, “Of course Jesus came for the orphans and the sick – people who need God when they’re alone or ill. Of course he came for the prostitutes and the prisoners - and he probably came for the untouchables, too. I know whythey need him. But why do I need a savior?”
I John 1:8 tells us, “If we claim to be without sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us.” Romans 3:23 says“For all have sinned and fall short of God’s glory.” James 2:10 says “For whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking it all.”
You may be a moral, industrious, successful man or woman. But according to God’s standard of perfection, if you blow it in even the smallest area of your life you’re just like everybody else. When you measure yourself against God’s perfection, everyone is untouchable. Sadly, our righteousness, our holiness, our goodness, our perfection is like “trash” next to God.
In that light, we all desperately need a savior. Romans 5:8 says,“But God demonstrates his own love for us in this. While we were still sinners Christ died for us.” He turns trash into treasure.
Who did Jesus come to seek and to save? He came for the posers and the pretenders, the powerful and the powerless. He came for the brainiacs and the idiots, and the popular and the ostracized. He came for the sick and for those who have great health. He came for the geeks and the freaks. He came for the athletes and those who are athletically challenged. He came for the winners and the losers. For the strong, along with the weak. He came for those who never seem to fail. And for those who can’t help but fail. He came for the drunks and the druggies, the dealers and the addicts. He came for the abusers and their victims. And for murderers, rapists and thieves. He came for the beautiful and the not so beautiful. He came for every race, language, ethnic group, gender, and for those who don’t fit into any category at all.
The truth is he came for you.
Maybe you relate to the shepherds because people look down on you. It’s a painful thing to deal with. You don’t know why you get picked on and why people are unkind. And why you can’t be one of the “cool” people. He came for you.
Perhaps you’re reading this article from the vantage point of being at the top. You’re going places and doing great things. He came for you.
Possibly you’re a Mary or a Joseph. There’s nothing particularly special or unique about you; you’re just a guy or gal trying to make it one more day. He came for you.
This year as I unwrap my nativity sets and place them around my house, I’m thanking God for sending Jesus to seek and save me. He has made room for me in his nativity scene. There’s a place for you, too, no matter who you are or what you’ve done – shepherd or wise man, Mary or Joseph. He’s made a place for us to worship him as Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
Published first in Purpose Driven Connection: November 2009