Generally, it is quite easy to spot the arrival of important people. One time, I had the experience of shaking hands with the President. The "signs" that he was here that day were very apparent - Air Force One in the background, swat team members surrounding the buildings around us, and many secret service agents running interference for the President, demanding that we show our hands, to ensure none of us meant any harm to him. In Luke 2:12, the Bible gives us the sign to help us to recognize the arrival of God's Son on the earth. For an event such as this, one would think that this sign would be spectacular. However, the sign that God's only Son and our Messiah had arrived was that you will "find a baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger". The single most important event to date in the history of the world was signaled by the most vulnerable form of humanity lying in a feeding trough for animals (the Greek word for manger is "fatne" which is indeed a feeding trough for animals). In fact, in just the first 16 verses of Luke, the fact that Jesus would be in a feeding trough for animals is mentioned three times. Apparently, it is very important to God that we "get" that Jesus will be lying in a feeding trough! This is a far cry from the quaint manger scenes that we are accustomed to visualizing that adorn glittery Christmas cards. God chose a violent era in a volatile kingdom and placed his beloved Son, in the care of two (likely) teenagers, in a feeding trough in a cave-like barn. Can you imagine a less secure, less glorious situation in which to introduce the Messiah?
The Christmas story foreshadows Jesus' whole message and life. No special protection for this "King." Jesus lived his life virtually homeless ("no place to lay his head"), with a bad reputation ("can anything good come out of Nazareth?") and apparently not that physically impressive ("he had no form or majesty that we should look at him"). Apparently God has a different idea of how to have spiritual impact than we generally have. From my experience, our tendency is to impress people with our ability to create a memorable "worship experience" complete with talented orators, gifted musicians and comfortable facilities to meet in. While God's way is "feeding
trough" Chrisitanity, we much prefer "Hotel Christianity". Would we ever design a grand entrance where there was "no room at the inn"? While there is nothing inherently wrong with a hotel (or a home for that matter), to genuinely follow Jesus we will have to constantly make decisions to go to the feeding trough. Throughout his life, Jesus was constantly confronted with this same choice. When told by the devil to depend on outward accomplishments by turning the "stones into bread," Jesus remembered that outward accomplishment, even for a good cause, is not God's path to genuine spiritual impact. When tempted to depend on the spectacular by "throwing himself from the peak of the temple," Jesus resisited, recognizing that being spectacular is also not the path. When presented with the opportunity to be powerful by receiving "all the kingdoms of the world," Jesus chose a path of obscurity. At every turn, Jesus opted for a more challenging, countercultural path.
"Feeding trough" Chrisitanity is hard for me. I am used to being in the spotlight and pointing to my accomplishments to demonstrate my relevance and legitimacy. Church growth, powerful sermons and the respect of my colleagues were and are all too important. Stepping in to the house church world after many years of leading larger churches has been challenging. Doing minstry "Jesus' way" does not feel as glorious. There are no huge accomplishments to point to, no spectacular events to massage my ego and no positional power that demands the respect of those around me. When ministry is done Jesus's way, God alone gets the glory. Could it be that this is why Jesus and the Apostles ministered in the simple, organic fashion in which they did - where positional authority, spectacular events and short term accomplishments are largely absent? It seems to me that what is modeled in the New Testament is a "way" that ensures that God gets the glory!
While "feeding trough" Christianity has many challenges, we must remember that ultimately this is the path to "good news of great joy" (Luke 2:10). Couched in the middle of all of these humbling and difficult circumstances is the joy that we all desire! No accomplishments, spectacular events or power can ever replace the true joy that comes from recognizing and experiencing God's love. God knows best what provides ultimate fulfillment and what path leads us to a greater understanding of His love. Regardless of our lot on this earth, may we remember the extent to which our God was willing to go to demonstrate his love by coming to this earth as a defenseless, vulnerable baby nestled in an unsanitary feeding trough in one of the most dangerous lands in the history of the world. Vulnerability has more impact than power ever could. The "sign" of true Christianity models for us a path that brings a wealth of encouragement! May this "sign" produce great joy during this holiday season and forever! God bless!