God came down the backstairs at Bethlehem

In an aggressive bid to attract members, a Midwest megachurch recently sunk $25,000 into decorations for a lavish Christmas program. We’ve come a long way from the manger.

Something in us likes to be dazzled and entertained, to have our senses galvanized with spectacle. There are even public-relations firms that specialize in media blitzes and festive openers, providing clowns, fireworks, and dance troupes to showcase a new product or introduce an aspiring celebrity with great hoopla.

Why did God not use a few special effects when Jesus was born, and let loose a miracle or two like those that occurred at the dawn of Creation, or with Moses and the Exodus? Why did he not go for maximum exposure by choosing Athens, Rome, Alexandria—even Jerusalem—for Christ’s birth? And if the prophet Isaiah had announced that the coming Messiah King, the virgin’s child, would finally sit in royal splendor on David’s throne, why a cave as the setting for the birth?

True, a star appeared, but not many knew why or for whom. And an angel chorus heralded the event, but none but a few poor shepherds heard their announcement. Surely this was not the auspicious beginning one would expect for the birth of the world’s Savior.

Yet this anomaly tells us something. It points us not only to what God was up to then, but also how Jesus comes today into the midst of our lives.

God’s Gentle Sign

Jesus came first to us, as preacher George Buttrick suggested, as a gentle sign. A working-class couple welcomes their first child in a stable with its pungent odors, among animals whose moist eyes reflect the flickering light of the oil lamps brought in for the birth. No sounding of trumpets, no marching of armies, no retinue of servants, just the quiet rustle of animals, the familiar human sounds heard at any birth, and the wail of a new baby who was then laid in a manger as his first crib. God “came down the backstairs at Bethlehem,” wrote Buttrick, “lest he blind us by excess of light.” He came first to a small town—Bethlehem—as a child who would beckon and enable, save and restore through the power of love.

It is no surprise, then, to see Jesus later calling his followers to gentle ways: “If any one strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.… Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt. 5:39, 44). He also told them: “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth.… Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy” (Matt. 5:5, 7).

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The world, of course, argues otherwise. We live in a day when aggressive and assertive ways are touted while reticence and deference are ridiculed. Examine the self-improvement section of your bookstore and you find titles like The Art of Getting Your Own Sweet Way, The Virtue of Selfishness, Competitive Advantage, and How To Get What You Want. These titles seem to suggest that you should get what you want even if you have to use or abuse people. Society too often applauds the coercive, and almost canonizes the ruthless.

Yet on the sundown side of the day, when the applause and cheers are but an echo and the prizes have tarnished, whom does history affirm?

And around the time of Jesus’ birth, where would we have looked for the world’s hope to be revealed? In the compound of Herod, who called himself “the Great”? In the quarters of Quirinius, Roman legate of Syria? In the palace of Caesar on the Palatine Hill in Rome? Unlike the boastings of Herod, Augustus, and Quirinius, the Word of God was whispered in Jesus. The birth of Jesus was surprising with its inconspicuous setting, its simplicity and reticence. But who made the lasting impression?

On his seventieth birthday, the great medical scientist Louis Pasteur was honored at a jubilee celebration in the amphitheater of the Sorbonne. In his appreciation speech, Pasteur noted that “nations will unite, not to destroy, but to build.… The future will belong to those who have done most for suffering humanity.”

The future does indeed belong to strong but gentle people like William Carey, William and Catherine Booth, Frances Willard, Albert Schweitzer, Dorothy Day, Jean Vanier, Mother Teresa of Calcutta, and Martin Luther King, Jr. In those who say yes to Jesus’ presence, a Christlike spirit is born, which soon issues in human deeds of constancy and quiet strength.

Jesus came as a sign, and still he moves and acts where loving people act in gentle ways from great strength, where people see possibility and respond with skill, kindness, generosity, and courage.

God’s Lowly Sign

Jesus also came as a lowly sign, and still he comes where people admit their need and limitations, where they sense that whatever power or gifts they may have do not so much reside in them as work through them. Jesus reminded his followers that this response was to be theirs: “Whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted” (Matt. 23:12). He also told the disciples: “You know that those who are supposed to rule over the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great men exercise authority over them. But it shall not be so among you; but whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be slave of all” (Mark 10:42–44).

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In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus encapsulated this teaching in one of the beatitudes, “Blessed are the poor in spirit” (Matt. 5:3), which might be translated, “Blessed are the humble-minded.” Jesus also taught that the “first will be last, and the last first” (Matt. 19:30).

But today, Jesus’ teachings and his spirit are often disdained by a world that treats privilege and position as the authentic measure of greatness and power, that gauges another’s worth by the circle of acquaintances he lunches with, by the size of his paycheck, or by the neighborhood he can afford to live in. In an age so particular about rank and status, many people seriously object to serving anyone. (Although those dupes may be more enslaved to their jobs or their images than they realize.)

Or people dismiss Jesus’ teachings and his spirit as impractical when it comes to the competitive struggles of business and profession, or politics and international relations. “I’ve tried to run my business by the Sermon on the Mount, but it doesn’t work,” some say. It does take struggle and prayer; it may cost something, but it is not impossible. People do it.

Indeed, the world’s ways of pride, competition, and status-seeking wound others and leave us empty. The stresses and pressures of staying on the defensive, “getting the biggest bone,” and overpowering someone else have contributed to shaky marriages and ugly divorces, heart disease and ulcers, abused children, the arms race, the drug crisis, and a host of other problems that blight our lives.

A Sign For All Times

We need the humble-minded, unpretentious, God-centered life that Jesus lived and to which he summons us. We need him to awaken our hunger for goodness, and move us toward community, responsibility, and reverence for God. We need to be infected with the contagion of inspiration and influence, that rouses us to claim wholeness and a life fit for living, fit for dying, and fit for a destiny beyond both.

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God gave us a sign when Jesus took upon himself the humble form of a servant. “Have this mind among yourselves,” the apostle Paul wrote, “which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross” (Phil. 2:5–8).

The wealth of empire, the strength of conquering armies, the snare of celebrity, the drive to elbow our way to the top—are these the measure of our humanity or the evidence of true power? No, the sign for all times is in a stable where a child is born whose name is Jesus, who took the form of a servant to reveal the love that saves us and keeps us.

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