Growing up in a middle class, suburban family, I remember putting out the Christmas decorations every year. And I remember we would always set up the nativity scene last. What did it look like? A lot like this:
However, while this nativity still celebrates the spirit of Jesus’s birth, it is not a true representation or depiction of the event. Look at this cave:
This cave dwelling may not look like much to you and me, but this is the last of a long line of dwellings which the nomadic shepherding people of southern Israel near the Negev desert region would have sought shelter in. Furthermore, this is where they would have built up a little stone wall, topped with dead thickets and brambles to keep out predators. And they would have allowed their animals to cuddle together under the cleft of the rock to stay dry and warm. These caves are dotted nearby and surrounding the quaint ancient town of Bethlehem, as seen below:
And just so we are clear, shepherds in the land of Israel are similar in some ways but in many ways different from other places. Israel is a stark land, dry and unforgiving in many places. It does not have lush forests, or miles of prairie. But rather a spread from the Mediterranean climate up in the North to a straight up desert in the south. So how can shepherds keep sheep here?! What you and I envision as the green pastures in Psalm 23 as lush waist high fields of grass or grain like this:
Are actually more like this:
As you can see, this second pasture is very different from the first one. The second one is a legacy grazing area for desert shepherds. They literally direct their flocks to walk these ancient pathways along the slopes where one animal on the upper path can graze halfway down the slope on little tiny shoots of grass and the animal on the path below can graze halfway up on whatever is available. And the shepherd must lead them to their grazing area each day, and they trust him and he provides for them what they need for that day. I think our American eyes, and stomachs, see the beauty and abundance of the upper pasture and the stark bare ness of the lower pasture and we don’t understand. Maybe by being so abundant in resources, we don’t know how to just rely on God for what we need…today. We have become dependent upon ourselves and replaced God with our resources.
It’s in this place and in this culture that the messiah Jesus was born. His parents were not residing in Bethlehem but they needed a place to stay while in town. So God provided for them what they needed for that day. A lowly cave dwelling, a place where shepherds protected and provided for their flocks in the darkness. And so Jesus was laid in the manger, the one place the shepherd could feed his sheep and livestock in that cave.
The fact that there was no room in the inn was no surprise. A town as small as Bethlehem probably had only one inn, and it was probably only capable of handling 1-3 families. Most travelers in this culture would knock on doors near their destination to request a spot on the bottom floor of the home along with the home’s animals. It was customary to be a good host, because it was likely you’d need it on a journey of your own. But because of the census that had been ordered, the town was overflowing with visitors. And this is why there was no room in the inn, in any guest rooms, or in the first floor of people’s homes. God orchestrated the birth of Jesus to happen at this time and in this place to make these things happen for a reason.
The name Bethlehem translates to House of Bread. Jesus himself declared that He was the bread of life. In fact, he even told his disciples that during the observation of the Passover on the night he was betrayed that He was the unleavened bread, broken for them. For more on the Passover, click here
Jesus also said that he had no place to lay his head, meaning a permanent home. And that started the very moment of his birth.
As we discussed in the post about The Wise Men and Their Gifts, these Magi knew Jesus was to be born in Bethlehem. But if you’ll recall the story, they first stopped north of Bethlehem in Jerusalem to “check in” with the local authorities…assuming that these local authorities also knew of the birth of Jesus’ as prophesied:
“Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him; and assembling all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea…” Matthew 2:1-5 ESV
The Jews of Jesus’s birth knew exactly where he was to be born! And when these Magi from the east stopped by to say hello and ask about the good news of the messiah, the entire town was “troubled”! Could it be that those waiting for the birth of the messiah were more concerned with their own lives and their own struggles and issues, than they were truly waiting for and seeking the arrival of the messiah. It’s as if they too were distracted by the politics, the economy, the religiousness of legalism…when they should have been focused on the coming birth of Jesus.
Why do you think that all of Jerusalem was troubled by the news of the birth of Jesus?
He said he will be coming back again, will you be troubled at that time? Why or why not?
Have you placed your trust in Jesus to be your substitution for your sins, and have faith that He alone has opened the way back to God?
To start at the beginning of this Advent/Christmas series, click here
For the next post in this series, click here