“For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search and find my sheep. I will be like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock. I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day. I will bring them back home to their own land of Israel from among the peoples and nations. I will feed them on the mountains of Israel and by the rivers and in all the places where people live. Yes, I will give them good pastureland on the high hills of Israel. There they will lie down in pleasant places and feed in the lush pastures of the hills. I myself will tend my sheep and give them a place to lie down in peace, says the Sovereign Lord. I will search for my lost ones who strayed away, and I will bring them safely home again. I will bandage the injured and strengthen the weak.”
I love Christmas. I love the candlelight and the cookies. The stockings hung with care and the twinkle lights. I love the magic and the mystery and that feeling of anticipation that builds as we draw closer to the day. I guess if I’m totally honest, as an adult my feelings toward Christmas have grown a bit more complex. As I walked through some significant losses that feel more poignant this time of year, some of my anticipation grew to be replaced by dread. And as I grew out of the season where Christmas-magic was something just to be enjoyed and into the season where Christmas-magic is somewhat dependent on me finishing a long to do list… well, needless to say, some of the magic faded.
But the mystery? Well, that hasn’t changed at all. In fact, as my childhood-vision of the stable scene shifted into an adulthood understanding, I find myself more and more confounded by the mystery of Christmas; the miracle of the incarnation; the incredible Good News contained in this story.
To dig into this journey a bit more, I want to start with a snow globe.
When I think about that night in Bethlehem so long ago, the first picture in my mind springs quickly back to me from my childhood. And it looks a lot like I’m peering into a manger scene snow globe. It’s Hallmark-channel perfect. Clean and serene, everyone is in their place. Snow falls softly, blanketing the hillside in a carpet of quiet. It’s silent and holy. All is calm. All is bright. Give the scene a good shake, and nothing falls out of place… the snow just gently settles over the pristine couple yet again. It’s a glimpse of God Incarnate – Perfectly contained in absolute perfection.
It took a long time before I ever really questioned this image I formed in childhood. It’s the same one I saw on the Christmas cards and in everyone’s manger scenes. It fit with the God I thought I knew… a God who came to us, though we were still yet sinners. A God who loved me more if I tried harder and cleaned myself up and smoothed my rumpled dress and made myself Sunday-Best-ready for Him. So if this was my mental picture of the incarnation, my goal was to make myself a bit more perfect so that I’d fit in and not stand out in that perfectly-contained-in-absolute-perfection scene where God dwells. I didn’t want to mar the scene.
This image stuck with me until 9 years ago, when Jacob and I lived in a dusty and dirty Chinese village and literally walked behind a flock of sheep and their shepherd every day on our way to work at the orphanage where we were serving for 4 years. I wrote this about that daily walk 9 years ago in the days leading up to Christmas:
There’s a stable not far from my house.
It isn’t like the one I picture when I sing Silent Night.
You can smell it before you see it. Fetid and filthy, the sheep crowd in at the end of a day of foraging for food. In the summer, flies buzz. In the winter, stench and sludge freeze solid. I don’t want to go near; it is too dirty.
I often pass the sheep and their shepherd as I walk to and from work. I pity him a little, silently thankful that my own job doesn’t require me to mess around in mud and muck.
And I walk past, humming Silent Night and picturing my Savior born on a pristine winter’s night. Snow falling softly and stars glistening brightly. The air smells of fresh, sweet hay. The stable is inexplicably warm and comforting. It is beautiful and peaceful… just how I want to imagine my Jesus’ entrance into the world would be.
But I have learned stables don’t smell like fresh, sweet hay. They smell like dirty sheep.
So here’s the thing about snow-globe-nativity scenes. They don’t smell like mangers. And for the first time in my life, suddenly that mattered… because I was living with eyes freshly-opened to the utter brokenness and fallenness of the world. My arms were filled with the hugs of children who had no parents. And because of this, the snow-globe-nativity-scene no longer looked precious and pristine; it looked fraudulent and irrelevant. And just in this time of my wrestling, along came this actual shepherd and his sheep that pooped every step that they walked and their ramshackle stable – and together they upended my picture of the incarnation.
The world I saw outside my window – indeed, the world I knew within my own heart – needed a God that wasn’t contained only in absolute perfection. That is a sad and paltry hope indeed. We’re crying out for redemption much larger than that… crying out for hope that could only be offered by a God who incarnated into something far messier than those perfect little snow-globes.
So isn’t this perhaps a better picture of the incarnation? A better picture of what God stepped into when he took on flesh and was born of a woman in Bethlehem so long ago?
He entered the world as the son of a Middle Eastern father who would soon take his family on the run to save his son’s life from King Herod’s murderous plans to preserve power. And today Jesus enters a world where refugees still flee for their lives.
He entered the world as a baby to a mother who didn’t have the comforts of home and her family to celebrate his arrival. And today Jesus enters a world where mothers still try to raise their kids on the streets.
You see, there’s no way around the fact that incarnation means coming to a fetid and filthy world, just like that stable. Jesus came into a world where babies are born and left on street corners or in dumpsters and ended up in our orphanage. Young girls and boys are sold into prostitution. Refugees spend their lives waiting in squalid camps. It’s a world with wars and rumors of war. Dirty water and dirty air. Disease. Mental Illness. Death. Destruction. Sorrow… unending sorrow. Flies and vultures buzz over little ones with swollen bellies. Stench and sludge freeze solid and become a playground for bare-foot children.
It is all too dirty, and yet He came near.
He came near to mess around in our mud and our muck.
Emmanuel, God With Us… right here in our squalor. In the brothels and the slums. In the orphanages and the meth houses. In the refugee camps and the prisons. In the circles of the homeless huddled around fires on cold west Texas nights. In the pristine white-picket-fence houses hiding falling-apart-marriages.
He’s with us… each of us… in the room of a child crying himself to sleep into his pillow because the bullying is just too much. In the bathroom with the teenage girl who has her finger down her throat, trying to purge all her pain. Behind the closed doors and masks where we try to hide our addictions and our frailty and all our imperfections. He’s God With Us… with us in all of our brokenness. We can’t clean up our grime and dirt. We can’t get rid of our stench. He’s not even making that a requirement for his coming!
And that is the beautiful mystery of Christmas that keeps astounding me more and more… this God-made-flesh who doesn’t ask us to clean up the mess before he comes, but instead enters into our messes; always, always with us. He put on human skin, turning a God-forsaken place into His holy temple by entering into this world. He willingly set aside His own rights, becoming a shepherd for you and me, a bunch of dirty sheep.
At times, I’ve read the Christmas story and thought that it didn’t go exactly as planned. The innkeeper was “supposed” to have room for Mary and Joseph, and if he’d just been paying more attention, this all would have ended more pleasantly.
But the more I consider the story, the more I’m convinced it happened exactly as it was supposed to happen. Jesus needed to be born in a stable, because he’s not waiting for us to make room for Him in the inns of our lives. He knocks, of course, but when we move aside he just comes right on into our filthy stables, meeting us right where we feel most ashamed and unworthy. He comes right in, even when we feel exposed and naked, telling us that He is “like a shepherd looking for his scattered flock. As he promises in Ezekiel 34 verse 12, “I will find my sheep and rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on that dark and cloudy day.”
And this isn’t just true for those other sheep. It’s true for you and for me. The shepherd who counts us among his flock is the same shepherd who promises to leave the ninety-nine sheep to find the one who is missing. And when he finds his lost sheep, no matter how dirty that sheep may be, Matthew 18:13 reminds us that our shepherd is happier about the one sheep he finds than about the ninety-nine who never wandered off. Part of what makes Christ’s coming to a dirty stable to shepherd all us dirty sheep so astoundingly beautiful to me is the kind and gentle way God always speaks of his sheep – we aren’t despicable or deplorable or disgusting. We are beloved, you and me…. Not in spite of our dirtiness. Not because of our dirtiness. Just because we are.
So what do we make of all this? First, we must see our own reflections in Isaiah 53: We all, like sheep, have gone astray. And we’ve made a mess of our lives and our families and this world. And sometimes, we live with the fall-out of other people’s messes. We need a savior to come into the story. This world is no perfectly-contained and pristine snow-globe, but THANK GOD — the story of God’s coming isn’t dependent on some perfectly-set scene we all know doesn’t exist. Instead, he came into the places and spaces of our lives and of this world that more closely resemble that dirty stable I walked by every day.
And that’s precisely where He wants his people to go today – into the dark and dingy places and spaces of our lives and of this world… following in his incarnational footsteps, sharing Hope and Joy and Peace and Love – all the good tidings of this season – with our fellow dirty sheep.
If you hear Jesus’ parable about the shepherd who left 99 sheep to search for one, and you feel like you might be the “one” sheep that’s lost and wandering. I pray this Christmas you’ll hear and accept the good news: When you feel like you’re the one who is lost and alone, trust that God is pursuing you… He’s not waiting for you to find your way back or to make yourself ready, he’s just searching for you… arms always open, heart always rejoicing when you return. You matter so much he sent his son to a dirty stable so that He could find you and bring you back into the fold with rejoicing.
I love the last part of the passage from Ezekiel we read today. There are so many profound promises tucked within it… God, our Shepherd, promises to give us places to lie down in peace. He promises to search for those of us who are lost and to safely bring us home. He promises to bandage those of us who are injured and strengthen those of us who are weak. We all, like sheep, have gone astray and none of us are too far gone, too far lost that our shepherd can’t find us and bring us safely home to a place we can lie down in peace.
And if you identify more with the 99 sheep, there’s a lesson for us too. May we never despise those on the outside. May we seek them out and rejoice when the rejoin the flock, just as God rejoices. I still remember the conviction I felt all those years as I tried to side-step that dirt-caked Chinese shepherd and his bedraggled flock: I saw the dirty sheep and pitied the shepherd. But I love a God who sees the dirty sheep and becomes a shepherd.
I want my heart to look more like his. May all of our hearts look more like his.