Written by: Essentino A. Lewis, Jr.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas we are very likely to see images of the nativity cropping up around us. Whether positioned in front lawns, illustrated on Christmas cards, or reenacted in Christmas plays, the depiction of the night of Jesus’s birth is an important aid in commemorating the Advent. The imagery of that evening reminds us of the miracle of Christ’s conception, the humble circumstances of His arrival, and the promise of Immanuel, “God with Us” (Matt. 1:23). As the hymnologist wrote, “Oh holy night…Long lay the world, in sin and error pining. ‘Til He appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
Almost without variation, the nativity scene contains the same elements: baby Jesus, lying in a manger; Mary, His mother; Joseph, His earthly father; shepherds; angels; animals of some sort; and three wise men. We know there are biblical challenges to the accuracy of this popularized nativity. For example, Scripture does not record the presence of angels at the site of Jesus’ birth. Instead, Luke describes their announcement of Christ’s arrival to a group of shepherds in a field (Luke 2:8-14). Similarly, the Gospel of Matthew suggests that the wise men were not present either but arrived sometime after the night Jesus was born (Matt. 2:1-11). Still, despite these discrepancies, there is a powerful message embedded in how the Scriptures describe the gathering that commenced at the birth of Christ.
From the very earliest days, Jesus has always drawn the most diverse—and unexpected—groups of people to Himself. One would expect a privileged class, perhaps kings, princes, ambassadors, or other dignitaries at the crib side of the Messiah. Instead, we find shepherds as the only invited guests (Luke 2:15-17). There is nothing wrong with shepherds, except their presence is noteworthy because they were considered among the lowest and least desirable in the land. They were often uneducated, seen as unclean, and outside the law. Shepherds didn’t make many guest lists in first-century Palestine. And yet, we find them right there next to the manger. Their presence is so important. It is partly because of the presence of shepherds at the birthplace of Christ that we can believe Jesus when He later says, “I am the light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12, emphasis mine). Jesus is available to everyone regardless of geography, economics, politics, social standing, or any other distinction we might create. This accessibility ought to inspire us, challenge us, and encourage us.
Christianity is the world’s largest religion precisely because there are no barriers between Jesus and those desiring to follow Him. Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and it will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives, and he who seeks finds, and to him who knocks it will be opened” (Matt 7:7).
It is not enough for us to be inspired by the nativity—there is a responsibility and accountability that comes with being a disciple of Jesus. As believers, we are called to be a reflection of Christ to the world. The Apostle Paul wrote, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 2:1). So, as the presence of Christ brought together people of every stripe and station in life, so too should our presence. During this Advent season, we can offer God a recommitment to seeking peacefulness and unity in our spaces of influence: our homes, neighborhoods, communities, and churches.
As a pastor, I have had more conversations than I can count with people questioning whether Jesus can really love them. Difficult life experiences, repeated mistakes, missteps, and poor choices can make one feel disqualified from the presence of God. Be encouraged. If Jesus made room for shepherds, there will always be room for you and those you love.
There are so many messages available to us during Advent. We celebrate the arrival of our Savior who came to take away the sins of the world. As we reflect on the significance of this season we should be inspired, challenged, and encouraged by what we find at the nativity. Gather around.
Essentino A. Lewis, Jr. is the pastor of Clifton Park Baptist Church (Silver Spring, MD), a congregation representing over 30 nations and 19 native languages. In addition to his leadership in the church, he is committed to community and civic service. He was a practicing attorney for over a decade before his call to full-time ministry. He holds a Doctor of Ministry from Fuller Theological Seminary. You can follow him on Twitter @pastoressentino