A fellow named Kenneth Bailey grew up decades ago as the child to Middle Eastern missionaries. His familiarity with cultures that continue to resemble those of the Bible times has driven him to write for the rest of us, who grew up across any number of cultural gaps from Scripture. This can be quite fascinating!
In one entry, Bailey makes an extensive case that our typical Christmas nativity scenes are unrealistic. He argues that qualities of honor and hospitality, entrenched in Middle Eastern culture, would have never allowed a pregnant young couple – particularly one from the lineage of David – to birth their child in a barn or a cave. Far more likely, baby Jesus was born within a typical living space, albeit a very crowded one – not so differently from any other common child. In a sentence, Bailey’s point is this: There is far more hospitality in the story than we might imagine.
After Christ’s birth, angelic messengers are sent to night-shift shepherds to deliver “good news of great joy”. My wife and I have received many birth announcements, often by way of cute photo collages that then adorn our kitchen wall. Yet we have never received a birth announcement with this particular phrasing: “Unto you is born a child.” Clearly, a child is born unto the parents. One might even extend the term to the grandparents or siblings or extended family. Yet God sent and angel-couriered message to unnamed livestock-watchmen that this particular child – the Saviour – had been born “unto them”.
The shepherds were simple, but they weren’t stupid. Within the announcement, they heard the hint of invitation. One can imagine their unstated hesitancy, “Even if this were true, no Messiah family would desire a visit from wee folks like ourselves.”
In response, the angel was sent armed with a sign to share: “You will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
Dig with me into one aspect of nuance within this story for a moment:
- What is the point of this sign?
- What is it meant to communicate?
If the primary point of the announcement is the birth of Christ the Lord, long-awaited ambassador of Yahweh, then the logical sign would be something marvelous – a display of power or prominence or wonder. However, the sign provided here is no such thing. Instead, the “sign” for the shepherds is a swaddled baby lying in a manger. The nature of this sign indicates that the primary point of the announcement is “unto you”.
It’s as if God is declaring, “When you see the child that the angels speak of, he will remind you of a shepherd child. He may even look like little ones who are sleeping in your homes while you attend the sheep. He will be wrapped like you wrap your babies, and drawing nighttime warmth from the nearby, in-the-house-for-the-night livestock just as your families do. This one, whom you imagined would be nothing like you, is so much like you that is entirely accurate to preface his birth announcement with the phrase ‘unto you’.”
As Kenneth Bailey might point out to us as well: There is far more hospitality in the story than we might imagine.
- God is with us.
- God is for us.
In times of doubt or darkness, these can be the first convictions to tremble. Fittingly, God makes these points clearly and loudly and firstly in the birth announcement of Jesus Christ.
- He is with you.
- He is for you.
He has been born “unto you”.