A lot of people misunderstand God, generally because they don't bother to listen to what He has to say about Himself. We like to think we've got God all figured out--and usually we've got Him figured all wrong because we're too busy listening to what other people have to say about God and Jesus and faith instead of seeking Him out for ourselves firsthand. Consequently, many Christians get a horrible rap because they're misrepresented or they're misrepresenting. Steven Colbert sums it up brilliantly in this quote:
I have regular conversations with people who have preconceived ideas about God that don't match up to solid logic or to Biblical truth. I'm well aware of the horrible and disturbing things people have done in the name of religion--including and in particular my favorite Christmas baby. History provides a great case against the belief that people are basically good and badness is an anomaly. Still, every year when I read the Christmas story in Luke 1-2, the part that amazes me is how God chose to come to earth.
I mean, come on, the God of the Universe. Creator of all things. Divine, holy, righteous, perfect, omniscient and all-powerful. If it were me, I'd have chosen a more comfortable route-- descending from the clouds and immediately reclining on the nearest jewel-encrusted throne. My entrance would've been flashy--with an entourage of heavenly host and lots of human genuflecting in my direction. That's what humans expect out of greatness--an impressive show of power and strength.
But God chooses a young teenager from a podunk no-name farm town to carry His son to term. He antes up a step-dad who is a carpenter by trade, the original Joe Six-Pack.
Grand entrance? Before going into labor, Mary schleps to Bethlehem for some stupid government census (and if she hadn't have gotten knocked up by the Holy Spirit, she could've stayed home, but because of her condition and saving social face she has to accompany her intended to his ancestral home). The town is packed out with people obeying Cesar's command and Joseph gets turned away--no place to stay. (Remember, this is Joseph's ancestral home--were the relatives too shocked by his pregnant teenaged fiancee to let them sleep in the back room? I always wonder...) I read Luke 2 and picture how miserable I'd be--9 months pregnant, swollen feet, tired and crabby--and no place to stay. I imagine standing in the street watching my fiancee try to find us shelter for the night--and get denied over and over again.
But! There's a barn, says the guy running the local brothel (an "inn" in Biblical times is NOT the modern-day equivalent of a Best Western). Go out back and take that empty stall. Luke doesn't tell us, but I bet the guy charged Joseph anyway--that's human nature, isn't it?
While Mary is pushing and straining to get the Lord of the Universe through her birth canal, angels are gearing up overhead. Angels must look like something humans cannot fathom--every time they show up, the first thing they always have to tell people is Don't be afraid. Jesus comes forth--Joseph wipes his brow with relief and Mary leans back exhausted and sweaty against a pile of straw.
And a heavenly host descends.
Here's my absolute favorite part of the story: the angels don't show up in Herod's throne room or scare the crap out of Cesar Augustus while he's feasting in Rome. They don't announce the birth of the Lord of the Universe to rich people or powerful people, temple scholars or the High Priest in Jerusalem. Nope, they present the big birth announcement to shepherds, working in the fields that night. All of God's glorious bragging about the birth of His only son is sung out to a bunch of guys working third shift on the outskirts of town. The Good News for All People is first shared with shepherds--whose job incidentally is to raise the sheep slaughtered as sin offerings. Back in this time laws prohibited shepherds to work near town, so scholars guess these guys were a good 10 miles away from the city limits.
Why choose the shepherds?
We know from reading on that Herod goes mad with jealousy when he later hears of prophecy fulfilled via the wise men and a bunch of baby boys under the age of 3 get whacked. I imagine the rich and powerful person would've felt threatened or defensive by God's coming. But it's GOD, so conceivably He could just fill the palaces and temples with His glory and bring the world's leaders to their knees with earthquakes and hurricanes and plague. But it's GOD, the God of the Bible, not the God of human imagination, and He brings His son to common, ordinary people, humble people at the bottom of the social order for a specific reason.
And these ordinary folk, the farmhands in the hillside of Bethlehem react quite differently. They immediately rush to the barn behind the brothel and find Jesus--I like to imagine their appearance.
Quietly and awkwardly they enter the stall and inquire--was a baby just born? A boy? Is it the Christ? Mary holds out the bundle of red-faced infant wrapped in rags, Joe Six-Pack steps aside and lets them take turns holding the baby, marveling in turn as we all do at a newborn's tiny perfection. A baby. A simple human baby. That's how God enters the world. As a baby with no place to lay His sweet head except a feeding trough for animals.
When the shepherds leave, they head straight into town to tell everyone they could find of what they saw and heard. The reaction on the streets was "amazement."
God reveals himself to ordinary people, folks literally on the fringe of society. This happens over and over again in the Bible. The scholars, the pious leaders, the rich and powerful are too hampered by pride or greed to acknowledge His gift. God knows who needs His promise and He sent Jesus for exactly those people--people with nothing to offer, nothing to lose. Christmas is essentially about humility and goodwill. It's about love--the hard kind of love to folks who don't return it in kind and often don't deserve it in the first place. Religion hasn't always remained true to these ideals, but if you read the Bible closely you'll find the truth in the Christmas. Only God overflowing with divine love would set aside all their power and glory to save lost souls and love them no matter what--present their only son as a gift--no working for it, no earning it, no ritual, no sacrifice--just believing. If I was God, I'd work it a whole lot differently--and that's what makes the Christmas story awesome. Christmas is about love for all of us, no matter what, humble love that takes us as we are and makes us whole again.