During the Christmas season, we often see arrangements of Mary and Joseph, the shepherds and maybe a few angels meticulously arranged around the baby Jesus, resting peacefully in a manger. The decorative nativity displays often feel more like the ornate trappings of the holidays than a personal reminder of the most beautiful story of redemption the world has ever known.

The First Century stable was far from a pristine, artistically arranged environment. Mary had just given birth in less-than-ideal quarters, the attendants were livestock and the shepherds were a coarse group of heralds for God’s plan to redeem the world.

Think about it. God plans to redeem a fallen, broken world, and then sends his first public announcement to shepherds…in the middle of nowhere. Philo, a Greek-educated Jewish philosopher, noted that shepherding was an “inglorious and mean” pursuit. Such important news seems like it should be given to a king, warrior or religious leader.

It was a messy, unceremonious arrival for Jesus to say the least, but it was no accident that events that first Christmas transpired as they did.

As much as most of us would like our lives to look as organized and striking as a beautiful Christmas nativity, they rarely do. We are more like the rough and tumble shepherds of Judea. Our lives often better resemble the muddy, disorganized, and imperfect aspects of the nativity.

But as the angels noted to the shepherds, the message of Christ’s birth was and is “good news of great joy…for all the people.” The message was not reserved for the perfect, pious or powerful; it was first entrusted to the lowly shepherds on the hillside.

These unlikely heralds for God’s message may have appeared “unworthy,” but that was the point. Even as flawed as some of them undoubtedly were, God loved them deeply. How much greater is a message of undeserved redemption than redemption earned?

The very same message from that first Christmas continues to this day. As we consider the birth of Christ this Christmas, we are left with only a few responses. Will we ration restoration and mercy to those who have earned it or will we humbly pass along the same grace that was extended to us? Will we go even further to seek out our fellow man on today’s lonely hillsides?

This Christmas, when you pass a nativity scene, remember that the first Christmas probably was not that pretty, but it was unimaginably beautiful all the same.

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