Occupy the manger. I’m sick of phrases that begin with occupy. But that’s what God did. He occupied a manger in the form of a baby born to a poor pregnant teen whose fiancé believed she was a virgin and refused to have her stoned for adultery. A manger is not a cute knickknack that you put on your mantle. It’s not a rustic bassinet made out of straw. It’s where animals slobber. And a newborn baby was put inside it. I’m sure it wasn’t a silent night, either. But this was how God’s Word chose to become flesh and dwell among us.
A manger is the least socially respectable place that a baby could be born. This is important, because what holds Christians today back from discipleship is our social respectability. We might have perfect worship and small group attendance, pray half a dozen times a day, and read a new Christian devotional book every month, but these are only accessories to our social respectability as long as it’s the primary marker by which we measure our worth and criticize others. To be a disciple of the One in the manger requires losing all respectability and becoming family with the smelly shepherds who have gathered in a filthy barn to worship their King.
In its original Greek, the word church was ekklesia, which means literally those who were “called out” of the world. Perhaps a better translation of ekklesia than “church” would be “the outcasts.” The early church drew people from many racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. But the original apostles to whom they all submitted themselves were fishermen and former tax collectors, i.e. social nobodies. And the first evangelists on the first night of God’s revolution were smelly farm-workers who ran through Bethlehem hollering for everyone to meet the newborn messiah (Luke 2:17-18). Think about the absurdity of that image. Would you get up out of bed at midnight to go to a barn and meet the savior of the world based on the word of a farm-worker who said an angel had told him?
To join Jesus’ movement meant making choices that would seem tremendously irresponsible today. Tony Perkins would have a field-day with the original outcasts who ran with Jesus. The first disciples quit their jobs (Matthew 4:18-22, Luke 5:27-28) to follow Jesus around the countryside. This was not a paid internship with a respectable company. Whatever “work” they did with Jesus (listen, sleep, eat, watch Him heal people) would have left a gaping hole on their resumes today. When Jesus’ mortified family comes to tell him the party was over (Mark 3:21), his response is to rhetorically disown them:
“Who are my brothers and mother?” he asked. Then he looked at those seated in a circle around him and said, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does God’s will is my brother and sister and mother.” [vv. 33-35]
Jesus tells prospective disciples that the cost of following him is being homeless (Matt 8:20) and even requires committing the ultimate taboo of leaving their parents unburied (v. 22). When Jesus’ inner circle grows to 72, he sends them out to the villages ahead to beg for food and lodging (Luke 10:5-9). If the town refuses to give them free handouts in exchange for their unsolicited spiritual services, then they’re supposed to condemn the town to hell and leave (vv. 10-15).
So I wonder how Jesus would have fared in our world. What piece of grass in our thoroughly privatized landscape could he occupy with 5000 people and feed them bread and fish without applying for a permit, getting all the food safety inspections, and renting the appropriate number of portapotties? How quickly would the crowd get evicted from the Galilean lakeshore for being a health and safety hazard? What if Jesus smashed all the CD’s in a megachurch bookstore and broke the cappuccino machine while telling the traumatized clerks behind the counter they worked in a “den of thieves”?
I know these questions are anachronistic. Jesus’ world was different than ours. The main differences are all the presumptions of social respectability we’ve accrued in the last two millennia. That’s why it’s ridiculous to compare how Jesus used public space and how we’re supposed to use what’s left of it today. But the same respectability that gives us the gumption to sneer at today’s outcasts is the reason we would never fit in with the original outcasts who quit their jobs to wander around Galilee with a homeless rabbi for three years. That’s why when many of us sit in the cushioned seats of our multimillion dollar praise stadiums watching this year’s Christmas pageant, we’ll have no idea what kind of revolution God had in mind when He chose to occupy a donkey’s feeding trough.
Morgan Guyton is the associate pastor of Burke United Methodist Church in Burke, Virginia, and a Christian who continues to seek God’s liberation from the prison of self-justification Jesus died to help him overcome. Morgan’s blog “Mercy Not Sacrifice” is located at http://morganguyton.wordpress.com. Follow Morgan on twitter at https://www.twitter.com/maguyton.