Skip Navigation
This Nativity is part of the collection in the Nativity Museum maintained by First United Methodist Church in Tullahoma, Tennessee. Photo by Lilla Marigza, United Methodist Communications.

Photo by Lilla Marigza, United Methodist Communications

Animals look down at Jesus resting in their manger, or feeding trough.

Christmas meditation: Jesus in unexpected places

A UMC.org Feature by Joe Iovino*

While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. (Luke 2:6-7 CEB)

Nativity from the Nativity Museum at First UMC Tullahoma TN

A nativity from Mexico is displayed at the Nativity Museum at First United Methodist Church, Tullahoma, Tenn. Photo by Kathryn Price.

Because my family didn’t decorate our tree until Christmas Eve, the primary Christmas decoration in my childhood home was the crèche. In addition to the figurines of people and animals, our family nativity set includes an interesting stable to represent that place outside the inn.

Hidden beneath the roof is an orange Christmas light bulb that gives the manger a warm glow when illuminated.

There is also a music box attached to the back of the stable that plays “Silent Night.”

The figurines are not ornate, but simple and beautiful.

Being a weird, nerdy, church kid who was fascinated with the Christmas story, there were times I turned off the lights in the house, clicked on the orange bulb, wound the music box, and took in the scene.

Nativity sets are a fantastic teaching tool, filled with symbolism that supersedes what they lack in historical accuracy. But there is something else about the scene I am reflecting on this Christmas.

A little off

Before moving to Nashville in 2014, I had only visited once before, more than 15 years earlier. My wife and I enjoyed our visit so much that we missed many of the gatherings at the convention for which we came.

One afternoon we went for lunch on Broadway, an area famous for country music. We were pleased to see musicians playing in venue after venue, and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying live music.

One artist made an impression on me, not because he was good—everyone was good—but because of his accent. When he told stories between songs, it was clear this country crooner was from Australia—not the accent one expects to hear on their first visit to Nashville.

It seemed, with apologies to Keith Urban and others, just a little off.

In some ways the same thing is true for the story our nativities tell. At his birth, Jesus was surrounded by unexpected people in an out-of-the-way place.

Shepherd figurine from the Nativity Museum at First UMC Tullahoma TN

Shepherds in Jesus' day did not have stellar reputations. Photo by Kathryn Price.

Shepherds

One might expect to find representatives of the best and brightest greeting the newborn Jesus. Instead, shepherds are there. While we might picture them as quaint, peaceful figures, the first readers of the story would have thought differently.

Shepherds had a less than stellar reputation. They were poor, unkempt, and sometimes shoplifted the supplies they needed to get by. They were considered so untrustworthy that their testimony was not welcome in court.

The figurine in our family nativity set of the clean-cut, strapping young man with the lamb across his shoulders, would have been unrecognizable to the people in Jesus’ day.

The town of Bethlehem was filled that night with people registering for the census and paying their taxes. Yet God sent the angels to a group working the nightshift on the outskirts of town.

Instead of having well-respected businesspeople in my nativity, I set up shepherds on one side of the stable.

Magi

On the other side, I set up some wealthy people who seem to fit the bill better. The wise men, or magi, were educated people of some means.

But the wise men are outsiders. They’re not Jewish, as one might have expected, and may not have been particularly religious. They most likely noticed the Star of Bethlehem while looking for life-direction from the celestial bodies, a pagan practice. They don’t belong, yet there they are on that silent, holy night.

Mary & Joseph

Inside the stable, under the orange glow of the Christmas bulb, is a young couple. Joseph, a descendant of King David, has royal blood in his veins, as the genealogy that begins Matthew reminds us. But he is hardly living a life of privilege. He is a blue-collar craftsman eking out a living.

Mary, Jesus’ mother, is from a priestly family, which sounds promising. But it is her relative Elizabeth who is married to a priest, not Mary.

A nativity from the Nativity Museum at First UMC Tullahoma TN

Another nativity set from the Nativity Museum at First United Methodist Church, Tullahoma, Tenn. Photo by Kathryn Price.

A stable in Bethlehem

Jesus' birth, which our crèches depict, takes place in Bethlehem, an unlikely place. Jerusalem, the heart of the Jewish world, is just over 5 miles away. Even the Wise Men assume the messiah would be born there, which is why they stop in Jerusalem for directions.

Finally, Jesus’ bassinet is a manger, a feeding trough, presumably out in the stable, because there was no room for them inside, where a pregnant woman belongs.

Just missed

The whole scene has this “just missed” quality to it. It doesn’t quite fit expectations, like an Australian accent from a country singer.

I’ve been reflecting on this quite a bit this Christmas. Racial tension and mistrust are making news across the United States. Fears over the spread of Ebola are sparking conversations about how much risk we should take to help people in danger. Immigration law is a prominent topic, causing many to reflect on our responsibility for the well-being of the “outsider.”

I can’t help but wonder this Christmas if Jesus is in places I might not expect still today.

I expect to find him in the warmth of a secure home, but he’s out back in the stable.

I expect him to occupy a seat of power, but he’s lying in a manger.

I expect to find him among the rich and powerful, but instead he is surrounded by working folk, petty thieves, and those who don’t know where to go for direction.

This Christmas, I don’t want to miss Jesus. And I’m concerned I’ve been looking in the wrong places.

*Joe Iovino works for UMC.org at United Methodist Communications. He may be reached at jiovino@umcom.org or 615.312.3733.

Editior's note: This story was originally published December 15, 2014.

For discussion and contemplation:

  • Read both places the Christmas story appears in the Bible: Luke 1:26-2:20 and Matthew 1:1-2:12.
  • Why do you think the angels were sent to shepherds rather than some of the more “respectable” people of society? How did Jesus continue his ministry to people like the shepherds? How can we do this today?
  • Have you, like the wise men, ever looked to someone other than God for direction in your life? Why do you now go to God for guidance? When have you felt led by God in a powerful way, as the magi followed the star?
  • Why do you think God chose Mary and Joseph? Was there something special about them? How has God chosen you to share Christ with others?
  • In the book of Micah we read this prophecy about the place of the Messiah's birth: “As for you, Bethlehem of Ephrathah, though you are the least significant of Judah’s forces,one who is to be a ruler in Israel on my behalf will come out from you” (Micah 5:2 CEB). Does God still choose Bethlehems?
  • In what unexpected places and people might we find Jesus today?