You have heard it all before haven’t you? How Joseph and Mary, after many days traveling on a donkey, finally arrive in Bethlehem late one night. They can’t find a place to stay. Being strangers in a strange town, they check out the local inn. The innkeeper tells them that he has no room available for them. So he shows them out back to a little stable — a barn with a wall, a thatched roof and a couple of wooden poles. That very night, in that little stable, Mary gives birth to Jesus. She is surrounded only by Joseph and a few humble farm animals. She takes Jesus, wraps Him in swaddling clothes and puts him in a little wooden feed trough called a manger — a cradle for a king.
You have heard it all before haven’t you? It’s a great story made popular by Christmas carols, greeting cards and Nativity scenes.
But I’m sorry to say that a lot of it just isn’t true. Nowhere does the Bible say that Mary rode a donkey into Bethlehem, that Jesus was born the night they arrived, that an innkeeper showed them to a stable, or that they were even in a stable as we picture it today. These conceptions of Christmas may be tantalizing but they’re not necessarily true. They may be sentimental but they’re not very biblical.
So today I advocate a Real World Christmas. I want to cut through the clutter that has been imposed upon the Christmas story by popular culture, and I want to talk about what really happened that first Christmas. As Jack Webb used to say in the old Drag Net television series, today it’s going to be “Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.”
Please understand; my goal is not to ruin your Christmas. My goal is to enhance your Christmas — to help your celebration of Christmas not be a celebration of sentimentality, but a celebration of a real Savior born upon this earth. Because the more you know the true facts about how God worked that first Christmas, the more you can know who God is this Christmas.
If you want to talk about the facts, you can read them in Luke 2:1-7: “In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the Entire Roman world [This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria]. And everyone went to his own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her Firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
There they are: the facts! The fact is that Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem because a census required them to register their presence there. It was a journey of about 70 miles. The Bible doesn’t mention a donkey because most people made the trip on foot. The fact is that they went to Bethlehem because they were ancestors of King David’s. Bethlehem was their ancestral hometown. Their relatives and family were there. The fact is that Bethlehem was a tiny little village of probably less than 100 people. The fact is that when Joseph and Mary arrived in Bethlehem, Mary was expecting Jesus. But we don’t know how long it was after they arrived that she gave birth to her firstborn son. The fact is that when Mary gave birth to Jesus she wrapped Him in strips of cloth. She did this not because she had forgotten to bring any baby clothes along or was too poor to afford them. This was the First Century custom of swaddling babies: the babies would be tightly wrapped around their legs, arms and torsos because it was thought that this would make their bone structure straighter as they grew. The fact is that Mary laid Jesus in a manger which was a feed trough for animals.
These are the facts. While we’re talking about the facts, let me give you just one more fact that is perhaps the most frequently overlooked reality about Christmas. The fact is that most likely Jesus was born not in a barn, but a peasant’s home!
Now that will raise a few eyebrows! But if you’re truly going to be more scriptural than sentimental about Christmas you must admit that most likely Jesus was not born in a stable. A stable is never mentioned in the Scripture. Instead it is far more likely that when Jesus was born he was born in a poor man’s house.
Why do I say this? There are four reasons: 1) When Luke wrote in his gospel that there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn, the Greek word that he uses for inn is the Greek word kataluna. Every time this word appears in the New Testament, it to a guest room in a private home, never to a commercial inn like the Holiday Inn. 2) With the birthplace of Jesus being a tiny village with perhaps less than 100 people, in all likelihood there was no commercial inn in Bethlehem. 3) You can be confident that when Joseph showed up with a pregnant wife in his ancestral hometown, his relatives and family members threw the doors of their homes open to him. This was the character of first century Jewish culture. Joseph and Mary were family and they would never have been put out into a barn or a commercial inn. 4. Most significantly, birth in the first century was a tremendous event in the life of a family and in the people of a village. Joseph and Mary would never have been out in a barn by themselves having a baby. Unlike in our culture where privacy during childbirth is valued, in first century Jewish culture community was valued. Childbirth was a time when the women of a village would gather together and the baby would be delivered with the assistance of a midwife. So the idea that Joseph was the one who delivered Jesus from Mary’s womb surrounded by just a few lowly farm animals is totally foreign to the real world in which Jesus Christ came.
But you say, “The Bible talks about Mary laying Jesus in a manger, a feed trough. So they must have been in a barn.” Let me tell you what a First Century peasant’s home was like. The typical First Century peasant home was usually just one room with four windowless walls. This windowless room was divided into two areas with no wall between the two areas. One area, the larger of the two, was the main living area for the family. This was the place where the family ate and drank, entertained visitors and slept at night. The second area in the home was about four feet lower than the main living area. You would walk down some steps to get to it. And this smaller, lower area was a place where the family kept their livestock and animals. On the ledge between this lower area for livestock and the upper main living area for people, there were holes carved into the floor where feed would be placed for the animals. These were the mangers.
Where did visiting relatives and friends stay in a house like this? Frequently such homes had a guest room (a kataluna) built on the roof of the house. This is where the guests stayed. But Luke tells us that at the time Jesus was born there was no room in these guest quarters. So in all likelihood Jesus was born in the main living area where Joseph and Mary were staying with the rest of the family. Then, when Mary gave birth to Jesus, she wrapped her son in strips of cloth and laid him in one of the mangers in the family living area.
This is why I say to you that Jesus Christ was born not out in a barn but in the heart of a home. That’s a Real World Christmas! God sent His son not into a Christmas card to be a source of sentimentality but into a real world to be a source of light and hope for people.
What does this mean for us today? There are three things that a Real World Christmas tells us. First of all a Real World Christmas means that Jesus Christ is a personal God. When God chose to take on the body of a little baby and be born upon this earth, God chose not to be born outside in a barn but right in the middle of a home — a family. Jesus Christ chose to be born not outside away from people but inside with people like you and me.
The point is that Jesus Christ wants to be right in the middle of your life as a personal God. He wants you to have a close and intimate relationship with Him. He wants your heart to be His home.
Jesus Christ was so committed to making your heart His home that He came to this world to die on a cross. He carried all of our sins on the cross so that we could be forgiven, our guilt could be lifted, our condemnation could be taken away and our hearts could be cleansed so that He could live inside of us!
Jesus Christ is a personal God, so take Him. Take Him as your Savior. Invite Him into your heart and life. Let your heart be His home. In the words of the Christmas hymn: “Joy to the world! the Lord is come; Let earth receive her King. Let ev’ry heart prepare Him room, and heav’n and nature sing…”
As Jesus Himself said: “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him and he with Me” (Revelation 3:20).
How do you take Jesus Christ? You take Him when you acknowledge that your moral failures have separated you from God and that you need a Savior. Then you put your trust in Jesus Christ and the price He paid for your sins on the cross. When you accept Him into your heart and life this way, you come to know Him as a personal God.
This is the meaning of a Real World Christmas. Have you taken Jesus this way? He does not want you just to come to a Christmas service and leave it there. He does not want you just to sing a few Christmas carols and smile a sentimental smile. He wants you to give Him your heart. He invites you to say: “Jesus Christ come into my heart. Cleanse me of my sin. I make room for you.” A Real World Christmas says Jesus Christ is a personal God. So take Him!
A Real World Christmas tells us something else. It tells us that Jesus Christ is not only a personal God, Jesus Christ is a providing God. God did not leave Joseph and Mary outside. He provided a home for them. God is a providing God. This is the essence of Christmas! As the scriptures say: “And my God will meet all of your needs according to His glorious riches in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:19).
Christmas says that God provides. He came to this earth and let Himself be wrapped in swaddling clothes for you. And He didn’t stop there. He let Himself be wrapped upon a cross for you. And He didn’t stop there. He let Himself be wrapped in grave clothes for you. And He didn’t stop there. Through His resurrection and ascension into heaven He is now wrapped in glory and power. He is able to meet every one of your needs. He is able to solve every one of your problems!
Jesus Christ is a providing God. Therefore He wants you to trust Him. Perhaps you have come to church today with some major problems in your life. You feel like you have some unmet needs. Why should you be wrapped up in fear and anxiety about these problems and unmet needs? God is a providing God! When you have taken Jesus as your personal God, you can trust Him as a providing God.
Jesus Christ is a personal God so take Him. Jesus Christ is a providing God so trust Him. And a Real World Christmas means one other thing: Jesus Christ is a possible God, so enthrone Him. Do you remember what Jesus said? “What is impossible with men is possible with God” (Luke 18:27). With Jesus Christ all things are possible!
A little boy was participating in a children’s Christmas program. He was standing on the front stage and was supposed to recite the words of Jesus when He said: “I am the light of the world” As this little boy stood up to say his part, his mind went blank and he forgot his line. His mother was sitting in the front pew. She whispered to him: “I am the light of the world.” Her son couldn’t hear her. So she said it again. Then she repeated it a third time. That’s when the little boy straightened up and said loudly and confidently: “My mother is the light of the world!”
No she’s not, Jesus is! This means that with Jesus Christ all things are possible. Maybe there are some things in your life that God has been asking you to do but you have been resisting Him. You have been saying to yourself “I don’t see how I can possibly do that.”
You need to remember what happened that first Christmas in the real world. It seemed impossible that a humble, poor man’s home could become the palace of a prince. It seemed impossible that a feed trough could become a king’s throne. But when Jesus came, the impossible became possible!
He can do the same thing in your life if you will take Him, trust Him and enthrone Him. Don’t just give Him the guest room of your life. Give Him the main living area. Let Him be in the middle of your life. Let Him be the Lord and Leader of your problems, your needs and your hopes and dreams. Let Him be the Lord and Leader of your impossible situations. Let Him be the Lord and Leader of your heart and life. Enthrone Him!
When Jesus Christ came He took a humble and ordinary home and transformed it into something extraordinary. Jesus can take your humbled, ordinary heart and life and transform it into something extraordinary. He is a possible God, so enthrone Him!
Now don’t go home tonight and burn all your Nativity Scenes. I intend to keep setting mine up every year. These scenes still have great meaning and provide a great witness. It’s like a little girl who was once looking at her family Nativity Scene. As she was looking at it she turned to her mother and said “Mommy this sure is a beautiful activity scene.” A Real World Christmas says that God is a very active God. He is active in His Son Jesus Christ. He is a personal God so take Him — let your heart be His home. He is a providing God so trust Him — He will never leave you out in the cold. He is a possible God so enthrone Him — no more giving Him the guest rooms of your life; give Him the main living area. This is a Real World Christmas. And you thought you had heard it all before!

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