Everybody loves a picture-perfect Christmas.
Christmas According to Hallmark
Over the last few years, my girls have fallen in love with Hallmark Christmas movies. Have you watched these? If so, you know the plot is always the same.
There is always a big-city career woman named Susan or Lauren. She’s always played by an actress from the 1990s, usually from the show Full House, and she’s always too busy for love. But she always has to go back to her small hometown because the family business is in trouble, and the town always has a heartwarming Christmas-y name. These are actual town names from Hallmark movies: Garland, Alaska; Hollyvale, North Dakota; Evergreen, Vermont, and—I am not making this up—Cookie Jar, New York. There are no Hallmark movies set in Skidmore, Missouri.
When big-city woman gets back to small hometown, she always meets a handsome local bachelor who wears sweaters, drives a pickup truck, and drinks hot chocolate. (If Hallmark movies were scratch and sniff, they would smell like cinnamon, pine needles, and hot chocolate.) Handsome local man and former 90s actress meet awkwardly, engage in fun verbal banter, experience minor relational conflict, then eventually team up to save the family cookie store, toy store, Christmas tree farm, ski lodge, or holiday theme park. Along the way, she realizes she’s been too big-city busy, he teaches her the true spirit of the holiday, it starts snowing, they kiss, and there is always a dog.
These movies are cheesy, mushy, and predictable, and if you seriously think I’m going to sit down during a busy month to watch these with my girls, then you’re absolutely right. Of course I am, because we all love these warm images at Christmas. We love perfectly staged Christmas scenes in store windows. We love Norman Rockwell paintings and Christmas cards and Hallmark movies, because everybody loves a picture-perfect Christmas.
A Perfect Picture Spoiled
But in the Bible’s most famous Christmas text, there is a word that spoils picture-perfect. Luke is the only writer in the New Testament to use the word. It’s the word manger—meaning an animal feeding trough—and it shows up three times in Luke 2.
“She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger.” (Luke 2:7)
“This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12)
“They went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:16)
We all love a picture-perfect Christmas, so in depictions of the nativity—Joseph, Mary, baby Jesus in the manger—you’ll see crisp colors, clean hands, soft glow, warm light, fresh hay, spotless surroundings. We have such a painting in Ozark’s chapel lobby, and it’s a beautiful piece of art. But art does not always imitate life.
My 17-year-old son Carl raises livestock. At the Proctor homestead, we have chickens, pigs, sheep, and a donkey, and in the pasture behind my house is an actual feeding trough. If you’ve spent much time around an actual manger, you know: it’s not made for a Hallmark movie. It is not picture-perfect. It’s dirty, with leftover food scraps inside, and while I have no desire to be crass, every manger is surrounded by manure.
In a devotion on Luke 2 I once gave, I brought a quart-size baggie of actual sheep droppings and a gallon-size baggie of donkey droppings. (Sheep poop marbles; donkeys poop tennis balls.) I told them: if the nativity scene were scratch and sniff, it would smell like manure.
I’m sure Joseph and Mary cleaned up the manger as best they could. I imagine they tried to line it somehow to make a little bed for the Christ child. But in real life, there’s no way to romanticize or sanitize this word manger. A manger is an unhygienic, untidy, messy, dirty feeding trough for slobbering, pooping animals. The first Christmas was not a picture-perfect Christmas.
So why does Luke keep focusing his camera on the manger? If a picture’s worth a thousand words, what is Luke communicating with this not-so-perfect picture?
What’s in Your Headboard?
My brothers Mark and Mike and I grew up on a small Iowa sheep farm, which wasn’t easy for our mom. Our mother is a neat freak, and it’s hard to keep a farmhouse clean with three boys. But every week, we mopped, sprayed, wiped, scrubbed, vacuumed, and dusted until every surface shone. My mom cleaned her cleaning supplies! Our house was spotless. Or so she thought.
When I was ten and Mark was seven, there was a girl on our school bus—her name was T.J.—that we did not like. People at church thought we were the best behaved little boys, but the truth: at age ten, I was a judgmental, arrogant little twit. I decided that T.J. was a braggy, obnoxious blowhard who needed to be taught a lesson.
Mark agreed with me, and one day, he had an idea. He went out to our pasture with a sandwich baggie, scooped up some sheep poop—little round brown droppings—and put them in the baggie. His plan: he would give the bag to T.J. and tell her they were chocolate chips in the hope she would eat one.
We were not the nice boys people thought we were.
So Mark put the baggie in the sliding door compartment in his bed headboard…and then forgot all about it. I don’t know how many days it sat in there, but one day while we were at school, my mom was doing her usual housecleaning and opened the little sliding door on Mark’s headboard. To her shock, what did she find? A bag of sheep poop.
I’m sure at that moment she felt two things. First, she had to be horrified to find this filth in her house. But second, she had to be confused: “What in the world? What strange things are my boys up to? What voodoo could you do with this doo-doo?”
Long story short: when we got home from school, we had a full confession session. Mark ended up getting in trouble, I escaped punishment like a good older brother, and T.J. remained blissfully unaware of our devious plan.
In Scripture, one of the images for human sinfulness is excrement. In Malachi 2, God says to disobedient Israel: I will smear animal dung across your face as a sign of your sin. In Philippians 3, Paul speaks of his good works as a Pharisee, but because those seemingly good deeds were outside of God’s grace, he says they are skubala. That Greek word—often translated “garbage” or “rubbish”—does not mean crumpled up paper in a trash can. The word skubala literally means dung or excrement.
It’s a shocking word, and it’s not the way I like to think about myself. I’m a Christian, and what’s more, I’m in Christian ministry. I like to think of myself as a pretty good person. But I also know: the chief occupational hazard of ministry is pride. Every day I get to do things that advance the kingdom of God, things that matter for eternity. I get to change people’s lives for Jesus! That’s heady stuff, and if I’m not careful, I can start to think I am better than I actually am. I overestimate my virtues and underestimate my vices, and I think my life looks pretty good.
But here’s what the manger does: it pulls back the sliding door on the headboard of my life, and it shows me I’m actually full of skubala. Jeremiah 17:9 says, “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure.” The manger reminds me that I am deeply, desperately sinful.
The Manger Was A Deliberate Choice
After all, Jesus didn’t have to be born in manger. This wasn’t a random accident. God had centuries to prepare for this birth. Example: to fulfill Micah’s prophecy of Messiah’s birth in Bethlehem, God sovereignly ordained an empire-wide census. He prompted the most powerful man in the world, Caesar Augustus, to order everyone to go to their hometown to register. God rearranged the lives of millions of people—just to get Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem. (Talk about overkill!)
So as John Piper says, if God can wield an empire to move one woman 80 miles down the road, he could have arranged for an available guest room in Bethlehem. If God can plan a global census, he could have planned an open bed.
But God arranged for Jesus to be born right where he wanted: a feeding trough. The Father did not want him born in an antiseptic hospital or a warm, clean bedroom in someone’s house. The manger was planned, and it was by God’s design that one of the first things Jesus experienced on earth was the smell of manure.
Why? Maybe it was a reminder of the kind of people he came to save.
We are people with skubala behind the sliding doors of our lives. Jeff Walling says we’re all a mess, and that’s why we need a Mess-iah. From his first human breath, Jesus was reminded of exactly what he was getting into—a world full of messy, manure-filled, not-so-picture-perfect people.
But here’s the gospel: Jesus chose it anyway.
Jesus knew the manger was the first step onto the Via Dolorosa, and he knew that at the far end of that road stood a cross. And still he chose it.
He entered humanity’s mess. There was no Hallmark movie director to perfectly stage that first nativity scene. Jesus didn’t send an angel team ahead to sanitize his surroundings, no heavenly housekeepers to clean the manure from around the manger. No, Jesus stepped right into the muck and mire of our world—because he knew that only if he walked in could he walk us out.
So we say: Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for taking that first long step down from heaven to Bethlehem. Thank you for entering our skubala-stained world. Thank you for choosing the way of the manger.
That first not-so-picture-perfect Christmas…was the perfect picture of love.