“And she gave birth to her first-born son, and….laid HIm in a manger because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7).
One reason God’s people have made so much of this verse, even to the point of inventing harsh innkeepers who slam doors in the faces of the young couple from Nazareth until they find a friendly face who apologetically gives them room in his stable, is that it so perfectly summarizes what the world has done to Jesus ever since: shunted Him off to the side and tried to ignore Him.
Of course, Scripture mentions no innkeepers, harsh or otherwise, and doesn’t even reference a stable. Only a manger, a feed-trough.
I said to a church in rural Alabama this weekend, “Of course, those of us who grew up on the farm know that stables are where you find feed-troughs! There might be one manger outside in the ‘lot,’ what some would call a corral, but the little family will not be seeking shelter in an open cattle pen. So, our vision of Jesus as being born inside a stable is probably exactly right.”
Ever since that time, the world has tried to keep up that practice, crowding out the Lord Jesus and giving Him tiny places in our world and our hearts.
We honor Him with words–think of the thousands upon thousands of books written about Him–and even give Him His special day! Then, we want to ignore Him the rest of the year.
School boards and city councils tell those they invite to pray, “Just don’t get sectarian.” That translates to one thing and one thing only: “Do not mention Jesus in your prayer.”
That’s why it will be a cold day in Washington, D. C., before Franklin Graham and Rick Warren get invited to pray at another presidential inauguration. They made the fatal errors in their most recent prayers: They mentioned Jesus.
“In order that (this gospel) may not spread any further among the people, let us warn them to speak no more to any man in this name” (Acts 4:17).
The rulers of this world have not ignored Jesus. They recognize Him for the threat that He is to their way of life, their little kingdoms, their tyranny, their authority. And they have taken steps to shut Him down, funny though that seems to us.
“The kings of the earth took their stand and the rulers were gathered together against the Lord and against His Christ” (Acts 4:26, quoting Psalm 2:2).
The early church recognized that the world was doing precisely what God’s word had predicted. It was right on schedule. So, they simply claimed God’s power and Christ’s presence in their prayers (Acts 4) and stayed with the program.
That Second Psalm has a great followup to the above verse. After noting that the earthly powers are rebelling against Heaven, we read: “He who sits in the heavens laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then He will speak to them in His anger and terrify them in His fury” (Psalm 2:4-5).
It’s not a good thing to get God’s anger stirred up.
All of this is to be expected. But there is something happening today that we were not prepared for….
Christians and their churches, led by self-centered pastors, are marginalizing Jesus also.
In the past year, I have heard several sermons that hardly even mentioned Jesus. (And yes, these were Southern Baptist churches, thought by many to be the citadel of Bible-believing, Jesus-preaching Christianity!)
One sermon was so filled with references to the pastor, his family, his thoughts and plans and stories, that at one point, the minister even stopped, pretended to bury his face in his hands and said, “Oh God! I’m making myself look so bad!” I felt like saying, “Who cares about the messenger? Tell us about Jesus!”
Another sermon was on friendship, the type of message that would have worked well at a civic club luncheon but was by no stretch of the imagination a gospel sermon. The first reference to Jesus at all–I mean the first mention of His name!–came in the conclusion as the minister heads toward the invitation.
Pastors marginalize Jesus when they…
–fill the sermon with stories and references to themselves, their experiences, etc., with hardly a mention of Jesus.
–focus the sermon on good works with only a passing reference to anything Jesus did. They’ll read Luke 10:30-37 and preach about the Good Samaritan, for instance, only long enough to establish a platform for their pet projects and ministries.
–ignore the authority of Jesus, the identity of Jesus, the Lordship of Jesus, the cross of Jesus, and the resurrection of Jesus. Perhaps readers will recognize that these are the themes most likely to be ignored in liberal churches. Liberals who call themselves “authentic Christ-followers” are far more likely to build sermons and Bible lessons on selected verses from the Sermon on the Mount and certain stories from Jesus’ life that do not force them to come to terms with the actual deity of the Man of Galilee.
Preaching selected “safe” Bible stories allows the preacher/teacher to satisfy himself/herself that “I’m being faitfhul” without those harsh side effects which conservative Jesus-preaching pastors seem to attract. (That would include enraging the worldly crowd who have no intention of doing anything so gross as “getting saved,” offending the members who pay the bills, or amusing the sophisticated whose approval the liberal minister craves.)
“He must increase; I must decrease.” (John 3:30)
We wish we could say that every believer–particularly every preacher–feels as John the Baptist did when he uttered this unforgettable statement.
The saddest thing is that too many preachers do not buy into it at all. Some would say, if they are being honest….
–“He must increase so long as I will still be recognized as somebody and my efforts for Him be rewarded with success.”
–“He must increase so long as I am still able to retain my wonderful identity and have a place to express my fascinating talents and gifts.”
–“He must increase so long as people still call me ‘Doctor’ and my books sell.”
–“He must increase so long as it doesn’t cost me anything.”
And the other part?
–“I must decrease but within limits. Let’s not get carried away with this selfless thing.”
–“I must decrease, but only in my heart where I alone know my humility. It’s important that people respect the Lord’s messenger, you know.”
–“I must decrease, but, well—how much time do you have?”
Just so easily do we shunt Jesus off to the side, to the manger in a stable, in the poor part of town. We might deign to drop in for a visit once in a while, but we wouldn’t want to live where Jesus does. He does, after all, hang out with some of the most undesirable people. If I have to decrease, I’d rather it not mean I end up being like some of the Lord’s people who can be mighty embarrassing. (Come to think of it, the one who first uttered that ‘He must increase; I must decrease’ line wore skins and ate insects. Not for this seminary-educated modern, thank you.)
God help us.
In his final recorded words, the Apostle Paul, writing to young Pastor Timothy, said:
“I solemnly charge you in the presence of God and of Christ Jesus, who is to judge the living and the dead, and by His appearing and His kingdom,
Preach the word, be ready in season and out of season; reprove, rebuke, exhort, with great patience and instruction.
For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine…. But you, be sober in all things, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry.” (Second Timothy 4:`1-5)