One of my least favorite Christmas songs is Little Drummer Boy. We do not play it in my house. For many people, saying that puts me in company with Ebenezer Scrooge and the Grinch. To make matters worse, I am not a big fan of Santa, Rudolph, or Frosty the Snowman either. However, I find it particularly disturbing that some little kid with a drum can waltz up to the Bethlehem manger and steal the spotlight from God incarnate. It is sentimentality run amuck. It fits in well with the Christmas television lineup but not with the narrative of the Gospels.
The Bethlehem Story
Even the typical manger scene tends more to obscure than to illumine the story of Christ’s birth. We don’t know if there were animals near his bed. The magi did not arrive until about two years later. What was the posture of Mary and Joseph? Probably some form of repose from exhaustion, undoubtedly combined with wonder similar to but exceeding that of other new parents. Mary swaddled baby Jesus just like most infants would have been. The detail that really stands out is the bed — an animal feeding trough (Luke 2:7).
In fact, that feeding trough served a dual purpose. It was a bed, but it was also a sign of things to come. It strikes the gospel reader as strange in light of all the events leading up to it — miraculous conceptions, angelic visitations, in utero dancing, muting and unmuting a doubtful priest, prophetic songs celebrating the culmination of centuries of hope. Then the baby is born in some backwater village and placed in a feeding trough. This is unfathomable love, priceless grace, and ineffable holiness wrapped in humility.
While Mary and Joseph were in recovery, like a proud father passing out cigars, God sent angels to announce the birth of his Son. The shepherds keeping watch over their sheep were not chosen because of their qualities, but in spite of them. Dingy, stinky, and probably rough characters, they just happened to be awake and in the waiting room so to speak. Those guys got the light show of their lives, accompanying the most anticipated announcement of all time, resulting in the only reasonable reaction — drop everything and go see. There is no mention of them bringing their “finest gifts”. It was they who had received the blessing and would witness God’s fulfilled promise. They went away “glorifying and praising God for what they had seen” (Luke 2:20).
The Royal Reception: Ho-hum-a-pum-pum
Now, it is true that the magi presented gifts years later (Matthew 2:1-12). However, Matthew knew the first century Jewish reader would recognize them correctly as Gentile astrologers. They would put them in the same category we use for horoscope enthusiasts. Here we see God sovereignly marshaling the celestial bodies to invade human superstition and take it captive to do his will.
The visit of the magi presents a stark contrast. The superstitious pagan astrologers traveled hundreds of miles to worship a foreign king based on questionable understanding of the nature and workings of the stars. While those with the infallible testimony of the Word of God would not travel six miles to see if the most significant person and longest anticipated event in their nation’s history had finally arrived. Matthew’s account of the magi precedes the escape to Egypt and Herod’s murderous rampage. It demonstrates God’s unassailable sovereignty and man’s inexcusable complacency and depravity.
Giving, Taking, and Receiving
It is not surprising that many adults like Little Drummer Boy. The little boy epitomizes our imagined natural innocence. The song echos a very common impulse as we approach God beating our own drum, “Look what I did for you.” We instinctively assume, God will accept me if I give him my best. However, we err if we imagine that, had we been there that night in Bethlehem, we would have worshipped the child Jesus. In reality, that worship goes against our sinful nature and requires a miraculous change in our hearts: “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ” (2 Cor. 4:6).
First and foremost our status before God is not that of givers but receivers. Like the tax collector in Jesus’ parable, we should be more inclined to beat our breast than our drum (Luke 18:9-14). It is only as sinners unable and unworthy to present anything acceptable to God that we are able to approach him by faith alone in his grace alone through Christ alone. Only then and always then will he smile on us.
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