In Carbondale, a city about half an hour from my home town, there is a nativity scene that is put up pretty well every year. Inside the little stable is baby Jesus lying in a manger, with Mary and Joseph adoringly looking at the Christ child. Two wise men and a shepherd also join the scene, along with a cow and a donkey. Quite a touching view, really. Every year this nativity scene is put up along a main highway, right in front of a liquor store.
Yes, you read that correctly. The backdrop for this nativity scene in Carbondale, Illinois is a liquor store. I have proof.
In the past I have driven by it and thought (with a little disdain) that something, somehow, was wrong with this view. Something so holy shouldn’t be right in front of something so unwholesome; or at least something so common. Jesus shouldn’t be born right in front of a liquor store! Whether or not you drink, you must admit that when alcohol is abused it can cause a lot of sin and hurt; the two opposites of who Jesus is.
The two elements of this picture make it almost funny. Let’s be honest. A liquor store and a nativity do not evoke the same connotations in the human heart. Seeing the two together can feel like a weird contradiction. The clash is very real: it is a joining together of opposites.
A manger, in front of a liquor store. The only sinless man ever born, in front of a store that profits on alcoholic sin. The one who came to set us free, in front of a store that makes its money from the bondage and addiction of others. A scene that inspires hope, in front of a store that sells bottles of despair to men who need to drown their sorrows. A scene so holy, right in front of a drink that (when abused) can make men so depraved. I thought that there was something very, very wrong with this picture; and something—preferably the liquor store—needed to go. At very least, this seemed to me like an irreverent place to put Jesus’ stable.
But I have a different view now. The truth of God’s word has changed my mind. The best place for the nativity is not in some holy, hallowed, sanctified place off by itself. The beauty of Jesus’ birth is the same beauty we see in this liquor store nativity scene in Carbondale, Illinois.
In the gospel of Matthew, an angel tells Joseph that Mary “shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins” (1:21). The whole reason Jesus came was so that he could save us from our sins. He came—not to be separated from the reality of human sinfulness—but to fix it.
Matthew tells us that Jesus being born and saving us from our sins is the fulfillment of a prophecy: “Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us” (1:22-23). Jesus is God with us; and he meets us where we are. Jesus knows that we cannot really come to him; he is so holy, how could we ever hope to be sinless like he is? So he comes to us, and he is with us where we are.
I can’t think of a better place for that old nativity scene than right in front of that liquor store. Jesus was born right amongst all of our sinfulness. He wasn’t born in some ivory tower, separated from human suffering and shame. He was born in the real world, where real addictions and real sin cause real heartbreak. Jesus isn’t somewhere else; he is with us right where we are. And he came to fix it. He came to be with us so that he could fix our suffering and fix our shame and take away our sin.
Jesus is born by a liquor store. He is born right beside the suffering that alcoholism can cause. He is born right beside the hurting people who try to drink themselves silly so they don’t have to feel it any more. Jesus is with us where we are. And he was born by a liquor store so that he could take away our sin and pain; so that we could trust him for salvation instead of trusting a bottle for a temporary release. That old nativity, in front of that old liquor store in Carbondale, is on of the most beautiful sights I know.
As we approach Christmas, let’s remember the real reason Jesus came. He came to be with us. He came to be with us right where we are. And he came to take away our sin. Jesus came to be born in front of a liquor store; exactly where his birth needed to happen.