Lessons from the Manger
December 13, 2006
“Christmas is full of surprises.” Somewhere in my reading this week I ran across that sentence. While I am sure it is true, it doesn’t always seem true. Christmas poses a yearly challenge to those of us who have heard the story since we were children. After you have attended 20 or 30 or 40 Christmas pageants, and after you have listened to at least that many Christmas sermons, and heard (and sung) every Christmas carol a few hundred times, what more is left to be said that hasn’t been said before?
If you know about Christmas at all, you know about Mary and the angel Gabriel, about the dangerous journey to Bethlehem, about Caesar’s decree, about Herod’s insane jealousy, about the inn with a “No Vacancy” sign, about the angels and the shepherds, and about the mysterious Wise Men from the east, and the last-second flight into Egypt. All of these stories are so well known that when we hear them again, we don’t really hear them at all because we’ve heard them all before. We hear but we don’t hear.
That is indeed a problem. Familiarity can breed, if not contempt, at least a kind of casual disinterest. Which is sad because the story of Christmas is indeed full of surprises. There are unexpected miracles on every hand. And after all, it tells the most amazing story: That God invaded human history in the form of a tiny, helpless baby.
One of the best ways to fight against the tendency to sleep through a Christmas sermon is to focus on the details. Sometimes it helps to take out the microscope and study just one tiny fragment of the story. By looking closely at a small part, we may see the whole thing in a new light. With that in mind, let’s focus our attention on just one verse of Scripture and see what it says to us. The verse I have in mind comes from the first Christmas sermon—preached by an angel to some very frightened shepherds. After announcing that a Savior had been born in Bethlehem, the angel tells them how to find the baby. “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).
Bells in My Head
Before we jump into the text, let me add a personal note. I suppose I have heard this verse read hundreds of times, usually as part of a longer quotation from Luke 2. Whenever I hear this verse, a little bell goes off in my mind as if to say, “Something doesn’t sound right.” Context is important at this point. The angel has just declared the best news anyone has ever heard: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11 KJV). We forget how utterly unprepared the shepherds were to hear those words—and how awesome they must have sounded. A Savior has been born! The Messiah has come! The Lord from heaven is here! And in Bethlehem, no less!
But where in Bethlehem? How will they find the baby? That’s where verse 12 comes in. When the angel speaks of “the sign” (the Greek contains the definite article), he uses a word that generally refers to a supernatural sign from God that no one could miss. Like the parting of the Red Sea or walking on water or (in the ultimate sense) rising from the dead. Those events are “signs” that the God of the universe has intervened in human history.
And that’s why verse 12 has always sounded a bit strange to my ears. “This will be the sign.” And I expect the next sentence to read, “The moon will turn to blood and the stars will spell out his name.” Or something like that. But it’s not like that. The “sign” from God is this: You will find a baby wrapped in “swaddling clothes” (the King James terminology) and lying in a manger.
Several questions come to mind. In what way is a baby a “sign” from God? Why did God choose to enter the human race like this? And why does the text mention the part about “swaddling clothes?” And what does the manger signify? After all, Jesus was almost certainly not the only baby in Bethlehem that night. We know that later on Herod had all the baby boys under the age of two put to death. So there must have been other infants and toddlers. What’s so special about a baby in a manger?
Luke 2:12 is telling us that the particular circumstances of Jesus’ birth are important. They are part of the message from God. After all, Jesus could have been born in any circumstances God chose. What is the message of the manger? What is God saying to us? What do we learn about the way God works? About who Jesus is?
The “Sign” of the President
Perhaps an illustration will help. Let’s suppose that you have just come to America from another country. You know that our chief executive is called the president, but you don’t know who he is or where he lives. You’d like to meet him if you could but you don’t know where to find him. When you ask for help, I tell you something like this. “Go to Washington and look for a large building called the White House. Look for a plane called Air Force One. Listen for a band playing “Hail to the Chief.” When you see a man coming out of the White House surrounded by police officers and plainclothes detectives, that’s the sign that you’ve found the president. You’ll know for sure when you see him get in the presidential helicopter and fly away. He’s not hard to spot because he’s always surrounded by cameras and reporters. The “sign” of the president is the pomp, ceremony, security, and publicity that surround him wherever he goes.
And what is the “sign” that an heir has been born to the throne of England? The answer is: Look on the cover of People magazine and you will see a picture of Prince William. That is the sign. And read the gossip columns. That’s part of the sign too.
And what sign did God choose to signify his coming to the earth? He chose a baby wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a manger. The early church father Chrysostom called it “a tremendous and wonderful sign.” He referred to I Timothy 3:16, which tells us that “Great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh.” He goes on to say that we should love this holy day (Christmas) because it means that the Word was made flesh and came to earth to dwell among us.
But somehow the world missed God’s sign. We know that the Jews were looking for a Messiah. Even Herod’s scribes knew that Micah 5:2 predicted that Christ would be born in Bethlehem. Why didn’t they recognize him when he came? They could not see the divine in the ordinary. They missed him altogether! They wanted something spectacular, a political messiah who would deliver them from Roman domination. The Jews wanted “a sign,” but they weren’t expecting a baby in a manger. God gave them a sign and they missed it. It was too simple then and for many people it is still too simple today.
Just for a moment, let’s suppose we don’t know anything else about Christmas. If Luke 2:12 were the only verse we had, what would we know about the birth of Christ?
First, we would know something about
I. His Humanity—”You will find a baby”
“A baby.” That’s all the Greek says. The word means “an infant” or a “newborn child.” It is a totally ordinary word used to describe the birth of a child. This tells us that Christ came into the world just as we all do. Even though we often speak of the virgin birth, it should be remembered that the real miracle occurred at the moment of conception nine months earlier. Jesus’ physical birth was completely normal—or as normal as it could be given the unique circumstances.
To say that Christ was born as a baby brings us face to face with the truth of the Incarnation. Although he was fully and truly God from all eternity, the Son of God took on true humanity when he was conceived in Mary’s womb and born in Bethlehem. He was not half-God and half-man, but fully God and fully man. He did not cease to be God, although he laid aside the outward glory of his deity. In some way mysterious to us, the Lord Jesus Christ was the God-man, two natures joining together in his one Person.
This is the central truth of Christianity. God has entered human history in order to provide for our salvation. What we could not do, he did for us through his Son. Everything else flows from this truth. If he had not been born, he could not have died for our sins. And he would not have risen from the dead. He had to become like us in order to save us. There was no other way.
Many battles have been fought over this basic truth. In the first century the battle raged over his genuine humanity. Did God really become a man? Some people said no. But 1 John 4:1-6 reminds us that to deny the humanity of Jesus Christ is to place yourself outside the boundary of Christianity. In our day the debate tends to be over his deity. Few people deny that Christ was a man, but many deny that he was also fully God. They believe he was a teacher, a leader, and even a man sent from God but they do not believe he was (as the creeds say) “very God of very God.”
The Jews do not believe this, even though many hold Jesus in high esteem. The Muslims do not believe this. They say he was a great prophet sent by Allah, but they vigorously deny he was the Son of God. Such a thought is blasphemy to them. The Hindus do not believe this. In their religion, Jesus might be a god, one among millions of gods, but they do not believe that Jesus is the one-and-only Son of God who is God manifest in human flesh.
But this is what Christians believe. And this verse teaches us that the Lord from heaven entered this earth as a tiny, helpless baby.
Second, this verse teaches us about
II. His Helplessness—”Wrapped in cloths”
In that day newborn babies were wrapped in strips of cloth to protect them from the harsh elements. Usually mothers would wrap the arms and legs separately and then wrap the torso until the baby looked liked an Egyptian mummy. This seems cruel, and indeed it severely restricted the child’s movements, but in a world with little medical care, where babies routinely died before their first birthday, it was a way to provide a crude kind of protection.
What do we learn from the binding of baby Jesus? It reminds us of another time, years later, when he would stand before the Jewish authorities, bound and guarded as if he were a common criminal. When falsely accused, he made no reply. When reviled, he refused to answer in kind. He stood before his accusers with his hands tied, awaiting the verdict that would end his life. It is no coincidence that he entered the world as he left it—bound and helpless.
Looking at the baby this way, no one can say he came only for the rich and powerful. And no one can say that he used his heavenly prerogatives to make an easy entrance into the world. He came not for the faith of a few but to be the Savior of all. He was bound that we might be set free.
III. His Humility—”Lying in a manger”
One problem we have with the story is that the word “manger” doesn’t easily communicate a clear image to us. Many of us get our concept of a “manger” from watching the yearly Christmas pageant at church. But the word itself means something like a stable or perhaps a feeding-trough. In the first century, stables were often nothing more than a circle of stones around a hollowed-out cave in the side of a hill.
Is there a hint here of his upcoming death? I believe there is. Even in the feeding-trough, he was already bearing the only cross a baby can bear—extreme poverty and the contempt and indifference of mankind. In the words of Francis of Assissi, “For our sakes he was born a stranger in an open stable; he lived without a place of His own wherein to lay his head, subsisting by the charity of good people; and he died naked on a cross in the close embrace of holy poverty.”
This baby lying forgotten in an exposed stable, resting in a feeding-trough is God’s appointed “sign” to us all. This is a true Incarnation. God has come to the world in a most unlikely way. This is what Philippians 2:7 means when it says that he “made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” Nothing about the baby Jesus appeared supernatural. There were no halos, no angels visible, and no choirs singing. If you had been there, and if you had no other information, you would have concluded that this was just a baby born to a poor young couple down on their luck. Nothing about the outward circumstances pointed to God.
The God of Great Surprises
This is what I meant when I said that Christmas is full of surprises. The other day as I pondered the mysterious ways of God, the thought occurred to me that, in the great events of life, nothing God does makes sense. That is, I cannot tell by looking why God does what he does. Romans 11:33 reminds us that “his paths are beyond tracing out!” Before he died a few years ago, my friend Peter Blakemore explained it this way. You can look at the sky and see a star but you can’t tell where it has come from or where it is going. The same is true of the God who made the stars. We see God at work in the world but we cannot tell where he has been or what he will do next.
To me it is profoundly reassuring that behind Christmas stands a God of great surprises. He does what he wants and he doesn’t ask for human counsel. And from our limited perspective, his ways sometimes make no sense at all. This is a great comfort because it reminds me again that he is God and I am not.
Let’s go back to our original thesis for just a moment. What if Luke 2:12 were the only verse we had regarding the birth of Christ? What would we know and what could we fairly deduce from this one verse? Here are a few answers. We would know
1) The depths to which Christ stooped when he joined the human race.
2) The disinterest of the world that had no room for him.
3) The foreshadowing of the cross while sleeping in a manger.
4) The simplicity of the gospel.
That night if you had walked by, nothing would have seemed supernatural. Mangers were not the beautiful, clean places we see in our Christmas pageants. They are lonely, dirty, smelly places made for animals. If you are looking for Jesus, don’t start in the nursery. Go outside to the barn and find the oldest part where the boards need repair and the ground is covered with dirt and the air smells of manure. When you hear the baby’s cry, you’ll know you’ve found the Lord. He’s not in the nursery with the rest of the children; he’s out in the barn with the animals.
What about the Elephant?
No wonder the world missed him then and still misses him today. It is only by the eye of faith that the majesty of Christ is seen. Recently some friends brought several visitors to a special service at Calvary. Although they are religious, they do not know Christ personally. In the discussion that followed the service, it was clear that the visitors just don’t “get it.” Although they have heard the story time and again, somehow it has never sunk in.
Why? I believe the answer is simple. Faith is a gift from God. Without faith it is impossible to see God, to know God, or to understand the things of God. Without faith you can watch a thousand Christmas pageants and never be converted. The unsaved heart is blind and simply cannot “see” the gospel. Until God takes away that blindness, no amount of argument (or beautiful music, for that matter) will make any difference.
Recently there has been lots of discussion in the Chicago area about the need for religious dialogue. This is usually offered by liberals and by mainstream religious types (basically the same category) as an alternative to evangelism. Instead of preaching Christ and calling sinners to repentance, we are now asked to “dialogue” about our religious differences. While I am all for open discussion with others, the whole notion of “dialogue” strikes me as a smokescreen. When you dialogue, you end up talking about everything except the one thing that matters.
It’s like the man who is invited to a formal banquet. Upon entering the room, he is shocked to see that the middle of the room is occupied by an enormous gray elephant. Not a picture of an elephant or a stuffed elephant, but a real, live, moving, breathing, enormous gray elephant lumbering around the room, knocking tables over and generally creating havoc. When the man goes to the head table, he asks the emcee, “Why is that elephant in the room?” “What are you talking about?” comes the reply. “I don’t see any elephant.” “But he’s right in front of us,” the man says. “I’m sorry, old chap. I don’t know what you’re talking about.” Down the line he goes, asking each person about the elephant, and getting the same answer. Can no one else see the elephant but him? Finally, he comes to a man who can see the elephant too. “Why is that elephant here?” Answer: “We don’t talk about the elephant. That’s too divisive. Some people say there’s an elephant, others say there isn’t. So we decided to leave the subject alone.” So the banquet commences and they spend three hours talking about the meal, the service, and the lovely tableware. But no one ever mentions the gray elephant.
That’s what contemporary religious dialogue is like. We get together to talk about ethics, morality, the sad state of the family, the need for better education, our hopes for the future, the vast possibilities of the ecumenical movement, and anything else that comes to mind. But we don’t dare mention Jesus. We talk about the silverware instead.
Not a Likely Beginning
So we come to the end of the story. God’s surprising sign is a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and resting in a feeding-trough in a cave behind a village inn. It’s not a very likely beginning for a movement that will change the world. What a rebuke to those who love pomp and outward glory, to those who despise the small things of the world. Jesus was once a “small thing” himself. To borrow a phrase from Martin Luther, “He whom the worlds cannot enwrap yonder lies in Mary’s lap.” This is surely a strange way for a Savior to enter the world. Even the poorest child would not be found in a manger, but there he was, God’s appointed “sign” from heaven.
If the world had needed education, God would have sent a teacher.
If the world had needed an army, God would have sent a general.
If the world had needed more money, God would have sent a banker.
But since the world needed a Savior, God sent a baby! And that is the surprise, and the wonder, and ultimately the delight of Christmas. God did what we would never have done, and in so doing, he opened the door to heaven for all of us.
Spurgeon’s Ending Repeated
In the last century Charles Haddon Spurgeon of London preached a fine sermon on this text. I’d like to end my sermon by paraphrasing his closing words:
The scene at Bethlehem is one of utter simplicity: a mother, a father, and a baby. Thus was “the Word made flesh” to dwell among us. What God does is both simple and clear. And the message to us is also simple and clear. Those who come in simple faith to the Lord Jesus Christ find great peace. We need once again to preach the plain man’s gospel, free of speculation and centered on Christ.
Spurgeon then urged his hearers to come in faith to the Babe of Bethlehem who would one day die for the sins of the world. Little children should come for he was once a little child himself. Young women should come for Mary was a young woman who was God’s instrument for bringing Christ into the world. Young men should come for Joseph was a young man who had great faith in God. Old women should come for Anna was an old woman who looked for the coming of the Lord. Old men should come for aged Simeon waited for the consolation of Israel. The working men and women should come to Christ because the shepherds represent all those who work with their hands for a living—and they too came to Bethlehem. Finally, the highly-educated of the world should come for the Wise Men came bearing gifts. They too bowed and worshiped the King.
This is Spurgeon’s closing appeal: “For my own part, the Incarnate God is all my hope and trust. I come back to preach, by God’s help, the gospel, the simple gospel of the Son of God. Jesus, Master, I take Thee to be mine forever! May all in this house be led to do the same, and may they all be thine, great Son of God, in the day of thine appearing, for thy love’s sake. Amen.”
And the one who writes these words says the same thing: Jesus, Master, I take thee to be mine forever. And I pray that everyone who reads this sermon may be led of the Spirit to do the same thing. May we all come in saving faith to the Lord Jesus Christ and worship him both now and forevermore. Amen.