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December 13, 2020

Sermon Luke 2:12 . . .“Silent witness:  Swaddling clothes”

“Silent witness:  Swaddling clothes”

Luke 2:12

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

Back in 1944, near the end of the Second World War, a factory worker and musician by the name of Anthony E. Pratt of Birmingham, England, together with his wife, Elva, invented a game called, “Clue.” It’s a murder-mystery game for anywhere from three to six players.  And even though it was invented nearly eighty years ago, it’s still one of the most popular board games of all time.  Maybe you’ve played it once or twice before.

The game is simple.  It begins as three cards--one suspect, one weapon, and one room card--are all chosen at random, then put into a special envelope to represent the “facts” of the case.  Then the rest of the cards are handed out to the players.  The aim, of course, is to deduce the details of the murder--the cards in the envelope.

But it isn’t easy.  There are six characters, six murder weapons, and nine rooms, leaving the players with as many as 324 possibilities.  Was it Mr. Green, in the Hall, with the revolver?  Was it Colonel Mustard, in the Conservatory, with the rope?  Or was it Professor Plum or Mrs. Peacock, or Mrs. White in the Dining Room, with the Candlestick?

We love mysteries.  And we love finding clues.  If you’ve ever watched shows or movies like Sherlock, or Murder, She Wrote, or even Scooby-Doo!, you know what I mean.

So it was on that first Christmas night.  For as shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night, they were given a clue, a way to find the Savior.

I’ll read the words of Luke chapter 2:  “And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.  And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear.  And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.  For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be a sign for you:  you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger’” (Luke 2:8-12).

Now before we go any further, there are certain things you should understand.

First of all, let’s look at the words, “There were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”  What does that mean?  

At face value, not necessarily all that much.  Shepherds always kept watch over their flock by night. 

But if you’d dig a little deeper, you’d find that these weren’t just any shepherds, and neither were they just any sheep.  Since they were barely five miles outside of Jerusalem, the capital city, the center of life and worship for the people of Israel, these sheep were set apart as holy and sacred, destined not simply for wool, but for Temple sacrifice.

And how many sheep were there?  Since historians tell us that the Temple required as many as 265,000 of them every year, needless to say, there could have been quite a lot!

And neither were these just plain, old, ordinary, run-of-the-mill shepherds.  Since they worked for the temple, they were Levitical shepherds, “priestly” shepherds, who raised sheep for sacrifice, specially trained for their royal task.

Even more, at each and every birth, since the lambs were destined for temple sacrifice, it was the shepherd’s job to see that none of them was hurt, damaged, or “blemished.”

How did they do it?  Just as soon as each one was born, they wrapped it in swaddling clothes.

So what exactly were swaddling clothes?

In Bible times, when a child was born, his father or mother would first rub him with salt, then oil, then wrap him up in long strips of cloth so it was nearly impossible for him to move his head, his arms, or his legs.

A swaddled child could move his eyes, but nothing more.  To be swaddled was to be bound, restricted, made helpless, paralyzed.

That might sound a little harsh, but in ancient times, it made perfect sense.  Since they spent so much time outdoors, and were exposed to every kind of weather, swaddled children were safe and warm.

A swaddled child was a loved child, a cherished child--secure, in the deepest sense of the word.  That’s why, in ancient Hebrew dictionaries, the word, “unswaddled,” was another word for “abandoned,” “neglected,” and “discarded.”

Even today, in the insignia of the American Academy of Pediatrics, you’ll see a young child emerging from his swaddling clothes.  The infant’s arms are stretched wide.  His feet are spread apart.  The bands of cloth, once wound as tightly as a cocoon, fall away.  And his swaddling clothes lie unraveled at his feet.

Isn’t it strange that, when the shepherds were given a sign by which they should find their newborn Savior, they were told:  “You shall find a Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes…”?

Notice the angel didn’t say, “You shall find a Babe wrapped in the finest linen and purple, wearing a tiny crown and holding a golden scepter.  And you’ll know Him by the bees that gather around to draw nectar from His lips, and strangled serpents that lie dead at His side.”  Nor did the angel say, “A halo will hover over His brow and light will beam from His supernatural majesty.”

That’s what we would expect.  He was, after all, the King of kings and Lord of lords.  He would reign forever.

Instead, the angel said, “You shall find a Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes...”  Bound and bandaged, restricted, paralyzed.  Set apart as sacred, holy, unblemished for sacrifice.

Is it any surprise?  It shouldn’t be.  After all, that’s what Paul wrote to the Galatians:  “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons” (Galatians 4:4-5).

When He was born, there was no room.  He was a Child of flesh and blood, destitute, poor, and needy.  His family came from a backwater town called Nazareth, in the hill country of Galilee, a place from which nothing good ever comes.  He was unremarkable, disguised, undistinguished.

And so the outrageous, and seemingly impossible message of Christmas, is that God has come to dwell with us, born like us, to live and die for us.  The infinite was defined by the finite--a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes.

In the words of a fourth century church father, Ambrose of Milan, “He came as a Baby and a Child, that you may be a perfect human.  He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that you may be freed from the snares of death.  He was in a manger, so that you may be in the altar.  He was on earth, that you may be in the stars.  He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in heaven.  ‘He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through His poverty you might be rich.’  Therefore, His poverty is our inheritance, and the Lord’s weakness is our virtue.  He chose to lack for Himself, that He may abound for all.  The sobs of the appalling infancy cleanse me, those tears wash away my sins.  Therefore, Lord Jesus, I owe more to Your sufferings because I was redeemed, than I do to works for which I was created.”

Or another author wrote, “Jesus--a simple name with so much power and meaning, but on that night so long ago, the tiny Baby, wrapped by Mary in swaddling clothes, waving little arms, hungrily sucking a fist, was like any other newborn baby.  He was helpless and dependent, and Mary was His hope of survival, His nourishment, His very lifeline.  God entrusted His most priceless gift to a very human, very young, earthly mother.  Why?  Because God so loved that He gave.  He relinquished His hold on His Son, and placed Him in fragile human arms.”

So it’s no wonder then that, just as soon as the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.”  And it’s no wonder that they went with haste to find Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.

And what did they find when they got there?  There in that manger, wrapped in swaddling clothes, they found the peace with which He would someday calm a storm on the sea, bread and fish He would multiply to feed thousands, eyes by which blind men could see, legs with which lame men could walk, water for a Samaritan woman at a well, freedom for one caught in the act of adultery, tears with which He would weep over His beloved city of Jerusalem, life for a man named Lazarus, a cross that would destroy both sin and death, and an open tomb promising resurrection.

A little over forty years ago, back in 1976, an author by the name of Jay Kesler wrote a book called, I Never Promised You a Disneyland.

And in that book, he said that, when most people think of Christmas, they think of camels, swaddling clothes, and a manger.  But he thinks of a Ford Motor plant.

You see, one year, he toured a plant and watched them assemble cars.  As you can imagine, it was a real eye opener.  For years, he had always thought that Ford would simply guess how many cars people needed, then make that many.  And they would make two or three thousand green cars one week, then switch to some other color the next week.  But as he toured that plant, he soon came to realize that’s not how they do it at all.

Instead, all across the country, people walk into a Ford dealership, look around, kick a few tires, then order a certain model with a certain color, and a certain kind of engine and transmission.  Then the dealer contacts the company and places the order.

In one city, they make the correct transmission.  In another city they make vinyl roofs.  In still another they make windows, bumpers, and mirrors.

Then over the next couple of weeks, all those pieces start coming together at the Ford Motor plant.

And at that plant, as the cars come down the lines, you can bet the green car doesn’t get a red steering wheel.  Instead, at exactly the right time, the green steering wheel is ready for the green car, and the red steering wheel is ready for the red car, not to mention the mirrors, the roof, and the seat covers--every part shows up at precisely the right moment.

Then he writes, “Now if man is capable of designing such an ingenious system to bring thousands of parts and pieces together with precise timing just to make a car, imagine what God can do to prepare His visit to earth.”  Then he said, “That’s what I think of when I think of Christmas.  The number of things God brought together at one time in one place is so incredible, it makes the Ford plant look like a corner gas station.”

In the words of a poem, “To you, in David’s town, this day, is born of David’s line, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord; and this shall be the sign.  The heavenly Babe you there shall find to human view displayed, all meanly wrapped in swaddling clothes, and in a manger laid.”

 

Dear Lord, to shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, You once gave a sign.  Help us in our day and time to both seek Him and find Him, for He is the Savior and Redeemer of all, for His sake.  Amen

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