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December 20, 2020

Sermon Luke 2:12. . . “Silent witness:  a Manger”

“Silent witness:  a Manger”

Luke 2:12

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

It seems that every holiday has its symbols.  Valentine’s Day has its hearts, St. Patrick’s Day has its four-leaf clovers, Easter has its eggs, Fourth of July has its fireworks, Halloween has its pumpkins, and Thanksgiving has its turkeys.

And Christmas has, perhaps, the most beautiful symbols of all.  It just isn’t Christmas unless there are angels, holly, mistletoe, tinsel, bells, cookies, poinsettias, lights, and presents under the tree.

And, better still, many of these symbols remind us of Jesus.

For example, the candy cane reminds us that Jesus, our Good Shepherd, came into our world at Christmas.  The white tells of His purity, and the red recalls His great sacrifice.  As the prophet Isaiah once wrote, “By His stripes, we are healed.”  Even the flavor called, “peppermint,” reminds us of the branch soldiers once lifted to Jesus’ lips.

Bells not only symbolize the joy of Christmas, they also remind us of the bells that once adorned the robe of Israel’s high priest, for as the writer to the Hebrews once said, Christ is our great High Priest, who offered Himself up once for all.

And poinsettias, what some call the ”star flower,” remind us of the star that once shone over the fields of Bethlehem.  They even remind us of Christ Himself, the One whom the Bible calls, “the bright, morning star.”

But of all the symbols by which we remember and celebrate Christmas, probably the most important of all is the creche, the manger scene.

There are angels, shepherds, and wise men.  There are sheep, lambs, cows, and goats.  There’s Mary and Joseph.  There’s a star shining brightly overhead.  And at the heart and center of it all is Jesus, a Baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

It’s a quiet place, and a humble place.  It’s the most important Christmas symbol of all.

Listen to 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).

It’s strange if you think about it.  It’s not something we would ever expect.  When the angel said to the shepherds, “This shall be a sign unto you,” and told them how they should find the Christ Child, we would expect them to say, “the stars will spell out His name,” or “a room will have a mysterious glow,” or “a deep, resounding voice from heaven will tell where you you should go.”

Instead, the angel said, “You will find a Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

A manger?  The Almighty Creator, the Omnipotent One, the Lord of heaven and earth, lying in a manger?

In the words of Max Lucado, “Curious, this royal throne room.  No tapestries covering the windows.  No servants dressed in velvet.  No sparkling, glimmering silver and gold.

“And curious, the sounds of His court--cows munching, hooves crunching, a mother humming, a Baby nursing.”

Yet it was here, in a manger of all places, that our Lord has come.

Today, births happen under brilliant lights in a sterile room, with sterile sheets and gowns.  And just as soon as the baby is born, he’s taken into the hands of a doctor or nurse, who’s dressed in a sterile mask and gloves.  The cord is cut, and the baby is placed in a crib worth thousands of dollars, to keep him safe and warm.

But when Jesus was born, He had none of those things--no hospitals, no sterile birthing suites, no doctors, no nurses, and precious little to keep Him safe and warm.

Should we be surprised?  Not really, for the manger was a sign of everything that was to come.

John wrote in his gospel:  “He was in the world, and though the world was made through Him, the world did not recognize Him.  He came to that which was His own, but His own received Him not.”  And later, Jesus Himself would say, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has no place to lay His head.”

And so it would be for all of His life.  He borrowed a boy’s lunch of fish and bread that day He sent thousands away full.  He borrowed a boat from which to preach on Galilee’s shores as the crowds begged Him to speak some more.  He borrowed a donkey on which to ride triumphantly into Jerusalem.  He borrowed a room in which to meet His friends, to share a Last Supper with them.  He borrowed a basin and He borrowed a towel to wash their feet.  Then He borrowed a cross and even borrowed a tomb in which to lie.  The whole universe was His, yet there was nothing He called His own.

So there’s that question--why was Jesus laid in a manger?

You might say, “It must have been to fulfill Scripture.  The Bible said it would happen that way.”

But in the Old Testament, there’s no word.  None of the prophets said anything about a manger.

Or you might say, “Jesus is the Good Shepherd, so He was born in a place for shepherds, in a manger.”

That’s true too, but most shepherds had homes of their own, and were usually safe and warm.  And it’s true that they were often poor, but not even shepherds laid their baby in a manger.

“Or maybe it was because there was no room in the inn!” you say.  “It must have happened by accident.”

But in the life of Christ, there were no accidents.  Everything was planned, down to the smallest detail.

So why the manger?

If you were to visit a manger, there are three things you’d see.  First, the manger is cold.  It’s a damp sort of cold that sends chills right through your bones.  The only heat you’ll find there is the heat of cows when they come in to feed and when they breathe--clouds of steam in the freezing air.  It’s cold in the manger.

Second, a manger is dark.  Morning, noon or night, even when the sun is shining, it’s dark in the manger.

And third, a manger is dirty.  It’s full of manure, dust and dirt, and smells of must and mold.  As cows eat, they slobber and drool.  There are flies and spiders, and swallows that nest in the rafters.  There’s no such thing as a clean and hygienic manger.

At Christmas, we tend to romanticize the manger.  We turn it into something beautiful and heavenly--a first-century birthing suite.

But a real manger isn’t like that at all.  It’s cold and dark and dirty.

So why was Jesus born, of all places, in a manger?

Because the human heart is like a manger.  It’s cold, because we don’t know the love of God.  It’s dark, because we don’t have the light of Christ.  And it’s dirty, because we’re stained and soiled with sin.

And that is the wonder and the beauty of Christmas.  No matter how cold or dark or dirty our hearts might be, Jesus comes to dwell within.

As the angel once said:  “This shall be a sign unto you:  you shall find a Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”

Author Steven Burt once told of what it was like to grow up on a dairy farm.  Every morning before school, he’d ride the running board of their milk truck, and deliver milk door-to-door with his father.  And after school, he’d shovel out the barn gutters while the cows were out, then drive them back in for milking.

But one cow in particular, he said, was getting fatter and fatter.  And the fatter she got, the slower she was about coming in.  He was so impatient with her, he threw rocks at her flank.  But even that wouldn’t hurry her up.

When he told his father about it, his father explained that she was pregnant and was carrying a calf inside.  

Now since he had never seen a birth--it always seemed to happen when he was away or in the middle of the night--he asked if he could watch as it was born.

“Of course,” his father answered.

Over the next few days, nothing happened, then more nothing, and still more nothing, until one night, when he came home, his father wasn’t in the house.  His sister told him he was out helping to birth the calf.  So off he ran to the barn, still dressed in his school clothes.

And there he found his dad, sitting on a milking stool just outside the pen the cow was in.  She was laboring hard.  He sat on his father’s knee and they waited and watched together.

Finally it happened.  Slowly, the calf worked its way out.  It was slimy, and its hair was slicked down, not beautiful at all.  Then finally, as it lay resting in the straw, its mother began to lick it off.

And as he sat on his father’s knee watching mother and child, he said the barn was filled with the miracle of God’s presence.  It was after midnight.  They stood up to go home.

That’s when his father noticed that he still had his school clothes on, and he didn’t have a clean set for the next day.

He said, “Those clothes are going to smell like the barn.  The kids on the school bus will give you a hard time.”

“I know,” he said, as they turned off the light and walked home.

When we think of the manger, we remember the shepherds, the first to see the miracle of Christ’s birth.  And while some might have looked down on them because they smelled like a barn, so what?  Immanuel--God was with us.

In the words of a poem:  “‘Twas the season of Christmas, and all through the house, the children asked questions, of me and my spouse.  We answered the question of ‘Why God became man?’ and talked of the Jews and father Abraham.  We spoke of His human family tree, filled with many knots, important for you and me.

“And now I understand.  Yes, now it becomes clear, why the message of angels was one of good cheer.  For they declared that His birthday was the birthday of a King.  The good news was eternal life--that’s the gift that Jesus brings.  The Lamb of God, from the world’s foundation slain, shed His blood to atone, and to cleanse us from sin’s every stain.

“Could His birth have possibly been any stranger?  Look closer, and you’ll see the shadow of the cross on His manger.”


Dear Father, as the angel once said, this would be the sign:  a Baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.  Grant us the grace to kneel and worship with wise men and shepherds, for He is our Savior and King, for His sake.  Amen


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