December 1, 2010
One of the most familiar parts of the Christmas story is the appearance of an angel to a group of shepherds on a Bethlehem hillside. Angel appearances were rare indeed, but God chose to make an astonishing announcement to men engaged in such a low-status occupation. The angel’s word first declared the amazing character of the new-born child: “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11). The cluster of titles – Savior, Christ (Messiah), Lord – and the mention of the birthplace (the city of David) mark out this child as the fulfillment of God’s promises and Israel’s hopes.
But what catches my attention is the angel’s next statement: “This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” “Signs” in the Bible usually describe miracles, mighty acts of God pointing to profound spiritual truths. In John’s gospel, a “sign” includes such things as turning water into wine, healing a blind man and calling a dead man back to life. A baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger – where’s the sign there? After all, it was entirely common for mothers of newborns to wash their infant and then wrap them snuggly against the cold of a new world. No sign there!
No, the sign is in what follows – “lying in a manger”. First century mangers or feeding troughs were hewn out of stone, with a hollow chiseled in the top for food or water for the animals. These were not the flimsy wooden devices that are pictured in our Nativity stories: they had to be sturdy enough to resist the pushing of animals to feed. And they were only found where animals were kept or stabled. This mother had been desperate enough to give birth in a place no mother would choose, a place where animals fed and where their pungent odor filled the air. Hardly a setting for the arrival of “the Savior, Christ the Lord”!
And yet this was no accident. It was a divinely intended sign, in some ways among the most remarkable of God’s acts. When Messiah came, he came in lowliness, even humiliation. There were no trappings of majesty or earthly privilege to accompany him. There was no glowing halo – just a crying infant whose young mother was doing her best to keep him warm and fed. And the way he was born became the way he lived his life. The Lord Jesus completely identified himself with the sinners whom he came to save. This was no “at a distance” Savior.” Accompanying humiliation was accessibility. The shepherds, marginalized as they were, would have no hope of approaching a royal infant born in a palace. But even they could gain access to a feeding stable. And so they quickly went to see him.
There is more here than I have space to consider. A manger is where sheep were fed, and the sheep kept in Bethlehem were intended primarily to be taken to the Temple to be used as sacrifices. The one lying in the feeding trough was indeed the Lamb of God and from the very beginning, the cross lay over his life. The shepherds understood much less of this than we do, but they went away “glorifying and praising God”. So should we!