Tuesday, December 25, 2012

AWAY IN A MANGER


Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.

The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,

The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

Introduction

Those lines paint a very sentimental picture don’t they? What could be a more peaceful picture? What could be more the picture of peace than the Baby Jesus asleep? Every year at this time millions of people reflect upon the birth scene or Nativity as they call it. Mary and Joseph are depicted as being in a stable with lots of hay around the place. There are some animals in the stable too, and there are three wise men with presents. And there’s the little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay, in a feeding trough.

I wonder how accurate this picture really is? The Nativity Scene is a kind of conglomeration, isn’t it? It’s got everything that happened happening all at once! Anyway, I’m not going to huff and puff like a big bad wolf and try to blow the Nativity Scene down, or parts of it! That would be to try to destroy one of the last vestiges of the true meaning of Christmas. For, hasn’t the true meaning of Christmas to do with the birth of Jesus Christ our Savior? And that being the case, in the following I’d like to reflect on the birth of Jesus. However, I’d like to do so with this question in mind: Did the Baby Jesus really lay down His sweet head in an animal’s feeding trough, i.e., a manger as we call it?

The Stable

Let us begin by asking the question: Where was Jesus born? Well, we’ll start with the general and then we’ll move to the particular. Jesus was born on the planet earth, wasn’t He? So this makes the planet earth the most special planet in all the universe, doesn’t it? The planet earth might look like some insignificant speck of dust in relation to the galaxy. But Almighty God, the Creator, the Maker of all the heavens and the earth, in the Person of the 2nd or Middle Person of the Trinity became flesh on this speck of dust. The Son of God became also the Son of Man on the planet earth. Therefore even though this planet revolves around the sun, the planet earth is the center of the universe! And Jesus Christ really was born here some 2000 years ago. And He was born in the usual way like any other child, just as the Scriptures say. For example, Luke 2:6-7, “The days were completed for her [i.e., Mary] to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.”

We see in Luke 2:4 that Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea. We might ask why Jesus wasn’t born in Glasgow, Scotland? Why wasn’t He born in Winnipeg, Manitoba or Hobart, Tasmania? Well, later in His life Jesus would encounter a crowd of people who were wondering the same thing about Galilee. John 7:41-42, “Will the Christ come out of Galilee? Has not the Scripture said that Christ comes from the seed of David and from the town of Bethlehem, where David was?” So, the reason why Christ wasn’t born in Glasgow or Hobart or Galilee is because of Scripture. For example, Matthew in his Gospel quotes the Scripture which was written some 700 years BC. Matthew 2:6, “But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are not the least among the rulers of Judah; for out of you shall come a Ruler who will shepherd My people Israel.” So, the Scriptures cannot be broken. Only Bethlehem in Judah will do as the birthplace of Christ.

Now, we’re told that Bethlehem in Judea is actually the City of King David. David as a boy tended his father’s flocks there. Therefore, David was a shepherd king. And he lived about 1000 years before the birth of Christ. Was it not David’s throne that Jesus was to inherit as Ruler? We see this in the well known verses of Isaiah where he says, “For unto us a Child is born, unto us a Son is given; and the government will be upon His shoulderOf the increase of His government and peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David and over His kingdom.” So, Jesus, the Son of David as He’s sometimes called, has come to claim the everlasting throne of David the shepherd king. It makes sense then that Jesus would be born in the City of David, even Bethlehem. And it just so happened that Joseph the husband of Mary hailed from Bethlehem. And it just so happened that they had to go there for the Roman census. And it just so happened that Mary was about to give birth to Jesus.

There are many reasons why Jesus was born in Bethlehem. But they’re all summed up in the fact that God planned and directed it to happen that way. However, here comes the next question: Why was Jesus born in a stable?
Shouldn’t Jesus, the King of Kings, have been born in the king’s palace? Shouldn’t He have been born surrounded by angels, cherubim and seraphim, singing at the top of their voices?  Shouldn’t Jesus have been born in the best Maternity Hospital that money could pay for? What’s God thinking about, having His Son being born in a stable? Why a stable? I thought long and hard about this. Oh sure, we can talk about the great humility that surrounds the humble birth of Christ.

Jerome waxes eloquent on Christ’s humble birth where he says, “Christ found no room in the Holy of Holies that shone with gold, precious stones, pure silk and silver. He is not born in the midst of gold and riches, but in the midst of dung, in a stable where our sins were filthier than the dung. He is born on a dunghill in order to lift up those who come from it: ‘From the dunghill he lifts up the poor’ (Ps 113:7)” (Jerome, On the Nativity of the Lord, ACCSNT 3:39).
We could talk about God choosing the so called foolish  things of the world to put to shame the so-called wise. We could talk about God choosing the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty. We could talk about God choosing the base or lowly things of the world, things despised. We could talk about all of these things, for they are all relevant to what we’re looking at. And while doing so we could learn a great deal about our God and the ways of our God. But, it’s the job of the preacher first and foremost to bring out to you the immediate meaning of any text of Scripture BEFORE he tries to find its applications. 

So, our question is: Why was Jesus born in a stable? Well, we’re given a direct answer to that question in Luke 2:7b. Jesus was born in a stable “because there was no room for them at the inn.” In today’s terms Jesus was born in the motel parking lot, perhaps the underground parking of a hotel. For, the stable would be the place where travellers parked their horses or camels in those days. Though there is not one animal mentioned, we can imagine that there would be horses, donkeys, camels and the likes in this stable. Perhaps there would be a few hens for eggs and chicken to feed travellers lodging at the inn. Perhaps there would have been a couple of sheep or goats and one or two cows for milk and meat. We don’t know any of these things for definite – the Scriptures don’t say. However, I don’t think we could be accused of speculation or conjecture by suggesting these things. For, what else would you expect to see in a stable attached to an inn?

So, thus far we see that the inn people had a place to stay at the inn. And we see that even their animals had a place to stay at the inn’s stable. But what about the Baby Jesus? Well, as He Himself went on to say, “Foxes have holes and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head” Luke 9:58. He had to make do with a stable. But, here’s something perhaps you’ve never really thought about. We get the whole Nativity Scene we see depicted at Christmas from that word “manger.” “And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.”

What is a “manger” exactly? When we sing,

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,

The little Lord Jesus laid down His sweet head.

The stars in the bright sky looked down where He lay,  

The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay – what are we thinking of? We’re thinking of a stable with animals and a little baby asleep in a feeding trough, aren’t we? For, isn’t this the picture portrayed in the Nativity Scene every Christmas? But does Luke here mean the “manger” to be the feeding trough or the stable? For, the original New Testament Greek word for it can mean both a feeding trough or a stall for animals. If you’ll excuse the illustration, it’s kind of like the word “toilet.” Toilet can mean the room, or the white porcelain object in the room. However, it seems to me, that we have the correct picture which is the Baby Jesus lying in feed trough in a stable.

The Sign

Here’s the reason for my answer. We asked the question, Why was Jesus born in a stable? – a stable being the place where you’d find a feed trough. And we saw that it was because there was no room at the inn. However, Jesus wasn’t born in an animal feed trough, was He? No, we’re told that Mary “laid Him in a manger, i.e., reclined Him in a manger. And we do know that Jesus was not born in the inn. And we do know He was born in a place where there was an animal feed trough, a manger. Therefore it’s looking good that the Baby Jesus was actually placed in a feed trough in a stable.

Next, we have to take into consideration the fact that a bunch of shepherds are on their way to visit the Baby Jesus. For, didn’t an angel talk to these shepherds while they were tending their flock at night? And what did that angel say to them? Luke 2:12, “And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” So, we see then that Mary laid the wrapped up Baby Jesus in a feed trough. And yet it was God who had her do this as a sign for a bunch of shepherds. The wrapped up Baby lying in the feeding trough was to signify to the shepherds that this Baby is the Baby the angel was talking about. It was to signify to the shepherds that this Baby was the Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. For, how many newborn babies would you expect to see lying in a manger in a stable?

What happened when the shepherds got to their destination? Luke 2:16, “And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.” [it should be THE manger not A manger, for that is what is in the original text]. This verse clinches it for me! At first reading it might seem as if Mary and Joseph and Jesus were all lying in the manger. This therefore might suggest that the manger was the stable proper and not a feed trough. For, how can two adults and a child be expected to fit into a feed trough? However, we won’t go too far wrong if we keep in mind the sign the shepherds were to look for. The sign wasn’t to be a man and a woman and a baby in a stable. Nor was the sign to be a baby held in its mother’s arms, smothered with loving kisses. No, the picture God gave these shepherds was a Baby all wrapped in swaddling cloths, and lying in animal feeding trough. The shepherds of the flocks were to let that picture soak into their minds. God wanted to burn that picture into their hearts. “For there is born to you [shepherds] this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.”

Being shepherds, they’d be familiar with those Scriptures that mention shepherds. They would be familiar with the likes of the words of the Lord to His prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel 34:22-23, “I will save My flock, and they shall no longer be a prey; I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will establish one shepherd over them, and He shall feed them – My servant David. He shall feed them and be their shepherd.” Or, Isaiah 1:3, “Hear, O heavens, and give ear, O earth! For the LORD has spoken: ‘I have nourished and brought up children, and they have rebelled against Me; the ox knows its owner and the donkey its master’s crib [or manger]; but Israel does not know, My people do not consider.’” Or, Isaiah 40:11, “He will feed His flock like a shepherd; He will gather His lambs with His arm, and carry them in His bosom, and gently lead those who are with young.” Or, the Psalm of David, the “Shepherd Psalm”: “The Lord is my shepherd I shall not want.”

Therefore you shepherds – behold your Saviour! Behold the Great Shepherd of the sheep, the Son of David, even Christ the Lord! Behold Him lying in the manger – a feeding trough. For, He has come to feed His flock! The shepherds got the picture when they gazed upon the Baby Jesus wrapped in swaddling cloths and laying in a manger. I’m sure we’ve all got the picture too! This Baby in the manger is the Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. So, take that picture away with you. Burned into your heart. For, it’s an accurate picture. And when you’ve eaten your Christmas dinner – when you’ve eaten your fill – remember that Jesus has come to feed His flock!

The Shepherds

Shepherds and sheep figure prominently all the way through the Bible. Shepherds and sheep are mentioned all the way from Abel offering the firstborn of his flock in Genesis to great Shepherd of the sheep, as the Lamb of God on His throne in Revelation. Notice what was said by the angel to the shepherds in verse 11, “For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” The city of David is Bethlehem. It is called the City of David because that is where David was born. David was shepherd, and Jesus is often referred by the title Son of David. He is also referred to as a Son of Abraham.

Notice that the shepherds are told that the One born this day is a Saviour. The shepherds knew the Old Testament Scriptures. The sheep they were tending were sheep used in Temple sacrifices. They knew exactly what the Saviour promised by God was coming to do. He was coming to set them free from their sins. For every lamb of sacrifice in their fields pointed to the Saviour.

These shepherds belonged to the people of Israel – a people with a history. At one time, the people of Israel were captives in the land of Egypt, in the house of bondage. However, God saved them out of the land of Egypt by a mighty arm. Now, here’s where it gets interesting. Did you know that the Israelites in Egypt lived in a place called Goshen? Why did they live in the land of Goshen in Egypt? Well, when Joseph invited Israel to come and live in Egypt he said, “I will go up and tell Pharaoh, and say to him, ‘My brothers and those of my father’s house, who are in the land of Canaan, have come to me. And the men are shepherds, for their occupation has been to feed livestock; and they have brought their flocks, their herds, and all that they have.’ So it shall be, when Pharaoh calls you and says, ‘What is your occupation?’ that you shall say, ‘Your servants’ occupation has been with livestock from our youth even till now, both we and also our fathers,’ that you may dwell in the land of Goshen; for every shepherd is an abomination to the Egyptians.” Genesis 46:31-34.

God’s Old Testament people are shepherds. And shepherds are an abomination to the Egyptians of whom Israel became slaves. And because shepherds were an abomination to the Egyptians the Israelites, in the providence of God, lived separate lives from the Egyptians. And the reason they were shepherds was for the same reason the shepherds out in the fields in our text are shepherds. There needed to be a constant supply of animals to sacrifice. And every animal sacrificed and every animal for sacrifice pointed to the One who was born in Bethlehem that day – the Saviour. And because there was no room at the inn the Saviour – the great Shepherd of the sheep – is in His own ‘Goshen’ – a stable! And this time He had come to set His people free, i.e., to save His people from their sins.

So, the significance of the shepherds is that it demonstrates the continuation of the salvation the LORD God wrought for His people by bringing them out of Egypt. It’s all part of the same plan of salvation for His people. It’s a continuation of the same redemptive act. Both the exodus from Egypt and our exodus from sin belong to same covenant plan of God. For, both belong to the ongoing fulfilment of the promise God made to Abraham. The LORD had said to Abraham in his old age, “One from your own body shall be your heir.” Genesis 15:4. He had said to him, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” Genesis 12:3b. Isaac was merely a token of that promise. And king David was another token. However, Jesus Christ is the real thing – He is the true Son of Abraham – the true Son of David. He is the One through whom all the families of the earth will be blessed. And these lowly shepherds are the first to hear that the promise made to Abraham was being fulfilled. For, referring to that promise God had made to Abraham the angel said to the shepherds, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord.” Luke 2:10-11.

Don’t miss the connection between the promise God made to Abraham and the announcement the angel is making to these shepherds. The Lord said to Abraham, “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” And the Lord’s angel said to these shepherds, “I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people." Abraham heard the promise of the Good News and the shepherds are hearing the beginning of the fulfilment of that good tidings promise. The Good news is all about the Lord setting His people free. For, it was Christ the Lord who had set His people free from bondage in Egypt. And it is Christ the Lord who sets His people free from bondage to Satan and sin.

The Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger was the sign the Lord had given these shepherds by which they could identify  the Saviour of the world. Make no mistake. These lowly shepherds saw the glory of the Lord. For, when they saw the baby Jesus lying in that manger they were seeing the glory of the Lord. For, the glory of the Lord is revealed in His humble condescension – His permitting Himself to being born in stable and laid in a feeding trough.

Conclusion

The shepherds? “And when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.” And, “Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, and was told them.” Let us do likewise! Let us make widely known what we know concerning Christ. And let us glorify and praise God! Jesus was born in a stable, laid in a manger, and was visited by shepherds.

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