Luke 2:1-15 1 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to his own town to register. 4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. 8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”
Matthew 2:1-2 1 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem 2 and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him.”
Matthew 2:16 16 When Herod realized that he had been outwitted by the Magi, he was furious, and he gave orders to kill all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under, in accordance with the time he had learned from the Magi.
How many of you have already decorated your home for Christmas? We did most of the decorating we do before we left for vacation this past week. Christmas stockings remind us of the generosity of Saint Nicholas (aka Santa Claus). Christmas Trees being evergreen remind us of everlasting life. The candles and lights remind us of Jesus, the Light of the World. The poinsettia is said to represent the star that stood over the Christ Child. Likewise, the red flower signifies the blood that Christ shed for each of us. Wreaths are said to be a symbol of eternity as well. Bells are a symbol of gladness and joy! We have great reasons to be glad, especially at Christmastime.
And then there is the nativity. Perhaps no other decoration so poignantly honors the season. I’ve put our nativity scene in the kitchen where we can see it often. While the lights, trees, and even Santa Claus point to aspects of Christmas that Christians can celebrate, no other decoration tells the story of Christmas so clearly as the nativity.
As I reflected on the nativity I thought about the truth it tells. Today’s message is an invitation to make the manger central and to let its stories speak loudly and clearly into your life this Advent season. Just what truths does your nativity tell?
Let’s look inside to see who was there.
Joseph and Mary are centerpieces of the nativity. They were young Jews, people of faith. Into their lives the Messiah would be born. They would be faithful servants of God. They would surrender to the tasks for which they had been born, for which they had been chosen.
Neither Joseph or Mary asked, “Why?” Neither one wanted to get out of doing God’s will once they understood what it was. Oh both wrestled with “how” the story could be fulfilled through their lives for sure. Both had questions, no doubt. Mary questioned how it could be that she would be with child when she had never been with a man. How could she, a virgin, conceive? Joseph questioned how Mary’s story about the Holy Spirit overshadowing her and her being pregnant could be true. However, in the end both characters took God at His Word. After both had a personal encounter with God about the situation, both willingly, humbly and in full faith and trust signed on to give their lives over to the task of raising the Messiah.
It came with a price. It came with a stigma. It came with gossip, stares and whispers. It came with innuendo and persecution by those they thought were their friends. The call of God will not be readily understood by all people. It complicated Joseph and Mary’s plans, hopes and dreams. Their nuclear family would include this step-child, this One they hadn’t counted on. They hadn’t considered adoption at that point. Jesus’ birth would have an impact on their future children. I wonder how early their other children were told that Jesus, the first-born was different.
Being good Jews they knew the OT Scriptures about the Messiah’s coming and what His death would produce. Mary lived with the painful reality from His birth that He would be slain for the sins of the world. She stood by in agony at the cross as Jesus’ blood ran down His beaten, bruised body and dripped onto the beams of the cross. And God’s grace sustained her. The promises of Resurrection kept her. The peace of God remained in the center of her pain as she played the role in the story of Redemption God had asked her to. Yes, peace remained in the middle of her pain as she stayed bowed down to the plan of God.
So, servanthood stands at the center of the nativity. Will it be at the center of your Christmas season? Who might be living alone that can be invited to your table? Who can you assist with shopping and the wrapping of gifts that might need some help? Whose walkway can you shovel? Whose newspaper can you retrieve from the end of their drive and take up to their home? What servanthood role is God asking you to play this Christmas Season and beyond, and will you surrender to it? Christmas is about servanthood.
Overcoming of Fear
Who stands beside Mary and Joseph in your nativity? One group of characters, the shepherds, represents what the Messiah enables us to conquer, our fears. This group of rag tag shepherds who were invited to the Messiah’s birth had never been invited to anything special. They had never been considered worthy enough.
God broke in on their starry watch one night with an angel choir’s first Christmas cantata ever. The name of the cantata was “Glory to God in the Highest.” It wasn’t just the first Christmas cantata, but it was also the first ever flash mob, and it was done in the sky no less.
No wonder the shepherds were freaked out. No wonder they were quaking with fear. Seeing their fear, an angel told them it was okay. It was more than okay. The One who could change their lives forever, the One who would take them from feeling worthless to worthy from pointless to purposeful had been born, and they were invited to the baby shower! Pushing past fear to get to the manger meant nothing and no one could ever keep them in fear over their future again. For as the shepherds arrived on the scene they were transformed by a Presence, they were transformed by a Person, they were transformed by the “Prince of Peace” and they left the manger as overcomers. They were turned into evangelists who told everyone what they had seen and heard.
The absence of fear stands at the center of the nativity. Is it at the center of your soul this holiday season? Seems there are more reasons than ever to be afraid. At least there is no shortage of reasons. Holiday seasons seem to either bring out the best or the worst in people. This past week we saw what regular people in a St. Louis suburb were capable of as many let anger take over. People who have been predictable, stable and rational can turn in an instant when they let emotion and the pressure of the crowd dictate their behavior. If I lived in Ferguson, MO I would have new reasons to be afraid.
I’m guessing there is a new threat in several communities around the world every day of the year. One of Satan’s biggest weapons is fear. His tactic is to keep us from getting to the manger to keep us from having a transforming experience with Christ because of it. And many people let him. There are people who won’t come to faith in Christ because they are afraid they can’t live the Christian life. They are afraid they can’t be good enough. They are afraid they will look like hypocrites. People in that category have not only accepted the life of fear Satan wants to put on them, but they have believed his lies that our salvation depends on our goodness. The shepherds could have been afraid that they weren’t good enough to go to Bethlehem and see the miracle for themselves. Just think of what they would have missed.
When our fears dictate our attitudes, actions and agendas we become people we were never meant to become. We become reclusive, distrusting, anxious, sleep deprived, manipulative, controlling and even liars and thieves. We let people and circumstances dictate our emotional well-being and limit our potential. When fear dominates people’s lives they will do anything to avoid the feeling of fear, to avoid the feeling of being out of control. It’s that cycle of living that the Messiah has come to break.
The message of the manger is that we are “more than conquerors.” Fear doesn’t have to drive us or dictate who we will become. The Messiah in the Manger is worth pushing past every fear, and getting there, close and personal will release you from fear’s grip forever.
The other group represented in your nativity is the wisemen; people who saw something in one country that led them to another. They were willing to be led by the miraculous. They were willing to make a journey in faith that took them from their land, their comfort zone. Their journey took a long time, between 25 to 30 days, but the trip was worth the investment.
What could you do this Advent and Christmas season to add to your faith? There are daily Scripture readings that I will post on my FB page and will email to all of you who have provided us with an email address. Why not read those passages and ask God to grow your understanding of what it means that Jesus was born? Today’s reading is Isaiah 40:1-5. Maybe you would be willing to read through the Gospels? Would you spend extra time in prayer? Would you give more whether to the church or to someone in need with the anticipation that God would bless you for the demonstration of your faith? Would you commit to witnessing to someone with the expectation that God would do something eternal in their hearts? How about expressing the reason for the season on your social media or when you do your shopping? People are more open to Jesus during Christmastime than ANY other season. Don’t let the season pass without expressing your faith! Faith that can be seen is compelling. It can spark curiosity and a conversation with those who need to know Jesus for themselves.
In our earthly understanding the wisemen risked a lot to get to the manger. Making that trip was dangerous, but they did it. There are spiritual signs we can read. We can be led by the hand of God. This Christmas ask God to open your spiritual eyes to opportunities to increase your faith.
The presence of the shepherds and the wisemen also say some other things. The shepherds were lower class Jews. The wisemen were upper crust Gentiles. The shepherds were ordinary. The wisemen were educated. The shepherds were poor. The wisemen had means. Oh, the manger says so many things. The rich, the poor, the young and old, both male and female, Jew and Gentile, simple and sophisticated, they are all welcome into the presence of King Jesus. How fitting it was that shepherds, used to caring for sheep, those who would have been trained to spot the ones that were considered spotless and perfect for sacrifice in the temple in order for sins to be forgiven, how fitting for them to be called to the bedside of Jesus, the Lamb of God. How fitting that wisemen in search of a king would encounter Herod yet not bow, but that they would bow in reverence to the infant King of Kings. Oh, tucked inside the nativity is truth after truth we must not miss.
How about the Baby Jesus in your nativity? What tale does He tell from a manger of hay? That piece tells the story of a conquering king. Several things in the nativity speak about Him to us. Look closely at the gifts the wisemen brought; gold, frankincense and myrrh. Gold represented the wealth and power of a king. Frankincense was used in the temple worship of the Lord. It represented his deity–He is truly God born in human flesh. Then there was myrrh–a kind of perfume made from the leaves of the cistus rose. After a person died, myrrh was used to anoint the body and prepare it for burial. John 19:39 tells us that following the crucifixion Jesus’ body was prepared with 75 pounds of myrrh and aloes. So the gift of myrrh pictures Jesus’ suffering and death.
How about those swaddling clothes Jesus was wrapped in? The practice of swaddling babies is an ancient one that predated Jesus’ birth. When a baby was born, he was washed, sprinkled with salt and was then “swaddled.” Jewish families used this practice. Knowing the Messiah would descend from their race they believed their son could be the “salt of the earth” hence the practice of salting their babies! In ancient times babies were swaddled so tight and so much that they looked like mummies. If a child wasn’t salted and swaddled he was seen as abandoned by his parents. He was considered cursed. (See Ezekiel 16:4)
Also, in the Middle East during that time, people who were traveling long distances often had trouble on the way. It wasn’t unusual for someone to die on the journey. For that reason, the male head of the household would tuck a thin, gauzelike cloth around their waist many times. If someone died on the journey, their body would be wrapped in the gauzelike cloth and the party would continue to transport the body as long as possible before it was buried. Many historians believe it was likely this gauzelike swaddling cloth that Joseph had tied around his waist that was used to swaddle the infant Jesus. (http://living4jesus.net/dynamic/in.swaddling.htm) and (https://www.facebook.com/permalink.php?story_fbid=10152054820495902&id=290121225901)
What other strips of cloth held Jesus’ body according to Scripture? John 19:39 details linen cloths that were wrapped around Jesus’ lifeless body before He was placed in tomb. In both instances, His birth and His death, death was just as much of a theme as life. We know about His death on the cross which preceded Him being swaddled or wrapped in strips of linen, but how was death part of His birth and those swaddling clothes?
As was read from Matthew’s Gospel King Herod, afraid of his kingship being threatened by the news that a new king had been born, ordered that all baby boys two and under be killed. Can you imagine the power he had to make such a demand? Can you imagine the pain and suffering so many Jewish homes would have endured because of his edict? Can you imagine the mass mourning? It was a time of oppression and sadness for sure. Thus was the cultural climate at the time of Jesus’ death. The same could be said in many places of our time.
However, just as Jesus escaped death through the obedience of His earthly father to escape with the baby and Mary to Egypt, so too, Jesus escaped from the grip of death when He was raised to life after death by the power of God. Those clothes that swaddled the baby in the manger remind us that grave clothes couldn’t contain the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords because He conquered sin, hell, and death forever making the same kind of overcoming experience available to all who will put their trust in Him.
What about the manger itself! Was it really that important to Luke that we knew Jesus was laid in a manger, a feeding trough for animals after He was born? Oh, the Nativity tells us so much. The manger itself is a reminder that Jesus wasn’t an ordinary baby. He didn’t come into the world in an ordinary way. His parents had come from their town to register and pay their taxes in Bethlehem. Baby Jesus was a long way from home when He was born not only in a heavenly sense, but also in an earthly sense. Because His parents were away from their home they got by the best way they could. They laid their son in a dirty, feeding trough. Not a typical bed for a baby. But remember, this was no typical baby. Jesus is “The Lamb of God” born to take away the sins of the world. A Lamb, laid in a place where other animals would receive nourishment.
Jesus called Himself, “The Bread of Life.” Those who gain spiritual nourishment from Him will have everlasting life. Remember, when the shepherds were given instruction about where to find Jesus they were told about the manger. The manger was going to be a sign of His true identity. The Savior would be the One lying in a manger.
The manger would have been located in a smelly, messy environment. Animal excrement and the smells to accompany it became the birthing suite of the Messiah. Jesus was born in the midst of a mess. It may sound crass on Sunday morning, but it is the reality of that moment and is our reality today. Sin is vile. Sin is dirty. Sin is messy. Though He was God, Jesus willingly left the splendor of heaven to take on the mess of our sin. It wasn’t pretty. It still isn’t. But He did it out of the greatest love ever displayed. Laid in a filthy cattle stall, Jesus came to take on the filth of our sin.
From a bed of hay to a cross of wood, Jesus did it. He did it perfectly. He became the sacrifice for our sin. He conquered sin forever. We no longer have to be separated from a relationship with God because of sin. We no longer have to fear death because of Christ’s victory. Jesus’ victory is our victory. The manger reminds us that God has given us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!
Do you have victory in your life this Christmas? If you are bound by anything or are living in a position of defeat because of any circumstances, God wants you to experience the victory of Christ this Christmas.
The Nativity of Christ says a mouthful. It calls us to servanthood, not just for a season but for a lifetime as are seen in the Joseph and Mary figures. It asks us how far we will go in taking on the role God has assigned for us to play. It calls us out of fear and into faith just as the shepherds and wisemen portray. Its centerpiece, the baby Jesus lying in a manger, calls us to conquer and to live life from the perspective that Jesus has already won our victory.
As we move through this Christmas season let’s hold up these themes in our homes and in the marketplace. Let’s allow the nativity to speak and share the entirety of the message of Christmas. This Christmas, will you meet me at a place of servanthood, hope and faith, a place where the tiniest among us can live victorious. Will you meet me at the manger?