Text: Luke 2:10-12 (NIV)
The angel said to them (the shepherds), “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
From heaven to hay
Let’s suppose that you are a visitor in Australia. You are interested in Australian politics and you know that our chief politician is the Prime Minister. You would like to meet him but you don’t know who he is or where to find him so you ask me for help.
I would say something like this, “This is what you need to look for. Go to Canberra and look for this large building with this huge Australian flag flying above it – that’s the Australian Parliament House. If you see someone in a suit welcoming some dignitaries from other countries with a lot of pomp and ceremony and speech-making, flanked by security men, journalists, TV and newspaper cameramen and reporters, that’s the Prime Minister.
An angel visited some shepherds near Bethlehem and gave them some signs to enable them to find a special baby in the nearby town. They were told that this child would bring great joy to all people. This child born in David’s town was the Saviour – the Son of the Most High God, a king like his ancestor David.
Then a great crowd of angels fill the sky and sing the praises of God at the birth of God’s Saviour into the world. What signs were the shepherds given to help them find this heavenly prince? They were told, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
What a contrast this is to the usual signs of important people. If royalty were about to visit [name of town or city you are in], the signs would be evident. Newspapers and magazines would have photos and stories of the royal family and what preparations were taking place in the town. The streets would be tidied, the dignitaries of the shire would have the place where the royal reception was to take place spruced up and lessons would be given on protocol, what should be worn and how to address the royal family. Curious on-lookers who would want to catch a glimpse of the royal visitors would line the streets. The signs that someone important was arriving would be quite clear.
But when the Prince of Peace, the son of the Most High God, the Saviour of all humanity arrived in Bethlehem, the sign was “a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger”.
Let’s suppose that you were one of the shepherds and all that you know about this important child is what the angel had told you when he said, “This is the sign that will tell you that you have found the Saviour – Christ the Lord. You will find a baby wrapped in strips of cloth and lying on a bed of hay in a feeding trough.”
You can imagine the shepherds talking about this angelic message on the way to Bethlehem and discussing what this was all about. But once they had seen the baby lying in a bed of hay in a manger, what the angel had told them about the baby made good sense and nothing could stop them telling Mary and Joseph and anyone they came across what the angels had said and what they seen in the manger.
What did the message of the angel tell them, and us, about Jesus?
Firstly, these words tell us something about his humanity. The angel announced that the shepherds were to look for a baby, a newborn child. He came into the world the same way as all of us. It is true that this baby’s conception took place in a miraculous way, but apart from that, Mary carried this child for the usual nine months, felt the movement of her unborn child, and experienced the pain of childbirth in the same way as all mothers do.
We are told that the baby Jesus was wrapped in strips of cloth. In a world with little medical care, where babies often died before their first birthday, it was a way of providing a crude kind of protection. The Son of the Most High God was born as helpless and as vulnerable as any other child born at that time.
To say that Christ was born as a baby brings us face to face with the truth that Jesus was as human as you and I. Although he was fully and truly God from all eternity, the Son of God took on true humanity when he was conceived in Mary’s womb and born in Bethlehem. He was not half-God and half-man, but fully God and fully man. He did not cease to be God, but was at the same time fully human with the same emotions, same temptations, same physical needs, and same pain that we all experience.
Secondly, the words of the angel: “This very day in David’s town your Saviour is born—Christ the Lord! And this is what will prove it to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” told the shepherds something about the humble circumstances in which they will find this baby. They found the baby lying in a manger. In Bethlehem, there were probably a number of newborn babies wrapped in strips of cloth, but I’m sure that there was only one lying in an animal’s feeding trough. The mention of a manger indicates that Jesus was born in a stable, or a cave where animals were kept, or perhaps even in a very poor home where the animals lived inside the house with the family.
Before the birth of Jesus, the ancient writers never used the word “humble” as a compliment and would have certainly never referred to their gods as being “humble”. But the events of the first Christmas give us a picture of a “humble God” – an incomprehensible idea in the ancient world. Philip Yancey describes the humility of God in this way:
“The God who came to earth came not in a raging whirlwind nor a devouring fire. Unimaginably, the Maker of all things shrank down, down, down, so small as to become a single fertilised egg, barely visible to the human eye, an egg that would divide and redivide until a foetus took shape, enlarging cell by cell inside a nervous teenager. … God emerged in Palestine as a baby who could not speak or eat solid food or control his bladder, who depended on a teenager for shelter, food, and love” (The Jesus I Never Knew p 36).
There were no halos, no angels hovering over the stable, and no choirs singing in the background.
Maybe if you had been there you might have commented to another passer-by something about how terrible it was that this couple had brought a baby into the world and they only place they could lay the child was in an animal feed trough. Stables were dark, dirty, smelly places made for animals. The shepherds were told that they wouldn’t find the baby in a nursery but outside in a barn where the ground was covered with dirt and the air smelled of manure.
God does do some strange things some times. Occasionally he does strange things to get our attention – and he certainly got the attention of the shepherds. He always does strange things for a purpose. God became a human so that we could relate to him and so that people could experience the powerful love that God has for us.
God became human in order to save his people from their sins as the angel said to Joseph (Mt. 1.21). Beyond the cradle, see the cross. This baby in the hay was born for you and me. He was born because of God’s love for each of us. He was born into our world to bring us forgiveness and eternal life.
The island of Molokai is a part of Hawaii and has quite a history. Back in the late 1800’s there was no cure for the horrible disfiguring disease, leprosy. In order to keep it from spreading and creating an epidemic, lepers were sent to a colony on the island of Molokai.
In 1873, there was a young Belgian priest named Father Damien who volunteered to spend his life serving the people secluded on the island of Molokai. When he arrived, he was shocked to see the condition of the people. Not only were they physically sick but they were also disheartened. There was drunkenness, crime and an overall sense of hopelessness. They needed God’s presence in their lives. And so, in 1873, Father Damien lived among the 700 lepers, knowing the dangers, realizing the inevitable results of so much personal contact with a highly contagious disease. In fact, in 1885 at the age of 45 he himself contracted leprosy.
God has seen that we need his help. Sin has become a part of our lives and there is nothing we can do to free ourselves of its effect on us or our relationships. God was determined to do something about it. God loves us so much that he wanted to stop this procession toward death. Like Father Damien who made his home among the lepers to show them God’s love, God has made his home amongst us who have the leprosy of sin.
He came to show us his love for us and to save us. He came down to do for us what we can’t do for ourselves – get rid of our sin and the punishment we deserve because of it. He came down and was born a human so that he could die for us. He wants us to be his and to live forever with him in heaven. We have a God who loves us, cares for us, forgives us and welcomes us into his kingdom.
The question that remains is – what is your response to this gift from God?
How is your life different because of what God has done for you?
The visit by the shepherds certainly had an impact in their lives. They couldn’t help but tell everyone they saw about what they had witnessed that evening both in the fields of Bethlehem and in the stable.
God came to earth to bring about change in our lives –to give us peace and hope in the face of difficulty, to clear away guilt for our sinful actions, to tear down old barriers and restore love and forgiveness between people. Let us also sing “Glory to God in the highest” We have our Saviour – Christ the Lord – who came down from heaven to be laid in hay!