December 24, 2000
Robert B. Ives, Ph.D., Pastor
The Grantham Church
We meet a number of people in Luke 2, and some angels. There is Caesar Augustus, emperor of the Roman Empire; Quirinius, the governor of the region of the Empire that includes Palestine; a poor couple from northern Palestine named Joseph and Mary; a flock of shepherds; and various characters from a small village near Jerusalem. But the central figure of this night is one who is named three times: a baby lying in a manger. This is in verses 7, 12, 16. Why would a baby be the central figure of a drama? He doesnt talk. This is not a Victorian melodrama. That depends, of course, upon who the baby is. And we are told who he is.
He is called, in verse 11, a Savior, and the Messiah, the Lord. Pretty big titles for a baby in a manger. Outwardly there is nothing pretentious in the birth of Marys baby. We can tell from the gift they bring to the temple when they come to consecrate Jesus as Jewish law required: two doves. Two doves was the offering a poor couple would bring.
Now poverty is relative. I remember being with an uncle of mine in West Virginia. We were visiting one of his tenant farmers and they invited us for the noon meal. They served milk from their cow and string beans from their garden. There were a lot of string beans and seconds on milk, but that was all they had, and we ate it.
Even in more lofty circles, poverty is relative. Nancy and I went to see the King Tutankhamen exhibit in Philadelphia. Here was the wealth of Egypts Pharaoh from the 14th century BC. It looked primitive and un-preposing. Let us look at the implications of poverty in the case of Joseph and Marys baby.
In the first scene of Luke 2 the child of Mary and Joseph is born, and they put him in a bed. The bed is called in these three verses (7,12,16) a manger. The word means, a feeding trough. If it had a flat bottom and were made of stout wood and filled with straw, it would be relatively comfortable. But it was plain. The bed of a baby born poor. Why repeat three times that the baby was lying in a feeding trough? When the angel says in verse 12 that the baby is in a feeding trough it shows us that the birth is noticed in heaven. That is encouraging. Among other things it shows that God is interested in the lives of poor people. It also shows that God may choose poor people for working out his will on earth. Sure Marys genetic background is important, but so is her character. Certainly this is Gods child, not Josephs, but Josephs character is important too. He is not going to be a drunken brawler and foul-mouthed.
There is another hint of Mary and Josephs straitened condition. Verse 7, there was no room for them in the inn. There werent inns in first century Palestine like there are today. No Hiltons or Waldorf Astorias. In fact the word in verse 7 is the same word used for the upper room in Luke 22:11. The word means something like spare room. There werent any spare rooms for this couple. Maybe they couldnt afford one, but if they had relatives there, the space was already taken.
It is likely that both Josephs and Marys family were from Bethlehem. Joseph may have owned property there, which would be one reason he would come to Bethlehem to register during this census. But other people were crowding the town, so even among relatives Joseph and Mary cant find a spare room. In Dorothy Sayers version of the birth, it is a shepherd also named Joseph, and his kindly wife, who offer Mary and Joseph their stable and when the crowds have gone, the couple bring them inside to a room in their house. In exchange, Joseph, who was a carpenter, does some repair work for them. Thats plausible, but whatever the exact scenario, we can observe the poverty of Joseph and Mary in this record.
Mary was expecting a child as she and Joseph walked down from Galilee, usually a three day journey. There is no hint that they would have owned a donkey so that Mary could ride. Tough people. Still, it was a short trip, and youd like to plan trips better, but perhaps the home of Joseph in Nazareth wasnt much richer than what they had in Bethlehem. Mary went into labor while they were in Bethlehem. Maybe it was the long trip. So the emperors decree brought Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem, the city in which David was born, at the time when Mary was due, so Jesus himself would be born there. I wonder if it would have made any difference to the Pharisees and teachers of the law during the time Jesus taught to have realized that Jesus had been born in Bethlehem? But they didnt know and Jesus didnt tell them.
Jesus was Marys first child. And she wrapped him up and placed him in a feeding trough.
In the second scene of Luke 2, some shepherds are out in the fields nearby. They are watching a flock of sheep. It is night time. Jesus has already been born. One of those grand angels of heaven, probably more austere and war-like than the angels you see pictured at Christmas, appears suddenly in the night sky and he has a message for the shepherds. Angels dont appear in the Bible accounts without some mission, some message, some act to perform. In this case the angel has a message. Now we know what the message is about, because weve just been looking at Jesus lying in a feeding trough. We know the primitive circumstances and the poverty, but thats not the way the angel tells the story. He says, I bring you good news of a great joy that will involve all people. Does this sound anything like the scene we have witnessed? Well, the safe birth of a baby is good news, but how can this baby mean joy for all people?
The angels message continues, Today - it has just happened - in the village of David a Savior has been born for you. He is the Messiah, the Lord. With these words we see the baby in a manger in a new light. The angels words are like Pauls view in 2 Corinthians 8:9. Listen to his words, For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich. And think of the poverty of His birth and you, therefore, have the potential to be rich in Gods kingdom which is different from making a killing on the stock market.
Thats the kind of thing the angel is saying. But the angel does not make the birth overly glamorous, for he offers this proof to the shepherds, you will find a baby lying in a feeding trough. How likely would this be? Bethlehem was a small village. How many children might be born there in any given month? One, maybe, or perhaps one every two months. So this might be the only baby born in Bethlehem during this time. And where would babies be born? In a home probably, with a mid-wife in attendance. How many babies born in Bethlehem at this time would be in a feeding trough? This would be the only one! What mother would have her child in such a place except by the sheer necessity that Mary and Joseph faced. The shepherds would have little trouble finding this baby in a small village. I dont believe the words of the hymn, no crying he makes. Nothing is wrong with crying. There is nothing sinful in crying. The shepherds would find this baby if they went into the village and looked and listened.
There is a third scene in Luke 2. The shepherds walking into Bethlehem this night did indeed find a baby
lying in a manger. Just as the angel had told them. They stayed a brief time, and when they left, they told people what they had seen. It was the loudest night time gossip session Bethlehem had ever seen. Now it would have been one thing to talk about a new baby being born, though no one would wake people up for that. What the shepherds told people was, 1) they have seen a baby in a feeding trough just as they had been told by an angel to expect. That baby was lying there, all baby-like, looking none the worse for it. And, 2) the angel said this baby was a Savior for all of us, the Messiah, the Lord. This little baby in a feeding trough. The people who heard what they said were amazed. The shepherds who had seen it first hand glorified and praised God. Based upon what we know of first century shepherds, this is about like Fagan and his boys who were trained to steal from the rich glorifying and praising God on the streets of Charles Dickens London.
What lesson are we suppose to learn from this birth ? Are we supposed to spread the word, like the shepherds did? According to verse 17 the shepherds talked about this child. Are we supposed to do that? Sure. After all we live at a really secular time in American life. Teachers cant talk about the Christian Christmas at school unless they talk about other religions and their celebrations as well. The Christian group at the middle school in Mechanicsburg passed out candy canes with a little Christmas message at the school this year. One parent came by them and challenged them, is the school sponsoring this? Some unnamed person sent us a Santa Claus who jiggles his hips and sings a song about how hes giving you all those gifts. Youll get more, he sings. Are we supposed to talk about the birth of Jesus as the Savior of the world in our world like the shepherds did?
Well, thats one response, but notice verse 19. Mary, Jesus mother, a young teenage woman, doesnt talk about his birth at all. Instead she ponders these things in her heart. And the crucial thing is, 30 years later, who knows whether any of those old shepherds were following Jesus, but Mary was. She was at the cross. She was in the upper room with his disciples. She was a believer. It looks like sticking with the thing whats important.
So what other lesson is there? A second lesson is God identifies with the poor. He chose a poor couple to care for his Son. The Savior of the world grew up working for a living, being with the common people, knowing what it was like to not have everything Santa could bring. It is no accident, I believe, that the expression a baby in a feeding trough is repeated three times in Luke 2. When God sent his Son into the world to save the world He did it in a specific way. Emmanuel, one of Jesus names, means, God with us. God was with us when Jesus lived among people like the normal people we know. These are not the blighted rich like in F. Scott Fitzgeralds, The Great Gatsby. Jesus did not live apart from the crushing poverty of His time so that people in Appalachia, in the Sudan, in Haiti, and in those other countries where poverty is the daily lot can know that Jesus lived like they do.
Now we dont need to be ashamed of our wealth, but we do need to recognize that wealth might well make it harder for us to know the needs of the poor of the world and their particular need of a Savior.
And a third lesson for us is this, even though there are times angels may come into our lives with a message from God, we are more likely to find God involved in the control of history, like in sending Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem through a decree of Caesar who did not intend to serve the will of God. We live in Gods world. In spite of the sin and secularity of the world, it remains the stage for Gods acts. Among those acts God sent His son as a baby lying in a feeding trough as a first step to his saving the world by his life, death and resurrection and when Jesus was born, everything is changed. Satan is unmasked. False teaching is exposed and the glory of God breaks out among people. So the question we should be asking is, where do I see God working out his salvation in our world today? And can I, like those ancient shepherds, glorify and praise God for what he allows me to take part in of his salvation wherever it is? In whatever form?