The Wonder of a Manger

Pastor Craig Carter

Several weeks ago my wife, Lee, asked, “Where should I put Jesus?” That may seem like an odd question so let me provide a little context. We were putting out the Christmas decorations (or should I say, she was putting out the Christmas decorations).

One of our cherished items is a figurine of the Christ-child. Lee’s mom had one that she placed beneath her tree each year. We searched for a similar one for years, but to no avail. Finally, we found one during our trip to the Middle East two years ago, in a Bethlehem shop of all places (in Manger Square, no less – how fitting, huh?)

This year we’ve simplified our decorating (or should I say, Lee…) and instead of putting up our large Christmas tree we put up a couple of smaller ones. So, when Lee asked, “Where should I put Jesus?” she was wondering about a suitable location to display the figurine.

Two thousand years ago, as God contemplated his decision to send His Son into the world on His divinely-appointed mission, He asked, “Where should I put Jesus?”

Of course, we now know the answer to that question, “In a manger in Bethlehem.”

But have you ever considered, “Why there, of all possible places?”

I would suggest it was a remarkable place for Christ’s life on earth to begin. As a matter of fact, I think it adds to “the wonder of Christmas.”

During this Advent season leading up to Christmas, we’ve been looking at some of the amazing features of the Nativity story. We’ve discovered that God used some very common things in astonishing ways. There is the wonder of a name – Jesus, which means Savior. There is the wonder of the angels – heavenly messengers that show us how to know the Christ-child and speak of Him to others. There is the wonder of a star – that guided the wise men and is sign to us of how to find and relate to the Lord.

Today I want us to explore the wonder of a manger and why it matters that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and placed in a crib made from a feeding trough.

12.22.2019 Worship

12.22.2019 Worship

Posted by Lynn Haven UMC on Sunday, December 22, 2019

Here’s how Luke describes Christ’s birth:

At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census. And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, his fiancée, who was now obviously pregnant. And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her first child, a son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them. (Luke 2:1-7 NLT)

The gospel writer makes it very clear that Jesus was born in a town named Bethlehem and the newborn child was laid in a manger. Why does it matter? What is so amazing or wonderful about that?

Why Bethlehem?

If we were first century Jews reading the Gospel of Luke we wouldn’t ask that question. That’s because it was a common belief among them that their Messiah, the One sent by God to rescue them and become their King, would be born in Bethlehem.

Last week, Terry mentioned King Herod’s question posed to the religious leaders of the day about where the Messiah, or King of the Jews, was to be born (after the wise men had informed him that they had seen the star signaling his birth). Do you remember the chief priests’ answer? “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they said. (Matthew 2:5a NLT)

Then they gave justification for their response by quoting a prophecy from Micah: “But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel will come from you, one whose origins are from the distant past. The people of Israel will be abandoned to their enemies until the woman in labor gives birth. Then at last his fellow countrymen will return from exile to their own land. And he will stand to lead his flock with the Lord’s strength, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. Then his people will live there undisturbed, for he will be highly honored around the world. And he will be the source of peace.” (Micah 5:2-5a NLT)

This ancient prediction that was fulfilled through the birth of Jesus reveals several truths that are truly wonderful.

First of all, it tells us that our God always keeps His promises.

Long ago, the Lord promised David that his offspring would produce a ruler whose kingdom would endure forever (2 Samuel 7:12-16).

Micah picked up on this idea even though the prophet was living in a time when Israel was sinking into oblivion and being overrun by foreign armies (see v. 3). Yet, he believed that God would be faithful to His promise and provide a Savior.

That promise was realized when Jesus, the Messiah, was born in Bethlehem, the hometown of David, and He was, in fact, a direct descendant of Israel’s great king (see genealogies in Matthew 1 and Luke 3).

It happened that way even though Jesus’ earthly parents lived in Nazareth, 80 miles to the north; but God orchestrated the events of human history to keep His promise as a government census moved Joseph and Mary to Bethlehem.

What does that mean to us?

It means that God keeps His promises, and therefore we can stand securely upon them. If it’s in His Book, you and I can count on the Lord to do it.

It means we do not need to doubt or fear. Instead, we need to believe and look for God to come through. He’s proven that He will do so using all means necessary. He’s demonstrated, as His Word claims, that He’ll never leave us and that he will always provide comfort, strength, healing, forgiveness and wisdom.

Also, since Jesus was born in Bethlehem, we learn a lesson that is taught throughout Scripture, namely, God does some of His best work through little people, in out-of-the-way places.

Bethlehem was “only a small village among all the people of Judah” (Micah 5:2). Yet, God chose this remote location as the birthplace of His one and only Son. But this fact shouldn’t surprise us because this is the way the Lord normally operates.

When He needed a new king for Israel where did He go? To one of the littlest towns in Israel (Bethlehem) where He chose the youngest of Jesse’s sons, David (see 1 Samuel 16:1-13).

When God chose a man to defeat the giant Goliath who did he pick? Not a mighty warrior, but a young shepherd boy.

And what weapon did David use? Not a huge soldier’s battle ax, but a tiny shepherd’s slingshot.

God does His finest work through little towns, youngest sons, and slingshots.

Time after time in Scripture, God uses ordinary folks to do extraordinary things. That’s good news for us because, guess what? We’re pretty ordinary (at best).

Yet, the Lord can and will use us for His glory to accomplish great and mighty things for His Kingdom.

So one of the wonders of Christmas is that it reminds us we can be the “Bethlehem” of today. God can (and will) accomplish some amazing things through the little people who make up this congregation in an out-of-the-way place (Lynn Haven).

Finally, Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem gives us a glimpse of the type of king Christ would be. In the Luke passage there is an explicit contrast between kings – Augustus and Jesus. While Augustus ruled from the center of world power with an iron fist, there was now a new king being born in a faraway place, in a humble setting.

It’s interesting to note that then name Augustus means “majestic one, highly honored one.” How does the prophet describe the king who was to be born in Bethlehem? See v. 4: “in the majesty of the name of the Lord…highly honored”

But this coming king would not lord his power over his people and put them at war as the Roman emperors commonly did.

Instead, he would “lead his flock” like a shepherd and bring them “peace.”

In our Christmas celebrations I’m afraid we oftentimes forget what kind of king we honor. Ours is a shepherd-king who was born and lived in humility and wants us, his royal subjects, to live in peace with one another.

So this season isn’t about bright lights, loud sounds, and dazzling sights as much as it is about kind deeds, quiet conversations, and loving acts of compassion.

We must help shepherd God’s flock and be a source of peace in the world.

Why a manger?

So where in Bethlehem was Jesus born?

We commonly envision things differently than they are actually portrayed in Scripture. We’re not told the precise location of Jesus’ birth, only that His mother “wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger because there was no lodging available for them” (Luke 2:7 NLT). But most of us are familiar with others translations that say “there was no room for them in the inn.” Rather than being a Holiday “Inn” that comes to mind for us, the word can describe the guest room in a house (see Luke 22:11 where the same Greek word is used to describe an “upper room”).

So there is a good chance that there was no room in the homes of Joseph’s relatives in Bethlehem for them to stay. Consequently, they had to take refuge in a place normally reserved for the animals (i.e. with a “manger” present). It may have been a cave as one tradition suggests, it may have been a separate barn or stable, or it may have been a shed on the back of a house. While the exact location is unknown, what we do know is that after He was born, Jesus was placed in a manger (literally, a feeding trough or corn crib). This fact was so significant Luke mentions it three times, in v. 7 above and also in verses 12 and 16:

“And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:12 NLT)

[The shepherds] hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger. (Luke 2:16 NLT)

What was the “sign” given to the shepherds? Not “wrapped snugly in…cloths.” Every baby in Palestine was swaddled. The sign was that the child was “lying in a manger” (a unique, peculiar place).

What’s the significance of that sign? What does it mean to us?

For one, it shows us the type of life Jesus was going to lead. He was essentially born “homeless” and spent most of His life that way.

Jesus later said, “Foxes have holes and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” (Luke 9:58 NKJV). Christ was always on the move and constantly looking for someone to welcome Him and invite Him in to stay.

Friends, I have good news for you today – the Lord is still on the move because the place where He was buried after His death is an empty tomb. And He’s looking for somewhere (or someone) to call home.

The wonder of the manger is that the One born there is still looking for a place to reside so we need to open up our hearts and lives to Him.

Also, by being born in a manger, Jesus showed just how low God was willing to stoop in order to pick up a lost and fallen race. When the Son of God came down from heaven, He came ALL the way down. A king should have been born in a palace but Jesus was born in a lowly manger.

And the Lord didn’t just humble Himself at birth, He continued to humble Himself in a journey that took Him all the way to the Cross.

“Though [Jesus] was God…he gave up his divine privileges…and was born as a human being…He humbled himself in obedience to God and died a criminal’s death on a cross.” (Philippians 2:6-8 NLT)

So Jesus’ birth foreshadows His death. The infant Son of God came into the world surrounded by dirt and foul odors. Then, through His death at Calvary, He bore the filth and stench of the sins of the whole world.

As one writer puts it, “The Calvary Road is all downhill. Not because it gets easier, but because it gets lower and lower and lower…” From beginning to end, Jesus was willing to endure anything and everything to save us. That, my friends, is not just the wonder of Christmas, it’s the wonder of wonders.

We don’t have to pick ourselves up or ascend to God’s throne on high. Through Christ, God has come down to our level and lifted us up.  

I think that’s what got the angels so excited as they proclaimed Jesus’ birth. “Good news for everyone! The Savior is in a feeding trough! The Messiah has come down to a corn crib! The Lord is in a manger! Glory to God!”

Jesus being born in a manger teaches us one final important truth (one I’ve previously missed). Our English word, manger comes from the Latin word for “chew, eat” (i.e. a place where livestock eat). Could it be that Christ’s manger is a place where all of God’s creatures come to eat? It’s worth noting that Bethlehem literally means, “house of bread.”

Later in His ministry, the One born in the house of bread said: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry…Anyone who eats this bread will live forever; and this bread…is my flesh.” (John 6:35, 51 NLT)

Then, on the night before His death, Jesus said this of the bread of the Lord’s Supper: “This is my body, which is given for you.” (Luke 22:19)

So, maybe the manger, a feeding trough, is a sign of what Jesus came to do. He came to offer Himself as bread for our souls. He came to satisfy our deepest longings. He came to fulfill our lives in a way nothing or no one else can.

When Jesus was tempted, He said, “People do not live by bread alone.” (Luke 4:4b NLT)

Yet, we tend to forget that fact and start to believe that if we have enough “bread” (e.g. possessions, money, prestige), we will somehow become happy and fulfilled.

But there’s absolutely nothing we’ll open on Christmas morning that will satisfy us like Jesus. That’s the wonder of the manger – God in human flesh, stooping down to our level, to show us God’s love and bring us life that is both abundant and eternal.

Today, like the shepherds, we watch for signs of the Messiah’s birth and celebrate the good news of great joy for all people. Like the angels we proclaim, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” We reflect on the wonder of a manger, which represents God’s rescue mission to come and save us. Let’s focus on the love that sent Jesus to be born in a humble manger as we pray:

Lord Jesus, we stand in awe that you would humble yourself and come to earth to live among us – to love us, serve us, and even be willing to give your life for us. Open our eyes this season to the wonder of a manger – an unlikely crib that proclaims your servant leadership and eternal reign as our shepherd and king. May this beautiful picture of your love profoundly change us so that we may follow your example by humbly loving and serving others in your name. Amen.