Tonight we’re continuing our study of some of the great carols of Christmas by focusing on “Away In A Manger” — a song that children have loved to sing for hundreds of years. By the way, legend has it that the great reformer, Martin Luther, wrote “Away In A Manger” for his own children way back in the 16th century. This legend just may be true because for a long time the carol was commonly referred to as “Luther’s Cradle Hymn.”
In any case, whenever I sing this old carol, I get a picture in my mind’s eye of the place where Jesus was born. This particular carol helps me zero in on the first nativity scene. And tonight as we remember these lyrics I’d like us to do exactly that. I want us to take a few moments to take a good look at the nativity itself…so that we can learn all there is to be learned from that special, holy place.
(1) Let’s start with verse 1 of this carol where it talks about the STARS that shown above the stable that first Christmas night.
Their light reminds me of the fact that a couple years later God commissioned another light—a SPECIAL star to serve as a kind of TRAVEL GUIDE for a group of men from the east who had developed an interest in looking for the Christmas child. Not only did that star lead these easterners to JERUSALEM and then to BETHLEHEM, but Matthew 2:9 tells us that the star led these WISE MEN to the EXACT HOUSE where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus were living. When they finally located the Christ Child, the Bible says, they fell on their knees and worshiped Him and gave Him costly gifts. These men…these first seekers…rejoiced over the fact that God had provided them with a remarkably accurate travel GUIDE. They knew they would never have found Christ without that amazing star.
What does this aspect of the nativity say to us? To me, the star is a symbol of the fact that God has seen to it that those who diligently seek Christ, will find Him. As God says in Jeremiah 29:13, “If you look for Me in earnest, you will find Me.”
I think most of us here tonight are Christians and as one myself, I can say that when I came to the age that I decided I wanted to find Christ—when I decided that I wanted to become a Christ-follower, God had travel guides there to help me find Him. I was seven years old when I realized that I needed Jesus to forgive my sins and lead me through life—and it was my parents who carefully GUIDED me through that all-important decision. My dad also suggested I meet with one of the deacons in the church at the time and he helped me understand more about Jesus and what it means to follow Him. Then, throughout my life God sent other travel guides, to lead me into a deeper relationship with His Son. For example, I remember people like my youth ministers, David and Susan Norwood and Jim Warren, my Baptist Student Union director in college. I remember seminary professors and decades full of dear Christians friends—a long list of people who helped me to walk closer to God.
If you’re a Christian then you know what I mean. The wonderful truth is that when we seek God, He always sends us these “earthbound stars” to guide us to Him. Your “star” may have been a parent or a friend or a neighbor or teacher…and you can say, “Without that person, I doubt I would have ever found Christ.”
Tonight as we remember the star that guided those first wise seekers to Jesus…wouldn’t it be an appropriate night to thank God for the gift of your particular travel guides? Wouldn’t this be a great time to pray and say, “Thank You Father, for the people You have brought into my life, who guided me to faith in Your Son.”
I also think that, as we focus on the Christmas star, we who have found Christ, should commit ourselves to sharing our faith whenever possible. We should covenant with God that we will guide all the people we can, neighbors, co-workers, family members, to Jesus…saying something like, “God, I’m available….I’m ready and willing. Call on me like You did that star—when someone needs to know how to find You.”
(2) Now, let’s turn our mental gaze downward so that we look at THE STABLE itself.
If you remember the lyrics you know that Luther’s carol refers to the place of Jesus’ birth as a place to keep cattle—and most typical manger scenes look like that. In fact, nativities tend to look kind of cozy and inviting with candles burning—casting their glow on piles of clean hay.
But I can assure you that the stable in which Christ was born was anything but quaint and inviting. It was just like a thousand other stables in 1st century Israel—in fact it was probably a dark, cold, damp CAVE, rodent-invested and crowded with smelly animals. In short, it was an all-round rotten place to give birth to a baby.
I don’t know about you but this makes me stop and wonder—If God could commandeer a STAR to serve as a travel guide, why couldn’t He commandeer a SUITE at the Bethlehem Hilton or at least a private room in the local hospital? Of course God COULD have done something that but the fact is, He made the deliberate choice not to. God intentionally CHOSE the stable as a place for His Son to be born—and for a VERY IMPORTANT reason. God wanted His Son—He wanted Jesus to experience life as we do. He would literally be God in the same kind of flesh that you and I walk around in.
Bill Hybles writes, “Jesus was born in that cold, dark place because He had no desire to be sheltered from the harsh realities of life on this fallen world of ours. He wanted to experience human life in all it’s blue collar boldness.” The Apostle Paul puts it this way in Philippians 2, “[Jesus] made Himself nothing…taking the very nature of a servant, being made in HUMAN likeness…”
Try to imagine what that must have been like for our Lord. All Jesus had known—up until that first Christmas night—were the sights and smells of Heaven. And the Bible says that HEAVEN is a place of unimaginable beauty. But when He woke up as a baby, the first thing He SAW was that dark, cold, cave. The first thing He SMELLED was urine and manure. And the first thing He HEARD were animal sounds—when He was accustomed of the singing of angels!
The Bible teaches that when Jesus was in Heaven, He could say a word and the world came into existence. Unlimited power was at His disposal. But that first Christmas night He lay in a manger and He had set aside His power….which means He had to hope His teenage mother would change His diapers and feed Him on time. “Why?” you ask. “What was God’s PURPOSE in being born in a STABLE? Why not be born in a PALACE—a place at least REMOTELY like heaven? Why not come to earth as a PRINCE instead of a PEASANT?”
The answer is this. Palace-dwelling princes can’t relate to what you and I go through. They don’t live where we live, they don’t eat like we eat, or work like we have to work or suffer like we suffer. I remember several years ago, at the prompting of Cathie Burke, a missionary in Kenya, we prayed for that nation as they held elections. We prayed because their former president was being FORCED to hold elections. Remember? He had been a very corrupt ruler and our own Collin Powell had visited and told him if he didn’t step down and hold elections the U. S. would stop sending aid. You see, that president had been more of a King than a president. He lived in a palatial estate with gourmet food and designer clothes and servants and expensive cars…while his people lived in squaller. He couldn’t relate to their lives because he lived in a man-made “heaven” while what they lived in was more of a man-made hell…a place of hunger and crime and disease. In short…He lived in a different world than they did.
Take a good look at the stable friends because it is a permanent symbol of the fact that God sent Jesus to live in the REAL world. He was given no aristocratic Kingly advantage. In fact, Jesus had humbler beginnings than any of us. He was born into a poor family and He worked a real construction job for 30 years so His hands were calloused and His fingernails had dirt under them. He had no chariot like earthly kings. No, Jesus WALKED everywhere He went so His feet were also calloused and dirty. Jesus lived in a neighborhood. He had friends and enemies. He suffered hardship like the rest of us do, and He died a cruel death for a crime He didn’t commit.
So, as I said a couple weeks back, when the Bible urges people like us who are going through disappointment and pain to pour their hearts out to Jesus, we can do so with absolute assurance that Jesus understands because Has literally been there. Life without advantage? Jesus lived it.
Financial hardship? Poverty? He’s didn’t even have a place to lay his head. Discrimination? Oppression? Jesus was a refugee before His first birthday. Rejection? He experienced it.
Ridicule? It was part of His daily life. Abandonment? In His greatest time of need—His closest friends fled. Death of loved ones? He went through it. Physical pain? He endured more than you or I will ever experience.
The amazing truth is—whatever you experience in this life that drives us to within an inch of our breaking point, which is where some of you may be tonight….whenever you experience pain such that you want to cry out, “I can’t go on because nobody understands,” look at the STABLE and be reminded that Jesus understands. He’s been there. He can identify with you no matter what you’re going through, and you MATTER to Him more than you could possibly imagine. As Hebrews 4:15 says, since Jesus has been through everything we have, “…we CAN come boldly to the throne of God to find grace to HELP in time of need.”
Is the stable a little more important in your eyes now? It is to me—because it symbolizes the deliberately unsheltered life of my Savior. It stands as a monument to His ability to identify with and sympathize with whatever you and I are going through.
Now…let’s turn our mental gaze a bit so that we can look at another part of the nativity….
(3) …the MANGER itself.
And please don’t think it was a first century BASSINET—because it was a far cry from that. Back then a manger was nothing more than a dirty feed trough for cattle. It was just a chunk of cold rock with a hollowed out basin of sorts in which to put food for cows or donkeys. I’m saying that, to the people of Jesus’ day, a manger was a very ORDINARY thing.
In fact, when you think about it, the only reason we are even familiar with the term “manger” is because in one little clip of Scripture it says God’s Son was laid in one. Apart from that, we wouldn’t have a clue as to what a manger is. But because God’s Son WAS laid in a manger, look what happened to an ordinary piece of farm furniture. All of a sudden it has a new dignity. Now, “manger” is a household word. The ordinary has become extraordinary—a FEED TROUGH for a stable has become the CRADLE for a King.
That’s quite a transformation—wouldn’t you agree? Look at the manger then….and let it be a symbol of what can happen to an ordinary MAN or WOMAN or BOY or GIRL when Jesus Christ resides inside. It’s a symbol of what has happened to billions of people around the world and in this church—ordinary people, average run-of-the-mill people…working, thinking, acting, relating people…who one day saw themselves for who they really were—lawbreakers in God’s eyes. They saw themselves as sinners…moral failures…and they didn’t hide from it. These ordinary people came to realize that they couldn’t change their past record and on their own, they weren’t going to be able to change their future conduct. In short, they knew that they would be standing guilty on the judgement day. So they repented of their sin and claimed the forgiveness that is only offered through Jesus Christ. They asked Him to come into their hearts and lives—to dwell within them—much as He dwelt in that ordinary manger. And when they invited Jesus in—He CAME IN just as He promises to come in Scripture….and when He did, their lives were wonderfully transformed from the inside out. It is just as Paul says, “CHRIST IN YOU is the hope of glory.” 2 Corinthians 5:17 puts it this way, “If anyone has Christ IN them, they are a new—extraordinary creature. The old has passed away. The new has come.” This is my paraphrase but I can assure you that when Jesus Christ takes up residency in an ordinary life, the ORDINARY gives way to the EXTRAORDINARY. Just as a feed trough becomes a King’s cradle, a very average man or woman becomes exceptional through their responsiveness to God.
Where he was once only a PEOPLE-PLEASER, now he becomes concerned with giving GOD pleasure. Where one there was a SELFISH person…now there is someone who focuses their life around loving and caring for OTHER people.
These days many people don’t know about the changes God can work in our lives because they’d rather rely on themselves. That’s the main reason the “self-help” industry in our nation continues to explode in growth. We’re told that we can take our lives into our own hands—that we are the captain of our own ship, the master of our own destiny. And to a degree, that’s true. In fact, we CAN successfully make some personal changes…superficial and external though they may be. We can lose weight, learn a language, improve our skills, bleach our teeth, strengthen our abs, or shorten our nose through plastic surgery.
But what about the INSIDE? You see, the backwash of “self-help” is that many have discovered that we are powerless to make significant INTERNAL changes…changes in our marriage….in our parenting…in our habits…in our speech…our attitudes…relationships. As I said Sunday, it is only JESUS working WITHIN us that can make this kind of INNER change possible. You see, God DOES do to humans what Jesus did to the manger. He comes in and makes something that was ordinary extraordinary.
ONE OTHER PART of the nativity reminds us HOW He is able to do that. Look with me now to the Christ child Himself—specifically at how He is DRESSED. Luke tells us that after His birth He was not wrapped in a soft baby blanket.
(4) No—Jesus was wrapped in SWADDLING cloths.
Have you ever wondered what that meant? I mean, what exactly is a SWADDLING cloth? Several years ago, I heard Harry Causey answer this question in a talk he gave about the true purpose of this cloth that is mentioned in Luke chapter 2. He said that in the Middle East, people traveling long distances were often met with many hardships and trials—and because they did they often died while far from home. In case death were to occur while traveling, men carried a thin, gauze-like cloth—wrapped around their waist. If someone died while traveling his companions would use this material, referred to as “swaddling cloths” to wrap the corpse in before burial. When Jesus was born, there was apparently no other cloth to use, so Jesus was wrapped in Joseph’s “swaddling cloths.” This means His first baby outfit was literally a death shroud. This should remind us that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords came into this world to die for you and me. He came into this world to be the Sacrifice for our sins…to pay our sin debt and in that way remove the barrier that was between us and God…so that we COULD draw near to God and walk through life in fellowship with Him…Jesus died so that we COULD access God’s power…power to live life as He wants us to…power to enable us to change from the inside…power to have a truly ABUNDANT life.
This is why every Christmas Eve here at Redland we partake in communion—to remind us all of this stark but wonderful truth…that Jesus was BORN to DIE for sinners. As we celebrate in this way, let me invite all Christians present to partake with us. Even if you are not a member of this church….If you are a Christian…if you are His, this is Yours.