Venerating the Manger?


Luke 2:1-20

I begin with a comparison and contrast, to establish context.

Before getting into the details of Jesus’s birth, Luke mentions Caesar Augustus.  Caesar, meaning emperor.  And all the world knew it!—or at least all the world that mattered, the same all the world that was called to be registered for a census.  Augustus Caesar: after whom the month of our calendar is named; deified by the Romans after his death; called king of kings and lord of lords by upper and lower classes alike.

No small amount of pomp and circumstance accompanied him wherever he went, throughout his life.  It didn’t matter who you were or what social class you belonged to: whenever his cavalcade approached you had to stop whatever you were doing and focus your attention on him.  He was Caesar, after all; and could favor you or smite you as a god.  Indeed, songs, poems, encomiums, even hymns were written about his birth, life, and death.

In contrast, we turn to the baby Jesus.  By all accounts—except for one, which we’ll get to in a moment—his entrance into the world is anything but pomp and circumstance.  His mother and father are traveling by foot, more or less, with one small donkey, in order to register for this mandated census.  Later we hear that they offer a dove as a sacrifice—the allowable sacrifice for the poorer classes.  When Joseph and very pregnant Mary knock on the door of an inn, no special favors are made for them.  There is no political clout; no bargains are struck.  In fact, when the baby is born, he is laid in a manger, the feeding trough of an animal.  By all accounts Jesus’s birth is altogether ordinary.

But then a few shepherds show up.  They’re dusty with work, maybe even sweaty, grimy, and smelly.  This fact in and of itself is perhaps quite ordinary too, on the surface.  For the baby is in a manger: perhaps Mary, Joseph, and the baby are in the shepherds’ work space; perhaps the shepherds are coming into a stable in order to grab something needed out in the fields.  Nothing too out-of-the-ordinary here—at least on the surface.

But then the shepherds start to tell their story.  “Amazing!” one exclaims.  “Unbelievable!” cries another.  And Mary and Joseph begin to piece together that the shepherds saw something, a vision maybe, or more!  One angel with a message, and then a great multitude of them, apparently, appeared to these guys in the field.  And the message?  This baby—you will know him because he is lying in a manger, of all places!—he is the Savior of the world, the Messiah, the Lord.

And as hearers of this story we think: Maybe this birth isn’t so ordinary after all.

So here’s our contrast.  By all worldly appearances, Caesar is king of kings and lord of lords.  He has come from the upper classes, he has gained the upper hand on all his enemies, and he is the emperor over all the known world.  He has all of the pomp and circumstance to show it.

On the other hand, this baby Jesus has nothing to show.  He is born into a low socioeconomic class, into a nationality that is subject to the oppressive hand of Roman oversight.  By all worldly appearances, his birth is entirely ordinary.

But what about heavenly appearances?

This baby’s birth is heralded by a vast multitude of heavenly hosts!  Not even the emperor Augustus can claim this credential.  Is this baby, perhaps, the king and lord even of Caesar himself?  Is Jesus the true King of kings and Lord of lords?

With this context in mind, let’s turn our attention to the manger.

Three times it is mentioned in this passage.  The first is in the narrative: after Mary gave birth to a son, she wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn.  The second mentioning is in the angel’s message to the shepherds: “You will find a child . . . lying in a manger.”  And the third is again in the narrative: so the shepherds went and found the child lying in the manger.

The manger, mentioned three times, is significant.  But why?

The answer comes in the middle, in the message proclaimed to the shepherds by the heavenly messenger.  Just before the angel says, “You will find a child . . . lying in a manger,” he says, “This will be a sign for you.”

The manger is a sign.  It is the defining object by which the shepherds will know who this baby is—this ordinary baby that is the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord of the universe.  The manger points to Christ.

The problem comes when we forget this.

I have a dog, a nine year-old Labrador Retriever named Arwen.  The other day I spilled some food on the kitchen floor.  And I thought, well, I’ll just let her in and she’ll lick it up lickety-split.  Easy schmeasy!  But when I put this plan into action—when I opened the back door, whistled for her, and she came bounding into the house, happy, tail wagging furiously, and drooling—I pointed at the food and said, “Eat, dog!”  But she didn’t.

Instead, she looked (not at the floor but) at my finger; and started licking it!  She smelled the food, sure.  But when I pointed to it, instead of her looking to where I was pointing, she made the assumption (a perfectly natural assumption for a dog, I suppose) that the food was in my hand, not on the floor to where my finger was pointing.  So she licked my hand—to her disappointment!

Sometimes I have to wonder if we’re like my dog–we, meaning our culture.  I wonder if we look at the manger and get so caught up in the quaintness of the story that we forget the deeper, more significant meaning, that it is a signpost merely pointing us to the Savior, Messiah, and Lord.

I wonder if we get so caught up with the quaintness of the season—all the wonderful lights and decorations, the shopping, the hot chocolate, the family time—that we get distracted from the deeper reality that is Christmas.

I wonder if the gifts we give and receive become such a beckoning and inviting pointer finger that we fail to see past them, to the greatest gift that has ever been given and received.

Whatever the case, not here, not now!  Not us!  We–not the broader culture, but we who are here today–we have each taken time out of our busy, holiday-dazed lives to gather this morning.  Here we are considering the manger.

But today the manger has taken on a different shape–a deeper, more profound shape.  Today we come not to a feeding trough but to a Table, the Lord’s Table; also a signpost of the Savior, Messiah, and Lord of the universe.

From a worldly and cultural perspective, what we do here today might look and feel quite ordinary.  But from a heavenly point of view, we are joining a great multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”


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