This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.Luke 2:12
Imagine being one of the shepherds on that first Christmas night. You’ve reached the end of another long day tending sheep. The end of another weary year. But, then, quite suddenly, an angel of the Lord stood before you. And the glory of the Lord shone around you. And you knew that your life would never be the same again.
Something special was happening in the world, and in the lives of those humble shepherds. But that same, special thing is happening in our lives, too. Because the angel who brought good news of great joy for the shepherds, then, brings us the same good news of great joy tonight. For to them, and to us, is born in the City of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
The shepherds were given a sign – evidence of this miracle. But think of what a surprising sign it was. The shepherds, remember, have just seen an angel of the Lord. “An angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.” Understandably! And then they are told of this sign. What kind of sign would it be? The angel was terrifying enough. What could top that? But the sign they were given could not have been less terrifying, or more humble, really. Because the sign they were given was a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. It is hard to imagine a more humble sign than that, isn’t it?! The sign that the Messiah, the Lord, had come into the world was to be found in a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger? Really?
But this was meant to be more than simply evidence that the Messiah had come. This was meant to be a sign that would teach those shepherds, and us, what kind of Messiah this would be. Just as the celebration of Christmas is intended to teach us what kind of Messiah this would be.
So, let us look at this sign again, and re-discover two amazing things about this child born for us, who is the Messiah, the Lord.
A Child Wrapped in Bands of Cloth
And let’s start with the child wrapped in bands of cloth. When you think about it, God could have visited this world in a thousand different ways. God visited those shepherds through a messenger, an angel. God certainly could have visited us all in that same way. And still could, I suppose. But the way that God chose to visit our world – the primary way – was through His only Son. And this visit began in the form of a newborn baby.
Think of what this teaches us about God. The God who created the entire universe loves us enough to trust us with His only child. Not just to visit our planet. But to visit it as a helpless infant. In a Christmas sermon preached by Martin Luther, he shared that to him,
There is no greater consolation given to humankind than this, that Christ became a child, a baby, playing in the lap of His most gracious mother.Martin Luther
No greater consolation, because this shows us clearly that we worship a God who wants to be in relationship with us, wants to trust us, to be loved by us, to be cared for by us, to share life with us.
God could have visited us in a thousand different ways. And one day, when Christ comes again, God will visit us in a most glorious way. Every eye will see Jesus when he comes again. Every knee will bow to him, and every tongue will give him praise. That will be the second coming.
In this first coming, we are greeted by a most humble God, who comes as a child, wrapped in bands of cloth and in lying in a manger.
God doesn’t want to us to be afraid. God wants us to be in love.
God wants a relationship with us that is free of fear, that is full of love. And God wants this enough to come as a child.
But think, too, of what this teaches us about our mission. God trusts us to take care of His only child, and also trusts us to take care of each other. God trusts us to take care of the children among us who are hungry and lonely. God trusts us to take care of the children around the world who are no less loved than any of us. And it must break God’s heart to see how some of His children are being treated. And one day, God will wipe every tear from their eyes. But, in the meantime, God trusts us to do that.
This all can be overwhelming, which brings me to the second part of this sign: This child would be found by the shepherds not just wrapped in bands of cloth, but lying in a manger – a feeding trough for animals. What does this part of the sign mean? Three times in this Christmas story we are told that, after Mary gave birth to Jesus, she laid him in a manger, a feeding trough for animals.
Why a manger? For Mary, it was a mother making the best of what she had. She didn’t have a crib, but she did have a manger. So she used it, wisely. But, still, why is this manger a sign?
The shepherds were told that this child lying in a manger could be found in Bethlehem, the City of David. Bethlehem is called the City of David because it is where King David was born. But the name “Bethlehem” also means “House of Bread.” In other words, the Savior, who is Christ the Lord, was born in a city whose name means “House of Bread” and then is placed in a feeding trough. The very same Savior who, on the night that he is betrayed, will take bread and give it to his disciples, saying: “This is my body, which is given for you.”
Here is what I believe: There are no coincidences in the Bible. It all matters. Every story. Every word. It is all there to teach us about our Creator, and about His astonishing love for us. His Son was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger. Why? To teach us that Jesus is “the bread of God which comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” He is our bread of life. He offers us the cup of salvation.
Why do I believe this? Here is the sign: On this altar there is bread and wine, which will be the body and blood of our Savior, given and shed for us.
So, think of this church as our Bethlehem, our House of Bread. And think of this altar as our manger, our feeding trough. And think of what happens here, tonight, as a miracle. Because it is. It truly is.
The shepherds traveled to Bethlehem and found the child lying in a manger. We come here tonight and find something no less miraculous: For it is the body of Christ given for us; the blood of Christ shed for us. Is there a greater miracle?
The miracle of Christmas is the miracle of Holy Communion. What else could it mean that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and laid in a manger? There are no coincidences in the Bible. It is all there for a reason. And his birth, his incarnation, teaches us: that he comes to us – that God comes to us – in a real, tangible way, that we can see and touch and taste.
This will be a sign for you, the shepherds were told: “You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” This will be a sign for us: We will find, on this altar, the bread of life, and the cup of salvation.
What Kind of Sign Is This?
Now, to be honest, these signs that the Lord gives us are rather humble ones, by the world’s standards. The sign given the shepherds, like the sign given us, doesn’t change their lives, or the world, in any noticeable way. The sign given the shepherds, like the sign given us, can be ignored, laughed at, or even rejected. And sometimes it is. But the shepherds didn’t do this. They said to one another, “let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place.” And isn’t that what we are doing tonight? Like the shepherds, we have journeyed today/tonight to this place – to this house of bread – to look for the child born for us. And, like the shepherds, we have found the sign that has been promised us.
Soon, we will come forward, and place our hands in the shape of a manger, as Martin Luther taught us to do, and the body of Christ will be laid there. And we will see and touch and taste salvation. Is there a greater miracle? A greater sign of God’s love for us? A greater reminder that, to us and to the world, a child has been born who is our Savior, Christ the Lord? The miracle of Christmas is the miracle of Holy Communion. The miracle that God is here, in our midst, a Savior who is the Bread of Life, a Savior who is Christ the Lord, a Savior who was first found lying in a manger in Bethlehem.
Returning to Our Fields
After the shepherds found the child, our Savior, lying in that manger, they returned to their fields and their flocks. And so will we. We will return to our homes, and our jobs, and our daily lives. We will return to all the joys and the challenges that this life offers us. Nothing will have changed. Not to the world. But to us, nothing will ever be the same again.
The shepherds remind us that, for people of faith, everything has changed. Upon their return, the shepherds glorified and praised God for all they had heard and seen. For to them, everything had changed. A Savior had been born for them, Christ the Lord. The world was changed. Their lives were changed. Nothing that awaited them in the fields upon their return could alter that glorious fact. And so they glorified and praised God. And so do we. We sing our praises to God this night, praising Him for the wondrous gift that we have been given. The gift of life, of hope, of joy, of peace, of salvation. A gift that was first found, not under a tree, but lying in a manger. A gift from a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Thanks be to God. Amen