To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.Luke 2:11-12
My first Christmas Eve as a pastor was a memorable one. This was back in 1999 in Brooksville, Florida. I had become friends with the local episcopal priest there, and he invited me to serve as assisting minister at his Christmas Eve midnight Mass. The services at my church were earlier that evening, so I happily agreed to do so. I probably should have run this by my wife first, but that is a lesson I learned later that night. Around 2:00 am, actually, when I got back to the house and was handed the directions to the train set and the Barbie house that still needed to be assembled. Lesson learned.
But I remember another lesson I learned that night. In my priest friend’s sermon, he told the story of assisting his bishop at a Christmas Eve midnight Mass. The bishop announced that night that he was not going to read the gospel because the story was so familiar to everyone. So he turned directly to his sermon. It might have been a wonderful sermon, and a meaningful worship service, but something was missing: the story at the heart of it all. The story of the birth of our Savior is a story too good and too important not to be read and shared again and again. Lesson learned. I have always shared the story, no matter how familiar it might be. The story (Luke 2:1-20) tells us the good news of great joy at the heart of this day: That for us is born in the city of David, a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
Tonight, we join with the shepherds, and listen again to the angels proclaim the miracle of our dear Savior’s birth. And tonight, we let the story take us once more to Bethlehem, to see this thing that has taken place. And to find once again what is promised there: A child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, a child who is the Savior of all the world.
A Sign for Us?
That is the sign the shepherds were given, according to this story. But it is a rather puzzling sign, when you think about it. If the angels are going to give a sign, shouldn’t it be a little more, I don’t know, splashy? Dramatic? After all, it is the sign that to them was born their Savior! Surely that kind of event deserves a bigger sign than this? But, then again, why did those shepherds even need a sign? They had just been visited, not only by an angel, but by a multitude of the heavenly host – probably thousands of angels – giving glory to God in the highest heaven! What other sign do they need? I think if I had just witnessed what they witnessed, any other sign would just be a letdown, especially the one they were given.
“You will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”? That’s the sign? That’s the proof that unto them was born a Savior? That doesn’t seem like very much of a sign to me. It really does seem very ordinary. But I have come to believe that that is exactly the point. The sign given to those shepherds wasn’t intended to convince them of anything. It wasn’t intended to prove anything. It was intended to teach them something. It was intended to teach them – and us – what it means that this child is the Savior who is Christ the Lord. And I believe that this sign teaches the shepherds, and all who hear this story, three extraordinary things about our Creator.
Bands of Cloth
First, the shepherds are told that they would find a child “wrapped in bands of cloth.” This could mean many things, of course. Most simply, it means that this child did not have lots of wonderful clothes to wear. There wasn’t time for lots of baby showers and celebrations before Mary and Joseph had to leave for Bethlehem. And when Jesus was born, they did the best they could. And Mary wrapped her newborn son in bands of cloth.
It is amazing to think that God entrusted his only-begotten Son to such a poor, desperate family, isn’t it? Away from home, with no decent place to stay, and without even proper clothing for his child. But this child had one thing that meant more to God than anything else. This child was loved. Mary and Joseph clearly loved this child, with all their hearts.
But this sign, of a child wrapped in bands of cloth, also gives us an important hint about the mission that was given to this child. We find out much later in this story – when Jesus dies – that he is taken down from the cross, and wrapped in bands of cloth before being placed in a tomb. Even at his birth, we are being reminded that Jesus was born among us, in order to die for us. Born that we no more may die, as we sing in our Christmas carol. But for that to happen, he had to die. Even his birth offers a reminder of this, in the sign that he would be wrapped in bands of cloth.
Lying in a Manger
After being wrapped in those bands of cloth, Mary laid her newborn son in a manger – a feeding trough for animals – and this, too, teaches us something important. Again, this is Joseph and Mary doing the best they could. They were there in Bethlehem for this census, and so were a lot of other people. There was no room in the inn, and certainly no hospital where Mary could go for this delivery. So, she gave birth – in a cave, most likely, where the animals were kept. And after wrapping Jesus in those bands of cloth, and perhaps nursing him and singing him to sleep, she looked around and saw a manger, which was the closest thing to a crib, and gently laid him down.
What does this sign teach us? I think it is important to remember that God’s son was born in Bethlehem, a town whose name literally means “House of Bread.” And that he was laid in a feeding trough. He is, after all, the one who would one day say to his followers: “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry.” Even at his birth, we are reminded that Jesus did not come just to die for us, but also to nurture our souls, and to feed our faith.
Jesus is the bread of life. And when we turn to him, we are never hungry. He, and he alone, can satisfy our deepest hunger. Because this child, lying in a manger, is the bread of true life.
No Room in the Inn
Now, the reason Mary had to give birth in a cave, and place her newborn in a manger, is because there was no place for them in the inn. And having no place in the inn was not just bad luck for Mary and Joseph. It is also a sign to us, once again teaching us about the son who was born for us. This child who would grow up, and share that he has no place to lay his head on this earth. This child who would too often be rejected by this world. And who is still too often rejected.
This part of the story leads us to ask: Is there room for Jesus now? There was no place for him in the inn. And there often was no place for Jesus on this earth. Until, finally, he found a place on the cross. And after being raised from the dead, Jesus returned to Heaven to prepare a place for us. He knows what it is like to be without a place, and he wants us all to find a place with him. And so this sign teaches us all this, and leads us to ask: Is there a place for Jesus now? Is there a place for him in our homes? In our hearts? In our lives? In our world?
How can we make room for Jesus? He tells us that simple acts like feeding the hungry, and providing shelter for the homeless, and visiting the sick, are ways to make room for him. And Christmas is a time when we pay special attention to doing these things. It is a time when we remember what Jesus went without on our behalf.
But, of course, we know that we should be doing these things throughout the year. We should be making room for Jesus all year round, not just at Christmas. Christmas is just this beautiful, annual reminder to us: to make room in our hearts, for the Savior of our world. And this annual reminder comes to us through this simple, ordinary, sign, that was once given to those simple, ordinary shepherds: A child wrapped in bands of cloth, and lying in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
And this simple sign reminds us of how God often chooses to come to us in very ordinary ways. Through a child, who becomes our Savior. Through water, that washes away our sin. Through bread and wine, that offers us food for our hungry souls. And through a cross, that offers us eternal life.
It is such a beautiful story, isn’t it? The story of Christmas. The story of Jesus. The story of stories. Too good to be true. Except it is true. It is the truest story of them all. And it is worth reading and hearing again and again. Because it teaches us so much about God and the gift of God’s only son. The child born to be our Savior, who was once wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
We are here tonight to listen to this story, and to worship and adore this child. We are here to welcome him into our hearts, our lives, and our world. So let us keep telling this story, through our words and through our lives, the story of the child born for us and for all the world, who is Christ the Lord. Amen.