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The Mystery Of Bethlehem

The Mystery Of The Manger

Erwin W. Lutzer | December 6, 2009

Selected highlights from this sermon

The manger scene is often depicted as a quaint and heart-warming moment. But it wasn’t. It was ugly, dirty, and poor.

When Jesus entered our world, He could have been born in a palace, but He chose to be born in an impoverished, ordinary, and very humble way. And though there was no place for Him at the inn, there was a place made specifically for Him and Him alone—the place where He would save us—the cross of Calvary.

All of us love to sing Christmas carols, and I think a favorite, not just among children but among all of us, is the one that speaks about Jesus being in the manager.

Away in a manger, no crib for a bed,
The little Lord Jesus lays down His sweet head.

We sing it every year and we sing it many times every year and we still love it as we do the other carols. We’ve heard these stories many times, but today I’m going to take a fresh look at a very familiar passage of the Bible (It may indeed be one of the most familiar to all of us.), and that is Luke 2:7. If you want to turn to it in your Bibles you may. Many of you will know it by memory, but first of all, let’s go to the city of Bethlehem.

Bethlehem is in commotion. There are many different people and they are all trying to find a place to stay because remember that the very same decree that brought Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem is the same decree that brought many other people to Bethlehem as well. We look at the couple and we notice that they are very ordinary. The man clearly is an ordinary tradesman and his wife is about to give birth. And we see them walking around and there is no room in an inn.

Now you must understand that Bethlehem was a place where caravans often stopped. They preferred even to stop there, maybe rather than in the big city of Jerusalem. And these caravans needed a place to stay, and there would be animals in a cave, and there would also be an inn where the people stayed. Sometimes the two were very close together.

And so the Bible says, and now we’re in our text today, chapter 2, verse 7 (the famous verse), “And she brought forth her firstborn son and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths and laid Him in a manger because there was no room (or no place) for them in the inn.

You know there is no reference in the Bible to an innkeeper. We as preachers, and myself included, used to preach against that guy. You know that innkeeper kept Jesus out because Mary and Joseph were looking for a room and he said no. Well we don’t know whether or not there was an innkeeper. I hope that if there was he made it to heaven and all of us ask his forgiveness for what we’ve said against him. I do have to say, however, that he would have done it ignorantly because he didn’t know that Mary was bearing the Son of God. You and I do deliberately what he did in ignorance. Jesus said, “Whoever receives a child in My name receives Me.” You want to receive Jesus? If there’s room in your heart for Jesus then there should be room in your heart for a child.”

He also said that if we go into prison and clothe those that are naked and give food to the hungry we’ve done it for Him. So we have an opportunity to do what that mythical innkeeper apparently had an opportunity to do, but we have more knowledge.

Now I’m very interested in the manger story, and we’ll be looking at the manger in just a moment, but first of all, let’s spend a few moments to analyze this question. Why was the manger necessary? Why the stable rather than the inn? You know even though it says there in Luke 2:7 in the last phrase that there was no room for them in the inn, and even though that’s a reference to a specific historical event, I can’t help but think that it’s also a metaphor of the life of Jesus. That’s the whole story of His life, and it’s still true. There’s no room for Him.

For example, there was no room for Jesus in the religious world. As a matter of fact, His most ferocious enemies were the religious establishment because He was always revealing their hypocrisy. He was always telling them that they were emphasizing externals rather than what was going on in their hearts. And so they hated Him. They made Him look bad. And when it came time for Jesus to be crucified, Pilate asked the question, “Who do you wish that I release unto you – this man or Barabbas?” and they said, “Release Barabbas, but as for Jesus, crucify Him.”

There was no room for Him in the religious world and it’s still true. Oh I know that people like to talk about Jesus but He’s a no-frills Jesus. He’s a Jesus who has been humanized and down-sized, and so you have references to Jesus as the one who taught us to love, but no reference to Jesus as judge, coming with flaming fire upon them that obey not the Gospel of God. People are interested in Jesus of the manger, but not the Jesus of the resurrection, not the Jesus of the ascension, and certainly not the Jesus of the glorious blessed return. So Jesus basically had no room in the religious world. They had no room for Him, and it is still true today.

But there was also no room for Jesus in the political world. You know the Jews of the time were looking forward to the coming of the Messiah. In fact it is said that Jewish virgins hoped that they would be the one who would bear the Messiah, but they were looking for a king. They said to themselves, “We want someone who is going to rule and is going to throw off Rome (the Roman occupation) and to give us political freedom.” That’s why Jesus was such a disappointment to the people because here He was saying, “My kingdom is not of this world.” And now of course there were those who did want to make Him a king. After he fed a multitude with five loaves and two fish they wanted a king who would supply bread. They wanted someone who would give them all that they needed to live so that they wouldn’t have to worry about bread again. But Jesus said no to that, and He was not welcome in the political world of the day. And He still isn’t.

Just this past week I was told about a man who in military uniform – an American citizen – prayed a prayer at an event in the name of Jesus, and he is being prosecuted for doing it because of the separation of church and state. As a matter of fact, in America, Jesus is not welcome in the legal world. He’s not welcome in the political world. He’s not welcome in the educational world. He’s certainly not welcome in government. As far as that world is concerned, still to this day we can put up a sign that would say, “No room for You.” Jesus had no room. They had no room for Him in the religious world, in the political world, and there’s certainly no room for Jesus in the business world. Certainly not!

You know, Jesus said, “The foxes have holes. The birds of the air have nests where they can rest, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head.” Jesus, so far as we know, owned nothing. Could you imagine even hiring Jesus as the CFO of some business? I mean it would be unthinkable because He wasn’t into that. As a matter of fact, He irritated the money lovers. In fact, it says that those who loved money hated Him because He said, “That which is greatly esteemed among men (and He’s speaking about money) is detestable to God.” How would you like to put Jesus into business on Wall Street? Jesus would not be welcomed, which really leads me to an interesting question that I’ve often pondered, and it’s deeply troubling to me, and that is the question of how Jesus would rate Christmas today. What does He think of His party?

Now just imagine this. A multi-billion dollar party being thrown for you supposedly, and yet nobody really to speak of is giving gifts to you. Everybody is giving gifts to everybody else, and the success of the party is totally dependent on how much is spent, so that every day during the Christmas season we hear that we are now one percent more than last year, or down from last year, and that’s the evaluation of the party. Period! That’s it! So here Jesus has a party thrown for Him and He’s not invited to His own party. He can’t show up at the celebrations. He is unwelcomed, and yet supposedly it’s all about Him.

Did you know that there are teachers in the United States of America today who are being told that they cannot mention to their pupils that Christmas is a religious holiday, because you know after all you can’t drag religion into the class room? So Jesus clearly is not welcomed at His very own party. There’s no room – no room in the religious world, the political world and certainly not the business world.

Now there was room for Jesus in one place though, and that was on the cross, and that’s where some people would like to see Him, and that’s where they would like to keep Him. Crucify Him! Crucify Him! Get Him out of here. Yes, in Luke 2:7 it said, “There was no room for Him in the inn,” but it was really the story of His life, and it still is.

Well, because there was no room that’s why you have the beginning part of verse 7. “She brought forth her first born Son and she wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and she laid Him in a manger.” It’s a beautiful verse in its simplicity, but let’s think about the manger for a moment. This manger interests me.

First of all, obviously it was a manger for animals. I grew up on a farm in Canada and I know exactly what mangers are like, at least the ones that we had. We would put hay in the manger. We would also put grain in the manger for those animals that ate grain. The cattle, yes, some grain! And that’s what mangers are for. Now we come to this passage and we can’t get our mind around it when we think of the fact that this is not only Mary’s first-born son, but also He is the first-born of all creation. He’s the one who created the world. He created the manger and all the materials that went into it. It is so difficult for us to get our minds around it that we have sanitized the whole scene, haven’t we?

I don’t know if it’s still true but I know that when Christmas cards have a picture of the baby Jesus, they always have a little halo above His head. The manger in which He is looks as if it’s just been constructed with some very fine lumber from Home Depot. And the manger is there. The straw is pure and clean. And then what has always amused me is that little donkey that’s looking on, freshly shampooed and blow-dried. And there he is. You know he’s watching, and sometimes you see that this manger is even on a carpet.

Let me speak to you plainly. That stable smelled like a pet shop. This was reality. You know, even the wonderful carol that I like so much – Away in a Manger – has a sanitized Jesus. Remember the cattle are lowing and the baby awakes but little Lord Jesus no crying He makes. Are you serious? Of course He cried. How else would Mary know that He was hungry? And those little swaddling clothes had to be changed. We’re talking here about a real baby, 100% man – yes, with a divine nature that was invisible to the human eye. But this was a manger for animals. I can almost see it. I can reconstruct the whole scene in my mind.

Here are some animals. There were a number of different mangers. They would have had a number of mangers, primarily probably for sheep, and I can see some of the shepherds saying, “Okay, okay, so you have a new baby. You gave birth over there in the corner of the stable. You can take the baby and here’s a manger. We’ll shoo all these sheep away on this side and you can use this manger to put your baby in.” Yes, my friend, it was used by animals, and possibly sheep, and Jesus of course becomes the Good Shepherd and frequently talks about us as the sheep.

There’s something else though about this manager, and that is that not only did animals use it, but it was also borrowed. You don’t go shopping for a manger for a baby. You go shopping for a crib, but not a manager. So it was borrowed, and we can see here that the scene is indeed reconstructed as someone lends Mary and Joseph this manger for at least a little while. Isn’t it interesting that Jesus, as I mentioned, who said, “The foxes have holes; the birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay His head,” begins His life by being laid in a borrowed manger, and He ends His life by being laid in a borrowed grave. And that’s the way He lived here on earth. Jesus came into the world being laid in a manger. It was a borrowed manger.

It was also improvised. You know, poor people know all about this. If you’re rich you’re not going to get this because rich people can buy whatever they like. But if you’ve been brought up in poverty, you know that you can improvise. I mean there are mothers who have taken down curtains and used the cloth to make clothes for their children, and they know what it is like to improvise.

Perhaps you’ve been in situations where a box becomes a chair because that’s all that you have and you have to make do. Well that’s the case here. Did Mary use straw or hay? We don’t know. Maybe she did. Maybe she had clothes with her – maybe a couple of blankets, but she has to improvise this. This wasn’t built for babies. It was built for animals. But when you are poor you make it work somehow.
You know the swaddling cloths were actually pieces of cloth ripped from a larger piece of cloth into strips and then taken and the baby was wrapped in them to give it a sense of security. And that’s the way in which Mary and Joseph handled their challenge, and handled this little one who was here.

I’m interested in the manger. The question is what does the manger teach us? What are its great lessons? Why should Luke 2:7 not only be a historical fact, but what do we draw out of it that should be life-changing for us?

First of all, the manger reminds us of how silently He came. Rebecca and I have been to Scotland, and we have been in the very room where Mary, Queen of Scots gave birth to James, who ended up being James the First of England who was the one who commissioned the King Kames Version of the Bible. But I remember the room. It is a large room with a very high ceiling with gold gilt ornamentation all throughout the room. And the guide told us that as Mary, Queen of Scots was giving birth to James, there were a number of midwives, and there were also people there to make sure that the baby wouldn’t be switched with another baby. If a baby was born dead sometimes they took another baby that would be about the same age and substitute it, so there were people there to make sure that wouldn’t happen. And then outside of the building there were a whole bunch of people waiting, wondering whether or not it was a boy or a girl, wondering whether or not the child was alive, wondering whether or not Mary, Queen of Scots was still alive.

Now here’s Jesus. Who in the world was paying attention to the fact that Mary and Joseph were there, this couple that few people knew who came from Nazareth? Nobody was paying attention. This is not a big deal. Babies are born all the time. And that’s why we sing, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given,” and what this story reminds us of is that God sometimes works mightily in very ordinary ways. Very ordinary! Everything about this story was ordinary.

Now we know of course that Jesus was conceived of a virgin, and that had to be so that He would not be tainted with even original sin, so that He would be totally sinless. But the fact is that everything else is ordinary, and we always look for God in the miracles. We say, “Give me a miracle, oh God,” and God comes along and says, “I’m giving you a manger,” and we don’t see God in the manger. Think of how silently He came. There was no fanfare. There were no midwives there. Nobody was waiting outside to see whether the baby is doing well or how the mother and baby are doing. There was none of that. How silently He snuck into the world when no one was watching. The shepherds showed up only because the angels told them they should.

There’s something else that I think the manger teaches us and that is how personally He came. Now last week I tried to explain to you why it was necessary for God to be the Redeemer, that He could not create a human being, that there could be no one else who could possibly do what God was going to do, and that is to redeem humanity. Only God could do that. This was God in the flesh. Can you imagine holding God in the flesh? Can you imagine Mary feeding God in the flesh? How personally He came.

Spurgeon, the great preacher from England, said that it was as if all the light of the sun was concentrated at a single point, and that’s true of this baby. Oh, I know that if you held the baby He would look like an ordinary baby because, as I’ve explained many times, there was so much more to Jesus than the eye could see. That’s why we sing, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see.” It had to be veiled or you couldn’t have looked upon this child. And He still had all the attributes of deity even though He chose not to use them for the time that He was here on earth, but He still had them. He retained His deity.

I remember reading the story about a father who adopted a biracial child, and he said that when he would look at that child across the breakfast table and stare into this boy’s eyes, he wondered whether or not he would recognize the boy’s father if he saw him. It’s a good question. Would he recognize the boy’s father? What are the traits that his father might have?

You know when you look at Jesus as a baby, He has the traits of His Father. You might not have guessed that right at the beginning, but as Jesus went on and did miracles and made these stupendous claims about deity and then did the miracles to back up those claims, you would know that you were in the presence of God. And in one of the most breathtaking statements, Jesus said in John 14, “He who has seen Me has seen the Father.” Wow! “You see Me, you’ve seen My Father.” The similarity – the resemblance is there. This is God on earth. And so I am amazed at how personally God came. He didn’t delegate it. He didn’t say an angel would do it or another man would do it. No, no, no! He said, “If you are going to be redeemed I have to do the redeeming.” God came personally.

I think that when we think of the manger though, what strikes us the most – at least at the beginning – is the fact that He came so humbly. He was so remarkably humble in His arrival. This is what staggers us - the humility of it all. I don’t think that we would understand Luke 2:7 very well unless we remember that Jesus is the only person born on this planet who chose where He would be born. You and I didn’t choose. We had to be with our mothers. Wherever she was, that’s where we were. Jesus had a choice.

You see, in eternity past, God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit planned redemption, and we’re speaking now in time, whereas from the standpoint of deity these things were always true. It’s not as if God is making new decisions today because God has known all things from the beginning. God has existed from the beginning, and still though decisions were made. There’s no question about it. The Bible is full of the decisions of God.

So, using time categories instead of eternity categories, which we can’t get our mind around, I want you to visualize the Trinity discussing where Jesus is to be born. “Well, what about Rome? I mean Caesar is going to be up and about at that time, and how about being born right next to Caesar’s Palace, and then taking him on, because after all, Jesus is King of kings and Lord of lords? Well, if not Rome, what about Jerusalem? You know it says in the Psalms that God loves Jerusalem.” It’s been a long time since I’ve been there but the Bible says that God loves the Gates of Zion, and every time I see the gates of Jerusalem I think, “Well, you know, God loves those gates.” That’s what it says in the Psalms.

The discussion continues. “What about Jerusalem? There’s the big Temple that Herod built. How about Jesus being in the Temple and Mary and Joseph showing up at the Temple, and lo and behold there’s a baby born?” “No, it’s not going to be Jerusalem. It’s going to be Bethlehem six miles south of Jerusalem. Bethlehem, though it is one of the least among all of the little towns (and that’s why we sing O, Little Town of Bethlehem, though it’s much bigger today), I’m going to choose Bethlehem.” And that’s where Jesus is to be born.

You have to understand that the birth of Christ was just as much planned as His crucifixion. It was part of God’s program. And so Bethlehem is chosen. And then He’s not to be born in an inn, which is where respectable people had their babies born. No, no, no, He is going to be born in a stable, and of all things, laid in a manager.

Church historian, Bruce Shelley, said that Christianity is the only religion that has as its central doctrine the humiliation of God. You can’t find this anywhere else. Look at all the other religions of the world. And that’s why the Jewish people of the day rejected Jesus as Messiah. One of the reasons is because, you know, you get a baby, and the story circulates that He’s born and He’s put in a manger.

And then you also have Him being crucified. We don’t understand that but crucifixion was terrible. Crucifixion was relegated to those who were really thugs. I’ll use the word scum. Those are the people that were crucified. That’s why the Bible says, “Cursed is anyone who hangs on a tree,” and there’s Jesus, hanging on a tree in absolute weakness apparently, unable to do anything about His plight. Now He was able, but He wasn’t doing anything about where He was. Anybody else with the power He had would have come down from the cross. Jesus could have but He didn’t.

And so what you have is this weakness of God. And you know I read it this morning (I can’t believe this.) in First Corinthians 1:25. I never saw this verse before. I obviously saw it but it just never hit me. It says, “The foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” The weakness of God! I mean, here He speaks and the worlds are created – the stars are created. The weakness of God! It’s the apparent weakness of God with Jesus dying on a cross, and of all things being born and being put into a manger. And yet, why did Jesus do it? Paul says, “Christ came to redeem us from the curse of the law so that we might be redeemed.” In other words, Jesus says, “I’m going to bear what you deserve, namely your sin, so that you get what you don’t deserve, namely My righteousness and forgiveness.” And that’s really what salvation is all about – the wonder of the righteousness and the forgiveness that God gives to those who believe. And that’s why the preaching of the cross is such a stumbling block.

We say, “Give us a god that you can’t crucify. Give us a god who is born in a palace, but don’t give us a god who is born in a manager.” And yet it is in that humiliation and the eventual cross that you and I have been redeemed.

It was Augustine, the great theologian, who said, “God has humbled Himself and yet man remains proud,” and there are some of you who are listening to this message right now, and you’ve never trusted Christ as Savior, and if you analyzed it, it would be because of your pride. You have not recognized your deep need of a Savior who could do for you what nobody else can do. There’s nobody else out there like Jesus, and if you trust Him, He can be yours. You can believe in Jesus. You can be saved and reconciled. There is no other way.

And there are some of you to whom the Holy Spirit is speaking right now, and you know who you are and that you have never received the gift of eternal life that came to us initially in a manger.

You know, sometimes my heart is like that stable. Sometimes it is dark and cold. Sometimes it is unclean, just like that stable. And then we think back and we see that Jesus was in a stable. Jesus, the presence of the King, was there in that stable, and because I’ve received Christ as Savior, and I hope that you have too, the presence of Jesus is in my heart. Jesus is in that stable, to use that analogy.

Now I know there’s a big difference. He was in the stable in Bethlehem only for a short time, and He comes to live in my heart and in yours permanently. And then there’s something else that’s different. He wants to clean up our hearts and He wants us to be cleansed from our sin. He wants all of the gunk of the world and all of the rationalizations of our sin to be put away. He wants to cleanse us, and that’s what He’s doing.

You know, Paul says something in Ephesians 3 that is very interesting. He says, “I pray that Christ shall dwell in your hearts by faith.” Well, of course, all believers have Christ in their hearts by faith, but what he means is “that Christ might feel at home in your heart by faith.” That’s a good translation. He comes to the stable of your heart and does He feel at home? Has He cleansed it? Have you let Him cleanse it, or have you said, “Now You can be there, but I don’t want to be cleansed. I love my sin too much.” A Christian can even say that. But for those of you who have never trusted Christ as Savior, I have good news. If you invite Christ into your life, to receive His forgiveness, you will belong to Him forever if you give Him that opportunity to come in.

And in a moment we’re going to sing a song and if you sang this song with sincerity and understanding you could be saved while you are singing it. The words written by Emily Elliott are these:

Thou didst leave Thy throne
And Thy kingly crown
When Thou camest to earth for me,
But in Bethlehem’s home
Was there found no room
For Thy holy nativity:
O come to my heart Lord Jesus;
There is room in my heart for Thee!

I say to you in all sincerity in my heart as your pastor, “I want there to be plenty of room in my heart for Jesus.” And I want Him to clean it up, and that’s what the message of the Gospel is. The baby of the manger becomes the baby of the cross, becomes the man of the resurrection and the glorious return, and becomes the Savior of those who invite Him in.

Would you join me as we pray?

Our Father, I want to pray for those who have never trusted Christ as Savior. May they know now why they need Him. And we want to thank You, Father, for the manger. Thank You for Jesus Christ’s humiliation, and we ask that as we sing together that there may be those who sing You into their hearts by saying, “Lord Jesus, there’s room in my heart. I give up the fight.”

In fact, before I close this prayer, I’m talking to you now my dear friend. Would you, right where you are, believe on Jesus and be saved?

Grant it, oh God, we pray. We do love You very, very much. In Jesus’ name we pray, Amen.

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