Many times, when I enter one of the hospitals in our area, I notice a sign that is located prominently near the entrance. The sign shows a hand holding a tiny baby and below this drawing it says: “Safe babies, Safe place, Safe haven.” The sign bears witness to Illinois’ Safe Haven Law.
The Safe Haven Law seeks to protect newborn infants from harm or death through abandonment. The law says that parents who do not harm their babies cannot be prosecuted for abandonment if they bring their newborn – that is, a child thirty days old or younger - to a safe place and hand the baby over to a staff member. Under the law, these safe places are any hospital, emergency care facility, police station or staffed fire station in Illinois. The entire process is legal and completely private. When they hand the baby over, the parents have the opportunity to provide health and medical information for the child.
Now it stands to reason that parents who hand their child over under the protections of the Safe Haven Law are in very difficult circumstances. It goes against human nature for a mother to give up her child, and either a mother’s circumstances are so difficult that giving the child up seems like the best decision, or perhaps the mother is in such an unhealthy mental state that she is unable to process the significance of her child. Whatever the situation may be the law is a good thing that seeks the best for the child in the midst of a terrible situation.
Now if you were looking for a royal child – a child in line to be a king or queen – you would not go looking at Safe Haven locations. After all, this is just not the circumstance of royalty – they aren’t given away by their mothers for adoption. Instead you would instead look at a palace. Or if you were looking for a royal child away from the palace, you would look at a ritzy hotel, like the Carlyle in New York City, where Prince William and Catherine the Duchess of Cambridge recently stayed during their visit to New York.
In the Gospel lesson for Christmas Eve, we hear the angel announce to the shepherds that a royal child has been born. But when the angel provides a sign that will verify for the shepherds that this is in fact the child about whom the announcement has been made, we find something very surprising. The sign is that the baby will be lying in a manger.
In the Gospel lesson for Christmas Eve, we learn that on the first Christmas Eve there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. For them it was just another night of living outdoors and taking care of the animals.
But then an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord – the perceptible presence of God that we hear about in the Old Testament - shone around them. Their reaction was understandable: great fear.
However, the divine messenger had not come to terrify them. Instead he announced, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
Now from both what the angel says, and what has preceded in Luke’s Gospel, we know that the angel is talking about a royal child. In the previous chapter, after the text describes Mary as a virgin betrothed to a man from the house of David, the angel Gabriel announces to her: “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
Our text tonight begins by telling us that Joseph and Mary had gone to Bethlehem as part of the Roman census, because Joseph “was of the house and lineage of David.” To speak about a baby who is the Christ – the Messiah, the anointed One – is to speak about a royal child. It is to speak of the One who fulfills the great promises that God makes in the Old Testament through the prophets. It is to speak of the One who fulfills promises like we hear in our Old Testament lesson tonight from Isaiah chapter 9: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.”
This is great stuff in our Gospel tonight. The angel appears and the glory of the Lord shines around the shepherds. The angel announces that the Savior, the Christ has been born. And then things get strange, for the angels says, “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
The angel provides a sign by which the shepherds will know that they have found the right child. He give them something that will help them to identify this royal child, the Christ. Now the sign is not the swaddling clothes. That is just the typical practice of mothers in first century Palestine. It would be no different if you were to say today, “You will find a baby in a diaper.” Of course you will!
No the sign is this – the baby will be lying in a manger. Luke emphasizes this point because when he speaks about the shepherds finding Jesus he does not say anything about swaddling clothes. He doesn’t even refer to “a manger.” Instead he writes, “And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger.”
A manger is a feeding trough for animals. You find it in a stable where animals are kept. A manger is not the place where you expect to find any baby. A manger is absolutely not the place where you ever expect to find a royal baby. And yet, the sign given by the angel to identify the child who is the Christ is that he will be lying in a manger.
Like so many elements of the Christmas story, the manger has been romanticized over the centuries. We all have quaint mangers in the crèche scenes at home, just as we have behind the altar here at Good Shepherd. We enjoy putting out the manger as part of the Christmas decorations.
Yet when we consider what the manger says about the way God works, we find that you don’t really want the manger. The angel announces that the Savior, the Christ, the Lord has been born in Bethlehem. This last title – “Lord” - helps to unpack what Isaiah says about the child in our Old Testament lesson. He is “Mighty God.” He is God in the flesh - true God and true man, because he has been conceived by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary.
And yet, while the glory of the Lord at the announcement of his birth bears witness to his power and might, things will often not go in the way of power and might. Often they will not go well at all. Later in this chapter Simeon will say that this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed. When Jesus preaches at the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth, they will become so angry at him that they try to kill him by throwing him off of a cliff. He will be opposed by the Jewish religious leaders and finally through their efforts he will be executed by crucifixion. The One whom we find in a manger tonight, will hang on a cross and die when we gather on the evening of Good Friday.
The truth of the matter is that you don’t want this. You don’t want a Christ of the manger because it means that as a child of God you will still experience hardships and tragedies that you can’t explain. You will still experience weakness in spite of the fact that Christ’s power is at work in you through the presence of the Holy Spirit. You don’t want a Christ of the manger because in the face of a world that is filled with sin and death he only gives you his word – written in Scripture and preached to you. He only gives you water, and bread and wine. It’s not the way you would do things. It’s not the way you want things done.
The manger is not the way we want things done. But in his grace, mercy and love, the manger is the way God has done things and continues to do them. He does them in surprising and unexpected ways. Might and power are wrapped in frailty and weakness. And yet it is by working in this fashion that God brings salvation to all people. It is by working in this fashion that God has brought salvation to you.
The One in the manger tonight is the Savior; the Christ; the Lord. Because he is true God and true man he can be the sinless Servant of God who takes away the sins of all. The holy One can be numbered with the transgressors for you in his death, and can then rise from the dead on the third day.
Death and resurrection – weakness and power. This is how God worked your salvation. And this is how God continues to deliver that forgiveness and salvation to you. He gives you his Word that people reject and mock with ease. He gives you water poured on your head. He gives you a mere man who says, “I forgive you all your sins.” He gives you a bite of dry bread and a sip of wine.
Yet in this weakness he gives you the saving power of his cross and resurrection. For the weakness – what seems foolish to our eyes – does not change the fact that the baby in the manger and the man on the cross is the Son of God. It does not change the fact that he defeated death by his resurrection on the third day. And so it does not change what Christ is doing through these means.
His word is a word that has the power to give life. The water of Holy Baptism joins you with the saving death and resurrection of the Lord. The words spoken by the pastor in Holy Absolution are words spoken by the Lord – the same words he will speak to you on the day of Judgment. And the bread and wine of the Sacrament of the Altar is the true body and blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of your sins. It is the risen Lord coming bodily into our midst as he provides a foretaste of the feast to come – a foretaste of the Last Day when he will come in might and power. His coming in the Sacrament points us forward to the day when the glory of God will shine around us as the Lord Jesus returns.
On this Christmas Eve we find the royal child – the Christ – in a manger. It’s the last place we expect to find him but his presence in the manger tells us about how Jesus Christ has won our salvation, and how he continues to work today. We may see weakness and frailty. But it is the Savior, the Christ, the Lord who is present and brings us salvation now and on the Last Day.