Advent thoughts: December 2

“…in you [Abraham] all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Genesis 12:3—read Genesis 12:1-9).

Several times in the book of Genesis God speaks a blessing upon Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The details change from occasion to occasion, but three parts of the blessing remain constant: God will make their family into a great nation, that nation will live on the land God showed to Abraham, and from that family on that land will arise a blessing for all people.

Already by the time of the exodus the Israelites have become numerous. However, the generation that followed Moses out of Egypt to Mount Sinai doubted God’s promise to give them the land. As a consequence, they wandered in the wilderness for forty years, and their children crossed the Jordan River to take the land under Joshua. When the land had been captured (for the most part), it was divided among the tribes and clans and families of Israel. Part of the Law of Moses stipulated that a family could not lose its inheritance. Even if they needed to raise money by selling land, that land would be returned to them at the next Jubilee year. (Those happened every fifty years.) The connection of the people to the land is a running theme in Moses and the prophets. The chief punishment that falls upon the Israelites is invasion from foreigners, the Assyrians and Babylonians who remove God’s people from the land and replace them with other people.

Under the Persians, the faithful remnant was allowed to return to the land and rebuild what had been destroyed. They no longer had political control over the land; they were part of Empires—first the Persian Empire, then Alexander the Great, then the Ptolemies and Seleucids, and finally the Romans. For a few years the Jews received a form of independence from the Seleucids in a series of events still celebrated as Hanukah. But when Herod the Great came to power, he ruled over the Jews because the power of Rome backed his government.

At that time, God chose to keep the final part of his blessing to Abraham. Therefore, Joseph left Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem to be counted there by the Romans, because he was a descendant of King David. Joseph brought with him his espoused wife, who was expecting a child. That child was born in Bethlehem and was given the name Jesus, from the Hebrew Y’shua, meaning, “the Lord saves.” His mission was to rescue God’s people, not from the Romans or other worldly empires, but from sin and evil and death.

The guest room (or “inn”) on the estate of David’s descendants was already filled when Mary and Joseph arrived, so they were given shelter (or found it on their own) where animals—probably sheep—were sometimes kept. For that reason, when Jesus was born, his mother swaddled him and placed him in a manger, a feeding trough for sheep and other animals. More than thirty years later, another guest room (or “inn”) would accommodate Jesus and his apostles. On that occasion, Jesus took the bread of the Passover meal and said, “Take, eat; this is my body, given for you.” The infant who once rested in a feeding trough—in a town whose name, Bethlehem, translates as “house of bread”—was still feeding his sheep as he made his way toward the cross to redeem the world from sin and evil.

That redemption was not only for the Jewish people; it was for all nations. In this redemption, God’s promise to Abraham was completed. From the nation that began as Abraham’s family, on the land that God promised to Abraham, all the families of the earth were blessed with the forgiveness of sins, the promise of eternal life, and victory over all God’s enemies. Thanks be to God! J.

God in a box

When your family celebrates your birthday with you, do they get out the old pictures and look at you as a newborn baby, lying in a crib in the hospital with a knit cap on your head to keep you warm? Do you look at the same picture year after year? I thought not.

On Washington’s birthday, do we talk about the baby born in the colonial mansion? On Lincoln’s birthday, do we talk about the baby born in the log cabin in Kentucky? On King’s birthday do we talk about the baby born in Atlanta? Generally, when we celebrate the birth of a hero, we remember the entire life and career of that hero, not merely the circumstances of his or her birth.

What is it, then, about the manger scene that makes it central to every year’s Christmas celebrations? We see it on Christmas cards and in three-dimensional displays, we see it portrayed by children, we sing about it, and every single Christmas we hear again about Mary and Joseph and the manger because there was no room in the inn. Every year we hear about angels and shepherds and Bethlehem. Every year we bring out the baby pictures and remember Jesus at the time when he was born.

The prophets spoke of a King born in Bethlehem and of a virgin giving birth to Immanuel, but the prophets never mentioned the manger. The apostles wrote about Jesus, but they did not comment on the manger. Only Luke gives us the details of a baby wrapped in cloths lying in a manger—Matthew and Mark and John did not consider the manger worth mentioning.

The cynical part of my mind thinks that the manger is celebrated because it is our chance to put God in a box. No one feels threatened by a newborn baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. The power of God and his judgment upon sin are conveniently missing from our Christmas pictures. On Good Friday and on Easter we see the cost of sin and the power of God. We are confronted by grace and mercy in a way that encourages us to confess our sins and to trust ourselves in the hands of our Savior. On Christmas, we can leave God in the manger, and we can credit ourselves with bringing gifts to him as the wise men did. We invite our Lord to “sleep in heavenly peace” while we go on celebrating his birth in a way that suits our sense of autonomy and control.

Yet that baby lying in the manger was still running the universe at the same time. That baby lying in the manger was invading a sinful world to confront and destroy evil and at the same time to rescue the victims of evil. That baby lying in a manger, relying on his mother for food and shelter and diaper changes, was almighty and all-knowing, present everywhere in the universe even while confined to a small human shape.

If Christmas is merely Jesus’ birthday, that is still no reason to skip over the rest of the life and career of Jesus, who was born in Bethlehem long ago. He did not remain the Christ Child lying in a manger; his birth into this world means more than any other birth in human history. The point of Christmas is more than a birthday—it is the Feast of the Incarnation of our Lord. It is a reminder that the all-powerful eternal God became one of us, as human as we are, to battle our enemies and to defeat them, not with power but with sacrifice, because God is love.

Jesus called himself the Bread of Life. To underline the promise of that title, he was born in Bethlehem, which means “house of bread.” His first bed was a manger, the very place where sheep come to be fed. The manger is meaningful, not as a box to contain God, but as a humble place in this world where God promises to be found. The manger becomes a symbol of the other humble places where God is found—in his Word, the Holy Bible, and in the gathering of his people, the Holy Christian Church.

On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, the people of God will gather to hear and to sing about the baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. Beyond that manger lies a cross where the Shepherd will rescue his sheep, giving them peace and eternal life by his sacrifice. May your coming Christmas celebrations bring you, not only to the manger, but to the Shepherd and the King. J.