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So This is Christmas

23 December 2011 by Frank Turk

The angel said to them, "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."
If you don't celebrate Christmas, just go on doing whatever it is you do this time of year and come back after the New Year starts. The rest of us have some serious theological self-improvement to consider.

You know: God spent millennia teaching Israel about himself and His plan for all things, and it's worth debating whether they got any of it or not. And during those millennia, God used all kinds of amazing stuff to spell it out for them -- like parting the sea for dry land for them to walk on, and free bread in the morning every morning until they were ready to enter the Promised Land, and fire burning up the priests to Baal. God's not one to spare the special effects when He has a purpose for them.

But here we are at the moment that the world was made for -- the moment when Christ the Lord would be born -- and angels appear to tell some shepherds that this is happening. And when they appear, they don't say, "This is pretty cool, huh? This is the sign for you, cowboys: a host of angels singing God's praises -- because you saw this sign, you can know that God is in it."

See: the angels were not the sign, were they? They were just the messengers. Seriously: they were just the guys with the telegram for the field hands who smelled like sheep. The sign, they said, was the baby in a feeding trough -- a baby in a manger. It wasn't a sign that ministers like a flame of fire had something to say: it was that there was a baby born in the city of David in a lowly place.

You see: at many times and in many ways, God spoke to the fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son.

The angels, in speaking to the farm boys in the field on the night Christ was born, pointed them to a sign that it was true that unto them was born a Savior who was Christ, the Lord. And the sign was not a double-rainbow in 3D made of fire and lollipops; it wasn't that their seed money was returned 1000-fold; it wasn't that somehow someone was speaking in the tongues of angels (since plainly: angels were speaking in the tongues of men).

The sign was that there was a baby laid in a manger, wrapped in "swaddling clothes".

I want to linger there a second, because the Greek word there rendered by Luke is "σπαργανόω", which comes from the word "σπαράσσω". It's rightly translated "swaddling clothes", but it means to wrap up in rags -- to wrap up in torn fabric as in to "swaddle" a baby.

You never looked that word up in a dictionary, I am sure, so here's what the dictionary says about it:

swad·dle   [swod-l]
verb, -dled, -dling, noun
–verb (used with object)
1.to bind (an infant, esp. a newborn infant) with long, narrow strips of cloth to prevent free movement; wrap tightly with clothes.

2.to wrap (anything) round with bandages.

–noun
3.a long, narrow strip of cloth used for swaddling or bandaging.

So the sign the Angels point to is this baby placed in a feeding trough wrapped up in rags -- rags which might be for babies, or for the wounded. Maybe for the dead.

So that's the sign at Christmas -- the sign at the birth of Christ: there's a baby born not in a temple or a castle or some lofty estate, but born so low as to be born with the poorest of the poor, in a stable among animals. And his garments are not fine cloth or soft linens: they're rags that are only good enough for a baby's back-end business or to wrap the sick and dying in.

So what to think of this? Here are three things to think about as you get on with your Christmas:

1. In that sign, it is clear that God is with us.

Look: that's the ultimate promise YHVH makes to Israel -- when the savior is born, he will be "Emmanuel - God with us." And the Angels point out that the sign to the Shepherds is that this child is born of no account at all -- above no one in the world. This wouldn't be so true if Jesus had been born in Solomon's courts -- because as the Prince of the nation, he would be above so many and unreachable by them.

But here is the child in the manger -- who the writer of Hebrews says is our high priest who is like us in every way, and still did not sin. He's not just "for us" in some divine way: he is like us and is with us is a way which someone who is pandered to could never be.

2. In that sign, it is clear that God loves us.

I was talking to my son about this because I was thinking he didn't get it, and I asked him: "Dude, when Papa and Grandma come over to stay, what do you do?"

"I let them sleep in my room," he said.

"And why is that?" I asked.

"Well, they need someplace to stay, and that's the best place for them to stay," he sort of shrugged.

"So it's just because it seems to make sense?" I asked.

"Well, no," he squirmed, "I give it up because I love them and I'm glad to be with them."

"Aha," I ahead. "So you give up your place in our home so that they can be with us. That's awesome. Now think about this: Jesus didn't just give up his bedroom to be with us. Jesus gave up heaven to be with us -- and he was willing to give up everything he deserved in Heaven to come and be born in a stable so that he could be with us."

You know: Jesus gave up Heaven for a stable so that, as he said to Peter and the boys, he must go to Jerusalem and suffer many things at the hands of the elders, the chief priests and the teachers of the law, and that he must be killed and on the third day be raised to life. For us.

That's actually how we know what love is: the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him.

3. In that sign, God clears up everything He has been saying for the past 2 or 3 millennia.

As I said last week, and the writer of Hebrews has said to you a jillion times, In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son -- the one who is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word.

You know: God said a lot of things in the Old Testament. I know you know that because you probably haven't read them all because it's so much. It's more than War and Peace. It's more than The Stand. And you'd think after saying all that God would be like, "Dadgum! -- what more can I say than to you I have said?" But no: God instead makes everything He said come true in the birth of a child in a barn because there was no room at the Inn.

All the ideas of blessing: rolled up in swaddling clothes.

All the ideas about being chosen by God: laying in a manger.

All those judgments and warnings: now in the hands of a mother who admitted she didn't understand these things, but submitted to them and considered them in her heart.

All the promises: in poverty, to the least of these, with the least of these.

All the power: not considering equality with God something to be used to his own advantage, but rather, made nothing by taking the very nature of a servant.

Here in the manger is the very clarification of all God meant -- because he is here in this world as it is created.

You might have more than that which you considered -- and good on you. This only scratches the surface. You could probably consider the sign of the baby in the manger every day this year and come up with something new to rejoice over, but we only have 2 days until Christmas. All I'm saying is that the Angels didn't think that their appearance was as spectacular as that sign. Maybe we should consider it more deeply this season.