And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
I love to see the children at worship on Christmas Eve; their excitement and enthusiasm for Christmas simply can’t be contained. They can hardly wait to see what is under the tree for them. Some are confident they know (perhaps they have been snooping). Getting to sleep on Christmas Eve does not come easily.
Gift giving and receiving is an exciting part of Christmas? Let me ask you—what did you get for Christmas last year? How about the year before? I know that some of you took pictures so you can go back and look. But how many of the gifts we receive do we remember?
Yet some gifts we do remember. Of all the Christmas gifts you have been given which one (or ones) can you call to mind? A few years ago I received a somewhat unusual gift from one of my granddaughters. It was a spatula designed for flipping pancakes. When our grandchildren stay overnight at our home it is my habit to make pancakes for breakfast. She was out shopping for Christmas with her mother and saw this spatula and was certain that I wanted one.
Everyone here knows why I treasure this spatula. It isn’t because it was an expensive gift. I treasure it because it is a witness to the love of a grandchild. Every time I get it out and use it I remember who gave it to me. My little granddaughter was thinking about me. “Papa wants one of those,” she said. I don’t know what prompted her to think so; but that she did can easily bring a tear to a grandparent’s eye. Yes, they may paid have for it with MasterCard but the gift was priceless.
1. “And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.” We gather tonight to celebrate and rejoice in this story of God’s gift to us in this son born to Mary. It is a witness to us that God has been thinking about you and me. Long before you were born God was thinking about you. Before the foundation of the world we were in God’s thoughts. (Ephesians 1:4) You were in his mind and on his heart.
I know the gift doesn’t look like much. A child born is such trying circumstances that his parents had to use a borrowed animal feeding trough as his first crib seems a far cry from what we would expect a gift from God to be like. Maybe we were hoping for better wrapping paper; maybe at least Mary and her baby could be in a comfortable home before a hearth with a roaring fire. Couldn’t there have been some doting grandparents present instead of a bunch of strangers—and lowly shepherds at that. But why do we put a price on what love should look like?
This child in the manger given for you—unto you a child is born—this is God telling you he is thinking about you. And God is thinking about you because God loves you. There are things in life that make us stagger and wonder about his love. The seat at the Christmas dinner table once occupied by the one dearest to us now sits empty and we wonder what the use in celebrating Christmas at all. The disease eating away at our energy and life drains us such that it is hard to muster up any joy for celebration. The depression that steals over a person seemingly from nowhere makes it hard to navigate life let alone a festive Christmas season. … and laid him in a manger. We are invited to look and see. This is God’s message that God is thinking about you.
2. In much of our gift giving we take joy in giving what the recipient wants. Do you ever wrap a present to purposely disguise the contents? One of our grandchildren wanted cash as a gift one year; he wanted to buy something that was too expensive for one person to give him so had put donations of cash on his wish list hoping to have enough to make this purchase he had in mind. So his grandmother (my wife) wrapped a huge box in which was the envelope with cash so he would wonder about his gift.
We have come again to hear the story of the birth this child who was laid in a manger. Is God disguising his gift? If we could ask for one gift and know that God would give it what would it be? Peace on earth, end of poverty, happy relationships? Is it possible that in his gift God has given us all this and much more? The gospel message is that he has given us himself in the coming of Jesus.
According to the gospel, the root of all these ills we would ask God to solve is in humanity’s turning its back on God; in rejecting the relationship we were created to enjoy and thrive in. God is the one who couldn’t bear the estrangement so comes to us himself. The message of the gospel is that God did not withhold his son, but gave him up for us all, and will along with the risen Jesus give us everything else. In giving us the Son, God gives us what will be for the resolution of all the longings of the human heart.
3. One last reflection on the manger scene. Don’t let the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth fool you into thinking the gift to be inexpensive. They may have been in a borrowed barn with next to nothing but the gift cost God everything.
In his letter to the Philippian church the Apostle Paul said “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty.” Perhaps you too can identify with Paul. We may have known days of plenty when the foot of our Christmas tree was piled high with many gifts for each family member. Then some reversal occurred and it was hard enough to scrape together sufficient for basic necessities; nothing left over even for a little Christmas gift. The pains of having little is hard enough without the despair and sense of failure that the expectations Christmas seems to demand.
Consider what it was like for the Lord of glory to find himself an infant laying in a feeding trough? Has there ever been a reversal like this one? A condescednsion so great? The word of God without whom all human eloquence is mute, cries in the manger in wordless infancy. We like rages to riches stories; this is the greatest riches to rags story ever known. Here in the manger is the beginning of God not withholding his own son; here at the manger is the beginning of the story that God will pour himself out for our sakes without remainder; here in the manger is the beginning of God’s self-forgetful self-giving that will lead to the cross. And though the gift costs God everything it is freely given for any who would believe. It is good news of great joy for all the people; to you is born this day a Saviour. Won’t you make him your own?
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.