And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
The more time that I spend over the years reading and thinking about the account of Jesus’ birth, the more I think…this is such a strange story! By “story” I don’t mean “fiction.” I simply mean that it is a truly peculiar string of events. Take the sign that accompanied the birth of the Christ-child. No, not the star that rested over the place of his birth. Not the angels appearing to announce his birth to shepherds. I’m talking about the surprising sign of a dingy manger.
In Luke 2:1-20 you have an ancient historian retelling the account of God coming to the world to save sinners by grace and make the world right again. This is the day that God had promised for centuries through his prophets, that would eventually transform the whole world. It is the day that would result in the glory of God in heaven and in peace on the earth (Luke 2:14). This is the day that would change the world forever.
You’ve surely read about this day before. Here it is again, for reference:
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 And all went to be registered, each to his own town. 4 And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, 5 to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. 6 And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn. 8 And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” 15 When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger. 17 And when they saw it, they made known the saying that had been told them concerning this child. 18 And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart. 20 And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.” (Luke 2:1-20 ESV)
Put yourself in the shepherds’ sandals.
Imagine for a moment that you are among the shepherds in the field that night; among the first humans to hear the announcement that “a Savior, who is Christ, the Lord” had finally been born into the world. Out of nowhere an angel of the Lord appears to you and you’re surrounded by the glory of the Lord himself. God is here. The almighty maker of heaven and earth is again breaking into history in dramatic fashion. This is a very big moment and you are understandably afraid for your life.
And then the angel speaks: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news (i.e. an epic announcement of worldwide significance) of a great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior (one who will save his people from every enemy), who is Christ (the Messiah; a just, holy, compassionate, powerful divine king) the Lord (God himself, the creator of the world and faithful covenant keeping God of Israel).”
A Savior, who is Christ the Lord, has been born!
“And this,” the angel says, “will a sign for you.” Which is a way to say, “And this is how you will be able to verify and understand what I’m saying to you…”
What kind of sign would you expect?
Now, what would you expect to hear next? What kind of sign would you expect to accompany the birth of the Savior of the world?
There are some really dramatic signs in the Bible that God gave to people in various situations. The rainbow God gave as a sign of his promise never to destroy the world again with a flood. The plagues that God brought on Egypt through Moses were signs of his power and holiness and judgment. You might think of Gideon’s sign – the wet fleece on the dry ground, and the dry fleece on the wet ground, or the sign of a virgin conceiving and bearing a Son.
Signs in the Bible are dramatic events (often plainly miraculous events) that confirm God’s messages and promises to his people, and that typically help “bring out the meaning” of God’s messages and promises to his people. Signs in the Bible don’t just offer confirming evidence for God’s promises; they serve as interpretive keys for better understanding the significance of God’s promises.
So, you’re standing there and you hear the announcement. What sort of dramatic event would you expect to bring out the meaning of the birth of a Savior who is Christ the Lord? A baby with solid gold skin? A baby that’s fluent in 7 languages? A glowing baby? A floating baby? A bearded baby? An angel baby with a baby halo and a baby toga? We would all likely expect something very big and bright and spectacular. We’d be looking for some show of unparalleled power to verify and explain the birth of the Savior of the world.
But what is the sign God gives to verify and explain the birth of his Son? This baby, wrapped in swaddling cloths (meaning he’s newly born and all swaddled up, being cared for by his mother), will be “lying in a manger.”
A “manger” is a feed box; a feeding trough for barn animals like donkeys and sheep and goats. The heavenly sign that not only identifies which baby the angel is referring to, but that better helps us understand the baby the angel is referring to, is that this baby will be lying in dirty feeding trough.
Now, just in case we’ve all become overly familiar with this story, let me remind you that this is not an moment for Instagram. This is not social media worthy. This is not sanitary. It’s cruddy. It’s gross. It’s sad. It is in a very real sense, tragic. The Savior who is Christ the Lord should not be in feed box.
And yet, at the angel’s announcement of this sign, all of heaven is exploding in celebration. Things are exactly as they are supposed to be. The God who planned this very day from eternity past is not the least bit surprised at the place where his eternal Son is now laying. In fact, he wants him in that feed box, since the manger not only will help the shepherds identify which particular baby is a Savior who is Christ the Lord, but will also help them (and us!) understand how this baby will save his people as Christ the Lord. The manger is mentioned three times in this passage. It’s clearly a critical piece of this account.
Why a manger?
So, why a manger? What does the manger teach us about this Savior who is Christ the Lord? What is its function? What does the manger do as a sign from God? I’d like to offer two points for our consideration here.
First, the manger lays out the course of Jesus’ life.
The manger gives a strong hint as to why Jesus has come to the world and how he will be a Savior for his people. This is how it’s going to go for him. It is not going to be glamorous. It won’t be clean. It’s going to be dirty and it will be bloody. He has come not to be served, but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many (Matt 20:28).
The Savior has come not first to conquer, but to die. To go as low as a human can go. Jesus did not come to this world for a promotion. In coming to this world he made himself low, so as to make everyone understand (even though so many remain deceived) that he didn’t come to save us like we tend to think we need saving. We tend to look to God to save us from all of the enemies outside of ourselves – circumstances, other people, sickness, and death. And while Jesus did come to save us from those things ultimately; he did not come to save us from those things firstly. He came first to die for our sins, in our place, on the Cross.
He was laid in a manger to communicate that he wasn’t here to conquer the rebel kingdoms of the world. Not yet at least. No, he came first to conquer our rebel hearts and to put away our sins. He started as low as you can start in this world, to show how his life would end. As low as it could. Hanging on a cross.
Second, the manger foreshadows what will be required of Jesus’ followers.
The manger says to all of us, “If you’re looking for your best life now – money, possessions, luxury, status, and acclaim – don’t follow Jesus.”
One particular day after Jesus had grown up and begun his ministry, a man came up to him and said, “I will follow you wherever you go.” Do you know what Jesus said to that man? Great! Come on then, let’s go!? No. He actually pumped the brakes on this man’s enthusiasm. Instead Jesus said to him, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of man has nowhere to lay his head” (Luke 9:58).
Translation: “If you want to follow me, you better know that there’s nothing glamorous about doing so.”
The point is not that those who want to follow Jesus should take a vow of poverty and expect to be homeless. The point is that you follow Jesus to gain Jesus and Jesus alone. At his birth, Jesus laid in a manger in complete simplicity, so that we wouldn’t be distracted from seeing him as the all-sufficient Savior and Lord that he is. If we were impressed with his surroundings at his birth, we might never be willing to follow him into surroundings like those at his death. The gift you get when you trust in Jesus as Lord, is Jesus himself. And you have to believe that to become a genuine follower of his. The stripped down, unimpressive scene at the birth place of the Christ was carefully assembled by God to show us that Jesus is the only one we need.
So then, the manger is a powerful sign from God. The manger is not a meaningless or inconsequential backdrop to the birth of Christ. It teaches us about the Savior who is Christ the Lord and about what it means to follow him as his people. It lays out the course of his life and it prepares us for the difficulties that come with following him in this life. May God give us faith to embrace all that it says.