The Birth of Jesus
2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah,
who are one of the little clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
one who is to rule in Israel,
whose origin is from of old,
from ancient days.
3 Therefore he shall give them up until the time
when she who is in labor has brought forth;
then the rest of his kindred shall return
to the people of Israel.
4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD,
in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.
And they shall live secure, for now he shall be great
to the ends of the earth;
5 and he shall be the one of peace.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and
was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
A number of us here could stand and testify in praise of Google Maps, Mapquest, or the GPS system in our cars; the days of getting hopelessly lost are over. This is especially helpful because well-meaning people can be terrible at giving directions. Some tell you how many tenths of a mile to go, but
don’t know the street name. Sometimes you are given a street name with no idea how far away it is – and how do you know but that you haven’t already gone speeding past it? “Turn left at the big building on Rt. 59,” they told me, here in Baldwin County, Alabama. But I’ve lived ten years of my life in Chicago. To me, there are no big buildings on rt. 59 in Baldwin County!
People are not great at giving directions, but then, neither are angels. They do a great introduction: the sudden appearance in the silent night sky, terrifying the poor shepherds half to death. They got their attention, but when it came time to tell them how to get to the newborn babe, what are the directions?
“in the city of David… you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”
That’s it. No street address, no building description – they don’t know but what they may have checked into the inn. Remember, these were the original shepherds. They have never seen the annual church nativity play to watch the merciless inn-keeper turn away Mary and Joseph. These shepherds have never seen a crèche, so they don’t know what the stable is supposed to look like, and they have no star guiding them like the wise men did.
“City of David”
To their credit, the shepherds know what to make of the cryptic “city of David.” No one would be faulted for thinking that meant Jerusalem, the city that king David made his capital. They don’t fall for that. They somehow Intuit that the angels meant David’s hometown, Bethlehem.
It was in Bethlehem, long ago, that the prophet Samuel came to the home of Jesse, the Ephrathite, asking to see his eight sons so that he could anoint one of them as Israel’s next king. Long story short, it took a while to finally locate little David; he was off being a good shepherd, watching his sheep.
So anyway, the shepherds in the Christmas story recognize that the city of David is Bethlehem, and now all they have to do is locate the manger. Since a
manger is a feeding trough, and since everybody had a donkey or a camel or an ox or some sheep or goats, or a combination of them, and they all had to be fed, everyone had a manger. In addition to animal food, one of the mangers in the town of Bethlehem had a baby in it, but how would you ever find it with directions like that?
Luke simply explains:
15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.
Maybe Luke is playing with us a bit. As useless as a manger is for narrowing down the directions, it is mentioned three times. First Luke tells us that Mary laid Jesus in the manger, then the angels tell the shepherds to find Jesus in a manger, then Luke tells us they found him in the manger. You start getting the idea that Luke wants us to look at this whole manger-concept a little more closely.
Okay, let’s look at it. A manger has only one purpose: it’s where the food for the animals is. Are we supposed to think of Jesus as a kind of food?
Beth-lehem: “house of bread”
It may be worth noticing something the shepherds knew that we miss: the town’s name, Bethlehem, means “house of bread.”
If you remember the story of Ruth, the woman who became the mother of Jesus’ ancestors, you may recall how the name of the town is important. Ruth’s mother-in-law Naomi is from Bethlehem, the “house of bread” but she has to immigrate to Moab because of a famine: there is no bread in “the house of bread.” Eventually they return, the family stays there for generation after generation, and finally King David is born in Bethlehem.
David was a shepherd when the prophet Samuel anointed him as king in Bethlehem. That seems somehow fitting; in the old days, kings were called
“shepherds” of the people. A good shepherd cared for his flock; a bad one simply fleeced them of their wool, so to speak.
Glory Days – Future Days
After David, king Solomon made a mess of things. Soon the kingdom split apart, and kings went from bad to worse. It is no wonder that looking back on the time of David was looking back on the glory days. When the prophets, like Micah, pictured a future time when God would do a new thing on behalf of his people, they pictured it happening as it had in the glorious past. The new king would come from the same place David came from: Bethlehem. Micah sang:
2 But you, O Bethlehem of Ephrathah, who are one of the little clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to rule in Israel,”
Of course Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the “house of bread”; he was from the family of David. The angels called him the Messiah – meaning the “anointed one;” the coming king.
The new King’s job
What did prophet Micah picture this newly anointed king from Bethlehem accomplishing for his people?
“4 And he shall stand and feed his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God.”
The new king will feed his flock, like a good shepherd. So there it is. Jesus is born in Bethlehem, city of David, house of bread, laid in a manger, destined to be Messiah, the anointed king, to feed his people in the strength of the Lord.
Saving the Hungry
To save a starving person, you have to feed him. The angels said the shepherds would find, in the manger, a Savior, Messiah, the Lord. He will feed his people.
On Christmas Day, 2011, I think the Christmas story is exactly what we need. We are all starving this year. Starving for effective solutions, starving for stability, starving for security.
Probably most of us are starving personally too. Starving to be understood, starving for affection, for love, for some way to make sense of our lives. We own more than we could ever pretend to need, but yet the hunger persists. What’s up with that?
It makes me recall a poem I heard Garrison Keillor read on the Writer’s Almanac
Not so much the desire
for owning things
as the inability to choose
between hunter or emerald
green, to buy
just roses, when there are birds
of paradise, dahlias,
delphinium, and baby’s breath.
At center an emptiness
large as a half-off sale table.
What could be so wrong
with a little indulgence?
To wander the aisles of fresh
new good things knowing
any of them could be hers?
With a closet full of shoes
unworn back home,
she’s looking for love
but it’s not for sale —
so she grabs three of
the next best thing.
It could just as easily been about a man, shopping for new toys. We share the same condition.
And really, it is a grotesque starvation that puts us in debt to banks and consumer creditors, while a lack of literal bread sends millions of children around the world to bed literally hungry. Another charity appeal comes in the mail, and finds its way to the round file, while the bills for all our “next best things” add up on the desk.
Hear the call of Christmas. Come to Jesus. Let him feed your hungry heart. And then let him break your heart for a hungry world.
Hear the message of Christmas from the words of the classic hymn, “Jesus, Thou Joy of Loving Hearts”:
Jesus, Thou Joy of loving hearts,
Thou Fount of life,
Thou Light of men,
From the best bliss that earth imparts,
We turn unfilled to Thee again.
Thy truth unchanged hath ever stood;
Thou savest those that on Thee call;
To them that seek Thee Thou art good,
To them that find Thee all in all.
We taste Thee, O Thou living Bread,
And long to feast upon Thee still;
We drink of Thee, the Fountainhead,
And thirst our souls from Thee to fill.
Our restless spirits yearn for Thee,
Wherever our changeful lot is cast;
Glad when Thy gracious smile we see,
Blessed when our faith can hold Thee fast.
O Jesus, ever with us stay,
Make all our moments calm and bright;
Chase the dark night of sin away,
Shed over the world Thy holy light.