4th Week of Advent
The Grid Lines
The wise men did not have a map. They had a star. They also did not find Jesus in a manger, but in a house, arriving as much as three years after his birth. It was the shepherds in the Bethlehem fields who found Jesus in a manger.
A good map will have grid lines – horizontal and vertical lines. Some will have letters across the top and numbers running down the side of the map. You can easily locate the precise location of your destination by looking in the reference guide for its location (i.e. it will read something like: Bethlehem: H-17). Starting at the letter H on top, and the number 17 on the side – where those two lines intersect will be your precise location. If you think about it, the manger can be found with similar grid lines. From the beginning of time to the night Jesus was born, the manger was exactly where God intended it be found.
With God, there are no coincidences. It was no coincidence that Caesar Augustus “issued a decree that a census should be taken” (Luke 2:1). All the citizens of Israel were ordered to return to the home of their ancestors to register, be counted, and most likely taxed.
It just so happened (coincidence?) that Joseph, Mary’s betrothed husband was from Bethlehem, otherwise known as “the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David” (Luke 2:4). So the two of them made the 80 mile journey from Nazareth in Galilee to that small village of Bethlehem. By then, Mary was well along in her pregnancy.
That there would be no room in the inn is no surprise. Numerous descendants of David would be going into Bethlehem to register. The town would have been overrun with guests. In order to help Joseph and Mary, accommodation in a stable-like cave (most likely a natural cave used for animals) was made available to them for the night. We are then told: and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger (Luke 2:7).
There were shepherds in a nearby field, watching over their flocks. An angel appeared to them and announced, “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” Then, the angel declared: “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:11-12).
The Shepherds seemed to know exactly where to find this newborn baby. They said, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about” (Luke 2:15).
A manger would likely be found in a cave where animals would be sheltered from weather and predators. We can presume that there really weren’t too many of these caves in Bethlehem (even though there are thousands of such caves throughout Israel). However, finding the manger is not their only clue. There would be: 1) a newborn baby lying in it, and, 2) the baby would be wrapped in cloths while lying in the manger.
I grew up with the King James and the Revised Standard Versions of the Bible. It is sad that newer translations dropped the word “swaddling” from the verse. Just saying he was wrapped in cloths make it sound like a common thing for there to be strips of material lying around the stable. The fact that these cloths were even mentioned is quite significant.
Bethlehem shepherds were unique. They had a special responsibility that other shepherds throughout the area did not have. Sacrificial lambs were born in Bethlehem. Shepherds in this region did not just tend their flock; they gave precise care to the newborn lambs. Female lambs were offered for peace offerings, while male lambs were taken to become Passover lambs. It is likely that there would have only been one location where a pregnant ewe would be taken to give birth and where the newborn lamb was so carefully scrutinized and attended.
The Passover lamb would be wrapped in specially designated cloths and laid in a stone manger until the lamb was calm and settled. There in the manger it would be examined for any blemishes or bruises, for only a lamb without any defect could be sacrificed as a Passover lamb. The reason to swaddle the lamb was to keep it from becoming bruised. Newborn animals are unsteady and can easily fall, thus bruising or breaking a leg. Only a lamb without blemish could be sacrificed for the atonement of sin.
With God, there are no coincidences. It is no coincidence that John the Baptist, upon seeing Jesus coming to him cried out: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29). “The next day John was there again with two of his disciples. When he saw Jesus passing by, he said, ‘Look, the Lamb of God!’” (John 1:35-36).
How appropriate it is that Jesus, like a sacrificial Passover lamb, would be born in Bethlehem, wrapped in protective cloths and lying in a manger. He is the Lamb of God!
Like grid lines on a map, these scriptures identify exactly where in Bethlehem the manger would be found. The shepherds would be well acquainted with its location. And in that manger, snuggled tightly and safely… the Son of God… the Lamb of God… who was born to become the permanent sacrifice for our sin.
By this the Saviour of mankind,
Th’ incarnate God shall be display’d,
The babe ye wrapp’d in swaths shall find,
And humbly in a manger laid.*
- Charles Wesley, Hymns for the Nativity of our Lord. London. (Strahan], 1745.
Traditional Advent themes are: love, joy, peace and hope. These are quite appropriate given the significance of Christmas. Yet, there is one element of the Christmas account that is often overlooked. In a word, it is “forgiveness.” Think about this: each of the four traditional themes is wonderful, but each one is also found within forgiveness. We fully experience God’s love when we are forgiven. We are filled with joy and peace when we receive forgiveness. There is hope for us, now that we are forgiven.
We have been guided to the manger, not so we can gaze at a baby, or sing sweet Christmas carols about his birth. We have been guided to the manger to marvel at God’s plan for his Son to come to us in human form. There is the bigger picture than just celebrating his birth-day.
Jesus was born “to us” for a purpose. He did not remain in the manger. He grew into a devout Hebrew man, learned a trade, then taught people about God’s Kingdom. He gathered a few followers, teaching and showing them who he was and why he entered our world. And then, it happened. He was crucified on a cross. It was a horrible, painful, tormenting, sacrificial death.
It has become impossible for me to look at the manger and not see the cross. It is not possible for me to separate his birth from his death. The death of Jesus was purposeful and sacrificial. His death was for our sake… for the forgiveness of our sins. Paul reminds us of this in Romans 3:23: “…all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” We need a Savior. We need a sacrificial Lamb. Is it any wonder he was wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger? He was born to be our Passover Lamb. As John the Baptist put it: “Look, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29).
Listen to how the apostle Paul said it: “Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself” (Hebrews 7:27). “Once for all!”
There is now no further need of a sacrifice for our sins. Jesus did it all! He became the sacrificial Passover Lamb for all eternity and for “all the people” as the angel announced to the shepherds. Paul also wrote in Hebrews 5:9: “…and, once made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation for all who obey him…”
“Eternal forgiveness… eternal salvation!” That’s what the manger is all about. God’s plan for eternity: revealed in the beginning, reminded through the scriptures, remembered at the manger and redeemed at the cross! And let’s not forget: realized in his resurrection!
– Do you remember receiving a very special Christmas present? What was it? How did it make you feel when you opened it and realized how wonderful the gift was? The manger is just the wrapping of God’s gift to us: the gift of Jesus. Write a poem or verse expressing your feelings of receiving the very special gift of Jesus.
Here are some Bible verses to help you on your way:
John 4 (Jesus referred to himself as “the gift of God.”)
10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water.”
Acts 8 (We are unable to buy or earn or even deserve the gift of Jesus… all we must do is accept Him.)
20 Peter answered: “May your money perish with you, because you thought you could buy the gift of God with money!
Romans 5 (The gift of God is our assurance of God’s forgiveness. Justified: “Just-if-I’d” never sinned.)
16 Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.
Romans 6 (Having the gift of God is having eternal life.)
23 For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.
Ephesians 2 (Only through faith are we saved. Open this gift and He will be your Lord forever.)
8 For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this is not from yourselves, it is the gift of God—
Thank you for taking this journey to the manger with me. I deeply appreciate the privilege to share these thoughts with you. Above all, I hope they have been able to make this Advent season more meaningful to you as a roadmap to the manger. – Tom
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”) (Matthew 1:22-23).