Christmas Eve is supposed to be a happy time and for most of us it is. Yet there are some of us who have soldiers in their families and wonder how they are doing. There are some of us who miss someone who was here last Christmas, but will never be with us again. For those of us who are having the more or less traditional Christmas, this is wonderful time, but there are many whose Christmas is not so merry this year.
For such people the lights and the tinsel don't quite cut it. The carols have a hollow ring to them. Many traditions now bring pain instead of pleasure. Many people are looking for a sign - a sign that they really matter - a sign that the pain will go away some day - a sign that Christmas is not just there to help cope with the cold outside, but to cope with the cold of the soul.
The angel had a sign for the shepherds: "This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger." Here is a sign, but is this sign only for the shepherds. Is there something in this sign for us, too? The swaddling cloths and the manger must have helped the shepherds find the baby, but what about us? What does this sign mean for us?
Here is Christ - in a manger. A manger is little more than a feed box. Christ is in a feed box in Bethlehem. Bethlehem literally means house of bread. Christ the Lord in a feedbox in the house of bread. Take, eat, this is my body. How much of a sign do we need? Already, in the manger, here is Christ's body in a feedbox! Already, here, in the story of the incarnation, we have a foreshadowing of the feast that is to come.
Already in the feed box we have Christ's message of His loving sacrifice. Yet, there are many people who can't accept it. God, wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger says, "I love you," but many people think He means actually means, "Shape up! Get you act together! Show me that you are really worthy of what I have to give." Not only is it sad, but it is also very dangerous. God wants to give something for free and we are afraid He has ulterior motives.
How would you feel if you tried to help out a friend and he got suspicious? It would be like a friend stuck on the road without fuel. You drive by and see your friend standing by his car with a dejected look on his face. You pull over and ask what's wrong. When you learn what is wrong, you say, "Get in. Let's go to town and get you some fuel," and he says, "Okay, what do you want?" And you say, "What?" And he says, "No, I mean it, when you stopped for me, what were you really after?" Here you are trying to do a favor for your friend and he talks as though you were out to get him.
Is that confusing? Does that seem silly? You were only trying to be a good friend and you got treated like dirt. Do you feel sorry for your friend? Do you pity him?
Too often we do this very thing to God. God comes to us to recue us from something a lot worse than an empty fuel tank. He gives us the sign long ago of a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. He comes to us now in His Word and in His body and blood to strengthen us in the faith. Yet even with all this, we ask, "What do I have to do to earn all this?
So we try to find something to bring along to make us welcome. We search our record for something good for which he might have some use. Or, if we're honest, we give up on that. We try to get warm with comforts that we know are lies, and we try to fill the hunger with anything, even sins that we know are sins. And next Christmas, you look at the manger again, still hungry. But that manger is the sign for you. If you're hungry, come home.
We might ask, "What's in this for me?" Well most of us have heard the phrase: What goes around, comes around. Each of us knows that we've sent some things around that aren't so good. What if, when it's time for those things to come back around and nail us, someone else volunteered to take them for us instead? Well, you're in the right place. "This is the sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger."
These are the swaddling clothes that we've heard about since we were kids. I don't know what you thought swaddling cloths were when you were a kid, but I thought that swaddling cloths was just a different way of saying diaper. I really had no clue.
In fact swaddling cloths are strips of cloth. People were concerned that babies grow up with straight bones so they wrapped babies up tight in these cloths. As soon as the baby was born, they washed him and rubbed him with oil and wrapped him in cloth strips—not just for warmth, but to keep the limbs straight, until he looked like a little mummy. A baby wrapped in swaddling cloths would look like a little baby in a cloth cocoon.
That's what the shepherds found: a small bundle of humanity, wrapped in strips of cloth, stiff, unable to move. "And this will be the sign of great joy for all people," including you. What's there for you? How much do you matter? Read the sign: This is God in the manger, this is Christ the Lord, a bundle wrapped in strips of cloth, stiff, unable to move.
This is the sign of everything you need and it's exactly what you've been given.
For Joseph of Arimathea went to Pilate and asked for Jesus' body. Then he took it down from the cross, and wrapped it in linen cloths and laid Him - not in a manger, that was just the sign - and laid Him in a tomb. I look into the manger. I look in from the cold, and I say, "Oh, Jesus, I'm dying out here." But he says, "Beloved, look at me. I'm the one wearing the grave clothes."
Jesus wore those grave clothes because we needed some way to leave the past behind. We needed somebody who would take our sin from our back and carry it for us. We needed somebody who would volunteer to take what we had coming and make us friends with God again. Somebody who would go into the cold, somebody who would go into the dark, somebody who would die, somebody to get buried for us, so that we could live and live forever. So He came. It's a present. It's even been unwrapped for you:
[John 20:4-5] [John] outran Peter and reached the tomb first, and stooping to look in, he saw the linen cloths lying there. Did you here that? He saw the linen cloths lying there. He's not swaddled anymore! For I bring you good news of great joy for all people! Not only has a savior been born for you, but a Savior has been raised for you! He is Christ, the Lord!
[Luke 2:13-14] And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!" Among men and women and children and every sinner out there in the cold! It's the song about the Savior who dies for people who haven't been good. It's the song about the Savior who comes back from the dead for people who are worth the world to him! So you never again have to be on the outside looking in at the baby wrapped swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.
Read the sign: You're in the right place. If you're hungry, come home.
Thus says the Lord: "When I said I loved you, I actually meant just that: I love you."
Merry Christmas! Amen
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