This Will Be a Sign for You

Text: Luke 2:7
Date: Christmas Eve + 12/24/08

It all took place so quietly, so silently, so privately, so anonymously that it’s amazing anyone noticed anything unusual happening at all, much less that this event, this lowly, humble birth would literally change the history of the entire world, that this night as the Church and the world mark time should be so universally observed through the centuries to this day. In fact, however, it is precisely because salvation is and can be only by way of humble faith that the mighty acts of God are so hidden under the camouflage of the normal, the every-day, the dust and the sweat, the drama and the boredom of life-as-usual.

Oh there were unusual, well-known events by which we can accurately date and locate the first Christmas—Caesar Augustus, the census, the one that happened before Quirinius governed Syria. But “in, with and under” the front page events of the time, and actually quite because of them, the young maiden chosen and favored by God was caused to be brought from Nazareth to the little town of Bethlehem; for it had to be as foretold by the prophet, “But you, O Bethlehem…from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel” (Micah 5:2). But when it happened, when the promised Messiah was born, it all happened so quietly, so silently, so privately.

O little town of Bethlehem,
How still we see thee lie!
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by….For Christ is born of Mary….While mortals sleep….How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is giv’n! [LSB 361]

So St. Luke records the event so simply, with words so matter-of-fact, “And it came to pass…the days of her giving birth were fulfilled, and she gave birth to her firstborn son, and she wrapped him up with cloth bands and laid him in a manger, because there was for them no place in the inn.” Or, how did we memorize it from the King James Version for our bit part in the annual Christmas pageant? “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn” (Luke 2:7 KJV). Swaddling clothes, the manger—these were the signs the shepherds were to look for to accurately identify the new born Savior, Christ the Lord, in the town of David. But these—swaddling clothes, the manger, the no vacancy in the inn—are also signs for us! Not, of course, that we cannot accurately identify the new born Savior without the signs, but that we might accurately believe his salvation. For, from the very beginning, from these little details of His humble beginnings we have also a mighty proclamation of the goal of His mission, the purpose of His incarnation.

How does the Savior’s humble birth proclaim His goal, you ask? Three things are said here by St. Luke that he will repeat later at the end of his gospel account. At His birth the Christ Child is (1) wrapped in cloth strips, (2) placed to lie in a manger, because there was (3) no place for Him in the inn (Luke 2:7). And so is the detail at His death when the body of the crucified Christ is (1) wrapped in linen cloth, (2) placed to lie in a rock-hewn tomb, (3) a borrowed one (Luke 23:53). Our Lord’s earthly ministry was in His state of humiliation from beginning to end. The first century English monk called the Venerable Bede sums it up best as he wrote:

It should be carefully noted that the sign given of the saviour’s birth is not a child enfolded in Tyrian purple, but one wrapped round with rough pieces of cloth; he is not to be found in an ornate golden bed, but in a manger. The meaning of this is that he did not merely take upon himself our lowly mortality, but for our sakes took upon himself the clothing of the poor. Though he was rich, yet for our sake he became poor, so that by his poverty we might become rich (2 Corinthians 8:9); though he was (sic) Lord of heaven, he became a poor man on earth, to teach those who lived on earth that by poverty of spirit they might win the kingdom of heaven. (Quoted in Art Just, Luke 1:1-9:50)

We would only clarify that it is not, of course, even our poverty of spirit that “wins” anything, but rather that empties us of any and all other hopes in order that the one, solid hope may be grasped by faith.

It is for the preaching of the way of faith that the gospel comes to us in such lowly terms. Martin Luther said it this way:

We should not be upset or offended when we see that the Lord’s coming was so poor and miserable. He gives the world a great knock by this entrance and shows that the world is utterly foolish. Look. Was that not a great thing that this virgin…had to travel ‘no frills’ (for Mary and Joseph were poor) while pregnant for almost three days? And when they arrived that there was no room for her to give birth in the inn? …They had to go to the stable. There she bears the creator of all creatures. No one recognized Him, God did this to make it apparent what can be expected from the world. Here He gives the world such a rap that you have to know what the world is and how we should regard it. Namely, it is blind and undiscerning. It does not see the work of God and even if it sees the work of God it cannot value it as such. (Festival Sermons of Martin Luther, translated by Joel Baseley, ©2005)

Christ came in all humility, and by His humility and poverty He identified with each of us poor, miserable creatures whatever our misfortune or misery at any moment. Having entered our world in this way we, then, are to receive Him in like humility of faith. Only by faith can we recognize the signs and interpret them rightly—the linen cloth, the rest in manger and tomb, the singularity of His coming and going. It was in seeing the linen cloths in the otherwise empty tomb that first Easter day that John and Peter began to believe the Lord’s resurrection (Luke 24:12; John 20:4-8). It was as He lay lifeless for three days in the tomb of death that death itself was rendered powerless. It was His burial in a new tomb where no one had ever yet been laid where He alone brought life and immortality to light.

He did not remain in the manger as a child, but grew to give His life as a ransom on the cross. He did not remain on the cross or in the tomb, but rose again from the dead to open the kingdom to all believers. We receive Him as pure gift at Christmas in order that He may receive us at the great banquet of eternal life. We see the signs that proclaim the good news of sin forgiven, death undone, and life eternal by simple faith proclaimed by linen cloth, manger, cross, stable and empty, borrowed tomb. Oh come, let us adore Him, Christ the Lord.