Christmas Eve Sermon: Recognizing Jesus

Father, open our eyes to see Jesus. Open our ears to hear your word. Open our hearts to make room for the coming of the Savior. And Make our feet beautiful that they might bear good news to the world. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

As far as the shepherds knew, there was nothing special about that night. The sun had disappeared over the horizon and the sheep needed watching. They settled in to do what they had been doing this time of year for generations. Suddenly, in the midst of the dark night, a bright light appears – glory – and there is an angel standing before them. Like every person who has ever seen an angel, their first response is fear and trembling, so the angel calls out, “Do not be afraid.”

Then News. Wonderful News. News that takes what seemed like an ordinary night and transformed it. for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. News – Life-changing, earth-shattering, world-turning news.

The Savior, the Messiah, the Lord has come. We might be able to imagine their awe and excitement. The Savior, the Messiah, the Lord has finally come. In a world gone wrong, in a world of tyrants and terrors, of hunger and abuse, of twisted hearts and sin-soaked hands, of broken homes and broken bodies, in a world that needs saving, the Savior has come. The Savior, the Messiah, the Lord – this is kingly language, this is militant language. The one chosen and anointed by God to conquer and set free, to rule justly and set right, to protect and make whole – this one has finally come. for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people, to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.

Elsewhere the Bible testifies that this Savior, this Messiah, this Lord will be Emmanuel, which means God with us. God himself is coming. God is taking on flesh for us. The God before whom even the angels veil their faces is coming to be our Savior, Messiah, and Lord. I am bringing you good news of great joy.

This is the good news of Christmas – God has come to save. Jesus Christ is born! In the dark of night, the light of God shone upon the shepherds and they heard good news. In the darkness of our world, the light of God has come. The earth is the Lord’s, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness does not overcome it. The good news of Christmas is Jesus.

But how will we recognize him? Though a small town, Jesus might not have been the only infant in Bethlehem. How will we know him when we find him? What about Jesus will let us know it is him? The angel says in verse 12:

This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

Wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Not what you would expect. For some of you, you may be hearing this story for the first time and may feel surprise to find that the Savior, Messiah, and Lord God has promised, that is God himself come for us, would be recognized because he is wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. For those who have spent a lot of time in the church, this story can become so familiar that we forget how shocking it must have been. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

In our short time together, I want us to reflect just a little bit about what it means that these are the markers given to help the shepherds recognize Jesus. Why would this be the way that we would know it was Jesus?

Wrapped in bands of cloth

First, the angel says they will know Jesus because he is wrapped in bands of cloth. Jesus, the Savior of the world, would be found swaddled just like every other baby. Though a king, he would take on the same weakness and vulnerability that every one of us endured at our birth. Though Lord of the universe, he was wrapped in cloths and held in his mother’s arm to keep warm, like us. Though he created all things and ruled over all things, he fed at his mother’s breast, like us. Jesus – the Savior, Messiah, and Lord – was like us in every way, except for sin, even to humble, weak, and vulnerable beginning of a baby. When God came for us, came to redeem us, he took on all of us, all of who we are, that he might save all of who we are.

The shepherds will find him wrapped in bands of cloth because God in Jesus Christ humbled himself, taking on the form of a servant, being made in human likeness. He was a baby, a fully, completely human baby. This is part of the good news of Christmas. Christ is like you. All the weakness and frailty, all the temptations and trials, even the need to be swaddled and fed, all that you have endured, Christ has endured. But instead of slipping and falling like we do every day, he stood strong for you. He endured temptation and resisted for you. He knows the trials you have experienced and he entered into the weakness of human life as a baby for you.

The power of God to save came in the weakness of human flesh, in the weakness of a child wrapped in bands of cloth. The Salvation of God came wrapped in bands of cloth, the Hope of the world was laid in a manger, the King came and was rejected because there was no room for him.

Lying in a manger

The second marker the angels give the shepherds is that they will find Jesus lying in a manger. A manger was used for feeding or watering livestock. It was a stone basin likely in or near a pen for sheep. This is where the promised King was laid on his first night. Not on a soft bed in a palace, but in a hard stone. This is a humble place for a king. There is nothing extravagant or glorious about it. Quite the opposite. It was humbling, bordering on humiliating that the King would lie in an animals’ water trough. Yet, that is the way of Jesus. That is the way of God in coming to save the world. Jesus will be known, not only by his humanity, but his humility. While other kings flaunt their power and get others to serve them, this king – the true king – will be humble and serve his people. While other kings seek their own glory, Jesus will shed his glory. While other kings sit on thrones, he lay in a manger. While other kings exalt themselves, Jesus humbles himself, even at birth, to be a very different kind of king. He will wear a crown, he will show his power, he will be exalted, but again, not in the way we would expect, but in the way of God.

because there was no place for them

But there is one more mark of Jesus, one the angel does not mention, but we hear back in verse 7: And 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.

There was no place for them. From the very beginning, Jesus was rejected. You see, ‘no room at the inn’ is not the same as saying that all the rooms were booked at the Best Western. An inn in the time of Mary, Joseph, and Jesus would have been an ‘insula,’ which was a large, multi-generational family home with a central courtyard. But the ‘inn’ was part of someone’s home and there being ‘no room,’ means that the guest room was not made available to them.

If we heard that Jospeh is going back to where his family is from and he comes with his pregnant fiancé, who is actively in labor, and they get to the family home and are told there is ‘no room,’ it is because no one made room. This was a rejection of Mary and Joseph and Jesus. If a pregnant woman shows up on your doorstep and is having a baby, you make room, even if she is a stranger, but especially if she is family.

But there was no room for them. No one made room for Mary and Joseph and Jesus, so the Savior of the world was born out back and had to be laid in manger, a water trough for the animals. Based on the geography of Bethlehem, that stable where Jesus was born and the manger he lay in was likely in or near a cave on the edge of the city, where the sheep were kept. He was already pushed the the margins.

At his birth, Jesus was already rejected. Already, there were those who refused to make room for him, who refused to be inconvenienced or scandalized by the coming of this child.

As painful as that must have been for Mary and Joseph. As uncomfortable and humble as that beginning was for Jesus, it was also fitting. It was the mark by which the shepherds would known Jesus – This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. Humanity, Humility, and Rejection were the hallmarks of Jesus at his birth and are still the way we recognize Jesus.

For there is something fitting about the circumstances of his birth – the Savior, Messiah, and Lord wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. It is fitting that the one who would be called the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” was likely born in a cave meant for sheep. It is fitting that the Bread of Life and the Living Water was laid in a trough for feeding and watering animals. But most significantly, it is fitting that Jesus was rejected, wrapped in clothes, laid in stone in a cave.

For there was another time when Jesus Christ was rejected. He was tried in a sham trial, beaten and bruised, and then nailed to the cross. There was another time when no one made room for his coming, but rejected him, pushed him outside the city even to death on the cross. There was another time where Jesus was wrapped in linen clothes and laid in a cave. Upon after his death on the cross, he was wrapped in burial clothes and placed in a tomb, a stone rolled in front to seal him in. This was not what we expected – the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord wrapped in linen clothes and laying in a tomb after being rejected and enduring a humiliating death on the cross. It was never as we expected. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.

But that tomb did not remain closed, but the stone was rolled away. Jesus did not remain wrapped in linen clothes, but was raised from the dead. Do not be afraid, for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people. This is how you will recognize him – wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger, for there was no room for him. At his birth and at his death we see the same markers. This is how we will know Jesus. He is like us, he is humble, he is rejected. And as surprising as it may seem, this is the way God comes to save. This is the way God brings all his wayward children home. This is the way God sets the world right. He comes himself to be rejected and humiliated, only to rise again. This is how we will know the salvation of God – in this child in the manger, who is also the man on the cross and the God-man raised from the dead.

When the shepherds heard the good news and were told how to recognize the child, they rushed off to see him. A group of shepherds straight in from the field is not the usual audience for a king, but maybe we shouldn’t be surprised by that anymore. The God who came in a lowly manger chose to receive first those on the outskirts of society. When they saw, they ran out and told everyone, for they could not keep the message in.

Jesus Christ is born! This is the good news of Christmas. He was born and swaddled, like you, for you. He was laid in a manger, humble and humiliated, for you. There was no room for him, he experienced rejection on the deepest level, so that there might be room for you in his kingdom. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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