Heaven in the Manger
A young boy from Texas had moved all over the United States. His father was a soldier and had been transferred from one military base to another. The boy was proud of being a Texan and used every opportunity to remind people where he was from. One day at Sunday school he was asked to name the place where Jesus was born. Blurting out all the ancient cities he knew, he guessed places like Athens and Rome. When he was told that the right answer was Palestine, he said, “I knew it was in Texas somewhere.” Perhaps the boy was not far from wrong. The Child born once in Bethlehem of Judea is not far from our congregation. He is closer to Salem, Oregon than we might think.
Jesus is not merely “away in a manger somewhere,” but He’s “here in our Church.” As we have seen throughout this Advent, the Church becomes the cradle in which the humble Lord Jesus comes to be present. Christ, who is so little that He could be nestled at the breast of His mother, Mary, invites us to receive Him in His littleness on the lap of our mother the Church. Heaven is come down to the manger. And Christ’s manger is here it is this place called Messiah Lutheran Church.
A child is born. How simply Isaiah puts it! A birth announcement is one of the simplest announcements we humans know how to make. A proud father’s announcement is simply, “We have a baby!”
Mary had a baby. Heaven came down into the darkness. As simple as it is to say that a child is born, we must recognize who this particular Child is. This is very God from very God, everlasting from everlasting as the Nicene Creed says (see also Isaiah 9:6). He’s no ordinary child.
A great light has been seen. The Christ Child brings light where once there was only darkness. Those who walk in darkness walk in pain and suffering as they trip over obstacles and run into walls. People in darkness walk in ignorance of the path set before them. Only light brings true wisdom, because it accompanies the One who is Wisdom in the flesh, Wisdom personified—Christ, the great Light. Christ is not merely a great light, but He is also the very source of light (compare Genesis 1:3 and 1:16). He provides light where there was once none shining.
Last summer, while visiting the Arctic, I was shocked to find the sun waking me from a sound sleep at three in the morning. Like a laser beam, the sun shot into my tent. That morning, I chose to rise early to bask in the brilliant light that erupted in the Alaskan summer sky.
When the true Light was born under the darkened sky, the stars were overwhelmed by the arrival of the true Light that “enlightens everyone” (John 1:9). Christ, is the Light of the world, He overcame the darkness and brought true joy. Because the Light came and abolished the darkness, joy has been poured out on the people who once walked in the darkness.
At the birth of this Child, the ancient oppression was broken. The victory of the Child is swift, shocking, and complete, just as it was in the day of Midian. In that battle Gideon’s took three hundred soldiers and stunned the Midianites with a crushing defeat. Here the weakness of the few defeated the power of the many as “the Lord [gave] the host of Midianites into their hands” (Judges 7:15). This same “weakness” clothed the Child born of Mary, but Jesus is still God and strong to save His people from their sin.
The Son is given, but He is not merely handed over. He is given to us! In older editions of Martin Luther’s commentary on this passage, printers often placed the words “to us” or “for us” in capital letters. They wanted to emphasize as boldly as they could that the work of Christ to save the world was not some abstract theological concept or grandiose philosophical idea. Christ was given not just generally, but TO US. How strange that the God who created us and who possessed us then gave Himself to us, to us sinners! Thus God acts for us by giving Himself to us.
We receive divine Wisdom through this Child. We receive His wisdom as we receive Him through the Word and Sacraments. The Word has been given to us, and in that giving the Word Incarnate gives Himself to us. Thus the baby born of the virgin in Bethlehem is ever reborn among us through the Word. The speaking of God in His Word conveys what it says, it is creative. His speech does not merely tell us about Christ. It does not merely relate the lovely story of the Christ child born in ill fated circumstances so we may be delighted or filled with sort of nostalgia. No, the Lord gives the account and words and makes present to us what it says. God’s Word is an ever creating Word, unlike human words or speech. We become overpoweringly certain of God’s presence here because He speaks His presence to us (Matthew 28:20); this is such a wonderful fulfillment of the divine purpose to be a God for us. The sacramental action of the Eucharist is for us. From the “manger” of our altar, the Child serves us with His own body and blood for the forgiveness of sins as often as it is done, such as tomorrow or this Sunday.
Despite the ethereal optimism of the hymn, “Away in the Manger,” when it says, “no crying He makes,” we must confess that Jesus was a squalling child, suckling at His mother’s breast. He needed His diapers changed just as we did. Mary’s Child bears our nature, so we might bear His nature that is, His immortality. The Son given to Mary is God. Her Son is the Father’s Son. The God-man dwells among us, “full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). Even the ancient witness of Isaiah is clear about who the Messiah will be. By flesh He would be the son of David, but He also would be the Son of God.
Like a father is to his children, so our God in Christ is compassionate to those He has made and redeemed in His blood. He is zealous for His children (Psalm 103:13). And His zeal brings God in Christ to live with us here as we draw near the cradle of His Word. The Prince of Peace comes from the house of David (2 Samuel 7:12ff.) and will occupy His eternal throne. Through Him peace is granted to those who know their sin. To them God says that because they are justified by faith in Christ, they have peace with Him (T) (Romans 5:1). This peace is not some wishful thinking or some faint hope, as it is among humans. This peace is a reality that our Prince defines in His own person. Jesus is peace; therefore we have peace (John 14:27; 16:33).
In the reredos, that beautiful ornate piece of furniture, behind the high altar of the Lutheran Cathedral in Copenhagen, Denmark, stands Bertel Thorvaldsen’s statue Christus. It beckons worshipers to “come closer.” At Christmas the world heard God call, “Come closer.” From the pulpit here, Christ calls, “Come closer.” The Word invites us to come the manger of the Church where Christ is laid. Come to His church and hear His Word, come to His church and feed upon His body and Blood. Come into the presence of Jesus. Be near us, Lord we ask you to stay. In Jesus name, amen and amen!
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.