Cradled in a manger
A family came from South Africa so that the father could study librarianship in Aberystwyth. There was a long flight, followed by the airport hassle of hiring a car for themselves and their children.
Then there was the drive through England and onto the winding country roads of Wales, westward, ever westward. They finally reached Builth Wells, but pressed on in this interminable journey which had begun 24 hours earlier in Cape Town.
As they drove out of Builth, passing the Royal Welsh Agricultural showground, they saw a sign that lifted their spirits. It said, ‘Aberystwyth 49 miles’. They were on the right road. In just over an hour they would finally be at their destination.
The messenger from God gave the shepherds the sign (not a sign) which would confirm the truth of what they’d been told – that at this moment, just a mile or so away from them, Jehovah Jesus, the one anointed by God as Saviour, had really been born.
Why was there any need of a sign? An angel in all his glory, who a second earlier had been standing in the presence of God, had appeared in their midst, and immediately they were shaking in their sandals.
Who needs another sign if a holy angel is talking to you? But even then something more breathtaking and intimidating occurred. In the twinkling of an eye, a vast gathering of angels stepped out of heaven and joined the archangel and filled the fields and lanes and hills around Bethlehem.
Angels were everywhere they looked and they were singing, a vast choir making the most glorious harmonies, singing the most wonderful music the world had ever heard: ‘Glory to God in the highest…’
Yet the angel was talking about some additional sign to be given them. What more was needed to verify the message than the presence of ten thousand angels? What could this sign be?
It was that this newborn baby would be wrapped up and lying in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough. The fact that the little boy would be lying in such a strange crib would be how they would recognise him. That would be the sign of this unique baby, to distinguish him from all the other babies in Bethlehem.
Majestic seraphim were standing erect, dressed in brilliant white – remember just one angel could destroy all the Assyrian army or all the firstborn of Pharaoh’s Egypt – and they are there near them, singing words that could be heard and understood.
It was the antithesis of such overwhelming majesty, the sign of an accessible and approachable God. They could walk right up to him, the Lord of the angels, in a stable.
He was wrapped up just like any other baby, but lying in a feeding trough. Feeding troughs today cost around £15-44 and they are made of sturdy plastic, or concrete, or metal. Jehovah Jesus would be found lying asleep in one made of wood.
Think of it, that the incarnate Creator wasn’t wrapped in silk and satin and lying in a jewel-studded cradle. This dependent, vulnerable baby was lying in a feeding trough. This was a declaration of the manner in which Almighty God intended to save the cosmos, overcome the devil, and redeem a vast company of believing sinners. Not by bolts of lightning, not by fire and brimstone, but by incarnate weakness.
The shepherds didn’t fully understand what the sign meant, but they reckoned that somehow the manger must have been as important as the angels. The shepherds, after the death and resurrection of Christ and pouring out of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, would understand more clearly why from his very birth the baby Jesus was humiliated by sleeping in a feeding trough.
‘God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise; God chose the weak things of the world to shame the strong. He chose the lowly things of this world and the despised things – and the things that are not – to nullify the things that are, so that no one may boast before him'(1 Corinthians 1:24-27).
He is the God who says, ‘Not by might, nor by power but by my Spirit’. The Scripture affirms that the weakness of God is stronger than men, and the foolishness of God is wiser than men; so this weak and foolish manger is a stronger, wiser choice than the crib in which Caesar’s son sleeps.
We would have prepared something for Jesus better than a feeding trough, wouldn’t we? But God’s sign that Jesus has come is (in the eyes of the world) a pathetic symbol of weakness and folly, and yet full of the strength and wisdom of God’s everlasting love.
God was stamping upon his birth the method by which he would always work throughout the earthly life of Christ, throughout the days of the apostles and early church, and indeed throughout the whole history of the church.
The redemption of his people will not be accomplished through eloquence or superior wisdom; nor with wise and persuasive words; nor with human might and power. God works through those who are poor in spirit, who mourn over sin and who are meek; those who are pure in heart and hungry for righteousness.
He simply would not work through razzmatazz or human boasting. He works through those conscious of their weakness and utterly dependent upon him.
If you think a rough, smelly feeding trough is a strange place to find the incarnate God, then what will you think when you see him hanging by nails to a cross, utterly alone? At the cross, no magi coming to adore him with their gifts, no wondering shepherds standing silent around, no loving protecting father and mother, just a mob of chanting men who hate him, just soldiers gambling and the sky dark at noon.
Golgotha too is the sign that Jesus Christ is God: ‘There is a green hill far away, outside a city wall, where the dear Lord was crucified who died to save us all’.