The Manger – A Signpost
Isaiah 9: 2 – 7; Luke 2: 1 – 20
(I acknowledge with gratitude the work of Tom Wright.)
If you try to point out something to a dog, the dog will most probably look at your finger instead of the object you’re pointing to. This is frustrating. The dog looks at the pointing finger rather than what is pointed at.
It is not uncommon for humans to be like that too. They look at the pointing finger and not at the object. A good example is the story of the birth of Jesus. What do people know about the birth of Jesus? Well there is a baby in a manger. It is the best known animal feeding trough in the world. It is depicted on Christmas decorations, Church buildings and pageants. And of course, the manger has a stable and animals. We all know that. And of course the Shepherds brought a lamb as present for baby Jesus like the Wisemen brought presents. It’s all part of the Christmas scene: the stable, the manger, the animals, the shepherds and Wisemen. In the background there lurks the innkeeper. Remember the innkeeper saying, ‘there’s no room in the inn’. Some preachers followed that line making the point that we need to make room for Jesus, but we don’t. The latter is true, but the Bible never mentions the innkeeper, the Wisemen don’t come to the stable, no animals are mentioned and there’s no certainty that Jesus was born in a stable!
I recall a particular Bible study when, an elderly couple, whom we befriended, where so upset when I pointed out that the Wisemen did not visit Jesus in the stable on Christmas eve when he was born. It isn’t in the Gospel account. In fact in Matthew’s account of the Gospel, where we find the story of the Wisemen, we read that the Wisemen came after the birth of Jesus to the house where he was staying [Mt 2:1, 11]. Matthew doesn’t tell us where Jesus was born and Luke only sort of. Luke tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and shepherds came to visit him. It is in Luke’s account we have reference to Jesus lying in a manger. The manger is mentioned three times [Lk 2: 7, 11, 16]. The manger is mentioned as it is the key signpost to where you will find Jesus. The Christ-child, the angels tell the shepherds, will be found in a manger. [Luke 2:12] The manger is the clue to finding Jesus, not the clue to where he was born.
Let’s think about what Luke is doing. He wants the reader to know some things about Jesus. Firstly like Matthew we learn Jesus is born in Bethlehem – the ancestral home of Joseph’s and Mary’s clan. Bethlehem is not where they live. So we read that the place were they stayed did not have enough room. Now the word commonly translated as ‘inn’ can also be translated as lodging place or guest room. If this is Joseph’s and Mary’s ancestral city they most likely would have stayed with family members. Now most houses would have had a guestroom that would have doubled up as a storeroom. The Greek word Luke uses is kataluma, which is the exact word Jesus uses in Luke 22: 11 when Jesus asks his disciples to ask the master of the house if he can use the ‘guest room’ – kataluma – for the Passover. In the parable of the Good Samaritan the Samaritan takes the man to an inn and the word used there is pandocheion the normal Greek word for inn/public house. I doubt whether Jesus parents went to an inn. They most likely stayed with a family member. Matthew has them staying in a house in Bethlehem [2:11].
So what we learn from this is that Joseph and Mary possibly where sharing the guestroom in a relative’s home and having no space for the baby they placed him in a manger. Baby Jesus is not deprived of anything. Clearly Mary and Joseph are prepared. They have swaddling clothes. We presume this manger was in a stable, but it may not have been. The manger has no significance other than it was the most practical place to put the child.
Our problem, like our canine friends, is that we are so busy looking at the finger – in this case the manger – that we forget about what the finger is pointing at. How many times have you not heard about poor Jesus lying in the manger rejected by the innkeeper? Or, poor Jesus, having a manger for his cradle. The assumption is that this is a sign of his family’s poverty. No, it is a sign of practical parents who are well prepared with their swaddling clothes.
Jesus was born to parents who were comfortable. They could afford to travel, had a donkey, and Jesus was brought up as a well educated young man trained in his earthly father’s profession and able to read. This is what we would call today a well to do middle class family.
What Luke is doing with this story is pointing to something far more important. Luke puts Jesus in a political and religious context. The political context is that he is born in the reign of the first Caesar Augustus who formed the Roman Empire and instituted a full census for the first time. Secondly Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the city of great King David. Bethlehem is a special city to Jews. Luke wants us to understand, that Jesus is not just another child, but the Christ-child and Saviour of the world. Here lies the Lord of the Universe!
Now this baby boy born in one of the far corners of Caesar Augustus’ vast empire would have been completely unknown those outside his family circle and those few ordinary people to whom it was revealed. The guestroom, the manger and the shepherds all point to Jesus beginning his earthly life amongst the ordinary people of this world.
But within thirty years Jesus is executed by a Roman governor and to all intents and purposes is deleted from history. If Augustus Caesar did not know Jesus and Pilate had forgotten about him, within a couple of Centuries the Roman Emperors that followed knew about him. They spent political energy trying to suppress the followers of Christ Jesus. Within three centuries an Emperor became a Christian and the Christian Church an official religion in Rome. Luke, without knowing all this, understands the divine and political significance of Jesus. That is the point of being born in the time of Caesar Augustus. Luke isn’t interested in a manger and a stable scene.
So when we see a card or sign with a manger, stable, a star and animals don’t stop there because they are just signs to what is really important. The baby born is soon to be Christ the Lord and Saviour of the world.
Scholars don’t agree with Luke’s dating. It is imprecise, not false. The events around the birth of Jesus would have been collected after the Crucifixion not before. Jesus’ significance was seen by a few at first. They would have followed him for the life and hope he was giving them. His personal history was not important. But what is clear is that the prophets of old pointed to God coming to rescue the people. Some prophets like Isaiah understood that God would send the Christ / Messiah to the world as a child. Others like Micah predicted that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem of the family of great king David [5:2]. God’s intentions are realised through humans.
The formation of the Roman Empire gave the Church the peace and communication system to spread the Gospel.
The Exile, five hundred years earlier, provided the structure of synagogues dotted around the Empire.
Synagogues were the first centres for the Christians.
An Emperor’s decision to take a census took Jesus’ parents to Bethlehem, and the astronomical events in the night skies pointed to a special child being born.
All these are historical incidents. Couple these with the personal faith of ordinary men and women, some learned and others very humble workmen in fields, and we have all the ingredients for the prophecies and revelations of God to be actualised.
Down through history ordinary men and women have kept the faith and passed it on. These are God’s heroes and angels. That is why we are here. Now it is our turn to pass on the Goodnews about Christ Jesus – Lord of life and Saviour of the world. You never know one of our little children might rise to be a bright star in tomorrow’s Church. Hold the faith and pass it on.
Peter C Whitaker, Leighmoor UC: 25/12/2018