Read Luke 2:1-18 and Matthew 2:1-13
At this time of year millions of people pay attention to the account we just read. The account in Luke chapter 2 is no less popular, because at this season we celebrate the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ. Yes, the likelihood that He was born on December 25 is about one in 365 at best, or even this month is about a one in twelve chance, but His birth is significant, and should be celebrated.
The story is a familiar one to most of us. We know about the shepherds, the angels, the manger and the wise men. We know the clichés, and maybe we know some of the finer details, such as that there were not likely only three wise men for example, merely three distinct gifts. We’ve read both of the gospel accounts this morning to be sure that they are fresh in everyone’s mind.
As much as it is Christmas, one week from today in fact, and you are no doubt expecting to hear a sermon about this the birth of the Saviour. It would be reasonable to expect that. After all, this is the sixth time that I’ve preached on the Sunday morning immediately before Christmas, and on four out of the previous five occasions I’ve very specifically preached a Christmas sermon. This year, I’m not going to say that it’s not a Christmas sermon, but it’s not only a Christmas sermon. Because while the Lord’s birth might be the event that garners the most attention, that has the heaviest and widest footprint of any holiday in Christendom, that has the biggest celebrations in our culture, even among the completely non-religious, it is not the most important. That takes place in the spring, and we know it as Easter, celebrating the death and resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We certainly celebrate births in our society, and indeed in many cultures around the world. We celebrate our own birthdays and those of our loved ones, and to a lesser extent we celebrate a few other birthdays. In Canada we celebrate Victoria Day to commemorate the birthday of Queen Victoria, and in the US they have Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Presidents’ Day which falls between George Washington and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays. In Japan they celebrate the Emperor’s birthday. I imagine that some other countries no doubt have similar holidays honouring their own leaders, but a quick search did not find as many of those as I expected.
Historic deaths we do not recognize so much, not specific, individual deaths. The countless multitudes who have died in war, those we recognize on Remembrance Day in November, but not by any particular person’s name. If anyone is remembered on that day that actually happened to die on November 11, that is a coincidence.
Christ is different in that we recognize both the beginning and the end of His life on earth, and not in a small, quiet way, but in large and widely recognized celebrations. That’s because both events are important, are in fact essential core aspects of our faith. The manger and the cross are inseparable. Both are simple wooden implements, not fancy, not elaborate, but each made for a specific purpose. The manger to provide food for cattle, to provide a source of sustenance and life. The cross to demonstrate justice, and to inflict suffering and death. Those were the original purposes, but they both represent so much more. Without the manger, the cross would not have happened. And without the cross, the manger would not matter.
The first represents the creator bridging the physical gap with His creation. By coming to earth as a human being, God moved closer to man than ever before. Closer than when God walked with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day. Closer than when Abraham served Him food in his tent and negotiated on behalf of the wicked city of Sodom. Closer than when He spoke to Moses from the burning bush, or wrestled with Jacob. Closer than when He spoke to Samuel as a youth, who thought it was Eli calling. Closer even than when He formed the man from the dust of the ground, or made the woman from man’s rib. The child born in the most humble of circumstances in the town of Bethlehem was Immanuel, God with us. That is what the manger represents.
The second is the culmination of a plan that began before time itself, for even before man had fallen into sin, even before creation happened, God knew that humanity would quickly turn away from Him, that we would not heed His instruction, that we would trod upon His goodness and ignore His grace, that we would desperately need salvation. He knew that we would rack up a bill we could not possibly pay, and that the only way to settle the balance was by paying the price Himself. That is what the cross represents, God paying the price for mankind’s mistakes, because the wages of sin are death, and nothing less will do.
These two events, the manger and the cross, despite taking place in different places and decades apart, have far more in common than you might realize. Let’s take a few minutes and look at some of the various connections and similarities here. Some of these are important, and some are smaller and perhaps minor, although striking details, but there is much we can learn from these common elements.
To help tie things together, I’m going to read a few verses from Matthew 27, reading at verse 57. (Mat 27:57) When the even was come, there came a rich man of Arimathaea, named Joseph, who also himself was Jesus’ disciple: (Mat 27:58) He went to Pilate, and begged the body of Jesus. Then Pilate commanded the body to be delivered.(Mat 27:59) And when Joseph had taken the body, he wrapped it in a clean linen cloth, (Mat 27:60) And laid it in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock: and he rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulchre, and departed.
Earlier we heard described the Christ child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, and now we likewise picture the body of Jesus of Nazareth, wrapped in a linen cloth for burial, and laid in a cold stone tomb. In both cases wrapped in cloth that He had not chosen, and which was provided by others, and in borrowed settings. Mary and Joseph did not bring a manger with them to Bethlehem, they were people of modest means, they borrowed what they could in order so their baby would have a safe and cozy place to sleep. And Joseph of Arimathea, he had no doubt commissioned that tomb for his own future burial and for his family. He had not planned ahead for a surprise execution on the eve of the Passover, for the need to hastily bury someone else, much less the Son of God.
The use of borrowed items may seem small, but when you consider that this was the Creator, having to borrow from others is not the expected thing. When you own, as Psalm 50 tells us and the Whippoorwill Song reminds us, the cattle on a thousand hills, you should not have to borrow anything. But He did.
We see other examples of borrowing that Christ did if we look at the gospels, the colt He rode upon for the triumphal entry, the five loaves and two fishes used in the feeding of the Five Thousand, the Upper Room where the last supper took place, all borrowed, all offered willingly by their owners. It should serve as a reminder that we should be willing to offer what we have to those around us who may need it, and that when we need help, when we need material assistance from another, we should not be afraid to ask. Human nature may tell us otherwise, we are often too proud to borrow, and too selfish to lend, but if the Son of God borrowed from so many, what better example could we have?
It goes far beyond lending and borrowing. With both the manger and the cross we see the all-powerful setting aside His power. For the creator of the universe to put Himself into the form of a tiny baby, it is hard to think of something more humble and helpless. A baby has no power, no authority. A baby cannot survive on his own, cannot feed himself, clothe himself, clean himself, none of that. Babies require constant care and attention. If you’ve had a baby, or even if you’ve helped take care of a younger sibling or babysat for someone else, you know what I’m talking about. Babies are utterly dependant. What a surrender of power for almighty God!
And likewise, to allow yourself to be arrested, to be falsely accused, to be unjustly tried, to be beaten, to be mocked, and then finally to be crucified, that is an equally radical decision. It runs against every fibre of our nature to have such things happen to us, it offends us deeply, or it should offend us, to see them happen to anyone else. If someone wanted to hit me, I’m going to use whatever power I have to stop them. If someone tried to arrest me, I’m going to be demanding to know the charges and to speak to my lawyer. Okay, so I don’t actually have a lawyer, but that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t be asking for one. I would defend myself.
And I’m not someone who has vast power and resources. My power and resources are modest at best, unless this is going to be a trial by trivia questions, in which case, I’m set. I can’t heal the sick or raise the dead. I can’t command the wind and the rain. I can’t call for 12 legions of angels to come to my rescue. I’d be doing well to get 12 friends to come and help.
Christ could have done all of those things, and more. But He didn’t. He relinquished His power and authority and allowed all these things to take place. It’s much the same as becoming a helpless baby, it’s every bit as humbling, and it requires the absence of any pride whatsoever.
Pride rejects humility, and pride does not take suffering and discomfort lightly. Pride does not willingly accept those things, much less embrace them. That is what we see Christ doing both at His birth and at his death. Someone who had every right to be proud, but He was not, instead He was humble beyond measure.
We see so much pride when we look at ourselves, little to none of it justified, but when we look to the Lord, we do not see pride. Pride does not wash feet. Pride does not go willingly to the cross. We instead see humility. We see the example we should follow, and example that runs in fierce contrast to the way of the world.
We certainly see much pride in this world, pride that is often bundled with power. We see pride and power in stark opposition to Christ at both His birth and His death. We read about the first in Matthew chapter two. King Herod started with being suspicious and troubled that there was someone else born king of the Jews; he was king of the Jews, and quite determined to remain that way. He had been an effective administrator in his younger years, but as he grew older, his paranoia increased, to the point where he had several of his own sons and his favourite wife murdered because he believed they were plotting against him. When we read that Herod was going to seek out the baby Jesus to kill Him, it was entirely fitting with his character to do so. His pride and his megalomania meant that anyone who might change the status quo, even a baby, would be his enemy.
The enmity of the proud and powerful did not end with Herod’s death. Much as news of His birth had troubled Herod, who was the civil authority of that day, but Christ’s teachings and actions had troubled the chief priests and the scribes and Pharisees, who were the religious authorities. The Pharisees He called hypocrites, and did so repeatedly, for indeed they were, they thought they were ever so holy and righteous and lived to a higher standard, but inside they were every bit as selfish, greedy, and spiteful as the next person. He called them whitewashed sepulchres, all clean and tidy on the outside, but full of death and decay on the inside. Many of them hated Him for that.
The chief priests were another authority. If anything they hated Jesus of Nazareth even more. The people selling animals and exchanging money in the temple courtyard paid handsomely for the opportunity to be there, and that money went into the pockets of the current high priest and his associates. Having someone disrupt their market stalls and drive off the animals and moneychangers was a direct attack on their bottom line. No wonder it was the chief priests who paid Judas to betray the Lord. The very people who administered and conducted the sacrifices, which God had intended to look forward to the cross in a representative manner, those people instead plotted against and murdered the one they were supposed to represent. It was their job to stand between God and His people, but really they only stood for themselves and their own selfishness. When God himself, in the person of His Son, stood before them and had harsh words for their behaviour, they hated Him for it.
At both His birth and His death Christ experienced the enmity of the proud and the most powerful. But not every person of authority and position was opposed to the Saviour. They were not universally threatened by Him. Those who were wise realized there was more to Him than met the eye, more than simply a baby born in a small town in Judea or a rabbi from Galiliee who performed great miracles. And instead of hating Him, they valued Him highly.
We read how Joseph of Arimathea, who was a man of riches and authority, and indeed a member of the Sanhedrin himself, he came to Pilate and requested to take possession of the Lord’s body. In fact, it says he begged the body of Jesus, which is a stronger word than merely asking for it. He went to the Roman governor, who was already sick and tired of dealing with the council and Jesus of Nazareth, and made a request. That in itself took initiative and it took some courage, knowing Pilate’s mood. But that was not all he did, Joseph provided a place of burial, and in Mark’s gospel we read that we bought fine linen with which to wrap the body. I don’t know how much fine linen would have cost, or for that matter how much a new hewn tomb would cost, but Joseph spent a fair chunk of change on the Lord’s burial. He valued Him highly.
In John’s account of the burial we hear that another member of the council, Nicodemus, also assisted in the burial, and indeed invested in it, for he purchased a considerable amount of spices, which would have been costly. This is the same Nicodemus who came to Christ by night in John chapter 3, who first was told that he must be born again. He did not understand Christ’s teachings at first, but he learned, and he followed, although not openly, and he valued the Lord enough to both spend his money and to publically indentify with Him in His death and burial. These were wise and learned men, and while they were in the minority, they valued Christ and honoured Him while many did not. They were wise enough to realize that they did not have all the answers. They knew they needed something more, they needed someone more.
The wise men from Matthew chapter 2, they of course did not know the detailed future of this young child that they had come to see and to worship. They knew that His coming was foretold, they saw the star from their home in the east, and they knew He was significant.
They knew He was born King of the Jews, but given that so far as we are told, they were not Jews themselves and they certainly did not live in Judea, why would that matter to them? I mentioned the Emperor of Japan earlier, if were to have another child, or more likely a grandchild at this point, he’s 62, that wouldn’t matter the slightest to you and me. But the wise men know that this child, born King of the Jews, they knew that He mattered. I don’t imagine they had a clear understanding of the full picture of His life, ministry, death, and resurrection, and the ways that He would change the world, but they realized that He was significant.
Why was this baby so significant? It was not because His birth was a fulfillment of prophecy. Yes, His coming had been prophesied, but there were many other babies whose birth and whose purpose were foretold, either shortly beforehand on well in advance. In the OT we see that the birth of Isaac, Samuel, and Samson were all known in advance, and John the Baptist was foretold centuries in advance in the book of Isaiah and about nine months beforehand in Luke’s gospel. While each of them had their own importance and served important roles, none of those children had people travel from vast distances to commemorate their births.
It’s not because He was destined to die, for everyone born on this planet will die one day. We are all born to die, and that is because of sin. We were not originally designed this way, we were not made to have an expiration date, but humanity and indeed all of creation has fallen into a state of deterioration and collapse as a result of sin. Try as we might, we cannot solve the problem of death, nor can we solve the problem of sin.
Because of our sins we are deserving of death. No wonder we can’t solve either problem. The wages of sin are death; scripture teaches us this, experience shows it, and nature itself demonstrates it. Sin leads to death, inevitably. Sin and death are so far reaching and powerful that we must remember that the results go beyond our own actions and our own consequences. Adam sinned, and so his descendants are born into sin. Often those who do wrong bring harm and destruction on those around them. The sin of mankind brought about the death of the Son of God.
He did not deserve to die, He had not sinned, but He bore all our sin to Calvary. He died between two criminals who deserved their punishment, one of whom was angry about it, and one who recognized the situation. In Luke 23, we read at verse 39 (Luk 23:39) And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, If thou be Christ, save thyself and us. (Luk 23:40) But the other answering rebuked him, saying, Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? (Luk 23:41) And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss.
That is where the manger and the cross come together, united by the Lord Jesus Christ. We read earlier in Matthew chapter 2 about the visit of the wise men, but if we turned back to chapter 1 we could read at verse 21 that He was to be called Jesus, for He would save his people from their sins. In human terms we would never think of salvation as being achieved through death, that runs contrary to our flawed and fallen state of mind. To accept that upends our pride, thwarts our desire for comfort, and requires faith.
When we look at the manger, we may only see a tiny baby, innocent and holy, worshipped by angels, shepherds, and wise men alike. But we should also see the cross that came later, for that was always in the plan, always a part of the picture. And we should see as well the empty tomb, for while Christ died for our sins, He also rose again, victorious over sin and death, the price paid in full.
At this season we should remember what the world forgets, that the manger displays life appointed to death, and the cross displays death which leads to life. One without the other is only half of the story.