The sign of the manger

“And this will be a sign to you – you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Phil Jenkins | 20:53, 27 Dec 2015 

Of course the problem comes when you can't read the signs!

Signs are very important. They give us warnings we need to respect or more frequently they give us directions we need to follow if we're going to find our way. Of course the problem comes when you can't read the signs! That's what we've found since moving to Athens at the end of October. It is so frustrating! I had thought that my New Testament Greek would give me a start and I suppose it has helped me to recognize some of the letters of the alphabet. But even with the help of Google Maps and GPS we have got hopelessly lost on a number of occasions. We need to learn how to read the signs!

The shepherds in Luke's account of the Christmas story were given a sign by the angel to direct them to the place of Messiah's birth. On one level they were able to read the sign and having hurried to Bethlehem they found the baby just as the angel had said, lying in a manger. But how do we read the sign today? What does the sign of the manger say to us? Many read the sign of the manger but miss the message. For many the manger is part of a heart-warming Christmas tale along with the little donkey and the cosy dim lights of a sweet smelling sanitized stable.

The manger is a humiliating sign. Think of it – would you put your baby there?

The reality is very different. The manger was a sign of rejection. There was no room for him in the inn. The manger is a humiliating sign. Think of it – would you put your baby there? There's livestock there, and rats and mice and bugs and excrement and animal smells. And that's where the Lord of glory was laid. When we first went to Namibia twenty five years ago the airline lost our travelling cot somewhere between Heathrow and Windhoek. The result was that our five month old son – Tom – spent his first week or so in Africa sleeping in a drawer on the floor! Not a very auspicious start to life! But it was fine. He was clean, safe and protected. Nothing like a manger in a stable.

The sign of the manger tells us that, amazingly, Jesus did not just become a man; he became a poor man, a rejected man. Not only did he join the human race he joined those who are oppressed and marginalised and mistreated. Homeless at birth, he soon became a refugee. And the rejection that characterised his birth continued throughout his life.

But the deeper reading of the sign reveals not only rejection but also rescue. Ultimately in his rejection there is salvation for us. The mystery of the incarnation is the majesty in the manger, the Saviour in the straw in Bethlehem. And the Saviour in the straw will grow up to become the Christ on the cross outside Jerusalem. Rejection and rescue in one. This is the good news that will cause great joy for all people – and the manger is the sign. Read it this way and your Christmas is truly happy.

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