A Picture Perfect Christmas: The Manger

A Picture Perfect Christmas: The Manger

Sermon Podcast Audio 

How Kings are Born

Today we are going to continue our series called, “A Picture Perfect Christmas,” where we are looking at the famous nativity scene so many of us associate with Christmas.  But what is so amazing about this scene we keep showing you, is that it wasn’t supposed to be this way.  This is NOT how kings are born into this world.

If you want a glimpse of what it should have been like, join me in remembering the last time a future king was born into this world.  It was two summers ago, on July 22, 2013, that our favorite royal family, Prince William and his wife Katherine gave birth to Prince George of Cambridge.  Do you remember the excitement and non-stop coverage of that day?  Everybody waited with baited breath for them to come out from the hospital a couple days later.

A sea of photographers and fans packed around the hospital to take pictures, as everyone wanted a glimpse of the baby boy.  Then, he was driven away to their royal home and probably went to sleep in an amazing, royal nursery. 

That’s how the Messiah, the Savior, the Lord, was supposed to be born.  At least that’s what the Jews were expecting.  After all, that’s what the prophet Isaiah prophesied hundreds of years earlier.

For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given,

and the government will be on his shoulders.

And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Of the greatness of his government and peace

there will be no end.

He will reign on David’s throne

and over his kingdom,

establishing and upholding it

with justice and righteousness

from that time on and forever.

The zeal of the Lord Almighty

will accomplish this.  —Isaiah 9:6-7

But we know that’s not what happened, is it?  No, instead what we find is that Jesus flipped the script. 

Jesus Flipped the Script

Where Jesus was supposed to be born into pomp and circumstance, his birth was downright lowly.  Let’s take a look at all the ways his birth doesn’t measure up to people’s expectations.

1.     He was born in Bethlehem — a place recognized as the future birthplace of the Messiah, but also known as an insignificant place as we are told in Micah 5:2.

“But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah,

though you are small among the clans of Judah,

out of you will come for me

one who will be ruler over Israel,

whose origins are from of old,

from ancient times.”

It was no Jerusalem. 

2.     Mary, Jesus’ mother, was a humble young virgin.  She says as much in the song she sings after the angel Gabriel tells her she will be carrying the promised Savior

And Mary said,                        

“My soul magnifies the Lord,            

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,             

for he has looked

on the humble estate of his servant.

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed  —Luke 1:46-48

3.     The first visitors were lowly shepherds, a far cry from the paparazzi lining the streets to meet newborn Price George.  Shepherds were known to be dishonest and smelly, and were total outcasts to society — but they were the only ones to get the angelic invitation to visit the newborn baby boy.

4.     When esteemed visitors FINALLY arrived, they went in search of the new king in the place they might expect—at the palace in Jerusalem — someplace significant.  But there would be no palace for King Jesus.

5.     No, instead, we find him lying in a manger, a feeding trough for animals, wrapped in strips of cloths.  No fancy crib.  Not even in a regular living space.  He was actually born in the space reserved for the animals, since there was no guest space available for them. 

Some might find this detail of the actual furniture Jesus laid in unusual, but it’s clearly something important to the story — Luke mentions this fact three times in this story.  Clearly, there is meaning in this stone trough Jesus laid in.  

(Yes, I just said stone.  Just like Brent debunked the three kings standing around infant baby Jesus, I wanted to debunk our ideas of a wooden X-shaped manger.  Remains of villages in that area from Jesus’ time have been uncovered and they contain stone-carved mangers.  So, that’s your fun fact for the day!) 

So, back to my point — what’s so important about the manger?  It’s this — It exemplifies the lowly birth of King Jesus.  It’s the symbol of how the script has been flipped.  In the center of every nativity scene, we find that wooden feeding trough filled with hay and holding a baby boy. 

And that is so upside-down from what anybody could have imagined or wanted for the birth of the promised Savior, the Messiah, the eternal King! 

But that’s WHY God chose the manger.  It’s why he chose lowly Mary to give birth in lowly Bethlehem and to be visited by lowly shepherds at the lowly stable where her baby was laying in a feeding trough!  God was demonstrating how everything was now upside-down, how Jesus would truly flip the script, putting everything people thought they knew on its head. 

We have to remember, the most surprising thing about this Picture Perfect Christmas isn’t that Jesus, the royal king, is lying in a manger, it’s not that shepherds are at his side as his first visitors, it’s not even the animals all around in this stable or his teenage, virgin mother.  No, it’s the fact that God Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth, Sustainer of life, The Eternal One came into this earth in human flesh through his son as the most vulnerable of creatures — an infant! 

Paul writes about the wonder of this fact in Philippians 2: 

Who, being in very nature God,

did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;

rather, he made himself nothing

by taking the very nature of a servant,

being made in human likeness. —Philippians 2:6-8

Imagine that!  This is the same Jesus that was present for all eternity, the Jesus through whom everything was created.  This Jesus had lived in the Kingdom of God for all time.  And Paul says he made himself nothing.  Other translations say he emptied himself or he gave up his divine privileges.  He chose to completely lower himself from his divine status to make himself like us, so he could experience life like us, and model how to live life for us.

Think about it: if Jesus came into this world with privilege and status, we may respect him, we may want to see lots of pictures of him and follow him in magazines, but we wouldn’t actually feel like we could relate to him.  Who actually feels like you could relate to Prince William or Kate?  Nobody. While it’s fun to see how Prince William and Kate are living, we know their life isn’t at all like ours, and their experiences are nothing like how we live. 

But Jesus flipped the script.  He came into our messy world and joined us in human flesh.  And if we back up a verse in that Philippians passage, we learn why Paul wrote about Jesus humbling himself:  

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus.  —Philippians 2:5

He’s telling us: Be like Jesus.  He’s our model.  We are to have the same mindset as him.  We are to follow in his humility.  Just like the manger reminds us of Jesus’ meager beginnings or lowly status, it should also remind us of the humility we, as followers of Jesus, should have. 

Unfortunately, the problem with humility is that while many of us know it’s better to be humble than proud, it’s easier said than done.  

Living a Life of Humility

That’s why today I want to clarify what it means to live a life of humility, following Jesus’ example as he laid in that manger.  And I think our best advice comes straight from the Apostle Paul in the verses immediately before the ones we have just read:

Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.  —Philippians 2:3

Now let’s take a brief look at that line by line.

1.     Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit

Selfish ambition might look like a focus on climbing ladders or getting into arguments to move your own agenda forward.  This was the issue in the church Paul wrote this letter to.

Vain conceit points out the underlying reason for the selfish ambition — it’s for your own pride — to feed the pride monster inside you, to feel good, or better than the next guy anyway!

2.     Value others above yourselves

After first being told what not to do, Paul offers us the remedy. This is where we get the cliché, “put others first.”  It’s a good cliché because it’s what God wants from us: to meet the needs of others before ourselves.

This might be as simple as letting your spouse or child pick the restaurant or the movie you rent.  Or it might mean giving up your bed when you have a pregnant house guest.  It might even mean helping the person you despise, even at personal cost, because you still see the value God has put on them!

3.     Look not at your own interests, but at the interests of others

I know for myself, I can get so focused on my own desires that I totally miss what other people need or want.  And I need to flip that. I need to start focusing on the interests and desires of those around me.  And so do you.  That’s how Jesus lived, and it’s how we should strive to live as well.

4.     Serve others 

In Mark 10:37, we see James and John ask Jesus if they can sit on his right and left in Heaven, but Jesus lets them know that’s not how things work in the Kingdom of God.

Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant. —Mark 10:43

Going beyond letting others know we are thinking about them and putting them first, we should get our hands dirty and serve them too.  In this world, the master never serves the servants, but that’s exactly what Jesus did and what he wants us to do too! 

Now, the reason it’s important for us to learn this lesson is because Jesus tells us one day we will all be humbled. 

For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. —Luke 18:14 

So, we can learn to live a life of humble submission like Jesus did and experience the exaltation that he has while reigning in Heaven.  Or we can try to rule our own corner of this broken world, only to be humbled before the throne of God later.   

The choice is ours.  

Conclusion

My hope for you today is that each time you see the manger in a nativity scene, you don’t focus on the manger, but on what it points to — the humility of Jesus.  Humility we should follow.  He gave up so much, more than we can even comprehend, to enter this world in human flesh and experience the pain, sorrow, and brokenness of this world like one of us. 

And may it not just point to his humility, which he was born into and which he followed to his death, but may it remind you to follow his example of humility and live with a humble, putting-others-ahead-of-yourself heart.   

So, as you go out into this week of Christmas, be looking for opportunities to serve others.  Be aware of times where you might selfishly want to control the situation and instead put other’s interests ahead of your own.  Recognize your selfishness when it presents itself — and shut it off, don’t let it take control of you.  Focus on how you can submit to God and to others with the choices you make this Christmas season.

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