Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord
“You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
I have often said in your hearing that the cloths of the Christ-child in the manger prefigure His burial. The message of the cloths is clear for those of us look forward to Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection. For, as was the custom of the day, bodies were wrapped in spiced linen cloths, and the spices usually included myrrh, before being placed in tombs. We see this happening when the Marys go to Jesus’ tomb to spice up His body, since there was no time to do it properly before the Sabbath—they find the stone rolled away from the tomb and the linen cloths folded neatly on the bench.
Dr. David Scaer wrote of a time when he visited a Byzantine Catholic Church. You see, sometimes, we Lutheran pastors like to visit churches of other confessions, just to see how they do things, not that we’re interested in converting. He wrote,
After the service was over, [the priest] introduced a young Russian who had helped with the service...The young man introduced himself, apologized for his accented English, and said he was off to Rome for seminary studies in September. Then he walked into the center of the small room and pointed first to the icon of Lazarus coming out of the tomb still wrapped in tight cloths, the kind used to bind corpses in the ancient world. Then he pointed to the opposite wall, to the icon of the Infant Jesus who was also wrapped in the cloths of death. The message was clear. Jesus in His infancy was already destined for the tomb.
I have also stated before that the manger that the Christ-child was laid in prefigured the giving of Christ as food. A manger is a feeding trough. It is to a manger that the sheep would go to eat the food that was given them, if they weren't grazing in the fields. In a manger was the food that the shepherd specifically gave the sheep, often for a specific purpose, in order to give them the nutrients that they likely lacked grazing on the grasses and shrubs of the countryside.
“Jesus in His infancy was already destined for the tomb.” I would say that in His conception, Jesus was destined for the tomb, even before time began, the Son of God knew He was going to die, be buried, and rise again.
In order to do that, He had to take on the flesh of His most cherished creation. And, in order for His death to be effective for His fallen creation, it had to be perfect, without the spot or blemish of sin. So it was that the spotless lambs of the ritual temple sacrifices, whose sacrificed blood was sprinkled on the Ark of the Covenant and the people as a means of atonement, prefigured the perfect conception, life, and death of Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God that takes away the sin of the world.
So it was that the Holy Spirit came upon a lowly maiden from Nazareth, that the power of the Most High overshadowed her, and she conceived in her womb a Son, immaculately—that is to say, without the aid of a sinful man. This meant that her offspring would be—or remain, even—holy; He would be born without having inherited the sinfulness of His Father, unlike the rest of you, for His Father is holy and sinless, but He, being God, is now enfleshed. The Holy One in her womb would be called the Son of God. Two arms, two legs, ten fingers, ten toes, two eyes, a nose, attached by umbilical to His mother, where, once, separated, He will have a belly button. This is Emmanuel, God-with-us, God-in-the-flesh; “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)
Now, being sinless, Jesus, our Emmanuel, could have lived a long and blessed life, presumably forever, as it is the wages of sin that is death. (Romans 6:23) If that had been the case, then what we get from Him is a perfect example, as if you could live up to that. What a cruel God we would have if Jesus came merely as an example, a teacher, a goal to live up to. That’s not peace; that’s not goodwill; that’s torturous. This Jesus would call out to you and say, “Look to me and see how perfect My life is; if you can do this, too, then you are blessed of My Father, and I call you brother.” How deep in despair the world would be.
So, I invite you to recall your pasts, dear hearers. Compare your lives thus far to the perfection that is Your Lord, Jesus Christ. Then, ask yourselves, “Have I perfectly lived up to His example?” It’s a simple, yes-or-no question; there is no middle ground, there is no try, there is only have or have not (if I may paraphrase George Lucas). Yes or no, have you perfectly lived up to Jesus’ example? If you answer, “yes,” I invite you to leave; Jesus did not come for you, as “Those who are well have no need of a physician...” (Luke 5:31) However, if you answer, “no,” then I have good news to proclaim to you.
Jesus, your Emmanuel, died, was buried, and rose again. The wages of sin is death, and Jesus took the sins of all creation, even yours, into His perfect flesh, and died the death for sin due you. Nails pierced the flesh of God, thorns punctured His brow, the switch and cat-o-nine-tails scarred his back, and the spear was run through His side. He shed His blood for you. And by the shedding of the blood of this spotless Lamb of God, upon whom was placed every spot, blemish, imperfection, disease, and sin, you have the forgiveness of sins.
Dear hearers, I invite you to see all of this when you gaze upon the babe in swaddling cloths. Jesus was born for you, to be like you, and to take your sins from you, to die for you. And by this, He gives you the forgiveness of sins:
But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into your hearts, crying out, “Abba, Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. (Galatians 4:4-7)
Inasmuch then as the children have partaken of flesh and blood, He Himself likewise shared in the same, that through death He might destroy him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and release those who through fear of death were all their lifetime subject to bondage. For indeed He does not give aid to angels, but He does give aid to the seed of Abraham. Therefore, in all things He had to be made like His brethren, that He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. (Hebrews 2:14-17)
Now, the death you die is but a conquered enemy. Your God in Christ Jesus has subdued death and used it as your means to everlasting life. In Baptism, you put on Christ, and at the end of your days on this fallen earth, you die in Christ, to be raised in a resurrection like His to life everlasting. There, in the new heavens and new earth, we look forward to a blessed reality which is already yours, though not yet realized. John the Evangelist wrote,
And he showed me a pure river of water of life, clear as crystal, proceeding from the throne of God and of the Lamb. In the middle of its street, and on either side of the river, was the tree of life, which bore twelve fruits, each tree yielding its fruit every month. The leaves of the tree were for the healing of the nations. And there shall be no more curse, but the throne of God and of the Lamb shall be in it, and His servants shall serve Him. They shall see His face, and His name shall be on their foreheads. There shall be no night there: They need no lamp nor light of the sun, for the Lord God gives them light. And they shall reign forever and ever. (Revelation 22:1-5)
In the meantime, this Lamb of God who takes away your sins is your Shepherd, and His manger is your feeding trough, except that you come not to a stable to eat, but to His table. For at His altar you gather to receive His flesh and blood for your forgiveness, life, and salvation. You graze in the fields that is the wilderness beyond these walls on foods that certainly sustain your life, and this is the gift of God. However, here, you come to receive the food that your Shepherd gives you specifically for your salvation: His body that is bread and bread that is His body; His blood that is wine and wine that is His blood (and we certainly pray that God would keep and sustain those of you who do not and cannot partake of the Lord’s Supper until the day that you do). Jesus gives Himself, flesh and blood, to you for your eternal life in Him—He places His life in you that you would have life in Him:
Jesus said to them, "Most assuredly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink His blood, you have no life in you. Whoever eats My flesh and drinks My blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day. For My flesh is food indeed, and My blood is drink indeed. He who eats My flesh and drinks My blood abides in Me, and I in him. As the living Father sent Me, and I live because of the Father, so he who feeds on Me will live because of Me. This is the bread which came down from heaven—not as your fathers ate the manna, and are dead. He who eats this bread will live forever.” (John 6:53-58)
The angels gave the shepherds in the fields that night a sign: “You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.” It was a sign of life and death, of sacrifice and forgiveness, of food and salvation. It’s a sign to you of the hope that you have in Jesus Christ, infant and full-grown man, and it is in this, and chiefly this, that we rejoice this night: for He has come for you, suffered and died for you, was buried for you, rose again for you, and so you are forgiven for all of your sins.
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!