Grace in a Manger

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“Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:11-12)

INTRODUCTION: We are all familiar with the Christmas story, but I hope it still fills your heart with wonder each year as if you were hearing it for the first time. Look at the various elements in the story: a virgin miraculously conceiving a child, angelic visitors bearing messages from God, an empire-wide census causing great movements of thousands of people, a supernatural sign appearing in the heavens for those who care to see, distant wise men arriving and stirring up the entire city of Jerusalem with stories of ancient prophecies fulfilled, shepherds interrupted from their nightly labors, a choir of angels singing praises to God in the highest. Yet all of these elements converge at a point, for at the heart of the Christmas story is the nativity scene — a stable, a manger, a newborn child, with worshiping hearts gathered around him.

I love nativity scenes. They are easily my favorite decoration at Christmas. But the nativity scene has encountered some troubles lately. Nativity scenes have been banned from malls, schools, and other public places, and replaced by images of snowmen, candy canes and reindeer.

And you have to wonder, why is the nativity scene a problem for some people? It is certainly not the stable or the animals or even a baby in a manger. People love babies! There would be no offence taken if the angel had simply announced, “Today a baby has been born; you will find him wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” Rather, it is the identity of the baby that causes offence. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)

The angel proclaims more than just the birth of a baby. A Savior has been born! The birth of a baby would have brought great joy to the parents and close relatives and friends. But the angel declares good news of great joy that will be for all people. Why? The Savior of all people has been born. He is Christ the Lord. He is the Promised One. He is the long-awaited Messiah, the eternal Son of God, greater than the universe, older than the stars — wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. It is the identity of the One lying in the manger who is the cause of such great joy and such great offence.

It would seem that many today would like to replace that child in the manger, substituting something else for him. But it is a huge mistake to make any substitute for the one in the manger. For once you empty the cradle of the Savior, you empty the gospel of its power, and you empty Christmas of its meaning. I would like to share with you about three such substitutes today: the substitute of secular celebration, the substitute of warm sentiment, and the substitute of religious deeds. None of these do justice to the true meaning of Christmas.

I. The Substitute of Secular Celebration

First of all, there is the substitute of secular celebration. For many people Christmas is just a time to celebrate apart from any spiritual meaning. This is the time of the year for parties: office parties, school parties, parties in the home. People put up lights and decorations. There is a huge push on shopping and gifts and spending. There is plenty of bustle and activity, but no mention of Jesus Christ. Jesus is left out on his own birthday!

It is no wonder people feel such a letdown after Christmas. The merely secular can never truly satisfy. The parties end, the lights come down, the high pitch of excitement dies away, and all that remains of Christmas are piles of wrapping paper and unpaid credit card bills.

I once asked a friend, “Are you ready for Christmas?” He replied, “If you mean, do I have my house decorated, and the tree up and have I bought all my presents, then no. But if you mean, “Do I have Jesus in my heart?” then yes, I’m ready!

Busyness can never substitute for worship. When the Magi arrived in Jerusalem, the whole place was buzzing with activity, but no one traveled with the Magi to search out the child; no one went to Bethlehem to worship the Messiah who had been promised throughout the ages.

There is nothing wrong with celebrating at Christmas. We just need to remember the reason why! For example, think about a wedding reception. A wedding reception is also a time of celebration. There is music and feasting and gifts and fun, but focus is on the bride and the groom.

It’s the same way with Christmas. Christ the Savior has been born. So let’s celebrate! Let’s put up lights, decorate to the hilt, throw a party, exchange gifts, sing songs, gather with family and friends, rejoice, celebrate and have fun, but let us remember why we are celebrating and keep the focus on Jesus. Secular celebration is a poor substitute for Christ in the manger and will eventually prove hollow and unsatisfying.

II. The Substitute of Warm Sentiment

Another substitute that people have tried to make for Christ in the manger is that of warm sentiment. Now there is nothing wrong with sentiment and emotion, just like there is nothing wrong with celebration. The problem occurs when this becomes a substitute – when Christ is left out of Christmas, when the Savior is removed from the manger, and warm sentiment is all that’s left.

Warm sentiment focuses on the mood of the season. It’s the most wonderful time of the year. It’s a time of giving and good cheer, a time of traditions and memories. People dig out their collections of Christmas music. Old friends exchange cards and catch up with each other. Families string popcorn and bake cookies. Christmas specials abound on TV; some mention Christ, most don’t. Christmas carols are played and sung; once again, some of these focus on Christ, others on snow, and bells and the trappings of Christmas.

Warm sentiment seems a little closer to a true celebration of Christmas because it welcomes the traditional carols, it welcomes the manger scene, it may even attend church on Christmas Eve or Christmas morning! But these things are welcomed not out of a genuine love for Jesus Christ, but simply because they are part of the tradition of Christmas. Warm sentiment welcomes a baby in a manger, but it will not acknowledge that he is the Savior, the Christ, the Lord of all.

I saw a children’s book in a bookstore once called The Christmas Alphabet. Each page presented a different letter of the alphabet with a matching Christmas-related word. It was a beautifully designed book with a handsome binding, striking pictures, quality work, very well done. I opened it up and started reading: A is for apples, B is for bobsled, C is for candy canes, and so on. I wondered what they would have for the letter J? When I got to the page, I learned that “J” in the Christmas Alphabet is for … no, not Jesus, but Jingle Bells! Once again Jesus was left out of his own birthday, and warm sentiment reigned in his place.

Should we celebrate at Christmas? Certainly! Is there a place for tradition and memories? Absolutely! But not as a substitute for Christ! Warm sentiment can never replace the Son of God who was born in the manger that first Christmas night.

III. The Substitute of Religious Deeds

And then finally, the third substitute people have made for Christ at Christmas is that of religious deeds. Once again, there is nothing wrong with doing good deeds. They just can’t substitute for Christ.

For many Christmas means a time for giving and sharing and helping other people. Many people give generously to charitable organizations at this time of year. It feels good to do good. It’s neat seeing people donate to the Salvation Army baskets with a smile. The nursing homes are full of carolers; families and churches deliver Christmas baskets. Others donate blankets for the homeless.

And this is all well and good, but not as a substitute for Christ. Rather, out of thankfulness to God who gave his only Son for us, we should reach out to others. As Jesus said, “Freely you have received, freely give.” (Matthew 10:8)

For some Christmas is a time to focus on spiritual matters that they have neglected throughout the rest of the year. Church attendance is high, and people who haven’t thought a whole lot about God throughout the year say they suddenly feel much closer to him at Christmas. Once again this would be wonderful if it marked a new pattern in their lives, but often this focus on God gets packed away along with the lights and the decorations. Same time, same place, next year.

I read an article about Christmas deeds in the Readers Digest one year (December 1994). The article gave these instructions to celebrate Christmas: “When you set up the nativity scene, leave Jesus’ manger empty. Then whenever a child helps with cleaning or shoveling snow, write the good deed on a piece of paper and lay it in the cradle. On Christmas morning put Jesus on his ‘good-deed mattress’ and show the children what a nice bed their loving deeds have made.”

It sounds nice, but the problem is that it’s all backwards! Jesus’ coming at Christmas doesn’t rest on our good deeds or our religious works. Rather our good works rest on him. You can’t substitute religious deeds for Christ. The message of Christmas is not good deeds in a manger, but grace in a manger. Christmas is not our gift to God, but God’s gift to us: the incredible gift of God’s one and only Son who was given for our sins.

CONCLUSION: Jesus Christ – the substitute for sinners!

Do you know why Jesus came at Christmas as a little baby? He was born to die. Christ came as a human in order to die for humanity. Only as man could he die for men; only as God could His sacrifice count for all sins. And why as a baby? In being born into this world, Jesus identified with the one experience that is common to all people alive today. We all entered this world as babies. And as Jesus identified with us, so he calls us to identify with him. “Unless you change and become as little children, you cannot enter the kingdom of God.” (Matthew 28:3)

I read about a baby who was left on the doorstep of a church. The baby was helpless. It could do nothing for itself, but the mother obviously trusted that the child would be cared and provided for. This is what Jesus means when he says become as little children. In faith we are to lay ourselves as helpless infants at the doorstep of God’s grace, trusting that God will provide the salvation that we could never attain on our own.

The angel’s message was that a Savior had been born in Bethlehem. Jesus Christ came into the world to seek and to save that which was lost. That is the message of Christmas.

Secular celebration, warm sentiment, religious deeds – none of these can substitute for God’s gift of grace in the manger. Accept no substitutes please!

Except for one. There is one substitute I would gladly encourage you to accept. Accept Jesus Christ the Savior, who was born into this world to be your substitute, to die on the cross for your sins, to bear the penalty for sin that you deserved, so that you could know forgiveness of sins and life everlasting.

That is the true meaning of Christmas. Jesus Christ was born as a substitute for sinners. The gift of Christmas is grace in a manger.

© Ray Fowler

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