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The angels spoke to shepherds, and said to them, “This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
Then the shepherds responded, “Gee, thanks angels, but that’s not a whole lot of help! Can you be a little more specific?”
Or at least, that’s what they probably were thinking! Every year on Christmas Eve, we read this familiar story. We’ve all sent and received Christmas cards which show the manger scene in the middle of wide-open spaces, with a star glaring down on it like a spotlight. And we’ve watched Christmas play after Christmas play in which the shepherds leave their sheep and instantly arrive at the stable. So really, how hard could it be to find this baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger?
Well, probably not nearly as easy as we think! If you were one of these shepherds, what would you look for after the angels left?
Maybe you’d think, OK, I’ll look for a baby!
Because we’re all enthralled with the idea of “silent nights”, it’s easy for us to imagine the shepherds entering Bethlehem and listening for the soft crying of a single baby in an otherwise silent place. But this was certainly NOT the case! There would have been a bunch of babies – and lots of noise – that night, especially if the place was overcrowded because of a census.
It’s also likely that, even though for centuries we’ve celebrated Jesus’ birth at the end of December, this was probably NOT the time of year Jesus was born. The shepherds, Luke tells us, were out in the fields keeping watch over their flocks by night. But not in December they wouldn’t have been! I’ve been in Bethlehem in January, and outside is not a comfortable place at this time of year. In December, the shepherds would have been huddled in the caves cut into the mountainsides along with their sheep. It would have stunk, but at least it would have been warm! If they were outside in the middle of the night, it would have been because it was too warm to hang out inside. And if they were hanging out outside, so were people in the town. They would have been sleeping on the roofs and in covered areas outside. And if they were inside, they would not have covered the windows with shutters or animal hides. Everything would have been open, and every screaming baby in the town would have been audible for miles! So, look for a baby may not have been the place to start.
So, if you were one of these shepherds, maybe you’d think, “hey, I’ll look for a manger!”
But this also, isn’t so helpful. A “manger” is simply an animal feeding trough. Anybody who had an animal, or who might have any visitor with an animal, had some kind of outdoor stable with a manger. Which is to say, the vast majority of people in Bethlehem probably had mangers. “Mangers” were not exotic oddities that were placed in nativity scenes. They were everywhere!
And so when the angels said, “here’s a clue – go find a manger!” it would be like the angels saying “Go unto Gaithersburg, and look for a place with a garage.” Gee, thanks angels, but that doesn’t narrow it down very much.
And so finally, you might think, “Ah, but if I were a shepherd, the real clue must be to look for a baby “wrapped in bands of cloth” (or perhaps the more exotic sounding “swaddling clothes”).
But that’s because we’re used to expensive infant apparel that’s marketed to all new parents! In the first century, there were no such things. So you know who wrapped their newborns in “bands of cloth”? Everybody! Perhaps royalty had something a bit more luxurious, but when Luke recounts that Jesus was wrapped in bands of cloth, he’s making it clear that Jesus came into the midst of normal, everyday human existence. Finding a baby wrapped in bands of cloth would be as much of a clue as if today the angels said, “find a baby wearing an infant diaper.”
It’s not such a big help! None of these are huge clues. And so we ought to give these shepherds credit for finding Jesus. It wasn’t as easy at it may seem to us. Indeed, for these shepherds to actually experience Jesus in their lives, it meant that they had to:
- Be willing to look for “signs” which were not flashy or unusual – they had to look around for regular, ordinary things – babies and mangers and first century diapers. The message of the angels was, in the end, the message that if they wanted to experience this wonderful and great new thing that God was doing in their lives and the life of the world, they’d need to look in the regular and ordinary places and experiences of human life…
- Invest time in their search – we push a lot of events together in our Christmas pageants because we gotta get the play done in under an hour! But the searching of the shepherds took time, and required them to go down dark streets that proved to be dead ends. The angels told them what to look for, and the angels promised that Jesus was there. But the shepherds, if they wanted to experience the presence of Jesus in their lives, were going to have to invest their time and their energy…
- Put all of these ordinary things together – the baby, the manger and the bands of cloth – and then ask, “is this the One we were looking for”? After all, Luke says Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem because they were part of a whole crowd of others who had to go there for the census, and so there was no room for them in the Inn. And that means that there probably wasn’t room for a whole lot of others, either. And if this trauma threw Mary into labor, it may well have done the same for other women, too! There could have been other babies born in stables that night (I mean, that scene from “Life of Brian” is not entirely implausible!) But even if the shepherds were sure this was the right baby, the angels said that this baby was “the Messiah, the Lord.” But he was still a baby. How as that going to all work out? And that question couldn’t be answered in a night or even a year. Indeed, if this story is at all historically accurate, it’s because some shepherd, decades later, remembered this night and said, “Oh, that’s what this was all about!” Really experiencing God’s presence in your life is more than just arriving at the right manger…
The message of the angels to the shepherds wasn’t as clear or as easy as it might at first seem to us. But in fact, the message of the angels wasn’t just for the shepherds that night. It’s also a message for us.
And that’s because the message is that God is present and active in our lives. Jesus is always near us. And we’re being continually invited into a new and living relationship with Jesus.
And the angels call us, also, into a new and living experience of Jesus in our lives. But for us, too, that means being willing to look for the signs of Jesus’ presence in the ordinary places and events of our everyday lives. Experiencing Jesus in our lives means being willing to invest time and energy into seeking God’s guidance and presence, instead of looking for the quick and easy answers. And often, experiencing Jesus in our lives isn’t found through visions of angels, but in the small and ordinary things through which God is constantly working in our lives.