Tuesday, November 30, 2010

The Manger Still Provides Food (for Thought)

By Roy Ciampa, PhD
Associate Professor of New Testament

We have just entered into the Advent season but since I am not likely to be posting again before Christmas I can’t resist taking this opportunity to post some thoughts on Luke 2:1-20. It is one of my favorite Christmas passages, one that some of you will be preaching on in the coming days.
I think it is important to pay close attention to the one item that appears in each of the three different scenes in the story – the baby lying in the manger – and how that image communicates something different in each of the scenes. The angel’s announcement about Christ is central, of course, including the fact that the angel attributes to Christ things that Roman propaganda had falsely attributed to Caesar Augustus (that he, rather than Augustus, is the true savior whose birth is good news for all).
It is important, I think, to notice the differences between the three scenes. Most Christmas cards blend together items from very different scenes so that we see Joseph and Mary bending over the manger with a bright star or some other indication of God’s glory shining all around. But the passage has no glory shining by the manger. In vv. 1-7 we find no mention of God or angels or glory or anything of the sort. Just a couple who have to make an onerous trip because of a decree given by the Roman emperor. It is in the second scene that we find angelic announcements and glory, but that takes place in the hills outside of town, and is not something experienced by Joseph and Mary by the manger but by shepherds who will tell the story to them in the third and final scene (vv. 16-20).
In some ways Joseph and Mary’s experience in Luke 2:1-20 is similar to much of our experience as we wait between the first and second advents of Christ. We have been told of Christ’s glory and of what God is doing in the world through him, and we have heard the rumors of angels, and we have heard what they have announced and promised about Christ, but we do not get to live our lives out in the presence of observable glory. We know God is at work and will bring the story of redemption to its completion, but much of our lives is lived in contexts where those realities are no more apparent to us than they would have been to Joseph and Mary as they wrapped up their newborn baby and placed him in that manger. But now that manger serves as one more sign from God to us that he is in fact the Messiah, Christ the Lord, whose birth is good news of great joy for all the people.
In verses 1-7 Joseph, Mary and Jesus seemed to be the least important people in all of Judea. Caesar and Quirinius seemed to be the people who mattered – the real movers and shakers of the world. But by the time we finish the passage we know (along with Joseph, Mary and the shepherds) that things are not as they seem, that although God was not manifestly present his angels were able to describe the opening scene down to its smallest and most unlikely detail(s), and that little “insignificant” baby in the manger is in fact the key to redemption and renewal of the world. The placing of a baby in a manger may have been an almost pitiful image in the first scene, but it is a wonderful sign of God’s redeeming presence and key to Christ’s identity in the second scene and then a confirmation to Joseph and Mary (as well as the shepherds) of God’s faithfulness to them and to his promises to send a savior when in the final scene the people from the second scene (the shepherds) share their experience with those from the first scene (Joseph and Mary). The birth of Christ and all that it means continues to amaze us, to be pondered in our hearts, and to lead us to praise and glorify God for all he has done in sending his Son to be our Savior and Lord (vv. 18-20).

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