This is the fifth and final post in a series which has summarized the main points of the Advent 2012 sermon series “Christmas Questions” I delivered at Bethel. This sermon was delivered during our Christmas Eve service, and was based on Philippians 2:5-11 (NIV).
What’s your favorite Christmas song?
Each year, the American Society of Composers, Authors, and Publishers releases a list of the most performed and most recorded Christmas songs. The most performed song is “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”, and the most recorded song is “White Christmas”, which has well over 500 versions in dozens of languages. I’m sure that some of you guessed those answers.
I doubt, however, that any of you thought about a little passage in Paul’s letter to the early church in Philippi. But maybe we should have. In fact, you could make the case that it is the first ever Christmas song.
I say that because Paul includes in his letter a set of verses that biblical scholars acknowledge to be an early Christian hymn. He includes the lyrics to a worship song, if you will, and the song has to do with Jesus Christ coming to live among us. So you might call it the very first Christmas carol—though it certainly is much more than that.
Throughout the past four Sundays of Advent, we’ve been exploring just how amazing the Christmas story is by asking questions that are probably so obvious that you’ve never taken the time to ask them before. Why a virgin? Why a baby? Why shepherds? Why Bethlehem?
We’re so familiar with the story that we miss just how much is actually happening. Here I want to finish this little series with you by asking, “Why a manger?”, and I want to use this Christ-song from Philippians to help us answer that.
So here it is. Listen to the lyrics of this ancient Christian hymn:
“Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death– even death on a cross!
Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”
Many of you have probably already thought, “That doesn’t say anything about a manger—where’s he going with this?” True, the word ‘manger’ isn’t in there. But this paints a portrait of Jesus’ life, and that portrait includes his birth, life, death, resurrection, ascension, and return. The manger is a part of that…but why?
The manger displays the self-giving, humble love of Jesus Christ.
Just who was it that was born in the manger? This passage says it was the one who was in the very form of God, equal with God. Elsewhere, he is called “the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature” (Hebrews 1:3); “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation” (Colossians 1:15); and the Word who was with God–and was God–in the very beginning (John 1).
This is the one who “made himself nothing” and took “the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness”! This is what is called the humiliation of Christ. (“Humiliation” does not mean ‘embarrassment’, but ‘willingness to be lowered’.)
You would expect the Son of God to be born into lavish riches, with the finest things, adoring crowds to welcome him (think of the fuss we make over celebrity babies—someone could have sold Jesus’ pictures to the first-century tabloids for millions). But he didn’t come this way.
Martin Luther once said, “If I had come to Bethlehem, I would have said, ‘This doesn’t make sense. Can this be the Messiah?’” That’s because the one who wrapped the stars in light was willing to come and be wrapped in rags.
Why a manger? To reveal the humble love of Jesus Christ for those who are lost in darkness. But he didn’t just do this at his birth.
Jesus’ birth in the manger begins his journey to the Cross.
Jesus’ entire life was a life oriented to serve others and conduct in perfect obedience to God.
A few years ago, Mark Cuban, the billionaire owner of the Dallas Mavericks NBA team, had made an insulting comment about Dairy Queen employees, so in an attempt to repair his image, he went and worked a shift at a local Dairy Queen. It was a pathetic public relations effort to make him seem down to earth. The incarnation was not just a PR move to show that God took a few hours to see what it’s like to be an average Joe.
Jesus came to really serve and fully obey (see Mark 10:45; John 13:1-16)…even to the point of death on a cross.
The humble and embarrassing nature of his birth was paralleled by the humble and embarrassing nature of his death.
We paint up the manger to make it seem cozy and cute, but he was born in a feeding pen. If you’ve ever been in a barn, then you know they are messy.
We sanitize the cross to make it seem peaceful and marketable, but it was violent and messy. This is why the idea of a crucified Messiah was scandalous to the Jews and ridiculous to the Greeks in Paul’s day.
It is offensive to think that the Son of God was born in a barn, and it’s offensive to think that the Son of God was nailed to a tree. But he did this so that he could fully and effectively deal with our rebellion, and cleanse us from the filth of our sin. The manger plots the course to the cross. Christ’s birth was not part of a divine recon mission, but was the divine rescue mission needed to rescue those who are subject to sin and death.
There is rich foreshadowing in the manger which we often miss:
- The child who lay in the feeding trough for animals would one day teach that he was the bread from heaven, and that whoever is spiritually fed by him will live eternally.
- The child who cried out while lying on the wood of the manger would be the man who cried out while hanging from the wood of the cross.
The manger is an incredible part of the story, but it is not the end of the story. It is an incomplete story without the cross. But neither is the cross the end of the story. It is incomplete without the resurrection and exaltation of the humble one.
The manger sets the trajectory for the life of Jesus Christ and the life of those who are united to Jesus Christ through faith.
The trajectory is this: humiliation which leads to exaltation.
Verse nine is the pivot point, the hinge, of this entire passage. Notice how it says: “Therefore…”
The same Jesus who humbled himself is now exalted above all. When we consider the depths of Christ’s humiliation, we are amazed to think that someone could love us that much. But when we consider the heights of Christ’s exaltation, we are overcome at who it is that has loved us that much. And Jesus calls us to walk the same path he did.
That’s why he told his disciples: “’No servant is greater than his master’”(John 15:20),and why James, the half-brother of Jesus, said, “Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.” (4:10)
Ultimately, the trajectory is death that leads to life, but only in Christ.
The Son of God who humbled himself in the manger and on the cross is now exalted above all, and is coming again. At that time, the wonder and scandal of the manger and the cross will be more fully revealed, because we will join with all of creation in kneeling before him and confessing that he alone is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
Now for some final thoughts on this whole series:
A few years ago, 3-D hidden image pictures were all the rage. If you looked at the blur of colors the right way, an unexpected 3-D image would suddenly seem to jump off of the paper. The image was always there, but you could have looked at it for hours and not known it. Some people never see it.
I’m not trying to suggest that the Christmas story has a “hidden meaning” that only some people are able to unlock. But I do think that many people gaze blankly at it without realizing the stunning and unexpected picture that has been there all along. Sure, we know about Mary and Joseph and the shepherds and the angels and the star—but do we know what they are really showing us?
Why a manger? The manger orients us to a new understanding of who God is and the lengths he has gone to in order to bring us back to him. The manger begins the journey to the cross, and the cross opens the way to eternal life. This is the point of the Christmas story, and if we’re not telling it, then we’re not telling the right story.