In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“Behold, I proclaim good news of great joy to you, which is for all the people, that there has been born to you today in the city of David a savior, who is the Lord Christ. And this will be the sign for you: you will find an infant wrapped up in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:10-12). This will be the sign? This is how the shepherds are going to find the Savior, who is the Lord Christ? By looking for a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a feeding trough? They don’t even get a star to follow, so they had to hurry into town and search. I don’t know how exactly how many people lived in Bethlehem then. I’ve seen estimates between 300 and 1000. So I don’t know how long it took the shepherds to find Jesus with His parents. But if Bethlehem worked anything like the small town where I lived in Minnesota, it probably wouldn’t have taken very long to locate the baby born that same night. Even so, there’s no halo. Jesus doesn’t glow. Mary doesn’t have a crown of stars. There’s no beam of light shining on to the head of Jesus. (And if there had been, Mary probably would have been annoyed at not being able to get Jesus back to sleep.) In other words, Jesus was an ordinary-looking baby. The only thing that would have been strange at all was that He was lying in a feeding trough at the lower end of the house, rather than in the upper room where the rest of Mary or Joseph’s family was. However long it took to locate the baby, however many people the shepherds had to ask, this was the only sign they were given: a baby wrapped in cloths, lying in a feeding trough.
Have you noticed that God likes to give His people physical, visible signs when He is present with them? When God speaks to Moses, He doesn’t do so from heaven; He speaks from the midst of a bush burning but not consumed. When God leads the people of Israel in the wilderness, they don’t have to guess where He is; He is present in the fiery, cloudy pillar going ahead of them. When they want to know where He is present to speak to them and to forgive their sins, they don’t have to look any further than the tabernacle which God had instructed them to build. Clearly, God is not confined to any of those visible, physical signs. But God is certainly present in those places, where He promised Israel He would be. We’re used to talking about “signs” as things that point to other things. They are generally not the things themselves. A sign to the freeway is not the freeway itself. A sign to the church is not the church itself. The sign outside the restaurant or the store is not the restaurant or the store itself. They tell you where those things are, or they point you in the right direction, but no one goes looking for the sign. Instead, they look for the thing to which the sign points.
Not so with God’s signs. Not the sign for which the angels told the shepherds to look. The baby does not point to some other savior. The baby is the Savior! When God uses physical things, He often is present in or with the things themselves. The angel speaks a word, the shepherds hear it and believe it, and they find God exactly where the angels said He would be: the Lord Christ, wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. And this isn’t the last time that Jesus will be a sign for people, either. Just a few verses, and a few days, later Simeon blesses Mary and says that the child Jesus is appointed—the same word as when He is laid down in the manger—for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that will be spoken against. And He is not just talked about, He is accused and is accounted worthy of death. And when He is dead, He is again wrapped in cloth and laid down: this time in a new tomb. See, the baby in the manger is not yet the sign He came to be. His salvation is not only being laid in a manger, but also being laid in a tomb, both of which are strange places to find the Lord of heaven and earth. Of course, He didn’t stay dead, any more than He stayed a baby, so if you want to find the Savior of all people, you go where God says He’s going to be. Why would we go looking for Him where He hasn’t promised to be? We’re just wasting our time. He’s not where we think He could be; He’s not where we wish He would be; He’s not where we feel like He might be.
I have good news of great joy for you today. You have a savior, the Lord Christ, and He has given you concrete and physical signs so you know where to find Him. You know that He is not in that manger anymore. You know that He’s not on the cross or in that new tomb. He was once laid in those places, but no more. And even if we could go back to Bethlehem, He told the shepherds to seek Him there, not us. Even if we could go to the cross, He didn’t tell us to seek Him there. But He hasn’t left us without signs. This will be a sign for you: you will find Him wrapped up in water: If you have been baptized, you’ve been clothed with Christ and baptized into His death, buried with Him in His tomb, so that you can be united with Him in His resurrection (Romans 6:3-5; Colossians 2:12). This will be a sign for you: you will find Him wrapped up in words: I forgive you all your sins in the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This will be a sign for you: you will find Him wrapped up in bread and wine and lying on an altar: This is My Body and Blood, given and shed for you, for the forgiveness of your sins.
It might seem as difficult to believe as for shepherds to believe that God was wrapped in baby clothes to keep Him warm; it might seem as strange as Him lying in an animal’s hay-filled trough. But it is no less real for all that. The sign does not point to some other, distant promise; it’s how you know where the promise is for you. “Shepherds, in the field abiding, watching over your flocks by night, God with us is now residing, yonder shines the Infant Light. … Saints before the altar bending, watching long in hope and fear, suddenly the Lord, descending, In His temple shall appear” (Lutheran Service Book, 367, sts. 2, 4). This is the glory of the highest heaven brought low to us, here and now. Amid the winter snow; amid lights and trees and decorations; but more: amid the crafts and assaults of the devil; amid death, pestilence, and famine; amid war and bloodshed; amid sedition and rebellion; amid discord and strife; amid lives that never quite become what we think they ought to be; amid the chaos and carnage that humans never quite manage to bring to an end; amid our evil, bitter, sad, angry thoughts, words, and actions: good Christian fear, for sinners here the silent Word is pleading. He comes down from heaven to be our peace on earth. His light and grace erases our guilt, His heavenly riches retrieve all our loss. He is Immanuel, God with us here. And now we are found by God, wrapped up in Christ our saving Sign, and so our Father is forever pleased with us.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/23/14