12th December, 1999

  The Manger, the table and the Cross
  Matthew 1:18-25

Symbols are one of our basic means of communication. Our national flag is a symbol of our heritage, our nationality, and at a time of war or sporting victory can communicate our deepest feelings. Sometimes a letter can be a powerful symbol, such as on an examination paper. The letter "A" makes a student joyous, but the letter "F" can cause despair. An olive branch means peace. A laurel wreath can mean victory. A glass on the side of a box tells us which way is up. A red circle with a slash though it tells us we must not smoke or cross or swim in this place. Symbols are a shorthand way of communicating meaning in science, mathematics, commerce, medicine, transportation and so on. In a marriage, a wedding ring has deep meaning of love and faithfulness. Beverley and I today gave and received a new ring and cuff-links, both with rubies, to each other, celebrating our fortieth anniversary of love and commitment to each other.

Often symbols may have different meaning to different people at different times. For example, a Greek decoration was regarded as beautiful, but when it was adopted as the symbol of the Nazi Party, the swastika became one of the most hated symbols of all time.

In Christianity, symbols play an important part in our communication of the faith. At Christmas time we use the symbols of the star, the nativity, the singing angels. The symbols express deep and meaningful truth. The most powerful symbols in our faith would be the manger, the table and the cross.

The reason why the manger was so significant was that it cradled the King of the universe. The manger is mentioned in scripture, but a stable is not. Because a manger was the feed trough of animals, we have assumed that it would have been in a stable. Actually, in first century Palestine, most stables were caves in which the animals were sheltered.

The manger however, on its own, symbolizes deep meaning. It tells us that baby Jesus was not born where babies are normally born, that He was without a house, that his parents were probably away from home and possibly poor. The manger identified its little occupant with humanity, poverty and with animals. That did not surprise the early Christians, because they knew that He had come to be the John 1:29 "lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world."

The shepherds were told they would recognize the Saviour when they found a new born babe, wrapped in strips of cloth lying in a manger. That was the sign of His identity. The sign of the Saviour was a manger. The reason runs through the Old Testament. When Adam and Eve sinned their son Abel brought a lamb and sacrificed it as a sin offering to God. Noah took a lamb after the flood had subsided and sacrificed it to God. Abraham built an altar and sacrificed a ram prepared for Him as a sign of His dependence upon God. The Israelites sacrificed lambs in Egypt and smeared the doorposts with blood so that death would pass over them, thus giving rise to the annual Passover.

Archaeologists have helped us understand where Jesus was born because they have discovered special fields for the sacrificial lambs just outside Bethlehem. The lambs were sacrificed for the sins of believers, and Heb 9:22 "according to the Law almost everything is purified by blood, and sins are forgiven only if blood is poured out." Suitable lambs, specially selected without defect or flaw were kept five miles southwest from the Temple in Jerusalem. The lambs were in fields called Migdal Edar, which means "the Tower of the Flock". Here Temple shepherds cared for the lambs for the sacrifice, in the ceremonially clean fields and stables.

In the manger of Bethlehem was another lamb that would impact our future. Palaces were proper places in which princes would be born, but a manger in a Bethlehem field was the proper place for the Lamb of God. The shepherds identified the Lamb of God. One thing a Temple Shepherd could do was recognize a sacrificial lamb! The Messiah would suffer and die as a sacrificial Lamb for the sins of the world. Where Jesus was born was not accidental. The fields of the sacrificial lambs were significant. It was not the Innkeeper's fault there was no room in the inn. That was all part of the plan of God. The Shepherds were told: Lk 2:11-12 "Today in the town of David a Saviour 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." The proof was the baby was wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. 750 years before, Micah had foretold that a ruler of Israel would be born in Bethlehem, but in the passing of time that prophecy had been forgotten.

When some astrologers came from the East following a bright moving star asked Herod where a new ruler would be born the priests identified Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph laid the baby Jesus in a manger in the Bethlehem fields where the sacrificial lambs were born. The birth of Jesus in a manger was no accident. It was a sign or a symbol of what He would be, the Lamb of God who was to take away the sins of the world.

But the symbolism went deeper. Jesus was born in surroundings known only to the extremely poor. God always cared for the poor. God identified Himself with a ministry to the poor when His Son was born in a manger. The life of Jesus would be one of poverty. At His Temple presentation His parents offered a dove sacrifice, the gift of poverty-stricken people. Their hurried journey to Egypt a few weeks later was as refugees possessing nothing. As a workman in Nazareth He spoke about patches in garments, of a woman sweeping the house to find a little lost coin, and of having to borrow food when unexpected guests arrived. As a preacher He owned nothing but His cloak which served Him as a coat by day and a blanket by night. When His disciples went each to his own house, Jesus went out and spent the night on the Mount of Olives for He had "nowhere to lay His head." Paul said simply: 2 Cor 8:9 "Our Lord Jesus Christ, though He was rich, yet for your sakes He became poor, so that you through His poverty might become rich." Or as the carol puts it:
"With the poor and mean and lowly,
lived on earth our Saviour Holy."
The manger was a symbol of His identity and poverty.

Jesus shed His blood as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world. That was to be remembered by Christians as the Israelites remembered how the blood of Passover lambs on Egyptian houses preserved them from death. The symbol of shed blood for their sins preserved believers from death. Christians remember this every time they meet round the Table.

In a fragment of a document written about Jesus called "The Gospel of the Hebrews" quoted by early authors appears what may be an authentic statement by Jesus after His resurrection. "Now the Lord went to James His brother and appeared to him. For James had taken an oath that he would not eat bread till that hour when he saw Him risen from the dead. The Lord said, "Bring a table and bread" He took bread and blessed and broke it and gave it to James the Just and said to him, "My brother, eat your bread, for the Son of Man is risen from those who sleep."

Christians eat and drink with the risen Christ every time we meet at the communion table. Faith in Christ brings us into a new relationship with God. It makes us the New Israel, the new people of God, having our sins forgiven, enabling us to share in eternal life. When the Old Covenant was established the people "saw God and then ate and drank together." Now every time Christians partake from the Communion Table, we share with Him. All this accomplished through His death upon the cross. The Cross of Christ became the most important symbol of the Christian faith.

When archaeologists dig up a place of worship in the desert sand and find in it the sign of the cross, they are certain it is a Christian Church. Today, too, we find the Cross in Christian churches as the centre symbol. The worshipper gazes upon the cross. The word of the Cross is preached to the congregation. They are blessed and sent from the church with the sign of the cross. Many make the sign of the cross as the Holy Trinity is named or the communion emblems taken. Devout Christians follow the course of Jesus' passion in the Stations of the Cross, and meditate on the reasons for his sufferings and the redeeming effects of his death. The Manger and the Table result in the Cross.

God's love and grace was expressed in the coming of Christ. Jesus knew He would be despised and rejected, He would bear the reproach of people and the sins of many. He said: Lk 19:10"I have come to seek and save the lost." Mk 10:45"I did not come to be served but to serve, and to give my life to redeem many people." Jesus knew the purpose of His coming as the Lamb of God to take away the sins of the world, which would be remembered round the Table, would involve His sacrificial death upon the Cross. We sing the carol: Christians Awake

O may we keep and ponder in our mind
God's wondrous love in saving lost mankind:
Trace we the babe, who hath retrieved our loss,
From the poor manger to the bitter Cross.

The manger. The Table. The Cross. They say Jesus is the First and Last, the Beginning and the End! He is the keeper of Creation, the architect of the universe.

He always was. He always is. He always will be. His bruises brought healing! His suffering brought freedom! His death brought life! His resurrection brings eternity! The world cannot understand him. Armies cannot defeat Him. Scientists cannot explain Him. Leaders cannot ignore Him. Herod could not kill Him. Nero could not crush Him. Hitler, Stalin and Mao Tse Dong could not silence Him. He is light, love, and Lord. He is goodness, kindness, gentleness, and God. He is holy, righteous, mighty, powerful, and pure. His ways are right. His word is eternal. His will is unchanging.

He is Redeemer and Saviour, Lord and Christ. I serve Him because His bond is love and His burden is light. I follow Him because He is the wisdom of the wise, the power of the powerful, the ancient of days, the ruler of rulers, the leader of leaders, the sovereign Lord. He will never leave me. Never forsake me. Never mislead me. Never forget me. When I fall, He lifts me up. When I fail, He forgives.

When I am weak, He is strong! When I am lost, He is the way! When I am afraid, He is my courage! When I stumble, He steadies me! When I am hurt, He heals me! When I am broken, He mends me! When I am blind, He leads me! When I am hungry, He feeds me! When I face trials, He is with me! When I face persecution, He shields me! When I face problems, He comforts me! When I face loss, He provides for me! And when I will face Death, He carries me home! He is everything for everybody, everywhere, every time, in every way. He is Jesus Christ! Born in a manger. Remembered round a table. Identified on a Cross - where He died for the sins of the world!

  "Jesus and the Rise of Early Christianity." Paul Barnett IVP 1999.
'TIME" 6.12.99.
""New Testament Apocrypha" Hennecke and Schneemelcher 1987

Rev Dr Gordon Moyes

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