What was the most enduring image of the past year, the image that haunts your mind when you think of the year just past. I guess it must be the eyes of Diana, Princess of Wales, and the superimposed image of the wrecked Mercedes where she died. But TIME magazine, who published as much on Diana decided another pair of eyes were more significant.
Dolly the Lamb was the world's first cloned creature. In a manger out the back of a British University, a sheep was cloned. The National Science Foundation Director, Neal Lane, declared "What we know is that a sheep named Dolly has written a whole new page in the history of our knowledge about genes." TIME magazine, this week, Dec 22 '97 states in an editorial about the images of the year, that the most photographed person was Diana, the most amazing photo was the Hale-Bopp comets, but "we may look back someday and decise that the great portrait in 1997 was Dolly the cloned sheep. In her anonymous face our misgivings about science are perfectly duplicated, mostly because she's our best pictuire of the assembly-line production of life. Dolly is also our sphyx in the manger. Somewhere in the black dots of her eyes there's a message, something about how hard it is to micro-manage the most subtle departments of creation. Lamb of God, lamb of man - when we look at her, is that our future we see?"
Bethlehem also was ready for the Christ child even though her citizens did not realise it. Jesus was born in the backstreets of Bethlehem for a reason. It was not accidental. Where he was born was significant. It was not the Innkeeper's fault there was no room in the inn. That was all part of the plan of God.
It was necessary that Jesus be born in the manger in the backstreets of Bethlehem! The Shepherds were told: "This very day in David's town your Saviour was born - Christ the Lord! And this is what will prove it to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger." (Luke 2:12). The proof was the baby was wrapped in cloths, lying in a manger. 750 years before, Micah had foretold that a ruler for Israel would be born in Bethlehem even though it was only a small village. That was forgotten until some astrologers came from the East following a bright moving star and asked Herod where a new ruler would be born.
The scriptures no where mention a stable, just a manger. A manger was probably not in a separate building at the rear of an Inn. It was usually in a rocky cave in the back paddock. In 1971 I saw in the Dunedin Art Gallery a large oil painting by J.R. Herbert "The Adoration of the Magi". Mary and Joseph with the baby Jesus were in a rough cave in the hillside at the back of the inn where the cattle were stabled. That is historically probable.
The birth of Jesus in such a place was no accident - it was a sign.
1. A SIGN OF WHAT HE WOULD PERSONIFY - POVERTY.
No birth could have so identified Jesus with the poor than his birth in the backstreets of Bethlehem. Australians spend $5 billion to celebrate the birth of Christ this Christmas, but Jesus was born in surroundings known only to people of absolute poverty. God always cared for the poor, and He eternally identified Himself with a ministry to the poor when His Son was born in a stable.
His whole life would be one of poverty. Their hurried journey to Egypt a couple of weeks later was as refugees having nothing. At His presentation at the Temple His parents offered a dove sacrifice, the gift of poverty stricken people. 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 each went to his own house, Jesus went out and spent the night on the Mount of Olives for He had "no-where to lay His head." Paul said simply: "Our Lord Jesus Christ, though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich." (2 Cor 8:9).
"With the poor and mean and lowly, lived on earth our Saviour Holy." The stable was a sign of His poverty.
2. A SIGN OF HOW HE WOULD LIVE - HUMILITY.
His being born in a manger signified that quality of character that marked out Jesus: His humility. The life of Jesus, helped change the world's attitude towards the quality of humility. What was considered a weakness in men, is now considered an essential for true greatness Jesus said: "For whoever exalts himself will be humbled, and whoever humbles himself will be exalted." (Matt 23:12).
The life of Jesus was one of a great man who never exalted Himself. Paul once quoted an hymn which said:
"Christ Jesus, 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. Being found in appearance as a man he humbled himself and became obedient to death
-- even death on a cross!" (Phil 2:6-8)
How we proud Australian need to learn this aspect of the Christian message: that greatness is seen in humbly serving others. Politicians puff their own importance and threaten each other with calls to resign. Businessmen spend lavishly on cars, celebrations, and luxury yachts - those expensive toys of those who have little thought for the underprivileged and poor. The manger reminds us that greatness lies in humility.
3. A SIGN OF WHO HE REALLY WAS - IDENTITY.
The shepherds were told they would recognise 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 for this runs through the Old Testament over every generation: After Adam and Eve sinned their son Abel brought a lamb from his flock and sacrificed it as a sin offering to God. Noah took a lamb after the flood had subsided and the animals and birds were multiplying, and sacrificed to God. Abraham built an altar and sacrifice a ram that had been prepared for Him as a sign of His dependence upon God. The Israelites sacrificed lambs in Egypt and smeared the doorposts with blood that death would pass over them. Moses gave the people of Israel instructions how they were to sacrifice a lamb for their sins each year. John the Baptist looked at Jesus coming for baptism and said: "Behold the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" whom Isaiah had foretold who would be without spot and blemish as our sacrifice.
Palaces were proper places in which princes would be born, but a stable on the backstreets of Bethlehem was the proper place for the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world. The shepherds identified the Lamb of God. One thing a Temple Shepherd could do, was recognise a sacrificial lamb!
Archaeologists have helped us understand where Jesus was born because they have discovered special fields for the sacrificial lambs. Lambs were sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem for the sins of believers, and "according to the Law almost everything is purified by blood, and sins are forgiven only if blood is poured out." (Heb. 9:22). So the Messiah would suffer and die as a sacrificial Lamb for the sins of the world.
Flocks of suitable lambs, specially selected and bred without defect or flaw were kept five miles south-west from the Temple in Jerusalem in fields called Migdal Edar, which means "the Tower of the Flock". These fields are outside the village of Bethlehem. Here the Temple shepherds cared for the lambs for the sacrifice, in the ceremonially clean fields and stables. These were the only sheep watched over 24 hours a day every day of the year. This was why the Shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night in the midst of winter!
The Wise Men had to be guided to the place of His birth by a star, but the shepherds had no need of a star to guide them. They knew the manger in the fields of Migdal Edar! The place he was born tells of His death. He solves the problem of death, for He was "born that man no more may die."
4. A SIGN OF WHAT HE WOULD SUFFER - NECESSITY.
When Jesus was born in a stable it was a sign of what He would suffer throughout His whole life. The true story of Christmas has Christ born in a manger as the Lamb of God, but for a reason, to be the Saviour of the world and to take away the sins of the world. This would involve sacrifice. Bethlehem cannot be understood without Calvary. The manger must be seen in the light of the Cross. Birth would also involve death.
The true story of Christmas is tough, real, factual. Angels and bright star, shepherds and Wisemen, yes, but also whips and nails, soldiers and a betrayer, thorns and a Cross. Jesus was born in the fields where the lambs were born for sacrifice in the Temple of Jerusalem for the sins of the people.
He was to be despised and rejected throughout His life. "There was no room for them in the inn". That was a symbol of what would happen in many places: Bethlehem rejected Him as a baby when Herod murdered all the male children hoping to get rid of the threat of an heir. Nazareth rejected Him when he proclaimed that the Spirit of the Lord was on Him and they cast him out of their city. Decapolis rejected Him when he healed a mentally ill men who was terrorising the district and some pigs drowned in the process. Israel rejected Him as God's Son, when he would not fit their concept of a military leader to throw off the Roman yoke. He came "to his own people and they received Him not". Jerusalem rejected Him as a Messiah, because they did not want their privileges and perks of office upset by one who wanted to make worship pure and commitment to God real. They cast him out crucified Him.
No room for Him in the Inn foreshadowed that throughout His life there would be many rejections. He said: "Was it not necessary that Christ should suffer all these things". The Cross of Jesus was no accident. That rejection was a necessity to accomplish the redemption of mankind. It was foreshadowed even at the time of His birth when the world first had no room for Him.
In Australia today, multitudes go on their way careless of the news that One has come into the world to redeem them and give them the free gift of sins forgiven, of eternal life and the hope of heaven. They remain caught in the computer beep of a million cash registers and the charging of five billion dollars of commercialism. They are too busy to see in the Christ Child the hope of mankind. The
purpose of His coming is lost under a pile of discarded Christmas wrapping paper, and the urgency of getting things ready for after-Christmas sales and the coming holidays. We can reject Him, not with cruel nails, but more cruelly, by ignoring Him.
In recent years archaeologists have helped us understand where in Israel Jesus was born because they have discovered special fields of the shepherds. Where he was born was to point to why he would die. Where He was born tells of His death.
John the Baptist looked at Jesus walking to him down the bank of the Jordan River to the baptised, and said: "There is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world." (John 1:29).
Peter, spoke of Jesus redeeming us: "the costly sacrifice of Christ, who was like a lamb without defect or flaw." (1 Peter 1:19)
Paul, described what happened in the death of Jesus as "Christ, our Passover Lamb has been sacrificed for us." (1 Cor. 5:7).
John in "The Revelation" saw the Heavens opened and "then I saw a Lamb, standing in the centre of the Throne...the Lamb appeared to have been killed...and I heard angels, thousands and millions of them...and they sang in a loud voice: "The Lamb who was killed is worthy to receive power, wealth, wisdom and strength, honour,glory, and praise! To Him who sits upon the throne and to the Lamb, be praise, honour, glory and might for ever and ever." (Rev. 5:6-13).
Now why this emphasis upon Jesus being a sacrificial Lamb? Because Lambs were sacrificed in the Temple in Jerusalem for the sins of believers, and "according to the Law almost everything is purified by blood, and sins are forgiven only if blood is poured out." (Heb. 9:22).
So the Messiah would suffer and die as a sacrificial Lamb for the sins of the world. Every family, except the very poor, had to sacrifice a lamb without defect or flaw in the Temple, so flocks of suitable lambs were kept nearby.Consequently, large flocks of lambs, specially selected and bred without defect or flaw were kept near the temple five miles south-west from the centre of Jerusalem in fields called Migdal Edar, which means "the Tower of the Flock". In the time of Jesus, these fields were alongside the township of Bethlehem.
Here the Temple shepherds cared for their Lambs for the Sacrifice, in the ceremonially clean fields and stables. These were the only sheep watched over 24 hours a day every day of the year. This was why the Shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night in the midst of winter! Luke says the fields were in the district of Bethlehem. Having found no room in Bethlehem township, Mary and Joseph went to the manger in the fields nearby.
The Wise Men had to be guided to the place of His birth by a star, but the shepherds had no need of a star to guide them: they knew where the manger in the fields Migdal Edar were! Because they were the right shepherds they knew the right manger.
Micah had prophesied at the end of the eighth century BC that the Messiah would be born in Bethlehem, and that Jerusalem would see the demonstration of God's presence and power in a place nearby called "The Tower of the Flock" or in Hebrew, Midgal Edar! Here, where sacrificial lambs were born was the right place for the birth of the Lamb of God who would take away the sin of the world.
The place he was born tells of His death. He solves the problem of death, for He was "born that man no more may die."
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