The Monster in the Manger

It’s the most wonderful time of the year… you can’t read those words without adding the tune, at least in your mind. Christmas is a wonderful time because it is the time of celebration of the coming of the long-awaited Messiah. He was to be born in Bethlehem of Judea (Micah 5:2). Christians recognize the Messiah to be the baby born of a virgin (Isaiah 7:14). The sign to the shepherds was finding the baby lying in a manger (Luke 2:12). So, much of Old Testament prophecy pointed to this great event in the life of the community.

In America, we have removed the Messiah in the manger and replaced him with the monster in the manger. To a few people, it appears to be offensive to make any reference to Jesus during Christmas, preferring to emphasize Santa, reindeer and good old fashioned consumerism (dare I say, materialism). In a lot of places we have to remove the word “Christmas” and insert “holidays.” Hey, if this is the only persecution the church receives, it is pretty mild compared to what believers are enduring around the world, just for professing faith in Jesus Christ.

Today I want to remind you of an over-used story in the Bible (although never to my knowledge is it in the context of Christmas). It is used often in the context of choices, women’s roles, discipleship, service, or the need to spend more time with Jesus (Luke 10:38-42).

38 As Jesus and the disciples continued on their way to Jerusalem, they came to a certain village where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. 39 Her sister, Mary, sat at the Lord’s feet, listening to what he taught. 40 But Martha was distracted by the big dinner she was preparing. She came to Jesus and said, “Lord, doesn’t it seem unfair to you that my sister just sits here while I do all the work? Tell her to come and help me.”

41 But the Lord said to her, “My dear Martha, you are worried and upset over all these details! 42 There is only one thing worth being concerned about. Mary has discovered it, and it will not be taken away from her.”

This was a family whom Jesus loved very much. It was sort of like family coming home for the holidays. The first thing I notice is that Martha spent so much time serving Jesus that she had no time to enjoy his company. As a pastor, I fear this happening in my life and must constantly be on my guard against it. After all, Jesus called his disciples to first BE WITH him (Mark 3:14) before he sent them out to serve him.

Frustration apparently arose over Mary not doing her part to help out. Everything had to be perfect for the guest who were coming over. That which started out as gladness and celebration ended up in resentment and envy.

Christmas is a special time when we want everything to be perfect… the right thoughtful gift that expresses our feelings for someone; the party plans require cleaning, and shopping, and invitations, and cooking, and decorations, and all of this leads to exhaustion. If it is not perfect, then we are just a failure. How many times have you been so spent physically and emotionally that you are unable to enjoy the Christmas season?

We must keep the baby in the manger as our primary focus during Christmas, because we can be all about being so busy during Christmas that we forget what the nativity is all about. If the Messiah is being diminished, we are replacing him with a monster!

Even if what you are doing is for the glory of God, God will not ask you to do something that will hinder your relationship with him! Spend time with him rather than just serve him. Sometimes we actively serve him and at other times we quietly sit at his feet.

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The Significance of Bethlehem

We all know that Bethlehem is the birthplace of Jesus, but what is the bigger significance of this little town? It is a city in the hill country of Judah that was originally called Ephrath (Genesis 35:16, 19; 48:7; Ruth 4:11), but was also called Bethlehem Ephratah (Micah 5:2), Bethlehem-Judah (1 Samuel 17:12), and “the city of David” (Luke 2:4).

  1. It is first noticed in Scripture as the place where Jacob’s wife, Rachel, died and was buried “along the way,” directly to the north of the city (Genesis 35:19, 48:7).
  2. Bethlehem appears in Judges 17:7-13 as the home of the Levite who became priest to Micah.
  3. The valley to the east was the scene of the story of Ruth (Ruth 1:1-2, 19, 22; 2:4; 4:11).
  4. Bethlehem was the birthplace of David and where he was anointed as king by Samuel (1 Samuel 16:4-13); and it was from the well of Bethlehem that three of David’s heroes brought water for him at the risk of their lives when he was in the cave of Adullam (2 Samuel 23:13-17).
  5. But it was distinguished above every other city as the birthplace of the God promised Messiah (Matthew 2:6; compare this to Micah 5:2).

It is the relationship of Bethlehem to Christ that has insured its place in Christian history. Micah 5:2 was understood to indicate that the Messiah, like David, would be born in Bethlehem not Jerusalem. Matthew 2:1-12, Luke 2:4-20, and John 7:42 all report that Jesus was born in that humble village. Flash forward three centuries, during the reign of the first Christian emperor of the Roman Empire, Constantine, the Church of the Nativity was constructed (about AD 326). It was destroyed during the Samaritan revolt (around AD 529) and rebuilt by Justinian I (527-565). That ancient structure forms the basic unit that is still in use today although many modifications have occurred, especially during the Middle Ages. According to Christian legend during the Persian Conquest, AD 614, the church was preserved when the invaders saw the three Magi in a mosaic of the birth of Jesus and recognized their clothing as Persian.

After all this history, what do I see about Bethlehem that can bless your spirit this week?

1. Jacob’s beautiful wife, Rachel, died and was buried near there, and when Herod was tricked by the Magi, his rage brought the deaths of all male children age two and younger. He was paranoid that another king had been born and was eliminating the competition. Matthew 2:18 reveals the prophecy of Rachel weeping for her children (Jeremiah 31:15) and “she refused to be comforted because they were no more.” As we think about Bethlehem being a place of birth (David and Jesus) we cannot help but remember that death permeated the city. The prophet Jeremiah depicts the wailing of the Israelites during the time of the exile, (Jeremiah 31:15) and since Matthew is writing to a Jewish audience, they would see the parallel between that calamity and this new atrocity of Herod; both being part of the same larger picture.

2. We know that Jesus was born in the town of Bethlehem, and He escaped death by his family fleeing to Egypt (Matthew 2:14-15). But we know that eventually He would be put to death. We often focus on the baby in the manger and fail to properly recognize the significance of his death on the cross. Jesus died so that we might have life (John 10:10). The Bible records the revelation of God to mankind so that we may know that we have everlasting life (1 John 5:13), and this life is in Jesus alone (1 John 5:11-12). My point is this; the manger must lead to the cross. The boards that held the infant Jesus in safety must become the beams to which our Lord and Master was nailed. We would have no salvation if it were not for the cross.

3. The Philistine had taken over Bethlehem (2 Samuel 23:14), and three mighty men of David risked their lives to cross over into enemy territory to retrieve a cup of water for their king. David was actually reminiscing of his childhood well more than giving an order to fetch him water (2 Samuel 23:15), but the men so loved David that they were willing to die in order to fulfill the king’s desire (2 Samuel 23:16). But notice that David would not drink it. He actually “poured it out to the Lord” and then tells them why (2 Samuel 23:17). I see here a selfless sacrifice, men taking the initiative to please their king. What is it that you can do to please God, for no other reason than you love Christ? As the water was poured out to the Lord, will we pour ourselves out to Him each and every day? Jesus gives to us living water (John 4:10) and those who believe in or have faith in Christ, living water will burst forth from our inner most being (John 7:38). We live in the camp of the enemy (Satan is the god of this world) but the living water Jesus offers is still as sweet and refreshing as always.

Live for Him because He died for you. We should not just be willing to die for Christ; we should be willing to live for Him. Have a blessed Christmas, and don’t forget to keep the Son in your eyes.

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