What exactly is a manger? We here it every year at Christmas time. We sing songs about it. We set up manger scenes in churches and front lawns. We even go to court to battle for the right to display manger scenes on public property.
We incorporate the thought of a manger into that of a barn. When you were growing up and you left the door hanging open, your parents may have asked if you were born in a barn. For our definition Jesus essentially was born in a barn.
The Son of God came to earth in the most humbling of ways. Hospitals are clean and sterile. The utmost care and attention is taken at the birth of a child. Doctors and nurses tend to the mother and the birthing process. After the child arrives in the world they are carefully wrapped up and placed in a soft little bed and watched over carefully.
Jesus was born in the company of animals, beasts of burden. There were no clean hospital blankets to wrap him in, only what Joseph and Mary had carried with them on their journey. After wrapping him up that best that they could, they placed him in a manger. A manger is a feeding trough. It would have been filled with hay, straw, or whatever the animals may have been eating.
The creator of the universe came to earth in the most humble of fashions. Being laid in a feeding trough as a newborn is symbolic of what Christ gave up to come to earth though. Jesus gave up the majesty of heaven to take on human form. As Christians it is our desire to go to heaven and instead Jesus left heaven to come here.
Philippians 2 tells a different kind of Christmas story but it is symbolized in the manger of Bethlehem. Paul writes in verses 1-4
1If you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, 2then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. 3Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humility consider others better than yourselves. 4Each of you should look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others.
Paul begins by telling the Philippians that if they have gained anything by calling themselves Christians that he would consider it a joy to see them acting as Christians. This isn’t Paul berating the people but simply informing them what a joy it is to see Christians acting as they ought to be.
As a pastor, my greatest joy and my greatest frustration is people. There is no greater joy than knowing that I have touched someone’s life and watching that person spread the joy to other people. On the other hand, there are few things more frustrating than trying to reach out to someone and have them not want help or to heed spiritual advice.
As Paul tells the Philippians what brings him joy in their lives, he reminds them of their real motivation behind doing this. They are to act in humility towards others, looking to help others before themselves. There is an easy way to remember what will bring joy to yourself. It is an acronym that gives us our order of priorities. It is Jesus, Others, Yourself.
But Paul isn’t asking us to do something Jesus didn’t first do himself. He tells us of what Christ gave up to come to earth.
5Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus:
6Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be grasped,
7but made himself nothing,
taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
8And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to death—
even death on a cross!
Being laid in a manger isn’t that big of a deal when you consider leaving the splendor of heaven for all of the garbage that this world has to offer. As a man Jesus was rejected by those who followed him as a spectacle looking for entertainment. He was betrayed by one of the twelve men he chose to follow him. He was spat at, beaten, nailed to a cross, and crucified. When you compare these things to the discomfort of laying in some hay, give me the hay.
But it’s more than just the things that Jesus endured on earth. I’m certain that we can’t fully grasp this but Jesus gave up his authority as God. I can’t fully explain it because Jesus was not some sort of God/man hybrid but was 100% God and 100% man. But while a man he had the limitations of man. He needed food and water to survive. After he fasted in the desert for 40 days and was tempted by Satan, he didn’t magically snap his fingers and all was ok again. Angels tended to him because of his physical needs.
But of course Jesus exemplified humility in his life. It wasn’t a one time act at his birth nor a finishing act at his death. Jesus served others and gave of himself everywhere he went.
Verses 9-11 tells us the real reason we celebrate Christmas however.
9Therefore God exalted him to the highest place
and gave him the name that is above every name,
10that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
11and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.
Jesus completed the mission that he came to earth to do. He was born in a manger but he did not remain there. The world has seen lots to great servants. They come in all types from Mother Teresa with her work the poor, Bill Gates dedicating his entire fortune to helping the less fortunate and promoting medical research to help sick people, and even Buddha for promoting principles that often sound similar to Christianity. But none of these people are worthy of worship. They may have done some great things in humility but they didn’t die for your sins.
Jesus may have been born in humble settings and started life out as a baby. The world has 6 billion people who started out as babies however. It’s not manner in which Jesus was born that matters. It’s what he did with his life that makes all the difference.
The same is true for us. It doesn’t matter where we were born or to what family you belong to. It doesn’t matter if we’re rich or poor, highly educated or high school drop outs. What matters is what we do with our life.
A little baby in a manger means the gift of new life is available for everyone. The question is, what are we going to do with the life that we’ve been given?