Sermon 12-24-2022: “The Sign of A Manger”

Scripture: Luke 2:1-20

Tonight’s scripture is, of course, the very scripture that Charlie Brown’s one faithful friend, Linus, reads during the classic TV special A Charlie Brown Christmas. Linus reads it, you may recall, after Charlie Brown asks, in frustration, “Isn’t there anyone who knows what Christmas is all about?” Linus says, “Sure, Charlie Brown, I can tell you what Christmas is all about.” 

And then Linus reads this passage… Did you know, by the way, that CBS executives were nervous about this scene, and they tried to have Charles Schulz and the producers cut it because it was just… so… um… religious? because it was so specifically Christian? As if Christmas isn’t, first and foremost, a Christian celebration!

Just think: if the network executives had gotten their way, they would have proven the point that Peanuts creator Charles Schulz was making in this TV special—which is, the true meaning of Christmas has gotten lost amidst the greed and the glitz, the commercialism and the consumerism, of the Christmas season!

As it is, because Charles Schulz and the producers were unwilling to compromise, millions upon millions of people since 1965—who might otherwise never go to church and hear “what Christmas is all about”—have done so.

So tonight’s sermon is simple: “What is Christmas all about?” What does it mean for us?

The first thing to notice is that the Christmas story doesn’t begin “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” It also doesn’t begin “once upon a time.” Rather, in verse 1, Luke writes, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” This wasn’t a registration to vote—as we might think of it today—or even a registration to be drafted into the military; it was a registration for the purposes of taxation. It was like a census, and many Bible translations call it that. But Luke gives us even more specific information in verse 3: “This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria.” 

Not the second registration, the first one… As if the author, Luke, knows that at least some people reading his gospel were alive back then and would remember the second registration. But this was the first one, not the second.

Of course, today, no one cares whether it’s the first or second registration—but it mattered to Luke… because the truth mattered to Luke. He wants us to know that the events he’s describing took place in the real world—at a very specific time and place in history, involving real human beings, about whom historians today can even tell us a few things. 

Luke wants us to know that he’s telling us the truth.

I know that news magazines hardly exist anymore, but even ten years ago, around this time of year, you could count on a front-page cover story from Time magazine or Newsweek quoting skeptics who publicly questioned the truthfulness of the Christmas stories included in Matthew and Luke—the two gospels that include theChristmas story—and these skeptics would especially attack the truthfulness of the virgin birth. Inevitably, these skeptics would say that the gospel writers included the virgin birth in their gospels because they wanted their readers to know how special Jesus was. “After all, look at the way he was born!” The virgin birth, according to them, was a “pious legend.”

But this is nonsense!

Let’s be clear: Matthew and Luke don’t include the account of the virgin birth because it somehow helps their case for Christianity. No one then or now would read the gospels and think, “I didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God before, but now that you tell me he was conceived miraculously by the power of the Holy Spirit, I’m sold!”

Also, as New Testament scholar N.T. Wright points out, Matthew and Luke aren’t shoehorning this virgin birth story into the Christmas story because they know that the Messiah is supposed to be born of a virgin. Because, while it’s true that Isaiah 7:14 prophesies the virgin birth—“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel”—no one in the first century thought that this prophecy was connected to the Messiah’s birth. So they weren’t even expecting Isaiah’s words to apply to Jesus!

No, the virgin birth happened unexpectedly, and only later does Matthew—under the guidance of the Holy Spirit—connect Isaiah 7:14 to Christ’s birth!

My point is, Matthew and Luke knew as well as we do that getting pregnant requires both a man and a woman—at least apart from an unprecedented miracle. This was, after all, why, in Matthew chapter 1, Joseph originally decided to divorce Mary. He believed that she had been unfaithful—as would any reasonable person. Ancient people didn’t know about X- and Y-chromosomes and DNA, but they knew the facts of life as well as any modern person living today.

The most plausible reason, then, that Matthew and Luke risk telling us about the virgin birth is that they believed it was true… And as I’ve said Luke demonstrates here at the beginning of the chapter that he’s very interested in the truth.

As if the fact that Mary was conceived her child as a virgin weren’t hard enough for Mary and Joseph, not to mention their families and friends, to deal with, in Luke chapter 2 they face another major complication: Caesar Augustus—the most powerful man who had ever lived up to that point in history—decides he needs more tax revenue to fund his empire-building, so he forces Mary and Joseph, and other subjects around his empire, to go to their ancestral homes—in Joseph’s case, Bethlehem—in order to be registered.

Never mind that Mary is late in her third trimester… 

Never mind that Bethlehem is 90 miles to the south of where Joseph and Mary currently live—a three- or four-days’ journey… 

Never mind how incredibly difficult it would be for Mary to make that journey—how risky, how scary!

Never mind that since so many people have traveled to Bethlehem to register, there’s “no room at the inn,” and Mary has to give birth, not in a proper room, but in a barn! The oldest tradition says it was a cave—but it doesn’t matter… whatever it was, she gave birth in a place where livestock were kept! This manger that Jesus is laid in, you may recall, is literally a feeding trough for livestock! The manger made for a handy crib. But still… these were far from ideal circumstances, I’m sure we can all agree.

Don’t you know that Mary and Joseph must have looked at these difficult circumstances they faced and at some point thought, “Why is this happening to us?”

Why is this happening to us?

If so, do you know what the wrong answer to that question was… the very worst possible answer to that question? And I’m not suggesting for a moment that Mary and Joseph answered it this way… But this might be the answer that we would come up with, if we were in Mary and Joseph’s sandals: The worst possible answer to the question, “Why is this bad stuff happening to me,” might be any one of the following: “Because God doesn’t love me”… or “Because God doesn’t care about me”… or “Because God has forgotten about me”… or “Because God must be angry with me”… or “Because I must have really messed up, and now I am ‘outside of God’s perfect will for my life’”… or “Because God must be punishing me for my sins… That must be why these bad things are happening… That must be why life is so hard right now… That must be why I’m facing these incredibly difficult circumstances.”

But no… These would be among the worst possible answers to the question, “Why is this incredibly difficult thing happening to me?”

Because think about it… Mary had God—God in the flesh, the Second Person of the Trinity—living inside of her. She had God within her in the most literal way possible! God, who took on flesh-and-blood, was literally growing inside of Mary. God was physically attached to her! It’s no exaggeration to say that no one at that point in history no human being had ever been closer to God than Mary was! And her fiancé, Joseph, was also very close to God, too.

And yet look at how Mary and Joseph struggled, look at how they suffered, look at the pain and the strife and discomfort that they endured, look how difficult their lives were… because of God being so close to them! And this was before Jesus was even born! They would still have a difficult road in front of them after his birth!

And yet… consider how God loved them!

My point is this: While circumstances in today’s scripture surely seemed—from Mary and Joseph’s perspective—so far from ideal, so incredibly difficult, so far removed from what this couple had originally hoped and dreamed for their lives, the truth is, their lives were working out perfectly according to God’s plans!

Even this registration… You know, I said earlier that Caesar Augustus was the most powerful man who had ever lived in the history the world up to that point… and that’s true. But you know what? For all his awesome power—a power by which he could move his royal subjects, including an eight-month pregnant young woman, around his empire like chess pieces, on a whim, just because he says so… for all his awesome power, he was nothing compared to God!

In fact, like so many other awesomely powerful kings and rulers in the Bible—like the Pharaoh in Egypt, like Nebuchadnezzar in Babylon, like Cyrus in Persia, and several others—Caesar Augustus simply couldn’t help but accomplish God’s will—even though he didn’t know or believe in God.

He was nothing more than a pawn in the hands of almighty God!

Why do I say this? Because… by calling for this empire-wide registration… he had no idea that he was helping to fulfill the ancient prophecy from Micah 5:2:

But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah, who are too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days.

The Messiah was supposed to be born in Bethlehem, King David’s birthplace! And even though Mary and Joseph believed they were giving birth to the Messiah, they apparently weren’t planning on making the trip to Bethlehem on their own, before Jesus was born… Therefore God used Caesar Augustus to make it happen… Because God, of course, has the power to do stuff like that!

Surely we modern-day disciples of Jesus Christ can find encouragement in the difficult trials that Mary and Joseph endured.

As God proves in tonight’s scripture, he is sovereign. He’s in control. Just as he’s infinitely more powerful than Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man who’s ever lived, he’s infinitely more powerful than any obstacle, any enemy, any challenge, any trial, any disappointment, any heartache, any addiction, any circumstance that you and I might be facing right now. Nothing can prevent God from accomplishing his plans, his purpose—in us, through us, and for us. 

He did it for Mary and Joseph. He will do it for us. So we can trust him!

Gosh, even the fact that there was “no place for them in the inn,” in verse 7—even though Jesus had “no crib for a bed,” even though he had to be lain in a manger—even this points back to a prophecy from Isaiah 1:3:

The ox knows its master, the donkey its owner’s manger, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand. 1

This requires some explanation: In that verse, the prophet is complaining about the how God’s people Israel have turned away from God. In other words, while even a donkey knows the place where to go to get food for its survival—and so it will keep going back to the manger—God’s people lack the sense to know that God alone is the source of their sustenance—the source of their life, the source of their strength. And so they’ve wandered away from God. 

But good news! That will no longer need to be the case! God’s people—like the shepherds in tonight’s scripture who rush to find the manger—will now find their eternal sustenance in Jesus, who is God in the flesh! That’s why God—the Second Person of the Trinity—is lying in the manger. That’s the meaning of the “sign” that the angel describes in verse 12: Jesus, who is God, will now be our “bread of life”; he will be our “spring of water welling up to eternal life.” 2 The shepherds who “make haste” to go to the manger symbolize all of us Christians who now find eternal life in Christ!

The manger is a sign that points to eternal life in Christ!

So I have to ask you: Are you willing to follow the sign of the manger in order to find the One to whom the sign points?

I mentioned A Charlie Brown Christmas at the top of the sermon. In this TV special, Charlie Brown is assigned the task of purchasing a Christmas tree for the Christmas pageant. 

In a Christmas tree lot of big, shiny, brightly-colored, indestructible aluminum trees—any one of which would have satisfied Charlie Brown’s friends, or should I say “frenemies,” back home—Charlie Brown instead falls in love with the smallest, the ugliest, the weakest, the most despised little tree. 

“This little green tree needs a home,” he says. “I think it will be perfect. I think it needs me.”

This reminds me of a story that Jesus told about a good shepherd. The shepherd has a hundred sheep, and he loses one. Just one little sheep! Who would miss such an insignificant thing?

Well, the shepherd in the parable would… He missed that little, insignificant sheep, and he searches high and low for it. And when he finds it, Jesus says, the shepherd is overjoyed. He carries it on his shoulders and brings it home where it belongs. “Celebrate with me,” he tells his friends and family and neighbors, “because I’ve found my lost sheep.”3

Similarly, Charlie Brown is excited to rescue that little tree, to bring it into the auditorium, and to place it on Schroeder’s toy piano. His “frenemies,” however, are not excited. They don’t love the little tree the way Charlie Brown does. In fact, they transfer their hatred and scorn for the tree to Charlie Brown himself—and Charlie Brown bears the brunt of their hatred. He’s rejected, scorned, ridiculed, abandoned.

And of course, isn’t this what Jesus does? Scripture says, in Isaiah 53,

He was despised and rejected—
    a man of sorrows, acquainted with deepest grief.
We turned our backs on him and looked the other way.
    He was despised, and we did not care.

Yet it was our weaknesses he carried;
    it was our sorrows that weighed him down.
And we thought his troubles were a punishment from God,
    a punishment for his own sins!
But he was pierced for our rebellion,
    crushed for our sins.
He was beaten so we could be whole.
    He was whipped so we could be healed.
All of us, like sheep, have strayed away.
    We have left God’s paths to follow our own.
Yet the Lord laid on him
    the sins of us all. 4

Christmas means that God himself, through his Son Jesus, came into this world because God loves us and wants to save us. It was as if God said, “These lost human beings need a home. They’ve made a mess of their lives, they’ve made a mess of this good world that I’ve made, because of their sins. But I can fix them. I think they’ll be perfect. They need me to save them, to rescue them, to carry them home.”

And the way God does that… is through the cross.

As strange as it is to say, the meaning of Christmas is Good Friday. God sent his Son Jesus into the world at Christmas, primarily, to die on the cross. Because he loved us that much! 


  1.  Isaiah 1:3 NIV. English translations split the difference between translating this feeding trough a “crib” or “manger,” but it’s the same word (in Greek) that Luke uses.
  2.  John 4:14 ESV
  3.  Luke 15:6
  4.  Isaiah 53:3-6 NLT

2 thoughts on “Sermon 12-24-2022: “The Sign of A Manger””

  1. Good sermon. I don’t believe I have ever heard the Isaiah 1:3 verse applied as prophesy, but that makes sense. You continually enlighten me!

    I do have one caveat (as about usual!). It is with respect to God’s using us despite our sins. I agree that he does and that we can’t thwart his plans, but I think HOW God chooses to use us in particular is somewhat impacted to how we live. I get this from 2 Timothy 2:20-21 (NIV): “20 In a large house there are articles not only of gold and silver, but also of wood and clay; some are for special purposes and some for common use. 21 Those who cleanse themselves from the latter [wickedness, v. 19] will be instruments for special purposes, made holy, useful to the Master and prepared to do any good work.” So, if we hope to be used for “good work,” then we should strive to avoid “wickedness.”

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