- God’s Christmas Playlist: Away in a Manger
- Luke 2:8-14
- Brian Brownlow December 22, 2019
In this series, God’s Christmas Playlist, we’ve been looking at several beloved Christmas carols and examining some of the key lines that express the deeper meaning of Christmas -and ultimately the gospel itself. On the first Sunday of Advent, we looked at O Holy Night, and last Sunday, Lyndol examined O Come All Ye Faithful.
Today I want to look at Away in a Manger. A few moments ago, you heard some background on this classic hymn. While it is not a “children’s song” per se, people of all ages love and sing this song; the lyrics do lend themselves to a younger audience. The song closes with these words “bless all the dear children in thy tender care and take us to heaven to live with thee there.” Now, that’s a message for all generations – Amen? But, again, this entry on God’s Christmas playlist has a gentle and soothing melody that makes it great for children to sing. Our Children’s Day Out program a week ago included Away in a Manger, and it was beautiful to hear those little voices singing it.
Hearing this song reminds me of Christmas during my own childhood. From my perspective as a young boy, Christmas was exactly like what they put on Christmas cards. I know for many the holidays aren’t always a jolly good time. They can be difficult and filled with stress. I realize that my childhood wasn’t necessarily the norm and that I was very blessed. My mother was one of six children, so we had a large family that gathered during the holidays with lots of cousins to play with. One of my fondest memories was every year, my grandfather would read the Christmas story from Luke chapter 2. After the meal and before the presents were handed out, we all gathered in the living room, and Granddaddy would pull out his Bible. Nineteen cousins, in-laws, and outlaws all gathered in one room to hear about the birth of Christ. It was a Norman Rockwell painting. The year after my grandfather passed away, my grandmother asked me to read the story. It was a great honor. When our middle daughter Mickenzie was five years old, she got to do the Christmas story. She didn’t read it – she recited the whole thing from memory. She attended kindergarten at First Baptist Church in Post, Texas, and they have a Christmas miracle at that little school every year. Their teacher got the whole class full of five-year-olds to memorize the entire Christmas story from Luke 2. Yep – the whole thing versus 1 to 20, in the King James Version no less.
I’m sure many of you have similar traditions. Some of you here today may have grown up with very different traditions. Some of you may have grown up with very little Christian traditions. Perhaps the Christmas season was more of a secular holiday that had more do with gift-giving and time off from work and school. Whatever traditions you may – or may not – have observed, I believe God is just glad you’re here today.
Whatever your background may be, I want to look at the story that inspired the song Away in a Manger. Turn in your Bibles with me to Luke 2:8-14 KJV.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 And, lo, the Angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. 10 And the Angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. 12 And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
13 And suddenly there was with the Angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
In this passage, there are two gatherings: shepherds and angels. At first, there’s just one angel, but that soon changes to a “heavenly host” of angels. Regardless of their numbers, these two gatherings are quite different. I think it’s appropriate to say that shepherds and angels are on two opposite ends of the spectrum, and I want to take just a little bit of time to look at what the Bible says about these two “gatherings.”
Let’s start with the shepherds. Much is usually made about them being poor. They were almost certainly not wealthy. There were probably some people who had fairly large herds and might be able to hire a few people to watch them, but typically at that time, shepherds managed a small flock. The purpose was to feed their own family and perhaps be able to sell some of the meat atmarket. It was nearly all sheep and goats. Cattle were certainly raised in first-century Palestine, but they were more of a delicacy for the wealthy. It takes a lot more pasture to raise cattle than it does for sheep and goats. Goats were more prominent because they were the easiest to raise and also provided milk.
While we often overdo this angle about the shepherds being “poor, lowly” creatures, they were probably on the lower end of the economic scale. Interestingly, this chapter in Luke’s gospel begins with the names of two people who were at the very top of the social and economic scale: Caesar Augustus and one of his governors, Cyrenius. I began reading in verse 8, but the chapter begins, “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed and this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.”
In historical writings, it is common to mark time by who is in power – kings and queens, emperors and pharaohs. We do that now. You will hear people identify a period of time based on who was President during that era. We say things like, “Oh, that was during Reagan’s first term in office.” The Bible often does this, and the time of Jesus’ birth is no different. The ruler of the entire Roman world (Caesar Augustus) and his governor (Cyrenius) are used to give us a timeframe at the beginning of this chapter. It is interesting – and I think noteworthy – that the first people who received word of Jesus’ birth was not Caesar or his governor but rather some common folk who are working to make a living.
While that does have some importance in the story, I don’t think it’s the main issue regarding the shepherds. I would suggest this morning that for the shepherds, the first of these two gatherings, the key issue is not their place in the economy but their activity, specifically, their activity of monotony. Look at verse 8 again. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. I’m sure things picked up from time to time, but for the most part, a shepherd’s job was to keep watch. That had to get boring. Aristotle was quoted as saying shepherds were the laziest of all people. He drew this conclusion because they made their living by following tame animals around looking for pasture. He specifically says that in the rest of his quote. Now, I doubt Aristotle knew a whole lot about hard physical labor, but his powers of observation were unequaled, and just observing a shepherd’s life would not create a great deal of excitement in anyone.
Okay – what difference does all that make? I think as God is telling us the story about the Savior of the world, He intentionally uses a gathering of people whose main job is to keep watch. The first announcement of the Messiah’s birth comes to those who are watching. Certainly, the Hebrew people have been waiting since the time of the Prophets for the Messiah’s birth. They had been waiting and watching anxiously for centuries. This idea of anticipating and watching is extremely important. The season of Advent that we are in now is a time of anticipation – a time of waiting and watching. Often, we rush ahead to the Christmas season and go straight to the birth of Jesus. The early church taught us that the anticipation and the waiting are important. It’s those who watch and wait who will see the miracle.
Now I do not want to stretch this too much. I am not suggesting that the shepherds were sitting around thinking, “Oh, tonight might be the night the Messiah is born!” They were probably thinking, “I hope these dumb animals don’t wander off too far.” Or maybe, “I hope tonight isn’t as cold as it was last night.” Nonetheless, I think God uses the image of shepherds keeping watch as an important reminder for us, as we hear this story from His word, to be diligent and faithful. What we do might become monotonous at times. We might have to wait, sometimes much longer than we wanted to, but God reveals himself – literally – to those who wait.
The second gathering is much different from the first. As a matter of fact, it doesn’t start out as a gathering. In verse 9, we see one angel, the Angel of the Lord shows up on the scene. Unlike the common shepherds, the Angel of Lord shone with the glory of the Lord. This had to be a magnificent and terrifying sight. We don’t have to assume this. The end of verse 9 tells us that the shepherds, upon seeing the Angel, were “sore afraid.” I especially like the KJV of this passage for that part right there. They were “sore afraid.” In modern English we would say they were scared out of their minds. The Angel’s appearance had to be beautiful but, at the same time, so overpowering that it was scary. I don’t have time this morning to really get into a lot about angels – that’s a whole other sermon, but if you want to read more about them, one of our members here LakeRidge, Sherri Blankenship, has written an excellent book on angels. Send me an email or call the office, and I can tell you how to get a copy.
But the Angel’s appearance was so overpowering that it struck fear into the hearts of the shepherds. The Angel immediately reassures the shepherds, “Don’t worry – it’s all good!” That is certainly a paraphrase from the KJV, but that’s what the Angel says, “Fear not, I bring you good tidings of great joy.” The Angel makes a declaration, “I’m not here to kill you. Do not be afraid. I’ve got a message for you. It’s good news and it’s going to bring great joy. To those who have been watching and waiting, good news has finally come.”
The Angel’s message is a birth announcement. We are all familiar with birth announcements. I can’t think of many things that bring better news than a birth announcement. It’s an exciting time. The birth of a new baby brings joy – especially to a family that has been waiting and anticipating for a long time. Usually those birth announcements are full of cute pictures of the baby with mom and dad. One of Debbie’s cousins just had a baby. You can see here the first pictures they posted on Facebook. Usually, you get a shot of the new nursery with all the stuffed animals. When dad is a hunter, the stuffed animals are shoulder mounts, which is cool and creepy all at the same time.
The birth announcement delivered by this Angel was a little different. Instead of a cute card with a little chubby angel on it, an amazing/terrifying Angel of the Lord with all of that glory showed up and pronounced the baby is born. Like other babies, you would find it with its mother wrapped in swaddling clothes, but this was no ordinary baby. This baby is the Savior of the world.
Look at verse 11, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior; which is Christ the Lord.” This was a birth announcement unlike any other – before or after. This was the one they had been waiting on since the beginning of time. Ever since Adam and Eve were removed from the garden, the people have needed a Savior, and now He has arrived. The Messiah – the one foretold by the prophets has finally come to earth.
He didn’t look like what they thought. They were waiting for a political and military leader. A ruler who would come and save them by military force from the Romans, and whoever else would dare to oppress them. They wanted someone history would mark time by. Remember time is often marked by those who are in power – kings and queens, emperors and pharaohs. The people have been waiting for one of those. The beginning of this chapter is marked by Caesar Augustus and his governor, Cyrenius. The people were waiting for someone to take over for those people, someone who would kick out the current political leadership and take over the government and the military. Well, that’s not exactly how God did things. But you know, it’s more than a bit ironic that this event, the birth of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is the clear dividing line for how we mark time. Everything before this event is BC: Before Christ, and everything after this event is AD: which is short for the Latin phrase anno domini meaning, the year of our Lord.
The Angel declares that on this day, a Savior is born who will be Christ the Lord. In the Christmas carol Away in a Manger, the phrase “Lord Jesus” is repeated over and over. Several times it’s stated as “the little Lord Jesus.” I love this song – I mentioned earlier that it reminds me of my own childhood and is a dear Christmas carol to me. I’m not trying to pick it apart. I would, however, caution us from allowing it to overly sentimentalize the most powerful story ever told. Certainly, Jesus came as a baby, and babies are little. The Angel announced not just the birth of a cute little baby but the coming of a Savior who would be Lord.
As would befit the birth of the Lord, that Angel was joined by a heavenly host filling the sky and proclaiming the glory of God that has come to all mankind. It was not an announcement just for a few shepherds who were watching over their flocks. This was an announcement that, “shall be to all people” and “it will bring great joy.”
The announcement is for all people. It’s a sad reality, but all people don’t hear. The announcement is given to all. The joy of a Savior and the promise of salvation that He brings is offered to all. Some are too busy to hear. Some hear the story, but all they see is a cute little baby asleep on the hay — a nativity scene to decorate the season and nothing more. Everybody wants a Savior – or at least everybody wants to be saved. Not everyone wants a Lord.
If we are honest, many of us sometimes secretly would like for time to be marked by our name. We want to be famous. We want to be the lord of our own lives. We are content with simply a “little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.” We really don’t want to see the power of the heavenly host coming and taking control of every part of our lives and seeing the glory of the Lord. Because, while that’s a really cool story to read from the Bible when it really happens to us, it scares us out of our mind.
Some are disappointed in what they see. Some want Jesus to come in and fix their current reality. Kick out the Caesars in their own life. Come in and fix their boss or their coworkers or their spouse. Take care of all these people in our lives who are causing us problems. Sometimes we are disappointed when that doesn’t happen. Sometimes we are disappointed in a Lord when what we wanted was a soldier to take care of our problems.
What are you watching for? What are you anticipating?
When Jesus is Lord, we are watchful, diligent, intentional about waiting for Him. We never know what he’s going to do, but we are ready when He calls because we aren’t looking for a little baby asleep on the hay or a soldier to fight our battles and fix everything for us. We’re ready for our Lord, and we are prepared to follow Him wherever He leads. Lots of nights go by without incident, and we don’t see the glory of the Lord shining around us. But like those shepherds, we wait, and we watch faithfully. Most importantly, we wait, and we watch at the ready. The Lord is always faithful, He will show up, it might not be on our time schedule. Remember, all of time is marked by Him. He is the Lord, and He will show up. When He does, we may be sore afraid, but we are ready – and we are ready to act.