The Lamb Wrapped in Swaddling Clothes (Advent, Week 2)

And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. {Luke 2:6-7}

Knee deep grass covering the hills gently waved in the desert breeze as the sun rose over Bethlehem. My eyes strained to see Jerusalem, but it was too far away.

As our group made its way toward the Church of the Nativity (built over the place believed to be Jesus’ birthplace), we walked through a small, beautiful garden just beyond the courtyard colonnades. As we approached the church, I took a picture of this plaque hanging on the wall near the entrance.

Those words of John 1:14 brought tears to my eyes. Not simply because of the city in which I stood, but because of the meaning behind what I was reading: the Word became flesh.

A Child is Born

In the Hebrew culture of Mary’s day, a new mother usually remained secluded for forty days following the birth of a son. Then she would enter the tabernacle or temple to offer a sacrifice of purification (Leviticus 12:1-8; Luke 2:22).

Forty is a significant number throughout Scripture that usually symbolizes a period of testing or trial before bringing forth something new.

For instance, God caused rain to flood the earth for 40 days and nights before bringing forth Noah from the ark to a new beginning on dry land. Moses spent 40 days and nights on Mount Sinai before bringing forth God’s law to the people. The Israelites wandered in the desert for 40 years before God brought forth His people into the promised land. Jesus spent 40 days in the desert being tempted by the devil before bringing forth His earthly ministry.

What a blessing forty days of secluded peace must have been for a new mother to gaze uninterrupted on the gift of life. Feelings of wonder, awe and excitement often accompany a birth. Yet the process can be painful.

There is a letting go before embracing the new.

In God’s strength we let go of our imperfect dreams to embrace God’s perfect plan. Let go of past ambitions to welcome future blessings. Let go of life as it was to discover life as it unfolds. This letting go may take 40 days, 40 years, or a lifetime.

Yet birth evokes hope.

At Christmas we celebrate when God temporarily let go of His Son to birth His plan of redemption for all mankind. Mary’s natural birth was an emblem of new birth. That virgin birth brought forth the Light of hope into a dark world.

Love and hope birthed in a manger. 

Manger and Swaddling Clothes

That day in Bethlehem profoundly affected my spiritual journey. Gazing across the soft hillsides where such wonders occurred so long ago stirred my soul. I cannot wait to return there next year.

Yet perhaps that historic church does not mark the actual spot of Jesus’ birth.

Known as the “Tower of the Flock,” Migdal Eder was located just outside the city of Bethlehem (in Bethlehem’s suburbs, if you will). Migdal Eder was the tower from which Levitical shepherds carefully watched over the lambs on the hills around Bethlehem. The shepherds’ sole purpose was to raise unblemished (paschal) lambs that would be offered as sacrifices in the Jerusalem temple a few miles away.

Migdal Eder is first mentioned in Genesis 35:21 in the account of Rachel’s death after giving birth to Benjamin (Jacob’s youngest son). Then the prophet Micah also referred to Migdal Eder: “And you, O tower of the flock, … to you it shall come…the kingdom of the daughter of Jerusalem.

Scripture tells us that Jesus was born in a manger, but it does not necessarily denote a dark and dirty cave near an overbooked inn. The definition of a manger (Luke 13:15, Proverbs 14:4) often means a stall or crib where animals are kept. Like that of Migdal Eder.

It was a settled question that the Messiah was to be born in Bethlehem. In fact, according to Jewish tradition, the first revelation of the Messiah would come from Migdal Eder, in the vicinity of Bethlehem.

Why is that significant to the Christmas story?

As the sacrificial lambs were born, those Levitical shepherds in the Tower of the Flock would wrap them in birthing cloths to protect their unblemished state. So when the amazed shepherds (recorded in Luke 2) hurried to see the great wonder that the heavenly host proclaimed, they arrived to gaze upon a baby born in the place where Passover lambs were born, swaddled like a Passover lamb.

The spiritual significance would not have been lost on those Levitical shepherds: Jesus’ birth pointed to Jesus as the Messiah, the paschal lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.

God did not make the message of redemption complicated or intimidating. He invited everyone to behold the sacrificial miracle of Christmas in the perfect face of His Son, the Lamb of God, wrapped in swaddling clothes.

As our group prepared to depart Bethlehem, dozens more groups arrived to view the church and experience the wonder. As I surveyed the blur of faces, I thought about the massive crowds that would have gathered to register in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago following Caesar Augustus’ decree.

As I recall the streets of Bethlehem filling with people, I ponder the significance and location of Migdal Eder, the Tower of the Flock.

The Lamb swaddled.

The Son sleeping.

Perhaps, just perhaps, God never intended there to be room in the inn.

 


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Can Anything Good Come Out Of Nazareth? (Advent, Week 1)

And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child.” (Luke 2:4-5)

Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

That’s what Nathanael asked Philip in John 1:46 when Philip announced that they had found the One about whom Moses and the prophets wrote.

Rather than take offense at Nathanael’s skeptical question, Philip simply invited Nathanael, “Come and see.” Moments before, Jesus had invited Philip to follow Him. Now Philip invited Nathanael to see Jesus with his own eyes.

It comes down to inviting.

In the heart of today’s bustling City of Nazareth, the Church of Annunciation sits over the site believed to be Mary’s house. Originally built in the mid-4th century by Constantine, the church invites visitors to see the place where the angel Gabriel announced to Mary that God had chosen her to be the mother of the Messiah.

In Nazareth, Mary received a holy invitation to be a key player in an epic story that re-wrote history.

Christmas and invitations go hand in hand. God invites us to receive by faith the most priceless Gift ever given. You and I invite others to see the hope of the world reflected in the holy eyes of a Baby.

And then there was Bethlehem.

The word “Bethlehem” likely brings to mind nocturnal shepherds watching over their flocks. However, its meaning extends far beyond a pin on a map.

The word Bethlehem comes from two Hebrew words: (1) beth and (2) laham. Beth, roughly translated, means house. It does not necessarily denote a specific kind of building, but rather its function. Laham is a masculine noun which means bread (Genesis 18:5; Numbers 21:5). In fact, Leviticus 21:6 refers to laham as sacrificial bread.

So what is the significance? Bethlehem means House of Bread. What is a house of bread? A bakery. How did Jesus self-identify in John 6:35? “I am the bread of life.

Some may scoff and dismiss it as a cutesy coincidence that God introduced the Bread of Life to the world from a bakery. But wait. What is a bakery’s function? To provide food. Time and again Jesus fed the multitudes, both physically and spiritually. And the Word made flesh continues to feed us through Word and Sacrament today.

Advent is a time for us to praise God for the gift of the Bread of Life, who taught, “Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4).

Then there was Mary.

Mary’s betrothal time should have been filled with happy preparation for her new life as Joseph’s wife. Instead she grappled with the staggering news that she was pregnant. Not because their passion raged out of control, but pregnant like no other woman before or since ─ by the Holy Spirit.

A virgin conception? Incredulous at best, blasphemous at worst.

Yet Mary believed God’s angelic messenger. She trusted by faith and set the holy standard for surrender and submission: “I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38).

Even though people could legally stone her to death? Let it be.

Even though Joseph could divorce her? Let it be.

By God’s amazing grace, Mary’s womb carried the One who conquered our tomb. Let it be!

And finally there was Joseph.

Chosen by God among all men on earth to be the guardian of our Lord. In steadfast faith, Joseph believed God’s message in a dream. Unwavering, he stood by Mary when culture dictated that he shun her.

With relentless perseverance, Joseph traversed miles on foot to become a midwife on the fly. He followed Caesar Augustus’ census decree and registered with the lineage of David — from which would birth the Divine.

Joseph adopted the Father’s Son and safeguarded the Light of the world.

Mary and Joseph were handpicked by God to nurture the Cherished of God. They didn’t ask for it. They likely faced persecution over it. They could have given in to fear and trembling, yet God strengthens those who turn to Him in faith.

Even though God’s plan turned their quiet life chaotic, Mary bowed low to lift His praise high: “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior.”

So, can anything good come out of Nazareth?

Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” (John 1:29)

 


Coming in 2019:

New 8-week DVD Bible study series based on the book of Nehemiah
(Published through Concordia Publishing House)

O Night Divine! Advent Devotions

This Sunday, December 2nd, begins our Advent season. The most wonderful time of the year!

Advent, from the Latin word for coming, initiates the church year. Even though you and I tend to think that Advent and Christmas wrap up the year, Advent celebrates the year Jesus’ earthly life began.

Advent focuses on Christ’s coming — past, present, and future. The past contained Old Testament prophecies that pointed to His birth at Bethlehem. The present focuses on His presence among us today through Word and Sacrament. And the future focuses on Christ’s second coming at the end of time.

Perhaps 2018 has been a banner year for you. Perhaps you are waving the surrender flag. Some years are filled with unforgettable memories; others are inundated with memories you’d rather forget.

Either way, Advent celebrates a beginning. 

As you begin Advent on Sunday, what is your prayer?

As we walk through these four weeks of Advent together focusing on Luke 2, my prayer is for you to see Christ and the significance of His birth with fresh eyes.

Beginner’s eyes, if you will.

I pray that you experience the wonder of Advent as we celebrate the coming of our Savior. And before 2019 rings in, I pray that you, like Mary, will treasure up all these things and ponder them in your heart (Luke 2:19).