by Tad Lindley
When the angel came to the shepherds he gave them this message: “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:10-12) Did you notice anything strange in there? Probably not, because it’s all we’ve ever known. We’ve heard it so much until it seems completely normal to us. The fact of the matter is, it is anything but ordinary.
Straight up strange
Now I’m going to dial in on the sign that the angel gave the shepherd. Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. Swaddling clothes are simply what we use to wrap a baby up tight so it won’t roll around. With our kids we used small towels, like the size I use to swaddle my head in the steambath. Newborns are used to being confined in the womb, and so they don’t wriggle out easily when you swaddle them. People swaddle babies today as they apparently have been for at least 2,000 years. The strange part in the sign the angels gave is that the baby was laying in a manger.
Ever stop to think what a manger is?
Because God is holy we think that surely a manger must be some sort of ancient word for a quilted bassinet with a light blue bunny pattern from a classy outfit like LL Bean. A manger is nothing like that. We feed dogs from a bowl. Farm animals however, are fed from rectangular feed troughs. Another word for a feed trough is a manger. In our time and place they are often made of plastic or metal. In ancient Bethlehem, they were made of an abundant resource, stone. In the stone trough hay or grain was placed for sheep and cattle to eat from. The manger that Jesus was laid in would have to have been coated with the slobber of generations of sheep and cattle. Just as sure as you and I laid our children to rest in our own bed when they were newborns, so did the people of ancient Israel. As a resting place for your newborn child nothing would be stranger than a manger.
So why a manger?
That begs the question, Why did they put Jesus in a manger? In fact, ever since I broke through and realized how odd it is, it has bothered me. Was it to drive home how homeless they were? How ghetto the conditions were? After all, most of us let our kids sleep with us when they were newborns. And when they slept during the day, we just swaddled them and laid them where they couldn’t roll off onto the floor. Well the answer to the question is found in the scripture itself: it was the sign that the angel gave. The angel was describing the setting to the shepherds in such a way that there could be no doubt in their minds when they stumbled upon Joseph and Mary and Jesus, that this was irrefutably the child who was the promised Messiah. No doubt there were other swaddled infants in Bethlehem on that evening when the shepherds came through the dark of the night into the village which was about the size of modern day Hooper Bay. So the angel gave this most unusual of signs as proof: Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
Everywhere a sign
The Bible is chock full of prophetic signs. They are predictions that are so unlikely that if they are fulfilled, then they verify the truth of the one that spoke them. They work to erase doubt. For instance, the prophet, Micah, predicted around 700 BC that when the Messiah came he would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2). About the same time the prophet, Isaiah, made this seemingly impossibly ridiculous proclamation, Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14) Even the price that Judas would eventually agree upon with the high priests to turn Jesus over (30 pieces of silver) was prophesied hundreds of years before it happened (Zechariah 11:12-13, Matthew 26:14). His torture was predicted in Isaiah 50:6 and fulfilled 700 years later in Matthew 26:67-68. Those who study the Old Testament have identified at least 300 prophecies that were fulfilled in the birth, life, and death of Jesus Christ, and the manger now brings that total to at least 301.
Tad Lindley is a minister at the United Pentecostal Church in Bethel, Alaska.