“Wrapped in Swaddling Cloths for our Salvation” – Luke 2:7
It’s Christmas Eve, and the year is almost over. Do you remember last Christmas Eve? Many of our Hope people came to the church in early November to record video clips of Christmas Bible readings and prayers, and others recorded themselves singing a line of Silent Night at home for a beautiful collaborative rendition that brought tears to my eyes. The whole service was stunning and meaningful, even though we were all watching it from home. This year we are grateful that we can gather together again to celebrate Jesus’ birth.
But it has been a second consecutive unexpected, unusual and unwelcome year – with restrictions, and challenges and losses and uncertainties. We have been restricted off and on with respect to travel and our worship services. Many of us have faced the challenge of working from home. We have lost loved ones, and some have lost jobs and / or sources of income. There has been uncertainty more recently with respect to the supply chain of food and fuel, all because of that string of atmospheric rivers. But in the midst of all of these challenges and uncertainties, we have had babies born – in fact, more babies born in the last year or so than we have had in the last 6 or 7 years, and that’s a blessing for families in our church, and for a handful of teachers in our school. The hardships of the past two years have not stifled God’s blessing of the gift of new life.
And that’s what this season is about, isn’t it – a baby being born to Mary and Joseph. And not just any baby… the Saviour!! They, too, experienced various challenges and trials in those months leading up to the birth. There was the social stigma of Mary being pregnant without being officially married. What did her parents think? What did the neighbours think? What did Joseph think? Oh, we know what he thought – he was ready to break off his engagement to her for pre-marital adultery. According to Old Testament Jewish law, he could have had her stoned to death, but he was a kind and just man, so he was willing to abandon the relationship and marriage that he was looking forward to. But then… that dream… the words of the angel… and a changed mind… a willingness to stay with Mary. What did his friends think, and say? “Joseph, you’re really going to take that woman, and some other man’s child? Are you sure you know what you’re doing? It could affect your reputation, your carpentry business.”
Yes, there was the social stigma, but then there was also the census order from Caesar Augustus. It was an imperial order that couldn’t be avoided with a ninth month of pregnancy “Get out of jail free” card. And so they had to make that challenging, treacherous journey from Nazareth in the north to Bethlehem in the south – because Joseph was from the family line of ancient King David. It was a long journey by foot or maybe by donkey. There were potential dangers of geography and weather, and maybe even bandits and scoundrels along the way. But by God’s grace, they arrived safely, just in time for the baby to be born.
Before a child is born even today, the mom (or maybe the mom and the dad) prepares the home and the nursery – the cradle, the diapers, the clothing, the blankets. If Mary did any preparing in Nazareth, it was all for nothing – they had to make this unexpected trip to Bethlehem.
We could ask the question… what did Mary know about this child that she was carrying? That is a question posed in a modern Christmas song – “Mary Did You Know?” The lyrics speculate whether Mary knew that her son would walk on water, give sight to a blind man, calm a storm, heal the deaf, the lame and the dumb. Did she know that He would save and deliver people? It’s unlikely that Mary knew any of those specific details about the ministry of her new-born son. What she did know is what the angel told her – that she would bear a son, that she was to call Him Jesus, that He would be called the Son of God, that He would exercise His kingship over His people forever.
Sometimes in life, things happen to you – unexplainable things – and you wonder why they are happening to you, or why now? It might be a divorce like Joseph considered. It might be a job relocation like Joseph and Mary experienced. It might be a sickness or a death in the family or a downturn in the economy that leaves you cash-strapped. Often it’s only years later that you look back on what has happened and you see God’s plan and God’s hand through those challenging days and months.
As we look back on the potentially disastrous circumstances surrounding Mary and Joseph, from our vantage point we can certainly see God’s hand orchestrating all those things for a couple of purposes – to fulfill prophecy, and to bring honour and glory to God.
Caesar’s census decree was the catalyst for the perfect fulfillment of a centuries-old prophecy. The decree required that people return to their ancestral home town to be counted, and that meant that Joseph – a descendant of David – must return to Bethlehem. Mary, and the child inside of her, went along. Jesus was born in Bethlehem to fulfill the ancient words of the prophet Micah – words that we heard tonight: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah… out of you will come for me one who is to be ruler in Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times… until the time when she who is in labour gives birth.” Bethlehem Ephrathah wasn’t just the town of Bethlehem, but it included the agricultural area around it, especially the area east of Bethlehem.
Later in the Biblical nativity narratives, when the wise men arrived from the East after Jesus’ birth, the religious leaders in Jerusalem used this same Micah passage to confirm that the Messiah would indeed be born in Bethlehem. It was a known prophecy.
A few verses earlier in Micah, we hear a reference to a “watchtower of the flock” at the time when the kingship will come to God’s people. Jewish tradition tells us that this area was set apart specifically to raise the lambs that would be used as sacrifices for the holy Passover festival. There are still archaeological ruins there that show shepherd watchtowers in that Bethlehem Ephrathah field.
I was there in 2005, and here is a photo of an olive tree planted before the time of Christ. This is what the area east of Bethlehem looks like these days – not a shepherd’s field anymore, but an olive grove. This is known as Boaz’ field. Now a lot of you may not know who Boaz was. He is found in the book of Ruth. He was from Ephrathah – yes, that agricultural area east of Bethlehem – and he had fields of grain in that region. When Naomi moved back to Bethlehem after a time of famine, she brought her daughter-in-law, Ruth, along. Ruth picked left-over grain from Boaz’s field. Boaz was related to Naomi’s now-dead husband. Oh, did I tell you that the book of Ruth is a love story? So, yes, Boaz fell in love with Ruth, and when he had designs on buying back for the family Naomi’s husband’s land, he was also agreeing to raise up offspring for Ruth’s dead husband. It was a Jewish rule in those ancient days. So, Boaz bought the Ephrathah land, married Ruth, and would later become the great grandfather of David. You may know that David was a shepherd boy, so that Ephrathah land that Boaz bought was grazing land for sheep, land on which David cared for sheep some 100 years later. And those sheep would be cared for as Passover lambs.
So, it’s very likely that the shepherds who saw and heard the angel choir that night when Jesus was born, were situated in the shepherd fields just east of Bethlehem in that Ephrathah area, and that they were the shepherds specifically assigned to care for the Passover lambs. From the observation point of those watchtowers they could keep watch over the flocks in every direction. Those Passover lambs were special. They were to be perfect – no folded ear, no broken bones, no deformed foot, or gibbled tail. They were to be physically perfect for the Passover, and that’s why the shepherds had to perfectly guard or keep watch over those sheep. If they weren’t perfect, they weren’t kosher.
But there’s more, and the more comes from the more lyrics in that song… Mary did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect lamb? That that sleeping child you’re holding is the great I AM.
Now apparently, according to some Jewish Rabbinic literature, the high priest would come to that Ephrathah field to inspect the Passover Lamb or maybe the Day of Atonement sacrificial lamb before that holy day. He would place that lamb in a manger, turn it around and inspect it front and back, up and down, side to side to make sure that every last detail was physically perfect. If it was, he would wrap it up in what was called swaddling cloths and carry that lamb to Jerusalem for the sacrifice. He wouldn’t lead the lamb to Jerusalem for fear that the lamb’s perfect appearance might be marred by a stone or the branch of a tree. He would carry that lamb to protect it. One day, it would give its very life as a sacrifice to remind and assure God’s people that their sins had been forgiven and that they belonged to Him.
So, Mary… when your baby boy was born, did you know that He was heaven’s perfect lamb? Not earth’s perfect lamb, not Israel’s perfect lamb, not Bethlehem’s perfect lamb, but HEAVEN’S perfect lamb!! Jesus came to be the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world, who takes away your sins. And like that Passover lamb in the arms of the high priest, Mary took her little lamb and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths to protect Him, to keep Him warm and safe, because He would be the one perfect, once-for-all sacrifice for the sins of all people of all times and all places. He would be the one through whom God would bring to completion and perfection the story of our redemption and our salvation. And that’s what the first Christmas was all about – the first chapter of the story whose last chapter was written when heaven’s perfect lamb was sacrificed on the cross of Calvary, and when the great I AM rose as victor over sin, death, and the devil.
You are a lamb – not perfect by any stretch of the imagination. You have your flaws, your sins of thought, word and deed. Your life is marred and tainted on the outside and on the inside. But Jesus, heaven’s perfect lamb, wraps you up in the swaddling cloths of His own righteousness. His perfection rubs off on you and is applied to you, His sacrifice is applied to you, and you are cleansed, and forgiven, and made perfect in God’s eyes. We have a beautiful hymn in our hymnal entitled “I Am Jesus’ Little Lamb.” That is what you can say tonight, “I am Jesus’ little lamb.” Why don’t you say that with me – “I am Jesus’ little lamb.” The first verse ends “Even calls me by my name.” That is how precious you are to Jesus – He knows you and He calls you by your name. On this Christmas Eve, know that you are the beloved little lamb of Jesus, Heaven’s perfect lamb.
That first Christmas, through all their trials, Mary and Joseph struggled with doubts and fears and uncertainties about what was happening to them and why. In the face of that new-born Saviour, all their fears subsided, for in Jesus God was weaving their redemption and salvation.
What kind of trials and doubts and fears do you have tonight? Did it muster up all your courage to even come into the building tonight to worship on Christmas Eve, not certain if someone else here might be an a-symptomatic carrier of the virus? Do you have other health concerns, for yourself or for a loved one? Is there a family member who is not around this Christmas – someone who has died and this is your first Christmas without him or her, or maybe some who were prevented from traveling here to be with you? Do you have job uncertainties, are you floundering financially? Do you have questions about your faith, wondering if this Jesus-story is actually true, wondering if God is real or just a figment of the imagination of some well-meaning people, wondering if God really loves you, if God really forgives you?
Tonight, whatever those trials may be, I invite you simply to look into the face of baby Jesus, and to see in the birth of Jesus, heaven’s perfect lamb – perfect… with no spots or blemishes or sins of His own; perfect… to be the complete sacrifice for your sins; perfect… to give you confidence that, besides being heaven’s perfect lamb, He is also earth’s perfect shepherd, YOUR shepherd -carrying you and guiding you through all life’s trials and doubts and fears. He is God’s gracious story of YOUR redemption and YOUR salvation. Mary may not have known what her little baby would do, and who He would become. But you know – Jesus, the One whose origin is from ancient days, the One who would be ruler of God’s people, the One who was born at Bethlehem Ephrathah, God’s Son, God-with-us, the Word made flesh – all wrapped up together, all wrapped up in swaddling cloths, for YOUR salvation. Amen.