A Lord’s Supper homily on Luke 2.1-20

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July 20, 2012 by jmar198013

Where I worship, the communion bread is wrapped up inside a white cloth and placed in a tray. It is physically broken before being served. During the course of this talk, I used the wrapped bread in the tray as a visual, to explain the foreshadowing of Jesus wrapped in swaddling bands and placed in a manger and Jesus in the tomb in his grave clothes. It was during Advent of 2010.

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About that time Emperor Augustus gave orders for the names of all the people to be listed in record books. These first records were made when Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone had to go to their own hometown to be listed. So Joseph had to leave Nazareth in Galilee and go to Bethlehem in Judea. Long ago Bethlehem had been King David’s hometown, and Joseph went there because he was from David’s family. Mary was engaged to Joseph and traveled with him to Bethlehem. She was soon going to have a baby, and while they were there, she gave birth to her first-born son. She dressed him in baby clothes and laid him on a bed of hay, because there was no room for them in the inn. That night in the fields near Bethlehem some shepherds were guarding their sheep. All at once an angel came down to them from the Lord, and the brightness of the Lord’s glory flashed around them. The shepherds were frightened. But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid! I have good news for you, which will make everyone happy. This very day in King David’s hometown a Savior was born for you. He is Christ the Lord. You will know who he is, because you will find him dressed in baby clothes and lying on a bed of hay.” Suddenly many other angels came down from heaven and joined in praising God. They said: “Praise God in heaven! Peace on earth to everyone who pleases God.”After the angels had left and gone back to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has told us about.” They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and they saw the baby lying on a bed of hay. When the shepherds saw Jesus, they told his parents what the angel had said about him. Everyone listened and was surprised. But Mary kept thinking about all this and wondering what it meant. As the shepherds returned to their sheep, they were praising God and saying wonderful things about him. Everything they had seen and heard was just as the angel had said. (Luke 2.1-20, CEV)

The second chapter of Luke, in describing Jesus’ open-air birth and the swaddling clothes, seems to be channeling an account of the birth of King Solomon, found in the Wisdom of Solomon 7.3-6:

“When I was born, I began to breathe the common air, and fell upon the kindred earth; my first sound was a cry, as is true of all. I was nursed with care in swaddling cloths. For no king has had a different beginning of existence; there is for all one entrance into life, and one way out.”

. . . one entrance into life, and one way out. This season invites us to gather around the manger and see the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes. I often wonder if there was some intentional foreshadowing going on in Luke’s mentioning these details. It could very well be that in showing us the infant Jesus wrapped so tightly in swaddling bands and placed in a manger,  he is prefiguring the man Jesus in a tomb, wrapped securely in his death shroud. After all, in those days, both mangers and tombs were carved from stone. There was for Jesus, like all of us, one entrance into life, and one way out.

A common way to deal with Luke 2 is to embrace the scene as an indication of the poverty into which Jesus was born and a sign of things to come for this newborn. Born in refugee camp conditions, he will be a transient. Just as there was no room for his family at the inn, there will be no room for him or his people on the earth. He will be lynched, as will many of his disciples. And that is a legitimate way of telling the story of Jesus and his church. But I think there’s something important going on in Luke 2 that we don’t need to miss. Assuming that Luke was channeling the account of Solomon’s birth, the birth at Bethlehem and the visit of the shepherds takes on a new meaning entirely. Solomon was the son and successor of King David, a shepherd who was born in Bethlehem. Jesus was also a son of David—he was of the Davidic line. This is really a story about a homecoming. Jer. 14.8 poses the question: “O hope of Israel, its Savior in a time of distress, why should you be a stranger in the land, like someone bedding down in a hostel for the night?” Jesus is not a stranger to Bethlehem; the land itself knows a son of David. He will be nursed with care in swaddling clothes and sustained by the common air and the kindred earth. The shepherds who come by to visit the newborn Savior in his manger crib bring to mind not only the shepherd King David of Bethlehem, but the pastoralist patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. In Luke 13.28-29, Jesus states that such as these will “come and take their places at the dinner table in the kingdom of God.” This morning, as we prepare to share in this table, we find ourselves in that very company. Like the land of Bethlehem and its shepherds, we welcome Jesus into our midst as Savior, Christ, and Lord. We join with the heavenly host in proclaiming, “Glory to God in the highest heavens, and on earth, peace to humankind, whom he favors.”

Speaking of a dinner table in the kingdom of God, it’s fascinating that that the name of the place where Jesus was born, Bethlehem, means “house of bread.” Furthermore, in the house of bread, the baby Jesus was placed in a feeding trough. There may be an echo of Isa. 1.3 in this story; in that passage, God complained, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey the manger of its lord, but Israel does not know me, my people do not understand me.” When we encounter Christ, however, we begin to know the manger of our Lord. We understand that it is God, and no other, who sustains us. In the fourth chapter of Luke’s gospel, the devil attempts to goad Jesus into providing sustenance by turning stones into bread. But the one born in the “house of bread” and placed in a stone manger understands that this is not how God will sustain his people. “This is my body, which is given for you,” he says in Luke 22.19-20 as he inaugurates the very meal we are about to share. “Do this to remember me . . . This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.”

God arranged for Jesus to be born in a manger in the “house of bread” so that we could know that it is through him that God will sustain his people. Let us not forget that as we share in this meal, remembering that he was broken like bread and poured out like wine so that we who hunger and thirst for righteousness might be filled. As we share in this meal, may we come to know the manger of our Lord.

Prayer for the bread: Father, we pray that like the land of Bethlehem and its shepherds, we will always welcome this child born in a manger into our midst. We thank you that because he welcomes us, we can all take our places at your banquet table. “Glory to God in the highest heavens, and on earth, peace to humankind, whom he favors.” Amen.

Prayer for the cup:  Father, we know that the blood of the child born in the manger was poured out like a drink-offering on our behalf. May we join the shepherds of Bethlehem and the hosts of heaven in pouring out our praises to you: “Glory to God in the highest heavens, and on earth, peace to humankind, whom he favors.” Amen.

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