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David B. Garner is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at Westminster Theological Seminary and Pastor of Teaching at Proclamation Presbyterian Church (Bryn Mawr, PA). Pastor, professor, and author, he has also served as a missionary, ministering in Europe and Central and Southeast Asia. From 2003-2007, he served as Director for TE3 (Theological Education for Eastern Europe), a regional theological training ministry based in Sofia, Bulgaria.

Column: Sine Qua Non by David Garner

Clear and Present Manger

December 23, 2014 •

Promises, Promises

Promises. We’ve received them, and we have made them. We have trusted others and been entrusted by others. We have suffered let downs; and we have let others down—probably more frequently than we would care to admit.

With vacuous words, we speak either to ourselves or openly to surrounding skeptics,

“I’ll pay you next week. I promise.”
“This time is different. I really will be faithful. I promise.”
“I’m not like other people. I keep my word.”
“I have learned my lesson. I will never do that again!”
“The check is in the mail.”

On and on it goes. Promises, promises. Empty promises. Such unmet words preach their own sermon with reliable redundancy: Set your hopes on people, and you will be disappointed. Set your hopes in a relationship to meet your deepest longings. Disappointed. Trust in no one but yourself. Terribly and tragically disappointed. Even the most reliable of Adam’s descendants will fail—fail others, fail himself, and fail God.

That is, all except One. In Luke 2:1–14, the physician-author vividly recounts the birth of this One glorious Exception. He is not only trustworthy; he is truth itself. He is not only reliable, but the Redeemer. He is not only the Promise, but the divine Deliverer in the flesh.

The Bread of Life

It was an ordinary night in Bethlehem. Well, not quite ordinary. The little borough was probably bustling. Mighty Caesar had decreed a census be taken. Like ants at a picnic, citizens sprung into dutiful action.

Lives interrupted, they forcibly returned to their hometowns to get tallied. Why the count? Well, some things never change. Government and governors in all ages have found their way into wallets. If the first century Jews are in any way like the rest of us, no small amount of resentment filled the air, as they made unwanted excursions to ensure they would render to Caesar what is Caesar’s. Not only did they spend money for this trip, these particular travel expenditures guaranteed they would part with even more money in coming days!

While the displaced travelers surely begrudged the king’s bean counters, merchants would have smiled about their own accounting, as pockets swelled with the flowing cash of the needy travelers. Visitors have no doubt crowded into Bethlehem to fulfill their civic duty. Storeowners entertained the weary pilgrims – food and hospitality, the Bethlehem way. Bethlehem, after all, means “house of bread” and nothing quite speaks of hospitality than guest accommodations, a warm fire, and piping hot fresh bread.

But such hospitality was not to be, at least not for everyone.

A pregnant woman, weary after a long journey with her betrothed, secured accommodations outside an inn (Luke 2:7), where she was to give birth. The immediate reason for the less than optimal accommodations, we do not know. Luke does not tell us. But with this recounting of the events, he highlights the staggering incongruity of the bedding for the Son of God—a manger, a feed trough. Such unthinkable condescension warrants further consideration.

Imagine the local folks in Bethlehem and the other census travelers. The scene surely seemed unremarkable, uninteresting, even unworthy of a second thought. Yawn…. Just another inconvenient decree of the king. Just another night in Bethlehem. Just another clueless peasant couple, hoping for happiness, only to be disappointed… Oh, and just another baby.

But any such oblivion differs markedly from the cosmic and redemptive significance of the happenings. Having now appeared in Bethlehem in an unprecedented way, God acts in stunning grace and speaks in sweetest grace to a group of shepherds (Luke 2:8–14):

8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.
9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10 But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.
11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord.
12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger."
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.”

On the hillside outside Bethlehem, sleepy monotony gets rudely jolted. The shock comes by no ordinary alarm clock; it is too early for sunrise and the radiance too bright for the sun. Blazing light and angelic chorus shatter any boredom in the Bethlehem borough. An angel speaks and then other angel voices converge, proclaiming the always reliable and now realized Word of God.

This fulfillment had been a long time coming, but as the God of Scripture makes abundantly clear, its actualization was never in doubt. To whatever degree questions persisted through the generations, the doubt dwelled only on the human side. Human perceptions and impatience simply do not align with divine purpose and the nature of divine faithfulness.

Consider the Judean hillside, where shepherds positioned themselves around their flocks. Just another long, cool, starry night. They struggle to stay awake, to stay warm, and to keep attentive. They know that sheep will be sheep. Wolves will be wolves. Night will be night. And, well, shepherds will be shepherds.

What they failed to anticipate in their sleepy monotony was that so too, God will be God. The God of promise will not disappoint for he cannot disappoint. And in Bethlehem, the sleepy village of inconsequence, the Holy One of Israel delivers. To these unwitting shepherds, the marvelous message comes.

As Luke tells, covenant promise and redemption have at this unprecedented moment intruded into history. In this stable, a helpless Babe was just born, but this Babe will not only save the Day, but as Ancient of Days, will change the course of history, will fulfill the greatest of all promises, and will secure eternal, redemptive blessing.

Bethlehem may know bread, but it has known nothing like this. This Bread rising in Bethlehem is the Bread of Life. He will never disappoint. He alone will really meet real needs. He alone will satisfy, reliably, effectively, and eternally. Like his Father, this Son will not disappoint, because he cannot disappoint.

Waiting No More

When hungry, waiting a half hour for food at restaurant can seem like forever. To expectant couples, waiting nine months for child to be born can seem interminable. For young teens, waiting four years for high school graduation feel endless. For homeowners, a thirty-year note can look never-ending.

For even the most aged and saintly of saints, a thousand years seems like forever. But with the Lord, a thousand years are as a day (2 Peter 3:8). When it comes to God, precise orchestration covers millennia, not moments. And for thousands of years, God has promised a coming Messiah. Throughout these years, as Scripture reveals without stuttering, he has operated purposefully, faithfully, at every instant.

Those living in these prior generations, who had looked toward the realization of God’s promises, were never outside his loving purview. He had always provided for his people, even in their times of discipline (Hebrews 12:7–11; cf. Hebrews 5:7–10). But the ancient (Old Testament) words had always borne an anticipatory character—Messiah would come, God’s people would be redeemed, and his divine rule would be established. God’s will was to be done on earth as it is in heaven. God’s people had to wait. And wait. And wait.

But this Bethlehem moment is different. The waiting is over. The angelic words on the Judean hillside differ from any prior divine words. “Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is Christ the Lord” (Luke 2:11).

The language could not speak more pointedly. Today is the day in which God’s promises get delivered. No longer speaking words of anticipation, God reveals through his angels a “today” birth that changes everything in history. The Messiah is no longer promised. He is here!

A Clear and Present Manger

The shepherds understandably quaked in fear. As the King James puts Luke 2:9, “they were sore afraid.” To be sure, they should have been both sore and afraid! The Lord’s glory, his heavenly gravitas and brilliant radiance, surrounded the angels. Such a display flattens the man of even greatest courage. Before the divine presence, there is no space for flippancy, apathy, or self-confidence. The presence of God in his glory produces inescapable terror.[1] God is a consuming fire (Hebrews 12:29).

But herein lies the blessing. Only the One who possesses all authority has the power to alleviate the fear he provokes. The one who wields the sword also wields the determination of how and upon whom to use it. And the holy danger rightly associated with the Lord of hosts quickly turned, when the angel opened his mouth in words of divinely provided redemption. Mercy triumphs over judgment (James 2:13); the clear and present manger supersedes the clear and present danger. The One born in Bethlehem, Almighty God in human flesh, has come to bring peace, forgiveness, and salvation. Fear translates into awestruck joy when the angel proclaims the grace-filled Word of the Lord.

Just as was promised (Micah 5:2), Bethlehem becomes the birthplace of the King of kings and Lord of lords. Lying in the manger is the promised Baby, the Son of the living God. His humiliation will take his people by grace, not by storm. His staggering condescension will place him beneath the scum of the earth—us, whose transgressions he will bear upon his righteous shoulders. The Son born in Bethlehem is the Savior, the One who faithfully delivers his wicked people from their sins.

“We see here the grace and condescension of Christ. Had he come to save mankind with royal majesty, surrounded by his Father’s angels, it would have been an act of undeserved mercy. Had he chose to dwell in a palace, with power and great authority, we should have had reason to wonder. But to become poor as the very poorest of mankind, and lowly as the very lowliest,—this is a love that passeth knowledge. It is unspeakable and unsearchable.”[2]

This unspeakable and unsearchable grace is now incarnate. The Word of God enfleshed counters the sinful emptiness of our faithless words and failed lives. The Beloved Son of God is the faithful Word of God made flesh (John 1:14). The promised One has delivered—faithfully, perfectly, and irreversibly.

No more waiting. No more question. Divine purpose in history for saving sinners has come to pass. The saving and satisfying Bread of Life, the Son of God, has come. No wonder the angels united in antiphony, in a song that should deluge our own hearts and resound from our own lips: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests” (Luke 2:14).

[1] See, for example, Exodus 23:27.

[2] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Luke, Vol. 1 (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2012), 40.


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