Meet Me at the Manger

Nestled in the terraced Shepherds’ Fields on the approach to Bethlehem is a cave. I expect it is merely one of many where shepherds and townsfolk of bygone days found shelter from the elements on disagreeable nights. The place was a delightful stop for tourists before the area came under the control of the Palestinian Authority in 1995.

Like so many traditional spots associated with the birth of Jesus 2,000 years ago, the cave probably is not where the Son of God was cradled. That said, there is something compelling about the murky cavern where Christian believers file in to hear about Bethlehem and events there after Joseph and Mary arrived on that night of nights.

Something in the air insists on more than a brief talk about the site and its proximity to the little town the prophet Micah certified and God verified in prophetic fulfilment hundreds of years hence. When devoted believers enter the grotto, they bring something in their hearts. Spontaneously, someone begins to sing—no hymnals or cues needed.

Inspired by incomparable acoustics that resonate with cathedral-like sound, people join in with “Silent Night,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing,” and “Joy to the World.” The carols rise as a statement of faith deeply held and treasured as nothing else is in quite the same way.

In a sense, the presence of these Christians, along with countless others who have visited from all over the world, becomes an affirmation. More than two millennia ago, an Infant was born in a backwater village in a remote corner of the Middle East. The message of the manger was an irrevocable announcement: “‘Behold, the virgin shall be with child, and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,’ which is translated, ‘God with us’” (Mt. 1:23).

The Incomparable Christ
Some will argue the same claims have been made about other historical figures. In Rome, deity was ascribed to the Caesars by senators wishing to curry favor with the occupant of the office. The Caesars were memorialized in busts and statues.

In his manic attempt to destroy Judaism and the Jewish people, the notorious Greek king of the Seleucid empire, Antiochus IV, sacked the Temple in Jerusalem in 167 BC and declared himself a god. So demented was he that he called himself Epiphanes, which means “the visible god”; and he hung a plaque in the Temple affirming the claim. Today his memorial is a crumbling bust or two and a few coins bearing his image.

The list of god wannabes could go on, but the result of such folly is always the same: The pretenders die, and no one travels to the sites of their triumphs to sing of their births and resurrections.

Christians alone do so because the promised Messiah did what no other figure in human history could do. Even secular men of stature step aside when describing Jesus of Nazareth:

I know men and tell you that Jesus Christ is no mere man. Between Him and every other person in the world there is no possible term of comparison. Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and I have founded empires. But on what did we rest the creations of our genius? Upon force. Jesus Christ founded His empire upon love; and at this hour millions of men would die for Him.—Napoleon Bonaparte

Those who have stood in the cave near Bethlehem are tokens of the enduring evidence of the singularly greatest fact in history.

A Reason to Give Thanks
The world we inhabit is immersed in strife, violence, and uncertainty. It’s enough to drive the most optimistic into depression and despair. A dismal state might be universal but for a single unshakable reality: The Babe in the manger arrived at the appointed time to bring to fruition God’s gift of peace, love, and life eternal promised to all who would, over the centuries, receive it.

Christians have something to sing about. There is a “Joy to the World” in living as a believer. And there is a peace that passes all understanding that transcends the hopeless lives all too many endure.

Soon after my wife, Maxine, and I became believers, we memorized a verse of Scripture that has become a sort of watchword for us through the good and not-so-good times of our lives: “In everything give thanks; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Th . 5:18).

Inexorably linked to the relationship with Christ that gives us the abundant life is the quality of being genuinely and perpetually thankful. The joy the psalmists experienced has been transmitted to Messiah’s followers in an even more fulfilling way in the newer Testament. A typical expression is Psalm 136:1: “Oh, give thanks to the Lᴏʀᴅ, for He is good! For His mercy endures forever.”

Our time-honored, American Thanksgiving celebration frequently revolves around turkey, dressing, and other holiday goodies. Who doesn’t enjoy seeing depictions of our Pilgrim forefathers gathered around tables weighed down with harvest bounty? But food and spending time with family and friends are but pleasant fringe benefits. Our reason for celebrating is to remember that our thankfulness rises to Him in whom we live and move and have our being.

For a people blessed beyond measure, failing to be thankful is not an option. It is, instead, a manifestation of spiritual decline that will reap fatal consequences. The Epistle to the Romans describes the beginning of the end for great societies that have succumbed to ingratitude and turned from God to hedonism, which results in chaos and social disintegration:

Because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things (Rom. 1:21–23).

Unfortunately, creeping ingratitude has gripped much of Western society, including America. It has become a perilous part of modern life. The desire for more is rapidly displacing the attitude of thanksgiving for this generation. Forgotten is the fact that God exacts a heavy price from people who enshrine ingratitude and refuse to bend the knee to the One from whom all their blessings come.

The Greatest Generation
Journalist Tom Brokaw’s 1998 best-selling book, The Greatest Generation, was inspired by his visit to Normandy, France, to walk the beaches where thousands of young Americans fought and died in 1944. Reflecting on the generation that had endured so much yet gave back so much more, he concluded that generation was the greatest any society ever produced. It was a generation of men and women who fought not for fame or recognition but because it was “the right thing to do.” Brokaw wrote,

Millions of men and women were involved in this tumultuous journey through adversity and achievement, despair and triumph. Certainly there were those who failed to measure up, but taken as a whole this generation did have a “rendezvous with destiny” that went well beyond the outsized expectations of President Roosevelt when he first issued that call to duty in 1936.1

Our nation had not yet lost its focus on what constituted “the right thing to do.”

A proper understanding of right and wrong was brought fully to fruition when a Baby was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the land of Israel. Until then, the world was held in the grasp of a rudderless, pagan nihilism that oppressed the weak; worshiped power; and bowed before licentious, mythological gods and images of wood and stone.

When the apostle Paul, an itinerant emissary of Christ, formerly known as Saul of Tarsus, was carrying the Christian message to the East, he was told to take a left turn instead:

And a vision appeared to Paul in the night. A man of Macedonia stood and pleaded with him, saying, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” Now after he had seen the vision, immediately we sought to go to Macedonia, concluding that the Lord had called us to preach the gospel to them (Acts 16:9–10).

In a very real way, all that is right, godly, good, and eternally edifying came to us when the infinite grace of a saving God invaded Western society. The Judeo-Christian ethic is the foundation upon which the greatest generation would eventually be raised.

Are we thankful? Is gratitude the flavor of the season?

Do Christians celebrate mere myth and fantasy with their manger scenes that dot the landscape? No, they do not. Christianity is personal. It involves a real relationship with the true and living God of the universe, and the Son of God offers it freely to everyone who comes to Him by faith.

With that in mind, I’d like to invite you to meet me at the manger and do the right thing in celebrating our adoration of Him.

ENDNOTE
  1. Tom Brokaw, The Greatest Generation (New York: Random House, 1998), 12.

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