“This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12).
A manger? A barnyard feeding trough? Seriously? Is that where they set the baby Jesus right after his birth? A place where snorting animals just nuzzled their feed and insects are still foraging for food? What a crude cradle for such a lofty child. The old carol asks, “Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?”
Whatever the answer to that question, it set the shepherds in motion that night with a message they couldn’t keep to themselves. The swaddled Christ was a dynamic sign to them, so much so that it catapulted them into heralding the good news of his birth to everyone they could find (Luke 2:17). What did they see that we might be missing?
The temple was the center of worship in Israel. Two lambs a day were offered there, along with additional ones on feast days. Where did all those lambs come from? They were bred in the fields of Bethlehem, five miles south of Jerusalem. According to the Torah, sacrificial lambs had to be perfect. They had to be spotless and without blemish, or they couldn’t be offered.
The most vulnerable time of a lamb’s life is right after its birth. Like many animals, they’re unsteady on their feet, and they can slip and fall quite easily. Consequently, ancient shepherds had a custom to prevent injury. Right after the birth of a lamb, they would wrap it tightly in strips of cloth, placing it in mounds of hay so it wouldn’t bruise itself. If it did, it couldn’t be used in worship.
But these weren’t just any old cloths that encased the new lambs. The shepherds got the material from Jerusalem. They were the old white linen robes worn by priests during the daily ritual at the temple. After regular use, the priestly garments got so covered in blood, sweat, and filth, they had to be swapped out for new ones.
Normally, the priests didn’t throw out their old garments. They were semi-sacred, so there was a protocol for decommissioning them—much like our country’s old flags. The military doesn’t throw them away; they remove them from circulation with ceremonies for honorable disposal. The same was true for the old priestly garments. The Levites decommissioned them and sent them to Bethlehem so the shepherds could swaddle their newborn lambs with them.
“This will be a sign to you,” the shepherds were told (Luke 2:12). Later that night they saw a human lamb wrapped in faded blood-stained garments. To the Bethlehem shepherds, such a sight would have been loaded with significance. “Here’s the Lamb of God who will put an end to all your sacrifices and take away the sins of the world. He will be the bloodied and unblemished priest who will purchase your salvation. That’s how much you are treasured by the Lord.”
God was speaking the shepherds’ language. He was saying, “Here’s your sign,” and they understood it. Later theological reflection in the New Testament would take up this theme of Jesus as the Lamb of God, but the shepherds saw it first. Deep down, they knew God had just shown them their own value by giving them the most valuable thing he could give—his own Son.
Christmas, then, is God bankrupting heaven to put a price tag on earth. No wonder Paul wrote, “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sakes he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor 8:9).
Yes, Jesus came to “save his people from their sin” (Matt 1:21), but that’s because a marred masterpiece is still a masterpiece. Indeed, three times in the Gospels Jesus called his people “valuable” (Matt 6:26; 10:29-31; 12:11-12). Moreover, he said we could never trade our souls for the whole world without us somehow being cheated in the transaction (Mark 8:36).
To the God who made us, we are worth the price of restoration. That’s why Paul calls us God’s “workmanship” or “poetic artistry” (Eph 2:10). God is restoring his people to the original beauty and goodness we had from the beginning.
On that first Christmas, the Master Artist painted himself into our canvas, landing by design in a manger and subjecting himself to all the cruelties we humans brought into the picture. And now he restores us from the inside out—in more ways than one.
May your own soul feel its incredible worth this holiday season. Indeed, there’s no other way to be truly merry at Christmas.