Tag Archives: Bethlehem

The Wonder of a Manger (Week 3)

The advent series this year is based on Ed Robb’s and Rob Renfroe’s publication The Wonder of Christmas available through Abingdon Press.  Many thanks are owed them for making this available.  The opportunity to share their work is a delight.

The Wonder of a Manger given on Sunday, December 11, 2016:Week 3 of Advent series based on The Wonder of Christmas by Robb & Renfroe.

The Wonder of Christmas: Questions for week 3

  1. What does the humble birth of the Christ-child reveal about God and God’s plan?
  2. How does thinking of Christmas as a “quiet invasion’ or a ‘sneak attack’ enrich your understanding of the meaning and significance of Christmas?
  3. How would you describe what the wonder of the manger means for you personally?


Sharing the Christmas Story: Luke 2:1-16, NLT


            2 At that time the Roman emperor, Augustus, decreed that a census should be taken throughout the Roman Empire. (This was the first census taken when Quirinius was governor of Syria.) All returned to their own ancestral towns to register for this census.       And because Joseph was a descendant of King David, he had to go to Bethlehem in Judea, David’s ancient home. He traveled there from the village of Nazareth in Galilee. He took with him Mary, to whom he was engaged, who was now expecting a child.

                 6 And while they were there, the time came for her baby to be born. She gave birth to her firstborn son. She wrapped him snugly in strips of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no lodging available for them.

            That night there were shepherds staying in the fields nearby, guarding their flocks of sheep. Suddenly, an angel of the Lord appeared among them, and the radiance of the Lord’s glory surrounded them. They were terrified, 10 but the angel reassured them. “Don’t be afraid!” he said. “I bring you good news that will bring great joy to all people. 11 The Savior—yes, the Messiah, the Lord—has been born today in Bethlehem, the city of David! 12 And you will recognize him by this sign: You will find a baby wrapped snugly in strips of cloth, lying in a manger.”

                 13 Suddenly, the angel was joined by a vast host of others—the armies of heaven—praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in highest heaven,
and peace on earth to those with whom God is pleased.”

15 When the angels had returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem! Let’s see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

                 16 They hurried to the village and found Mary and Joseph. And there was the baby, lying in the manger.


Reflecting on The Wonder of a Manger by Ed Robb


The Wonder of Christmas is filling our homes. The Advent season is half way over and my guess is that most of us still have Christmas shopping and baking to do. It is so easy to lose the wonder of the season to all the hustle and bustle. In perspective, the Christmas we have packaged in our society is far, far from the first Christmas when Jesus was born.

Christmas began in a manger under conditions that certainly were not newsworthy and certainly not with pomp and circumstances one might anticipate in light of all the hype of a new leader being born. No, Jesus was born under all the worst conditions one could imagine.

And what is amazing, the birth of this baby under such uncomfortable circumstances lead to a movement that continues today. Why would we even doubt the reason for the celebration of this baby’s birth over 2,000 years later? This baby changed the entire course of humanity and he began life lying in a manger. This is newsworthy today and the headline reads: The Wonder of a Manger.

As a trained journalist, I struggle with the twisted reporting that permeates the media now. I was trained that the story had to be substantiated three different ways and before it could be published, I had the responsibility to review the final story with the sources, and through this advent series, I can report the Wonder of Christmas.

First, we met the wise men who identified a star that they pursued in order to determine its purpose. The wonder of the star caused these wise men to travel far distances to locate the baby they believed would be a world-changer. In fact, they were so sure after seeing the baby that they refused the political leader Herod’s order to return to him. They chose to return to their own homes protecting the baby, at least for the time being.

Next, an analysis of the pre-birth literature and reports about the coming of Immanuel, meaning God saves, was reported under the headline The Wonder of a Name. The twists and turns of this research kept pointing to an amazing conclusion: Jesus Christ, the apparent human baby of a Jewish couple Joseph and Mary did meet all the predictions filling the Old Testament literature and the Jewish tradition.

Yet, before publishing all this information, a third piece really needs to be added to confirm the possibility that this baby really is the long awaited Messiah of the Jewish people. How can a baby born in a manger possibly fulfill the Jewish prophecies?

Well, let’s take a side step and put this ancient story into a more contemporary setting. No, I am not saying that we are going to report a new messiah has been born and we should all take note. Rather, let’s put a contemporary perspective into the picture that makes sense to us, right here in 2016.

Consider the birth, life and death of John Glenn. At no point in planning the Advent series did I know that one of America’s heroes would conclude his life journey. Yet the biographical stories being shared help put a perspective on the significance of someone’s birth and the difference it can make in the annuls of history.

When Glenn was born, the path of his life was not defined, but the trajectory of his life began in an insignificant manner, in a quiet community. The world did not know that this tiny baby who would orbit the earth, serve his country as a Senator, and even return to space at the age of 75. John Glenn quietly began life just like every single person does.

Jesus was born under circumstances that certainly did not announce the significance of his birth. The family had an idea of its significance especially in talking about the angel telling them to name the baby Immanuel meaning God Saves, and scholars were alerted to the possibility by the sighting of a new star. But most of the Jewish people did not know; and certainly the other world cultures did not know.

Then in the midst of the months of anticipation, the proclamation that a census was being done suddenly meant traveling to the community of one’s heritage. Now Joseph was head of the household so he had to go to Bethlehem. Mary was a Levite but as Joseph’s wife, she now is counted as part of Joseph’s family of the Davidic tribe.

Just imagine how miserable she was. At least eight or nine months pregnant and having to travel the miles by foot or on the back of the donkey, she made the journey to Bethlehem because the civil government said it had to be done. Today’s society cannot really relate to such a difficult journey; but Mary and Joseph were compliant and managed the journey giving us insight into the personality of these two Jewish faithful living in a Roman culture.

One thing we do understand is that finding a hotel room in the middle of a major travel event is tough. Isn’t it a wonder that under these circumstances that Mary and Joseph were able to even find a space! There was no way to plan ahead and reserve a room, they simply had to travel to Bethlehem, be counted, and then they could home.

Unfortunately, their trip ended with the birth of a baby and the only place they could find shelter had a manger that could serve as a bassinet: a manger, not a hospital room with a bassinet; a manger not their own home where they were prepared for the baby’s birth. Instead, a manager served as a temporary crib for a newborn baby.

God had to be in control because how else could the circumstances of this birth end in such a world-changing movement. God did not follow the expected pattern of sending a military leader, or a monarchy’s heir to change the world. God joined humanity through the birth of a baby in a simple manger under complicated circumstances.

The wonder of a manger is that God arrived in a completely unexpected way to save us. God used the most unconventional method to make the most amazing difference in our world. What a wonder that we can celebrate Christmas knowing that anybody who accepts Jesus as savior is saved. Jesus Christ, Immanuel, saves us and grants us life eternal.

The reporter may not believe the news of Jesus’ birth, but the Wonder of Christmas keeps providing more and more confirmation of the news. The wonder of a star, a name, and now a manger continues to be newsworthy even 2,000 plus years later.

What is even more newsworthy is that over and over again, the birth of a child is so important that the news is shared by word of mouth, by one good deed offered to another, by one kindness given to another, by giving a drink to the thirsty, by preparing a meal for the hungry, by sharing clothes with those who need them, by being the shoulder for someone in tears, by doing a chore for someone who can’t.

When baby John Glenn was born, no one announced that he would be an astronaut and one of America’s heroes.   No on announced the important of others who changed our world like Martin Luther King or Sister Mother Teresa or even John Wesley. God chose to arrive as a baby Jesus who was first laid down to rest in a manger.

The wonder of Christmas is that each one of us is saved by our belief in the birth of the baby Jesus in a manger. We have seen the star, we have read the reports, and we understand the message of a name. God was born Immanuel and gave us the gift of salvation and life eternal. We see the light of God’s star, we chose to accept the name Christian, and we share the story of a baby born in a manger. Is it any wonder that we get so wrapped up in Christmas because we want to share the wonder of a promise?


Closing Advent prayer from The Wonder of Christmas:

Lord Jesus,

I stand in awe that you would humble yourself and come to earth to live among us—to love us, serve us and fight on our behalf, being willing to give your very life so that we might truly live. How grateful I am for your surprising and wonderful divine plan! Open my eyes this season to the wonder of a manger—an unlikely crib that heralds your humble and eternal reign. May this beautiful picture of your love profoundly change me, and may I follow your example by humbling myself to love and serve others in your name. –Amen



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Gifts to God

This is the sermon planned for January 6, 2014.  The scripture reference is Matthew 2:1-12.  Unfortunately the snow, blowing winds, and extreme cold, services had to be canceled for the best of the members.  Therefore, this sermon is available through WordPress only.  Hopefully everybody is safe and comfortable in their homes this January Sunday.

Okay, the tree is down, the gift wrap is gone, returns and exchanges are done, and the last cookie sits untouched.  Christmas is over, right?  Or is it?

Monday, January 6, 2014, is the first Christian holiday in the calendar year. Epiphany represents the journey and the gifts of the Magi, the Wise Men.  The Magi’s story is read as part of the entire Christmas story, but the story is not necessarily chronological.  One major key to the story lies in the gifts:  gold, frankincense and myrrh.

The story of the three kings is filled with mystery.  No one really knows when they arrived in Bethlehem because other pieces of the story can indicate that they traveled thousands of miles, that they could have not arrived until almost two years later, and they may not have originated from the same location.

Tradition says they were men of high position from Parthia, near the site of ancient Babylon.  How did they know that the star represented the Messiah?  (1) They could have been Jews who remained in Babylon after the Exile and knew the Old Testament predictions of the Messiah’s coming.  (2) They may have been eastern astrologers who studied ancient manuscripts from around the world.  Because of the Jewish exile centuries earlier, they would have had copies of the Old Testament in their land.  (3) They may have had a special message from God directing them to the Messiah.  Some scholars say these wise men were each from a different land, representing the entire world bowing before Jesus.  These men from far-away lands recognized Jesus as the Messiah when most of God’s chosen people in Israel did not.  Matthew pictures Jesus as the King over the whole world, not just Judea.  [Chronological Bible:  p1283]

Yet, the story of the wise men culminates in the gifts.

Remember that the gospel of Matthew is the only one that includes the story of the wise men.  The entire story is only 12 verses long, and it references the prophecy of Micah, not Isaiah.

The Lord says,

“Bethlehem, you might not be
an important town in the nation of Judah.
But out of you will come
a ruler over Israel for me.
His family line goes back
to the early years of your nation.
It goes all the way back
to days of long ago.”
Bethlehem was also called Ephrathah.

Add to this reference, keep in mind the book of Matthew was written to convince the Jewish people to accept Jesus as the savior that they had expected.

Sometimes the message of Christmas is lost in the ribbon and the gift wrap that gets wadded up and tossed away.  By the time Advent is over and Christmas decorations are put away for another year, the story of the three wise men is tossed off to the side, too.

Yet, the story includes a list of three gifts that causes one to wonder at the choices:  gold, frankincense and myrrh.  These are three gifts that may not mean a great deal to us today, 2014, but these three choices were clearly chosen with great care.

Gold might still be valued as the most precious mineral on the earth even today.  Gold’s value is a foundation for the global economy and is sought by almost everybody.  Just turn on the TV and you can find shows featuring the search for gold in the Yukon, the Amazon jungles, the freezing waters of the Bearing Sea, and even the historical shows about the gold rushes of the past.  Gold never loses value.

Symbolically, gold is for royalty.  Studying literature, the symbolism of gold usually connects to themes about kings and queens, about hidden royalty, and about lasting qualities or durability.  Gold is a gift for a king, and in the story of the wise men, gold represents the acknowledgement that Jesus is king of the Jews.

Now frankincense is an unknown element to us today.  We do not connect it with a specific quality or a purpose like the ancient citizens of the world did.  Frankincense was typically burned as incense in the temples, a way to lift prayers to God.  For the Jewish people, the expensive incense immediately connected Jesus to God.  The gift was chosen to signify that Jesus was indeed God.

Finally, the gift of myrrh provided a third purpose.  Myrrh was the perfume, the spice, used upon death to prepare bodies for burial.  By contemporary standards, this gift would seem inappropriate for a gift upon the birth of a child; yet, myrrh was so expensive it was valued and protected.  Symbolically, myrrh was the ultimate gift signifying the human quality of Jesus.  Myrrh completed the gift list for Jesus—a king, God, and man.

As Advent approached, the gift giving frenzy overpowered the significance of the Christian season.  Gift giving is a tradition that we humans have adopted to honor those in our lives.  We spend hours and dollars trying to make sure we have just the right gifts for our family and friends.  Do or did we consider the significance of the gift or did we simply take a wish list and check it off.

Surely the Magi did not have a wish list to use; instead they made decisions based on the qualities they knew Jesus was to posses.  He was to fulfill the prophecy of a king of the Jews.  Jesus was born as a human, yet he was God.  The Magi’s gifts were chosen with a purpose so that others may learn who Jesus was.

Matthew is the only gospel with the story of the three kings, and the reason it is included is to convince the Israelites that Jesus was the king of the Jews.  The Israelites were living a difficult life and Herod was someone they feared.  They anticipated a king who would militarily and politically lead them.  The arrival of a baby did not seem to be the answer.  Yet, the story of the wise men arriving with the gifts answered the arguments for some followers.

The Magi’s story may not be included in the other three gospels as it was not necessary for the intended readers.  The Jewish people needed all the proof they could get.  The story is a gift for us too, as we continue searching for answers.

The gifts the wise men gave Jesus give us the answers, too.  Jesus is God, Jesus was a man, and Jesus served as a king in that he was able to change the Old Law to a New Law, one that simplifies life and overrides all other human law providing us the ultimate gift of eternal life.

Have we accepted and unwrapped the gift?

Have we used and shared the gift?

Do we work to provide the gift of Jesus to others?

As we close our service today, our responsibility is to continue giving the gift of faith to others.  The Christmas season is over, but giving is never over.

Whether the wise men showed up 12 days after Jesus’ birth or whether it took them two years to reach Bethlehem, their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh are gifts that answered the question of who Jesus was for the Israelites, and for us, the gifts remind us the value of giving our best to God.

In order to continue giving to God, we are committed to giving our best in Christian love.  We give to our families, we give to our friends, and we give to our community.  Sometimes the gift is of service and sometimes it is our gold.

The wise men followed God using a star to guide them.  We have their story and many others to guide us toward God.  God’s gifts to us are priceless and unending.  Now our responsibility is to give ourselves to God.  Consider this:

After finding Jesus and worshiping him, the wise men were warned by God not to return through Jerusalem as they had intended.  Finding Jesus may mean that your life must take a different direction, one that is responsive and obedient to God’s Word.  In what ways has Jesus affected

the direction of your life?  [Chronological Bible: p. 1285]

Your answer is a clue to how well you have given your gifts to God.

Closing prayer:

Dear Heavenly Father,

The calendar now reads 2014 and we return to routines

filled with alarm clocks ringing and chore lists to complete.

Quickly the excitement of Christmas gifts and family gatherings

fade into our memories as we pack away the decorations.

Keep our lives centered and our eyes on the Christmas star

as we take giving gifts to others, to giving gifts to God.

As the winter chills our bodies, let our hearts be warmed

with learning new ways to give as God gives to us.

May we experience the joy of giving, a sense of peace in our hearts

as God gives us the gift of the Holy Spirit

and the promise of eternal life.            –Amen


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