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Author:Dr. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Canadian Reformed Theological Seminary (CRTS)
 Hamilton, Ontario
Preached At:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Title:The Humble Beginnings of our Great Saviour
Text:Luke 2:7 (View)
Occasion:Christmas Day
Topic:The Incarnation

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 118:1,8                                                                              

Ps 125:1,4

Reading – Luke 2:1-20

Ps 95:1,2,3

Sermon – Luke 2:7

Hy 20:1,2,3,4

Hy 21:1,2,3,4,5,6

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in Christ Jesus, our text might be the best-known single verse in the entire Christmas story: “And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.” It’s that instantly recognizable scene of Mary, Joseph, and the little baby Jesus between them—Jesus, laying in a straw-filled feeding trough, in the murky light of a barn, surrounded by sheep and a few cattle.

We know the words well, and we have the image in our mind, which means that we might pass right over this verse without a lot of thought. We want a fresh angle on the Christmas story, something we haven’t seen before. Yet this morning we’re going to pause at Luke 2:7, and we’ll listen to the gospel that the Holy Spirit reveals in these words.

In their Gospels both Luke and Matthew tell us about Jesus’ arrival. And sometimes when you have a few different versions of the same event, it can be really interesting to see what one person says, and what the next person doesn’t say. So you might be struck by all the attention that Luke gives to the details of the actual birth of the child Jesus. It’s kind of like how new fathers and mothers will want to share the “birth story” of their son and daughter: they tell about what happened first, when they decided to go to the hospital, how long it all took, and the joy and drama of those first few hours.

Also in the birth story of Jesus there’s a profound message for us. It’s more than just a cozy scene from children’s Bibles. In that first day of our Saviour’s life—in those first few hours—there’s something the Holy Spirit wants us to see, something we ought to thank God for. I preach God’s Word to you,    

We thank God for the humble beginnings of our great Saviour:

  1. born of a woman
  2. shut out of the inn
  3. wrapped in swaddling cloths
  4. laid in a manger


1) born of a woman: It’s the time of the Roman Empire. The land of Palestine is part of a massive kingdom ruled by Caesar Augustus. He’s mentioned in 2:1, and from the history books we know that he’s the one who ruled over the empire for forty-four years. One fine day, he issued a simple decree: “Let the whole world be counted in a census.”

In this country we have a census every number of years, and it’s not usually a big deal. But in the Roman empire, this was nothing straightforward. The census meant that everyone had to return to his ancestral home. This was considered an accurate way of counting who actually came from where.

Also for Joseph and Mary, this census was inconvenient. Joseph certainly had work to do back home. And Luke tells us they had to travel from Nazareth in the north down to Bethlehem, which was about 100 kilometers away, at least a three days’ journey. They have to go to there because of Joseph’s ancestry; as Luke says, “[Joseph] was of the house and lineage of David” (v 4). And Bethlehem, we know from the book of 1 Samuel, was David’s city. The roads down to the southern regions were probably crowded with many others making their way here and there. This was a big headache, all so that they could pay their taxes to a Gentile ruler!

But they went, Joseph and his wife. Mary probably didn’t have to go—it would be enough for the “man of the household” to be counted. And it was probably against the advice of her loved ones that she travelled. This was a good way to bring on early labour, walking for miles, or bouncing around on a donkey. But she went, probably because they felt they had little choice if Joseph was going to be present for the child’s birth.

At last they come to Bethlehem. And then comes the birth announcement in verse 6-7, “So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn Son.”

On its own, think of what a small, insignificant event it appeared to be. To be sure, a baby’s arrival is an astonishing experience. Certainly these first-time parents Joseph and Mary were excited too. But so what? A baby is born into this world every few seconds. In the grand scheme of things, what was the birth of a child? No one noticed it, no one cared.

It seems like a small event. Here’s a small Jewish Saviour, for a small Jewish people. But then we remember what Luke told us. In chapter 1 the angel announced that this child would be someone great, even the king of an everlasting kingdom. The angel said: “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (vv 32-33). In the same chapter, Zechariah prophesies how the coming One will be like the rising sun, to shine beautiful light to those long sitting in darkness. Mary and Joseph, Zechariah and Elizabeth—later, Simeon and Anna at the temple—they’re all expecting someone special!

Yet Christ’s arrival is so ordinary. If He’s the divine Saviour, this is a dubious beginning. Born to a peasant woman. And born in as average a town as can be imagined. You might’ve expected the heir of David’s throne to be born in the city of Jerusalem. Just like we’d expect the king of the universe to come from one of the world’s great cities like London or New York, not a dusty farming village somewhere.

But Bethlehem it is. And there, Mary brings him forth, “her firstborn Son” (v 7). Firstborn: there’s something to that word. It means that the angel’s prophecy to Mary is being fulfilled. Firstborn: it means that Jesus possesses the right of inheritance, as David’s son, the one to sit on his throne. Firstborn: it also means this Jesus will be part of a human family; He’s the first of several other children, and He’s not ashamed to call them brothers and sisters. Firstborn: He has come in humility, but with great promise. Christ was born of a woman, born like one of us, like the people whom He came to save.


2)  shut out of the inn: So where was Christ born? In Bethlehem, we said, though not in regular accommodations. Luke tells us that the baby Jesus was placed in a manger, “because there was no room for them in the inn” (v 7).

When Luke mentions an inn, we shouldn’t picture something like a modern day Holiday Inn or Sheraton, places where you can enjoy a hot breakfast and the swimming pool. Back then there were something like our hotels, but probably not in Bethlehem. What would be the use? This town wasn’t large, and it didn’t stand on any major roads.

The “inn” that Luke mentions probably wasn’t a business enterprise at all. Rather, it was probably little more than a guest house. Homeowners in small towns would do that sometimes: have a room for travelers to stay for the night if they were passing through. The travelers usually had to provide their own bedding and supply their own food. All that the host provided was food for the animals, and a fire for cooking. These are humble accommodations.

Now, sometimes we picture Joseph and Mary on this frantic search for a place to stay on Christmas Night. That’s how the story often gets told: they had just arrived in Bethlehem, even now Mary was going into labour, and they were still looking for a room. But all they find are those flickering neon signs out front: No Vacancy. Which would be a stressful situation!

In the usual retelling of the story, the drama gets built up by an innkeeper who has no compassion. It’s been said that he took one look at these dusty Galileans, and he slammed the door on them, sent them on their way. He didn’t want a baby being delivered in his rooms! Others say that they were turned away because the inn was full on account of the census, or maybe full of Roman soldiers who were on leave.

What Luke actually says is a lot simpler. Instead of that frantic last minute search, Joseph and Mary were probably in Bethlehem for some weeks already before Jesus’ birth. Look again at verse 6, “while they were there [that is, in Bethlehem] the days were completed for [Mary] to be delivered.” They had been in town for a while, and there was simply no place for the two of them to stay while they waited for the birth. The local guest house was full, and beyond that, the pickings were pretty slim.

Joseph and Mary have to find something else. Verse 7 mentions a manger, so they were in a place that was also occupied by animals. It’s certain, anyway, that animals were nearby. According to one old tradition, Jesus was born just outside Bethlehem in a cave, because caves were often used as stables for animals. But mangers were often outdoors as well, set up in a pen or courtyard; it’s possible then, that Jesus was also born in the open air, under the stars.

Another possibility—the most likely, I think—is that Joseph and Mary found a place not in the village guesthouse, but with some other family. The manger was there because many homes would have the animals under the same roof as the people. The livestock might be on the lower level of the house, or they would be in a shed that was connected to the house.

We don’t know how it happened exactly. But it continues the theme that Luke’s been working on: the Saviour of the world enters this life in a most lowly way. He comes in a way that would’ve been embarrassing to anyone with any kind of status or position. There was no luxury, no ease, for this Son of David! He should’ve been born in a mansion or palace, not in a roadside shack. He wasn’t even at home.

And being shut out of lodging like this was just the beginning. Later in the Gospel we’ll hear Jesus say, “Foxes have holes, and birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.” In life, Jesus had nothing to his name. No money, no creature comforts, no rest. He spent his ministry going from place to place. We see him sleeping in boats, and staying in the wilderness. He couldn’t even go to his hometown, Nazareth—remember how He was once chased away by the people He grew up with, because they didn’t like what He was saying. Truly, Jesus had “nowhere to lay his head,” no place to call home.

Rejected by men, and despised. Shut out, when He should’ve been welcomed with open arms. And why? Why accept this poor treatment, when He deserved better? If this happened to us, we would probably start grumbling about our rights. But Jesus accepted every bit of this shame, because He wasn’t on earth to look out for his own benefit. He was looking for ours! Jesus became poor, in order to make us immeasurably rich with salvation. Jesus chose to be homeless, so that we would always belong—He was homeless, so that we’d get a place in his Father’s house!


3) wrapped in swaddling cloths: Job once said this, “Naked I came from my mother’s womb, and naked I will depart.” That hasn’t changed. We still come into this world with nothing at all, and we can take nothing with us when we go. While we’re living, of course, we put on a good front. We want to be seen as respectable and decent people, so we dress the part and think about our image. But at birth and at death, it all falls away: this is who you really are!

So for Christ: He was born, and He came naked from his mother’s womb. In those first hours, and for so many months afterward, He was completely vulnerable. And so his mother “wrapped him in swaddling cloths” (v 7). What’s a swaddling cloth? It’s a long strip of fabric used to wrap up a baby, nice and tight. Often it would be a square of cloth, with an extended strip coming off from one corner. The child was first placed on the square of cloth and then that long strip was carefully wound about him.

In that time, keeping babies wrapped up like this was common. One reason was to keep the infant protected, so that it couldn’t injure its skin and eyes with sharp fingernails. But there was also the thought that keeping the fragile limbs bound tight against the body would strengthen them. It would also keep them from being bent the wrong way. In the Bible, swaddling is seen as an act of love. There’s a passage in Ezekiel which describes a newborn baby without swaddling cloths, and there it’s a sign of poverty and neglect.

Today we still say it’s cute to see a baby wrapped up with care. It’s touching to see the diligence of Dad and Mum, changing a diaper, putting on the undershirt, buttoning up the pajamas, then wrapping up the whole works in a soft blanket. Layer after layer—today, it still shows the care of faithful parents. But doesn’t it also show how totally helpless that child is? There he is, wrapped in all that fabric, buttoned up and woven in, unable to get out or to move on his own.

For a baby, it’s cute, and it’s also the reality of that stage of life. But for the Messiah, God the Son, it’s degrading. Think of it: this is the one who came to save us, and He’s bound up in swaddling cloths. He’s under the total care of those earthly and sinful parents, parents who didn’t fully understand why He’d come! This little bundle in the manger is the One who came to destroy the kingdom of darkness. The promised Saviour, the mighty Lord, is wrapped in swaddling cloths, and He can’t even move his arms and his legs.

Philippians 2 speaks about Christ “emptying himself” in becoming a human. To be our Redeemer, Jesus had to give up his high and heavenly position as the Son of God. He had to accept all the humiliation of being a person like us. He came all the way down, to the lowest place—indeed, Christ would have to go even lower than this!

So when we see that baby in swaddling cloths, it’s not just a detail from a nativity scene. No, it’s God sending a human Saviour, just like He always said that He would. The Saviour won’t be kept from any of the weakness that’s basic to our condition. He’ll be a weak and lowly human, but this burden won’t crush him. Jesus won’t die from embarrassment. He won’t even die for his own sin. He’ll be righteous in all He does, from Day 1 onwards.

We see the importance of this later in Luke 2, in verse 12, where the angel speaks to the shepherds about the birth of Christ. You’d expect the angel to point them to a stunning sign, something really great. But the shepherds are told to look for the King of the universe and the Saviour of sinners in this way: “This will be the sign to you: You will find a [baby] wrapped in swaddling cloths, and lying in a manger.” And at once, the multitude of angels erupted in that song of worship, “Glory to God in the highest” (v 14).

With that praise ringing in their ears, you imagine the shepherds going from there and asking one another, “Now what did he say the sign of the Christ would be? A blazing fire? A glittering man in armour, hovering ten feet above the ground?” No, the sign would be that baby in a manger, wrapped up tight in fabric. They would see nothing even remotely extraordinary, not like Zechariah’s muteness at the temple, nor the miraculous conceptions of Elizabeth and Mary. Nothing special, but something amazing.

For this most vulnerable birth for the Saviour says something about what God values. It says that for God, a person’s importance isn’t tied to outward things. Importance doesn’t come from having money or power or ability. But what matters is our role and obedience in the work of God. What matters is being faithful where you are, humbly serving with whatever God has entrusted to your care. It’s remaining focused on this question: What does God call you to do? Not “What do I want to do?” But what God wants me to do.

In our time and culture, this is a challenge—the challenge to accept the lower place. Anyone of importance today has to promote himself, develop his brand, have his own YouTube channel. You need to keep yourself in the spotlight, and get attention any way you can. And whatever you do, don’t be seen as being weak!

But Christ makes his first public appearance in swaddling cloths. He’s unable to greet anyone, He’s unable to move. Sure, there was glory: listen to those angels, see the star in the heavens, and watch the shepherds and wise men come to worship. But when it came down to it, Jesus was weak. He was poor. He was lowly.

And the one who was naked at birth, was naked at death, just like Job said. Think of how at the end of Jesus’ life, the soldiers pinned him to a cross and they stripped him of his garments: naked and helpless. Once again Jesus was totally vulnerable, like He had been in Bethlehem. Once again his mother was there, but this time Mary could do nothing for her son but weep. Hands that once wrapped up her little child in love are now powerless to help. But Christ was willing to do this, even to do it all alone.

When everything fell away, this is who He was, and this is what He came to do. Jesus accepted this humiliation and misery, He accepted it because this is what the Father wanted him to do. And Jesus did it for us, because He loves us so much. By his suffering, we are greatly blessed. By his total shame, we receive glory: the complete forgiveness of all our sins!


4) laid in a manger: Born to a woman, shut out of regular accommodations, wrapped in swaddling cloths, our Saviour was “laid… in a manger.” If you’re from the city, you should know that a manger is a feeding trough for animals. As we said, this detail could mean that Jesus was born in a barn. Or Joseph and Mary might have been guests of a family who had animals nearby, and a feeding trough was simply the best thing on hand to use as a cradle.

We often picture animals being present around Jesus’ manger, a humble congregation of some sheep and cattle, watching everything with interest. It’s possible that animals were there, it is but unlikely. Back then, the Israelites knew a thing or two about sanitation and cleanliness. For an improvised delivery room it’s one thing to have a cleaned-out manger lined with straw; it’s quite another thing to have a cow standing there as an attendant!

Even if there were no animals around, Luke draws our attention (one more time) to the modest surroundings of the Saviour. For a few hours, the crucial player in God’s plan of redemption lies in a feeding trough! And we said, that would be the story of Christ’s work, all along. The road that begins at the lowly manger ends at the old rugged cross.

And who did He come for? Jesus descended this far, so that He could lift up those who have been brought low. His mother Mary sang of it, a chapter before, “He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted the lowly” (1:52). Jesus will later say that about his ministry: “I have come… to preach the gospel to the poor” (4:18). And in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus declares, “Blessed are you poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (6:20).

“The gospel is for the lowly,” and “Blessed are the poor.” Just who are the poor, in God’s sight? The poor are those scorned because they don’t look like much. The poor are those on the margins and on the outside, who know that they’re helpless before God. Yet the Bible gives this promise: the poor are richly blessed when they humbly pray. Blessed is the person who knows that all he can do is depend on the LORD!

And from the beginning, it’s the poor who are drawn to Christ. Think of how the very first to worship him were those shepherds, men at one of society’s lowest places. People looked down on shepherds, because they spent so much time in the fields and couldn’t keep up with the religious rules. But these outsiders are privileged to come and see the lowly yet glorious Saviour. And when they see him, they fall on their knees and they worship!

That’s the response that Christ seeks from all of us. He came in poverty, to serve the poor. He came in humility, for help those who are destitute without God. Christ came for those who know their low position, who admit it and want to change it. Christ came for those people who know that they have nothing, and are nothing, and can do nothing, apart from God’s grace.

So as you look at that manger scene one more time, and as you meditate on the lowly Saviour, do you know that you’re poor? Whatever your status here on earth, however you feel today, do you admit that you’re lowly? That you’re just a beggar? Today and every day, do you seek your life outside of yourself? Then fall down, and worship the King with joy!  Amen.

* As a matter of courtesy please advise Dr. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
The source for this sermon was:

(c) Copyright 2016, Dr. Reuben Bredenhof

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