In The Manger
December 25, 2005 - Christmas Sunday Service
日本キリスト教団 頌栄教会牧師 清弘剛生 Pastor Takao Kiyohiro, Shoei Church, Church of Christ, Japan
Translator M.A.F., Indiana, USA
People With No Place
1. "Around that time, a decree from Caesar Augustus that [each one] register went out to the inhabitants of the entire territory. This is the first resident registration held at the time that Quirinius was governor of Syria. Everyone traveled to [his] respective town in order to register," (verses one through three). The biblical passage that tells of the Christmas events starts off with those words.
2. A decree from Caesar Augustus -- for that reason Mary and Joseph came to make a long trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem. Mary was pregnant, and even going against common sense forcing [her] body the reason they had to make the long journey was for them both to register in Bethlehem which was assigned to them.
3. It seems that the resident registration had two main purposes. The first was to accurately levy a head tax over the occupied peoples, and the other was to count the number of people deployable for military service. In short, this census and resident registration was held to completely include the Jewish occupied territory in the system of the Roman empire.
4. It is a familiar story for us that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem, starting with the detail that "Everyone traveled to [his] respective town in order to register," however, something quite strange is written right after that. It is the statement beginning in verse eight. The text says that "While shepherds were camping out in that area, they were keeping watch over a flock of sheep through the night."
5. Shepherds were in "that area." We ought to see this as pointing to the area around Bethlehem. Bethlehem had become full of people who had made the trip to register. However, the shepherds in the immediate area are depicted as if they have nothing at all to do with these events. In short, they are outsiders. In the Roman imperial system, they didn't even enter into the count of the people. It means that even though they made a living as shepherds, they had no position in the state.
6. So, how were they among the Jews, which was their race? It seems that they were outsiders in Jewish society by every count. In law-fearing Jewish society, those who lived within the law called each other fellow countrymen [and countrywomen]. But, the fact that the phrase "fellow countrymen" exists means that there are people who are not "fellow countrymen." Those who are not would first be non-Jews, that is, the Gentiles. But, the truth is even among the same Jews, there are people who were not "fellow countrymen." They were called "the people of the land [am haaretz]" and were considered to be just as Gentiles. Shepherds were also among these "people of the land." In other words, they had no position in existence of their own, even in Jewish society.
7. Therefore, this scene here with shepherds camping out in it is not even a remotely pleasant scene. Not even having a place in the state government, but a people drawn away from their own kind, they live with desperate hearts; that's the scene.
8. So, why did such a scene become a central feature in the drama of the holy nativity? Why does it turn out as a message of salvation? -- It is because the birth of the savior was first known by these very [outcasts]. It is because the word of God reached [them first].
9. We will understand well what great meaning it has for us if we see ourselves in the shepherds' position. It is that [we] have no place. We will understand well when we ponder what it means for a person [when] one is considered without a position in existence.
10. We measure the worth of our own existence, in most cases, by the kind of places we live in or we place ourselves in. It is not generally considered a small matter the kind of social status we're in, the kind of group of people we belong to, which community we belong to, what position at work we are given, what kind of school we're in, what kind of team we're on, which position we're given.
11. But, the truth is also that [they are all] on an uncertain foundation because [we] are always living but losing our places. When mandatory retirement comes, a person's position is gone in a company. There are more than a few people out there aging and unable to find their place in society feeling very lonely. Or even in their own homes, it gets to the point where they can't even find a spot for themselves.
12. No, it doesn't just stop with the elderly. There are [times when] we lose our place through failures. By the twists of chance sometimes we get left out by our peers and associates. Or even by some accident or some sickness, there are many who suffer by losing their positions in society. As a matter of fact, you could say that the worst suffering from getting sick, even more than the sickness itself, is losing one's place instead. No, even if we're not sick, we will lose our places by some minor thing. Do we live on some kind of uncertain foundation? In various forms, we can't avoid living and keeping company all the while with the loneliness in which we lose our place.
13. Now, the Bible states that there were shepherds who had no place either in the Roman empire or in Jewish society. But then it [also] states that God's message came to them first, yes them first. God made this announcement through the angel to the shepherds, "Today in the city of David, a savior has been born for you." God spoke to the shepherds with [the word] "you" [plural]. It shows that there is Someone who will address even persons no matter the situations they are in with [the word] "you."
14. Here is the message communicated to them. "Do not be afraid. I am announcing great joy which is being given to all people. Today in the city of David, a savior has been born for you. He indeed is the Lord Messiah," (verses ten and eleven). The Jews did not call them fellow countrymen. They were considered as human beings without any relationship to God. However, God declared to them [he was born] "for you!" This means that they too are subjects for salvation. Put another way, there is a place for them within God's saving will. Even though they did not have a place anywhere, there was a place for them in God.
This [Will Be] A Sign Unto You
15. Then next, God told them through the angel, "You will find the suckling child sleeping in a manger and wrapped in cloth. This will be a sign unto you," (verse twelve). This again is a strange message. Why is the savior sleeping in a manger to be a sign? Why is it, in particular, to be a sign "unto you?" In order to consider this point, we must consider why in the first place a suckling babe is sleeping in a manger like that?
16. The Bible simply notes it like this: "It is because there was no place for them to stay in the inn," (verse seven). In Christmas plays, a scene generally comes in where Joseph along with pregnant Mary go around from door to door of the inns. Then, the innkeepers say, "Sorry, we're all full." The words of the innkeepers are not recorded in the scriptures, but perhaps we can easily enough imagine that it went like that between them. As a matter of fact, many people with Davidic lineage did crowd into Bethlehem, which is called the City of David. Joseph was of Davidic lineage, too. That's why he went to Bethlehem. Christ, who was in Mary's womb, was not able to have a place of his own in that city of David. The figure of [Christ] put to bed in the manger stands for that.
17. But, that was no more than the beginning [of more of that for the Christ]. The infant Christ sleeping with the image of being shut out here would soon be completely rejected by the Jews, rejected by the people, and die as a man without a place among the people. It was not inside the capitol city of Jerusalem where he was crucified, but on the outside. No, on the contrary, Christ did not even have a place on the face of this earth. His having died upon a cross meant that, [too]. On a place lifted up from the earth -- on the cross he died. In short, the figure of the Christ that we see in this scene, the figure of the Christ that is put to bed in a manger is truly nothing other than a figure symbolic of his upcoming life and his last dying breaths.
18. Assuming that shepherds are people without a place of their own, Christ also [like them] slept in a manger, a figure without a place of his own. When they were living in misery robbed of position, it was Christ who came down unto them. That was the sign. It was the sign that the savior was given to them.
19. Furthermore, it is also a sign for us. No matter what kind of person we are, no matter even if we are in misery having lost our place, Christ will accompany us right there where we are. God's saving son will accompany us anywhere, no matter where. God's grace will reach right there where we are. There is a place for us in God. We are the subjects of God's salvation, and [God] has spoken to us saying, "The savior has been born for you." The figure of the suckling child in the manger points to this fact.
20. Later, the Bible says, "As for the shepherds, everything that they had seen and heard went exactly as the angel said, and they went back worshipping and praising God," (verse twenty). They "went back." -- The same day to day life was waiting ahead for them. It doesn't look like anything changed. But, they had seen the sign of "the savior for you" and they went back worshipping and praising God. They were no longer people without a place. They found a place of their own in God. And the Christmas story is speaking to us here in this [moment]. It is saying: You have a place of your own in God; you can live in fellowship with God, give God praises, and live filled with joy.