THE BABE IN THE MANGER
Dr. W. A. Criswell
12-25-66 8:15 a.m.
On the radio you are sharing the services of the First Baptist Church in Dallas, and this is the pastor bringing the morning message entitled The Babe in the Manger. In the second chapter of the Book of Luke:
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be enrolled.
(And this enrollment was first made when Quirinius was governor of Syria.)
And all went to be enrolled, every one into his own city.
And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem;
(because he was of the house and lineage of David:)
To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child.
And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.
And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid.
But the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.
And this shall be a sign unto you; this shall be the sign unto you; Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us.
And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.
The text, “And this shall be the sign, to sēmeion, this shall be the sign unto you; Ye shall find the Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” [Luke 2:12].
“This shall be the sign”; to, “the,” sēmeion, “sign.” Sēmeion—it is a word that you will find often in the New Testament. Sēmeion—it designates a thing; or it is a word used for the presence and power of God; or it is used to refer to a miracle. Sēmeion, “sign,” This shall be the sign: “a Babe in swaddling clothes, in a manger” [Luke 2:12].
Luke will use that word sēmeion as he continues the story of the gospel. The Jews came to the Lord Jesus and said, “Master, what sēmeion showest Thou?” [Matthew 12:28]. And the Lord replied, “There shall be no sēmeion given to this generation but the sēmeion of the prophet Jonah” [Matthew 12:39]; the miracle, the sēmeion, the sign, the authentication of the raising of Jesus from the grave [Matthew 12:40, 28:5-7]. Sēmeion; later on, in the Gospel of Luke, as He sat on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to Him and asked Him, “What shall be the sēmeion of these things, the end of the age, and of the sēmeion of Thy coming?” [Luke 24:3]. Sign, sēmeion. In the second chapter of 2 Thessalonians, Paul will use that word, describing the ultimate Antichrist, he says that, “He shall appear, this man of sin, in the power of Satan, in lying wonders and in the sēmeion” [2 Thessalonians 2:3, 9], the sign of an unusual and miraculously able ultimate ruler of darkness and of the powers of destruction. All of the evil in this earth ultimately is going to find a consummation and a climax in one man: the great opposer of Christ. And that word sēmeion is used referring to that ultimate Antichrist. You find the word again—we’re just taking just a few that we can see what is meant by that word. One other, in the twelfth chapter of the Book of the Revelation, the first verse: “And there appeared a great sēmeion in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of [twelve] stars: and the woman being great with child cried, travailing to be delivered” [Revelation 12:1-2]—a sēmeion, a sign.
And this Babe in the manger is the sēmeion, the sign of God, one to be wondered at, to be marveled at, to be astonished before. “And this shall be the sēmeion unto you; the sign, the miraculous intervention and presence of God, the miracle, this shall be the sēmeion unto you; a Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger” [Luke 2:12]. And out of all of the semeiā, plural, in the Bible, I could not think of one more astonishing, or more miraculous, or more wondrous, or more astonishing, or more unexpected than this: the sēmeion of God; this is the Lord of creation made flesh! [Luke 2:16, Matthew 1:23]. This Child is the heir to the everlasting throne of David [Luke 1:32]. This Child is the Savior and Lord and King of the world [Revelation 1:5]. “This shall be the sēmeion unto you; a Babe,” so poor it had no dress, no clothing for a little child, so she wrapped Him in rags, swaddling clothes, rags, “wrapped Him in rags, and laid Him in a manger” [Luke 2:7, 12, 16].
Now we shall speak of the wonder of that sign. The whole Bible is open before you. What shall I say? What shall I leave out? For included in this miracle of God is the whole word of the Lord, from beginning to end. First of all, we shall say; our wonder and our amazement at this sēmeion of God is our astonishment at God’s way, God’s elective choice, God’s purpose. Look at it. Think of the perplexities and the complexities and the ramifications of the problems of this world: its gross night of sin, its troubles and its sorrows and its heartaches in high places, in government, in low places, in daily life, problems of war, problems of poverty, problems of darkness and ignorance, problems of disease, problems of death. The pages of history are none other thing than a recounting of the perplexities, and frustrations, and problems, and wars of the human race. And how does God face them? And how does God propose to solve them? And what is God’s answer? A Babe. The text says so: a Babe, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger [Luke 2:10-12]. This is God’s answer to the perplexities of the whole world. O Lord, I cannot think of it! How God does, it is unimaginable, it is unthinkable, it is inconceivable! God’s answer for all of the needs of the human race: a Babe lying in a manger. But that’s God, and the way of the Lord.
Now may I illustrate that? I remember the date 1809 [AD] because it is exactly one hundred years before I was born. So for me to remember 1809 is easy. Now in 1809 [AD] the world was aghast and amazed and overwhelmed by Napoleon Bonaparte. That was the year when he reached the zenith of his military conquests and his conquering glory. He had almost the civilized world in his hands. His army stormed from one side of Europe to the other, and always in unbelievable victory. Now in that year of 1809 [AD], while the world was amazed at the conquests of Napoleon, some quiet, unobtrusive, unheralded, unpublished things were happening. This is one: years and years ago I cut out of a paper a cartoon; I did not even trust myself to bring that cartoon down here to the church this morning. I have it filed away in one of my steel cabinets. To me this is the most eloquent and effective of all the cartoons I’ve ever seen in my life. The scene is at Hodgenville, Kentucky. The earth, the wilderness there, is covered in snow. Just this side of a split-rail fence is an old pioneer, with a long flintlock rifle over his shoulder and his shivering dog with its tail tucked between its legs standing in the snow by his side. And to the right of the old pioneer with the long flintlock rifle is another old codger on a mule. And the fellow on the mule has pulled up and stopped. You can see the frosty breath coming out of the nostrils of the mule. And they’re talking to one another, and the old timer says, “Any news down to the village, Ezra?”
“Well,” he replies from the top of his mule, “well, Squire McClain’s gone to Washington to see Madison swore in as president, and old man Spellman down here tells me this Napoleon Bonaparte feller has captured most of Spain. What’s news out here, neighbor?” And the old codger replies, “Nothing at all, nothing at all, except for a new baby down to Tom Lincoln’s. Nothing ever happens out here; nope, nothing ever happens around here.”
That’s God’s way. Have you ever been to the shrine at Hodgenville? That cabin where our good Baptist friend Tom Lincoln and his sweet devout wife, Nancy Hanks, that cabin is no larger than that organ console, literally. And the most unobtrusive of all of the events that could be imagined in the day when Madison was “swore in,” as he says, as president, and when this fellow Napoleon Bonaparte was storming over Europe, the most unobtrusive, unostentatious, unadvertised of all the things that could have happened in the world was a little baby born in that little log cabin way out in the wilderness. But that was Abraham Lincoln.
Why, I haven’t time to tell you all that happened in that year 1809, one hundred years before I was born. That’s no small part of its glory, 1809, exactly a hundred years before. Why, Dr. Feazer, in 1809, in a preacher’s home, Alfred, Lord Tennyson was born; 1809. And in 1809 Oliver Wendell Holmes was born in Massachusetts. Oh, lots of things, glorious things: but not one of them, not one of them was taken cognizance of by the world. It was just God’s doings, how God does.
Before our time runs away, before I leave this thought, do you ever think things like this? Oh, how we are moved, and how we are excited by these tremendous violent conflicts we see in the world: the noise, and the boom, and all that goes with the violence that characterizes the story of the human family! Do you ever think things like this? Did you ever see a sunbeam fall through a windowpane on a little baby’s face? No noise, no announcement, no heraldry, just the quiet dawning of the sun, shining so quietly and softly and beautifully, that when the beam plays on the baby’s face the little child is unawakened. How soft, how unannounced, how quietly! That’s God. And yet, if that sun never rose in the morning, this earth would turn to solid ice, the oceans freeze to their depths, and the howling winds, frigid, unbearable, sweeping over this planet plunged in darkness and in death. But it is brightened and quickened and warmed by the gentle falling of the sunbeam. That’s God. And it’s a sign, it’s a sēmeion, it’s a miracle, the Babe lying in a manger! [Luke 2:16]. How God does, God’s way. We must hasten. I have a lot of things I’d like to say about that sēmeion. What an astonishing thing God has done!
My second one: God’s poor. Not only God’s way, how He does; God’s poor. “This shall be a sēmeion unto you; a Babe,” in Herod’s palace? No. In Caesar’s household? No. The story begins with Herod the Great [Luke 1:5]; the story continues in Augustus Caesar [Luke 2:1]. But the sēmeion, in purple, in scarlet, in gold, in ivory, in a palace? No! In a cattle barn, in the ancient country there, in a grotto; in our country we would say in a stable! And no crib for the child: laid on straw, on hay, where the cattle feed; in a manger [Luke 2:16]. A donkey, a mule, a pig—except they didn’t have any pigs there—a goat, a sheep, a rooster for a companion. And as I said, so poor, so poor, she had no dress for the little Child, no clothing for the little Child; she found rags from somewhere and wrapped it around, wrapped rags around its little legs, wrapped rags around its little body, swaddling clothes, rags, and laid the little thing in a manger [Luke 2:12, 16]—the sēmeion, the miracle of God.
Lord, why was He not born in a palace? Why was He not attended, not by roosters and donkeys and sheep and goats, but by the elite of the blooded, of the aristocrats of the land? Lord, what an amazing thing!
I’ll tell you why, and it’s a glorious why: some of us might have been a little hesitant to walk up to Caesar Augustus and say, “We want to see the newborn King.” And a lot of us might have been afraid of the bloody sword of Herod the Great. But I would think that anybody, anybody would feel welcome to kneel before a manger in a cattle shed, with a rooster, and a donkey, and a sheep, and a goat for an attendant and a watcher. Don’t you think? Don’t you think? It was a sēmeion of God that anybody, anywhere, anytime, of any estate is welcome. Come, come, and adore Him.
And the magi came, the wise men, the Parsees from the East with their gold, frankincense, and myrrh; they came [Matthew 2:1-2, 11]. And the poor shepherds were no less welcome [Luke 2:8-16]. A sēmeion of God, what an amazing thing! What an astonishing thing!
I began my ministry, as you know, in the days of the deep Depression. And in the poor part of Oklahoma, it was doubly felt. That was when, on those first Christmases of my ministry, I began that program of the White Christmas offering: gathering together food and clothing that we gave to the poor throughout the winter. In the days of [that] dark, deep, hopeless Depression, in those days, there stood a man in a soup line; his clothing worn bare, hopelessness in his eyes, waiting his turn for a bowl of hot soup. His name was Todd Warren. And as they gradually moved forward in that long line of men who were poverty-stricken because of the economic depression, he noticed the tall, slender man standing in front of him, with the unusual coat, somehow different. And as the line moved up, the man in front turned around and looked at Todd Warren. And because he wanted to say something, some amenity, he said to the stranger in front of him, “Cold tonight, isn’t it?” And the stranger nodded his head. And as the line moved up, Todd Warren said to the stranger, “It’s a difficult time, isn’t it?” And the stranger nodded, but he added, “Oh, it is so gracious, what these friends have done: food to eat.” And Todd Warren replied to the stranger, “But I hate it. It’s bitter to me. It’s charity, and I hate to take it!” “Why,” the stranger said, “how gracious, that out of the plenty of some, the rest of us can find bread to eat.”
“No,” said Tom, “I have suffered so. I was an engineer until things went to smash!” And the stranger said, “Suffered? Suffered?” By that time, they had come to the big kitchen pot and the soup was served. And they sat down on the crude bench together. And the stranger, as he ate, was carefully scanned by Todd Warren, and he said, “Haven’t I ever seen you before?” The stranger didn’t acknowledge. And as he ate his soup, Todd Warren noticed the big, round ugly scar on the back of his hand. And as they continued eating their hot soup, Todd Warren said, “What do you do? And why aren’t you working?” And the stranger replied, “Well, I was a carpenter, and then I was a teacher, and I’m doing different work now. This beautiful land of yours”—
“Oh,” thought Todd, “then he’s not an American.”
“This beautiful land of yours, it is so blessed. Maybe it’s the freedom you enjoy, the Lord you worship. I used to be in Russia,” the stranger said. “I used to be in Germany,” the stranger said, “but they’ve dismissed me now, and they’ve forgotten my teachings.”
As he talked, Todd Warren said, “Why, I know you! I know you! I know who you are!”
And the stranger said, “Do you? Do you?” And he added, “I was here last Christmas; last Christmas I was here. And you know,” the stranger added, “this feast”—
“This feast is like a birthday celebration.” And Todd Warren said, “Birthday celebration?”
“Yes,” said the stranger, “for today is my birthday.” And he stood up, and his long coat looked like a glorious robe. And as he walked through the door, it was as though the light of the glory of God filled the room.
Now isn’t that something? Finding Christ among the poor and the lowly, finding God in the flotsam and the jetsam of the human race. A sēmeion, a sign: this is God. And how I need to be reminded of that!
I’m not saying you won’t find God in the palaces of the kings and in the great mansions of the earth. I am just saying that I think God is unimpressed, period. The grandeur of man and those false criteria of greatness are unknown to God; He has never been introduced to it. God looks upon us as we are. Any man is a soul for which Christ died [1 Corinthians 15:3; Hebrews 10:5-14]: the poor, the lowly, the humble, the forgotten, the outcast—a sēmeion of God: there you will see it, a Babe, so poor has no clothing, wrapped in swaddling clothes, laid in a manger [Luke 2:7, 12, 16].
Oh, dear people, I had one other thing I wanted to say. I wanted to say among a thousand others, the sēmeion of God, God’s way; the second was God’s poor; and the third was God’s evangel, God’s evangel. This is the good news, God’s evangel. This is the glad tidings for the redemption of the world: this Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger [Luke 2:9-16]. Oh, what Christmas means! And how beautiful, and how gloriously precious is this time and this season of the year.
Now we must sing our song, and we must sing just one stanza. If you’re in the balcony, come, if we have ceased singing, you come on, you come on. And on this lower floor, time and to spare; the pastor will be down here at the front, “Today I want to give my heart to Jesus” [Romans 10:9], or, “Today I want to come into the fellowship of the church.” A family, a couple, a child, you, however God shall press the appeal and say the word of invitation, on the first note of the first stanza, come this Christmas morning. What a precious time to come to Jesus! Do it, do it while we stand and while we sing.