Moving On From the Manger

Moving On From the Manger

Scripture: Luke 2:22-40

Well, now what? Christmas is done. We often put a lot of time and energy into anticipating and preparing for Christmas. But what about after that? What do we do now that the journey to Bethlehem is over? And the birth has taken place? And the shepherds and Wise Men have come and gone? What now?

This morning’s closing song asks these questions: What will we do when the carols all fade?…when the manger’s away?…when the presents are done?…when the candle is gone? In other words, what’s next?

Practically speaking, students head back to school. Employees go back to work. Visiting family return home. The Christmas music fades. The decorations come down. And the holiday apparel gets packed away for another year. We let out a big sigh of relief as life goes back to normal.

There’s certainly something nice about returning to normalcy, right? Getting back to our usual routines gives us a sense of stability that the holidays often seem to rob us of. For example, we love it when she’s home during school breaks. But we also know that by the time January rolls around, she’s ready to be back with her friends. And we’re ready for her to be back with her friends! In other words, back to normal.

But I wonder, is returning to normal the way it’s supposed to be? I suppose that on one level it is; life can’t be one unending holiday. But even with that in mind, should it be our goal to return to normal? And for that matter, what is the normal? Is it the way things were before? Or is it something else?

Let’s go back the illustration of our college students returning to school after Christmas break. In one sense, going back to school is the norm. Returning to the way it was before [the break] is the norm. School is the norm; Christmas break at home is not. So going back to school makes sense. That’s the way it should be.

And part of the reason it makes sense is because at that stage in life, not remaining at home with mom and dad would also be considered normal. In the case where a student attends college in a different city, leaving home after the break is probably the way it’s supposed to be. In fact, we’d probably be a little worried if they didn’t want to leave.

And that’s because God’s designed life to be a series of healthy progressions. It’s a series of stages. One stage of life is designed to give way to the next. It could be argued that this is, in fact, the norm, the way God designed it to be. So while our pre-holiday routines might be considered the norm, and returning to those ‘normal’ routines is desirable for sake of our own mental sanity, I’m going to suggest that there’s also something undesirable and not normal about going back to the way things were before.

As I just said, we live in stages, and one life stage is designed to give way to the next life stage. Do students only learn addition and subtraction? With every passing year in school, do we simply reinforce and reteach 2+2? Of course not! They start with addition and subtraction and then build on it from there. Simple multiplication and division. Then complex multiplication and long division. Fractions, decimals, square roots, exponents. Then they’re all put together, and we call it algebra, geometry, trigonometry, calculus, statistics, etc. And getting there is a matter of progressions, each stage of learning built upon the previous.

The point being, when it comes to math, we don’t stop once we learn how to add and subtract. For a short season of life, simple addition and subtraction is the norm. But at some point it ceases being the norm, and we wouldn’t dream of telling our teenagers, “All you need to know in life is how to add and subtract.” Doing so would be to their detriment!

Well, the same could be said about our spiritual lives. Spiritually, we’re not meant to remain on the plane of ‘addition and subtraction,’ so to speak. Just as our physical bodies are designed to develop and mature over time, so we’re designed to move forward, from one stage to the next, spiritually as well. Just as we physically come into this world as little babies, so also we’re born spiritual babes. We come into this world with no understanding of who God is or how to be in relationship with him. But over time we learn and grow, and come to better under who God is, and what his will is for us. Just as our source of physical nourishment advances over time, moving from milk to various forms of solid food, so our source of spiritual nourishment also develops as we grow. The Bible talks about moving on from spiritual ‘milk,’ which Hebrews 5:12 identifies as “elementary truths of God’s Word,” to spiritual ‘solid food,’ which is identified as the meatier topics of righteousness and the ability to distinguish between good and evil. ‘

My point? Spiritually, the  ‘norm’ is not something we return or go back to, like our pre-holiday routine. Rather, like an adult moving forward by leaving home, our spiritual ‘normal’ is slowly but surely moving forward and growing in our relationship with and understanding of God in Jesus Christ.

Think about it this way: Jesus didn’t remain in the manger, did he? While baby-Jesus-in-the-manger makes for well-loved Christmas carols and heart-warming greeting cards, he couldn’t stay there indefinitely. At some point he had to move on from the manger. At some point he had to come to a clear understanding of who he was, and what his life’s purpose was. And today’s reading from Luke begins to point him in that direction.

Luke tells us that Joseph and Mary traveled from Bethlehem to Jerusalem to present Jesus in the Temple and make a sacrifice as required by Jewish law at the time. At this point in time, Jesus was at least 40 days old. We know this because what Luke tells us aligns perfectly with Leviticus 12:1-4: If a woman conceives a child and gives birth to a son, she will be unclean for seven days….For thirty-three days the mother will be in a state of blood purification. She must not touch anything holy or enter the sacred area until her time of purification is completed. 7 days +33 days = 40 days. It could have been longer; we don’t know the details of that part of their lives. But at any rate, he’s at least 40 days old. Clearly, he’s moved on from the manger.

At some point after their arrival at the Temple, Joseph and Mary are approached by a stranger who displayed an unexpected and unusual response to seeing their son.  He was an elderly man named Simeon.

Luke lets his readers in on a little secret, which was that before this point in time Simeon had been told by the Holy Spirit that he would live to see Messiah with his own eyes. We can only assume that from that point on he’d been looking for Messiah, not knowing exactly what that would entail. And on this day, in whatever manner the Holy Spirit communicated with Simeon, he revealed to him that this particular little baby brought to the Temple by those we now know to be Joseph and Mary, was the one he’d been looking for.

Based on the fact that Simeon had the opportunity to hold and bless baby Jesus, it’s very likely he was one of the official ting Temple priests. So when Joseph and Mary approached Simeon, the Spirit of God reveals the baby’s true identity, and Simeon makes this heart-warming pronouncement about their son:

Now, Master, let me go in peace according to your word,  because my eyes have seen your salvation. You prepared this salvation in the presence of all peoples. It’s a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and a glory for your people Israel.

He refers to Jesus as “God’s salvation,” as a “light to the Gentiles,” and a “glory for the Jews.” Pretty high praise of this 40-day old baby. It probably reminded them of what the shepherds had told them the night he was born – that the angels had told them that he was the Savior, the Christ.  Now, here was this old priest basically saying the same thing. Not a bad blessing as blessings go!

It’s what he says next that probably left them a little stunned, and not in a good way. I picture him finishing the usual blessing he’s supposed to give excited parents, and then leaning in close to Mary so only she could hear him. If what happened next were said today, we might begin, “You should probably know something…” Like a doctor having to inform an excited couple that the ultrasound shows that their baby has a birth defect or a serious medical condition.

I hate to have to tell you this, but you need to know that this boy is assigned to be the cause of the falling and rising of many in Israel and to be a sign that generates opposition so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed. And if that isn’t bad enough, a sword will pierce your inmost being, as well.”

How’s that for parting words? What must have Mary and Joseph thought as they made their way back to Nazareth?

Your son will be the cause for the rise and fall of many in Israel.

He will generate all sorts of opposition.

He will lay bare the inner thoughts of many.

Eventually his life will result in the piercing of your own heart.

Long gone are the shepherd’s message about the choirs of angels praising God for the birth of the Savior, the little baby Jesus sleeping silently on the hay in his swaddling clothes, and the well-wishes from the townspeople as they hear the news of the birth of their son. They’ve come a long way from the manger, haven’t they? In the words of Dorothy, “Toto, we’re not in Kansas anymore!”

Today, we have a perspective on Jesus that Mary and Joseph didn’t have that day. Simeon was given a blurry glimpse of what lay ahead for Jesus. But today we know how things turned out. Fortunately, we know something that Simeon didn’t. Simeon saw the anguish of his final days. He saw Mary’s heart being broken, which we know happened when she watched her son being nailed to a cross. But what he didn’t see was the resurrection just three days later. We know that part of the story. And so we’re not left confused by his vision.

Because we have the perspective of Jesus that we have today, we also know that Jesus absolutely couldn’t remain in the manger, that he had to grow up and become strong, and be filled with wisdom and God’s favor so that he could fulfill his Messianic purpose. The Father sent his Son into our world for the sole purpose of living a sinless life, dying our death on the cross, and being resurrected back to life in this world. Just like us, he lived his various stages, moving from the manger to the cross, and eventually back to his glory at the Father’s right hand.

It may seem like a silly question, but what would have happened if Jesus had realized the somewhere along the way that he was perfectly content with where he was, and decided to not live into or grow into what the Father had planned for him next? What if after one particularly busy and chaotic Passover celebration he decided to “return to normal,” and simply live out the rest of his earthly days as a relatively unknown carpenter?

If we can see why it was so important for Jesus to continue moving forward into God’s purposes and plans for his life, why would we choose otherwise for our own selves? Why would we choose to settle for the same spiritual life we’ve always known? Why would any of us choose to not seek to grow and mature in our walk with the Lord? Or to ask it in the positive, Why wouldn’t each one of us choose to use the opportunity we have this next year to grow and mature in our walk with Jesus Christ?

I mentioned earlier that our closing song asks some good questions. Well, it provides answers to those questions as well, answer from the mouth of Jesus. And each one begins with “Take up.” It’s a call to action. We’re called to move.

What will we do when the carols all fade?
“Take up my song: Glory! Be not afraid!”

What will we do when the manger’s away?
“Take up my story, and live it each day!”

What will we do when the branches are shorn?
“Take up my cross that for you I have borne!”

What will we do when the presents are gone?
“Take up my presence, for I am God’s Son!”

What will we do when the candle is gone?
“Take up my light! Pass it on, pass it on!”

What’s next for you? That’s up to you to decide? My hope is that it won’t be a matter of simply going back to the way things have always been.


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