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Thursday, December 22, 2016

December 22: The Christmas Sign for the Shepherds

And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger. - Luke 2:12, ESV

The Christmas Sign for the Shepherds:
The Newborn Wrapped in Swaddling Cloths

Have you ever wondered why God came first to shepherds to reveal the birth of Jesus? It was a rather unusual decision, given the realities of the culture. Shepherds were hardly a likely choice to bear good news: Because they slept outside and often moved with their flocks, they were not in towns and among civilized people very often. As a result, they were often not trusted, considered shifty and shady, smelly and unclean. God also chose women to be the first witnesses of the resurrection, so at Jesus' birth and at His rising from the dead, God intentionally chose unlikely, easily disregarded witnesses.

Is this why God chose the shepherds, because they were a marginalized people, or did He have some other reason? Well, what did the angel say to the shepherds when giving them the good news of Jesus' birth? The angel gave them "a sign" that was specifically for them: They would find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.

Still, why choose shepherds and why give them this sign? Could it be that God was actually fulfilling a promise to bring the news of the birth of His king to shepherds? Micah 4:8 says, "And you, O tower of the flock, hill of the daughter of Zion, to you shall it come, the former dominion shall come, kingship for the daughter of Jerusalem."(ESV) If the "tower of the flock" in Micah 4:8 refers to a tower which oversaw the flock of the sheep used for Temple worship, then the visit of the angels to the shepherds could indeed be the keeping of this promise. The most famous verse in Micah comes just a few verses after 4:8 in Micah 5:2: 
But you, O Bethlehem Ephrathah,
    who are too little to be among the clans of Judah,
from you shall come forth for me
    one who is to be ruler in Israel,
whose coming forth is from of old,

    from ancient days. 

Migdal Eder: The Tower of the Flock
Alfred Edersheim, a Jewish convert to Christ who wrote The Life and Times of Jesus the Messiah in 1883, believed that "tower of the flock" referred to a specific tower outside of Jerusalem toward Bethlehem where shepherds would bring pregnant sheep who were about to give birth. The sheep gave birth in this tower so that their newborn lambs could be wrapped in swaddling cloths and carefully examined to see if they were spotless and qualified for sacrifice in the Temple. Bethlehem stands just a few miles outside of Jerusalem. Surely almost any Jewish shepherds overseeing flocks in this region, so close to the Temple, would have been familiar with spotless lambs for sacrifice. 

This brings us back to the words spoken to the shepherds: "this will be a sign for you." In the Bible, "a sign" is not a set of directions but is a mark, a token, something given to point to a significant spiritual truth. Jesus' miracles are often referred to as "signs" because they pointed to aspects of His saving work as Messiah. So a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger was a sign pointing to what? Well, for most people it might just be a sign of a poor mother and father who were disadvantaged. But to shepherds who tended the flocks used for Temple sacrifices, the sign meant a spotless lamb destined for sacrifice.

At the same time that God was giving promises to Micah about the coming king whose dominion would come to "the tower of the flock" and who would come from Bethlehem, God was also speaking of the Messiah through the prophet Isaiah:
But he was pierced for our transgressions;
    he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
    and with his wounds we are healed.
All we like sheep have gone astray;
    we have turned—every one—to his own way;
and the Lord has laid on him
    the iniquity of us all.
He was oppressed, and he was afflicted,
    yet he opened not his mouth;
like a lamb that is led to the slaughter,
    and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent,
    so he opened not his mouth. - Isaiah 53:5-7, ESV     

This Messiah, who was to be born in Bethlehem, would be "like a lamb that is led to the slaughter," pierced for the sins of His people. So perhaps God did indeed send the news to shepherds because they knew about spotless lambs for sacrifice. They alone would be qualified to understand this particular sign of the "good news of great joy that will be for all the people."

Heavenly Father, give us the grace to see with eyes of faith this Christmas, that  we may recognize the baby in the manger as the spotless lamb of God sent to bear out sins. Let us draw near to Him in full assurance of  faith and worship Him for who He is and what He has done for us. We thank You for such love in sending Your Son and for such a sign to help us understand your gift. In Jesus' name, Amen.    

"Welcome to Our World" by Chris Rice:

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