Just a few days ago I sat down to begin preparing a sermon, quickly the Lord led me to Luke chapter 2 and I began to read that all familiar story. I read it once, twice, three times. I love this passage of scripture; I’ve got most of it memorized. As I read through the verses a third time, I began to wonder why God led me here. Nothing obvious was jumping out at me…at least as far as a new sermon goes. So, I began to read the Christmas story again, not expecting any grand revelation. Then, suddenly, there it was. It wasn’t grand to begin with; in fact, I don’t believe you could call it a revelation. What I received was a question mark; a simple point of curiosity. I whispered to myself, “I wonder why that’s in there?”
You see, I believe the Word of God is divinely inspired. To me that means that every story, every character, every idea, and even every word is there for a God-given reason. The Kingdom Heirs sing a song that says:
When the Bible was recorded and given to man
God wrote it Himself with a spiritual pen
He moved in the hands of the prophets in the days of old
God spoke to the hearts of the prophets and the Holy Spirit stood over their shoulder helped them write it…that’s how I see “divinely inspired.” Therefore, anything and everything that was written into the everlasting Word was meant to be read, known, loved, and lived. God said what He meant, and means what He said. Even the words or thoughts that seem to be insignificant are, in fact, purposed by God.
This very thought crossed my mind when I was reading through Luke 2 for the fourth time. About that time something caught my attention. I saw two words. Two words that I had seen or heard more times than I can recall…100’s of times. However, until that moment, I never stopped to consider them. “I wonder why that’s in there”, I asked myself (with my left eye brown raised, rubbing my chin between my thumb and pointer finger). “HMMMMMMM…yes, yes Lord, why did you choose to tell us that?” After all, Luke 2 is divinely inspired, isn’t it? Nothing was written ad-hock or unnecessarily…there must be a reason you wanted us to read those two words.
Now, before I let you in on the two words in question, I want to make another point. Anytime God tells us something, it’s important. We should take nothing for granted when it comes from God. In fact, there’s only one thing I can think of that would be more important than a word from God ….and that’s when He says something two times. One time is vital, but when God repeats Himself…brother you better sit down and pay close attention! So you can imagine how I felt when I read down a few more verses and saw the two words AGAIN!!! “Oh man, this must be a big deal. What is it Lord? What do you want me to know?”
Okay, I’ve stalled long enough. Let’s look together in Luke chapter 2…and discuss the meaning behind the mysterious two words. I’ll cut through the chapter and give you the verses in question. Here goes…
Luke 2: 6-7
So it was, that while they were there, the days were complete for her to be delivered. 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.
Well, what do you think? Do you see it? No? Okay, I’ll give you the verse where God repeats the two words…then we will discuss.
Luke 2: 11-12 (the angel speaking)
For there is born to you this day in the city of David a savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find the Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.
Now then, there it is in black and white. SWADDLING CLOTHS. God meant for us to read that. It may seem like a peripheral detail, but evidently it was important enough for God to say it twice…swaddling cloths. In fact, the swaddling cloths were the very sign that He gave for the Shepherds to recognize the One they were seeking. Let me pose a question; how many new born babies were lying in a manger in Bethlehem that night? I can’t say for sure, but I would imagine baby Jesus was the only one. Couldn’t God have just told the Shepherds, “…You will find the Babe lying in a manger.” Now surely that was a good enough sign, they could have located Him that way. Just look for the Baby in Bethlehem that’s lying in the cattle trough. But that’s not what God said…He said “swaddling cloths”…twice!
So there I sat with this thought bouncing around in my brain. What is the significance of the swaddling cloths? Before that, what is a swaddling cloth? Let me share what I learned.
Swaddling cloths are simply strips of material, pieces of cloth. You see Mary and Joseph were not surprised with a baby shower before they left for Bethlehem. Truth be told, they were not the most popular young couple in their home town. Most believed Mary to have had an illicit relationship behind Joseph’s back, that resulted in a pregnancy. And Joseph wasn’t much better off because most folks thought he was crazy for not kicking Mary to the curb. Both of them had become the hush-hush topics around the water coolers and over the back fences of Nazareth. All that to say; they were poor, they were outcasts, and they didn’t have sweet grandmothers volunteering to knit baby Jesus his first blanket.
They had no warm baby blanket, so Mary did her best with what they had. Strips of cloth, likely found in the barn they were forced to take shelter in. Mary collected strips of cloth and wrapped her new born baby in them. Then, in the absence of a cradle or a baby bed, she lined the livestock’s feeding trough with the cleanest hay they could find…and laid the King of the universe down to sleep, exhausted from the birthing process He had just experienced.
Have you ever seen the newborns in the hospital nursery? If so, you’ve watched the blue and pink caterpillars snoozing comfortably in the Plexiglas baby beds. They look like a tight ball of material with a doughy face poking out one end. And you know what? The babies love it. They want to be tucked up like a burrito. With their knees pulled up and their arms pulled in. Why do they like it so? And why do we make sure they are wrapped up that way? We all know the reasons. It’s because the newborn’s life, up to that point, has been experienced in a warm, cozy incubator inside mommy’s tummy. The securely wrapped blanket replicates this as much as possible; warmth, security, and protection. Now, this is an amazing thought. God, the un-diminishable, un-matchable, necessary being had condescended to take the form of a helpless, dependent infant. God needed warmth because His fragile body could not yet regulate temperature. The Creator needed security because His ability to thrive was now reliant on His very creation. The Great Judge of Heaven needed protection because He did not have the tactile senses to even know if His life was in danger, much less the ability to fend off a physical threat. So, Mary took simple strips of cloth, wrapped God up snuggly, and God was content inside the swaddling cloths.
Very picturesque, isn’t it? It’s even heartwarming to consider the Great I AM leaving His rightful position of power, glory, and worship to come to Earth, allowing Himself to be so vulnerable, so needy…just for you and me. I was sure this is a great part of the meaning of the swaddling cloths. Still, I wasn’t satisfied that it was the only reason God wanted me to consider the two words. As much as this painted a beautiful picture of the manger scene, and of Christmas in general, I couldn’t help but believe that there was more to be found within the wrappings of the swaddling cloths.
Perhaps it’s much more than simply what the swaddling cloths did for baby Jesus…maybe we should consider what the swaddling cloths represented for baby Jesus. So there I sat on my bed pondering this thought. Then, as I was praying, asking God for understanding, it hit me. I was suddenly dumbfounded by a thought. I began flipping furiously through the four Gospels, searching for a verse that was faintly fluttering in the back of my memory. When all of a sudden there it was before me; my mind started racing with the possibility.
Could the manger’s swaddling cloths point to another time and place? Could they represent a moment in time that we would never associate with a newborn? Allow me to lay out the parallel, and then I will share the verse that tied this up with a pretty, red bow.
Imagine, if you will, the events of that first Christmas night. Joseph supplied the only refuge he could offer his son. Historians agree this was likely a cave used to shelter live stock. Yet in this cool dry cave, Mary wrapped Jesus in swaddling cloths and laid Him to rest on a bed that no baby had ever used.
Now, flash forward 33 and a half years.
This time Joseph of Arimathea supplied the only refuge he could offer God’s son. Historians agree that this was likely a cave that was to be used to shelter the deceased. Yet in this cool dry cave, he and Nicodemus wrapped Jesus in swaddling clothes and laid Him to rest on a bed that no man had ever used.
John 19: 40
Then they took the body of Jesus, and bound it in strips of linen with spices, as was in accordance with Jewish burial customs.
They bound Jesus in strips of linen…swaddling cloths. Look again at the last part of verse 40; this was the Jewish custom for burial. Swaddling cloths at death were normal, but swaddling cloths at birth were not. After all, if swaddling cloths at birth was a normal occurrence, the shepherds might have located multiple babies in Bethlehem in similar wrappings. You and I know the birth of Jesus was absolutely unique, therefore the sign God gave the shepherds had to be unique. Still, after reading John 19, perhaps the swaddling cloths were more than a sign to the shepherds. Could it be they foreshadowed much more that the obvious? Is it possible that they predicted His death?
Let us never forget the true story of Christmas. It’s not simply that a baby was born. It’s not even that the baby was God, Himself. The truth of the matter is this…the Christmas baby was born to die. The manger’s baby was Calvary’s sacrifice. Jesus was sent from heaven on a pointed mission. Scriptures tell us Jesus had set his face like flint for the cross. Sure, along the way He would teach, preach, heal, love, gather and divide. Nevertheless, ultimately, He had come for a singular purpose….to DIE. His life’s journey was written in the prophet’s words, it was written in Bethlehem’s star, and it was written in Mary’s swaddling cloths.