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"The Most Wondrous Thing About Christmas"

Dec.24/13 Christmas Eve Is.9:2-7 (Titus 2:11-14)

What, to you, is the most wonderful thing about Christmas? That first Coming or "Advent" of Christ was a very unique, one-of-a-kind event. Over seven centuries earlier, the prophet Isaiah predicted to King Ahaz, "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel." (Is 7:14) Virgins conceiving and giving birth is certainly not an everyday event! It was so extraordinary that even righteous Joseph figured that young Mary, who had been pledged to him in betrothal for marriage, must have been sleeping around in order to become pregnant - until an angel appeared to him in a dream and assured him that God was responsible. (Matthew 1:19f)

It was not usual for babies to be born in a stable and laid in a manger. Any of us would want our own newborns to have better treatment than that! Yet God used an emperor, God directed the absolutely most powerful person in the whole world, to declare a census so that Joseph, a citizen of Galilee far to the north in Israel, would have to relocate to overcrowded Bethlehem so King David's descendant would be born there in fulfilment of Micah's prophecy (Micah 5:2). A baby in a manger would be a very singular sign for shepherds to find, after they'd been clued-in by angels to this one-of-a-kind Messiah. (Luke 2:12) And to be 'born in a barn' was strangely fitting for the humility of One who laid aside heavenly glory, humbling Himself to become obedient to the Father's will that we might be saved - even if that meant going so far as to die on a cross. (Philippians 2:8)

One of our missionary friends who works with Wycliffe Bible Translators shared with us that, as the Mbe translation team in Nigeria was translating Luke 2, they took time to ponder how to translate some of the words, but not "manger." They immediately used the word "okpang."

"What's an okpang?" asked their translation consultant. "Tell me what it looks like." One of the translators drew a picture on the whiteboard. It was essentially a cradle hung by ropes so that the newborn could be laid in it and swung.

"Read the Translator's Notes again," the consultant suggested. "What do the notes say about the manger?"

The Mbe translators read the notes and saw that "manger" referred to an animal feeding trough. Even as the Mbe team read the notes, they objected. "We have always used the word okpang.We have used it for years, and that's what we should use."

The consultant pointed out to them that it wasn't just a matter of tradition. God expects us to find the words that express the original meaning as accurately as possible. Furthermore, this word tells us something profound about God. "When He came to live among us and bring salvation to us, He came in the lowliest way possible. He did not come and sleep in a nice okpang like every Mbe mother wants for her newborn. Instead, He showed us His unbelievable humility," he told them. "So we need to find your best word for an animal feeding trough."

Suddenly the one who had argued most loudly for the traditional term offered, "We feed our animals out of an old worn-out basket that is not usable anymore except to feed the animals. We call it 'edzabri'."

"Then try that term," said the consultant. "Put it in your rough draft and test it with Mbe speakers."

The next weekend they read the story of Jesus' birth to all kinds of church groups and individuals in Mbe villages. Often people asked about the word for manger. They understood what edzabri meant, but they weren't sure it was the right choice. "We always say they laid Jesus in an okpang," they said.

Each time they were asked, the translation team explained the reason they had chosen the new term. Jesus really did lie in a place where they fed animals. In this way, He demonstrated the humility that would characterize His years on earth.

As the Mbe people listened, they were visibly moved. Picturing the newborn Baby lying in the animals' feeding basket, they recognized in a new way that Jesus was willing to do whatever it took to reach them. As an adult, He would humble Himself by washing the disciples' feet and then by dying on the cross. And this humility started right from birth, when He was born to a young peasant woman under questionable social conditions and laid in an animal feeding trough.

So it was very unusual - wonderful - for Jesus to become a baby that would be put in a manger!

And it was certainly an "unexpected incident" for Magi from the east (probably Persia or southern Arabia) to show up in Jerusalem at the court of murderous, paranoid King Herod, inquiring exactly where the new "king of the Jews" was to be born. (Matthew 2:1f) All Jerusalem was "disturbed" along with Herod, who no doubt feared yet another plot against his regency. And what sort of rare astronomical event must it have been that prompted their long and dangerous journey? One unique enough for the Magi to identify it as "His star". It was a most exceptional concert of events that brought the Wise Men, allowed them to find the child Jesus who'd been born essentially right under Herod's nose, then allowed both the Magi and Jesus' family to escape the chilling fury of Herod who was used to killing in cold blood if needed in order to protect his reign.

But - we still haven't got to it yet. What's the most unusual, unexpected aspect of Christmas? Stranger than a virgin birth? Weirder than a baby laying in a manger? More peculiar than "wise men" doing such a dumb thing as asking a killer-king where his rival's been born?

The most unusual thing about Christmas is God's motivation for the whole thing in the first place. It is unthinkable that a perfectly just, good, holy, almighty God would sacrifice what was most precious to Him - an eternal, infinitely-intense love relationship bonding Father and Son - for the sake of mere mortal sinners like you and me! The Apostle Paul described just how "rare" and unfathomable this was: "You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." (Romans 5:6-8) Amazing! For a world of lost sinners - He would do that? Yes indeed, with the purpose of transforming us - as Paul wrote to Titus (2:13f), "...our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ...gave himself for us to redeem us from all wickedness and to purify for himself a people that are his very own, eager to do what is good."

Marvelous that the Son who existed from all eternity took on flesh and became like an ordinary creature to bridge the gap of sin that cut us off from the Heavenly Father. As Isaiah described this wondrous event: "For to us a child is born, to us a son is given...And he will be called [say it with me!] Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace." (Is 9:6)

Christmas is so strange, so weird, so wonderful - a one-time occurrence that made available eternal life for those who didn't deserve it - us sinners; and eternity in heaven for those who realize their need, welcome Jesus, and receive Him into their lives as Saviour. Let's pray.