December 12, 2017
New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
Where there are no oxen, there is no grain;
abundant crops come by the strength of the ox.
How is Your Manger?
Where there are no oxen, the manger is empty, but from the strength of an ox comes an abundant harvest. Proverbs 14:4. During the time of Caesar Augustus, an issue was decreed that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. So Joseph and Mary, subjects of the Roman government, left the town of Nazareth and went to their hometown of Bethlehem because Joseph belonged to the house of David. Mary and Joseph were engaged. She was expecting her first child, and while they were there, in Bethlehem, the time came for the baby to be born. Mary gave birth to her firstborn, a son, whom they named Jesus. "She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."1 The baby Jesus, out Savior, was born in a crude building that reeked of animal dung and was placed in a cruel manger. His welcoming committee consisted of donkeys and oxen and dirt-poor shepherds. There was nothing delicate about the surroundings into which our Savior was born. No place more humble could have been found in which to lay the Savior of the universe. None of us can say that we had a less auspicious start in life, but Jesus proved during His sojourn among us that He works best in difficult and unpleasant circumstances. Jesus came to bring the touch of God to humanity. Isaiah prophesied of our Savior, "Surely He took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows."2 Jesus was the sinless friend of sinners. He liked sinners; He enjoyed their company; He had compassion on them; He loved them. In one story of Jesus, "A man with leprosy came to Him and begged Him on His knees, 'If you are willing, you can make me clean.' Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out His hand and touched the man. 'I am willing,' He said. 'Be clean!' Immediately, the leprosy left Him and He was cured."3 "Filled with compassion, Jesus reached out His hand and touched the man." Do you know what a touch meant to someone with leprosy? Imagine. Suppose the man's name was John. In his previous life, he had a wife and two young children. One day, John was at work and noticed a raised scab on his upper arm. He was somewhat concerned and so he went home to his wife. She told him to hurry to the priest; perhaps he could do something to help. But the priest assured John that there was nothing that could be done for him. He had received a plague, a judgment from God. There was no hope. He could not return to his family, not for one last hug or kiss - not even for one last touch. The disease of leprosy was not particularly painful after the first few weeks, and although John may not have felt physical pain, he certainly did suffer. Almost all the pain that he felt came from the outside, the pain of rejection imposed upon him by his community. How the man came to Jesus, we do not know, but it is not too hard to imagine the indignation rippling through the crowd as John walked through them to meet Jesus while shouting "Unclean! Unclean!" When he reached Jesus, we are told that he fell down at His knees and begged, "If you are willing, you can make me clean." And Jesus, filled with compassion, reached out His hand and touched the man. The crowd must have gasped. Imagine being touched after years or months of no contact with another human. What, do you suppose, was his response? A tear? A flinch? How many months or years had it been since he felt the warmth of a human touch? What would have been your response?4 The text in Proverbs says, "without the oxen, the manger is empty." The greatest Lover in history appeared to us amidst the dirty oxen of a lowly stable. He appeared amidst the scandal of an expectant, yet unmarried couple. He knows what hurts us. Jesus reveals a God who is not indifferent to human agony, a God who reached out to touch us, a God who fully embraces the human condition, and plunges into the thick of our human struggle.5 He showed us that He is Emmanuel, God with us - God who touches us. There is nothing that Jesus does not understand about the heartache that hangs like a cloud over the history of our lives. God expects us to lay the difficult, unpleasant, and leprous parts of our life before Him. Unless He washes us, unless He touches our lives, we may have no part with Him 6 without the oxen, the manger is empty. Jesus knows all about us, but He loves us anyway. He says, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness."7 Luke says, "There was no room for them in the inn." Do you have room for Jesus in your life? In our society today, we guard ourselves to make sure that no one discovers our weaknesses. We feel that we must carry around our failures and burdens in a brown paper bag whose contents are not visible to the rest of the world. Jesus commands us, "Lay that burden down. I am here to take care of it." Isn't it wonderful to know that we have a Savior who knows all about us and yet still loves us the same as if we had never sinned? - if only we could let Him inn. If you find yourself struggling under a burden of sin or depression or disappointment, Jesus is waiting to be born in your manger. Jesus came to this earth to deal with our "messy" problems. He loves to touch our lives. He knows our weaknesses, but Jesus works most powerfully through our shortcomings. God loves to work in the difficult and unpleasant situations of our lives. If we let Him live long enough in the manger of our life, amidst the oxen of our burdens, we will be changed. Slowly, the stench of our hurt and anger will be broken by the fragrance of our knowledge of Him. We will become the "aroma of Christ among those who are being saved and those who are perishing."8 If you already have a relationship with Jesus, remember back to what you were like when He called you. Remember your first encounter with God. Remember the day you met Jesus. Remember how your heart quaked at the awareness of His presence. Remember how you trembled in the presence of His overwhelming love. Not many of us were brilliant by human standards; not many of us were influential; not many of us were of noble birth;9 some of us were arrogant; some of us were proud. Praise God! He chose us anyway! God chooses the foolish things of the world to shame the wise. He chooses the weak things of the world to shame the strong.10 Do we, like Jesus, have love for the unlovable? Do we have love for the lepers in our lives? Are we willing to touch other's lives? Jesus was a sinless friend of sinners. Are we friends of sinners or are we their worst enemies - our own worst enemies? How can we overcome? We ask God to help that what breaks His heart, will break our hearts as well. Littered along the road from the Manger to the Cross will be the bitterness, anger, disappointment, pride, and arrogance that we once tightly held in the security of our brown paper bag. In its place, we will grasp the transparent vessel of the body of Christ. We will extend to our frightened world the love, hope, and touch of Jesus Christ regardless of race, religion, or culture. From the strength of an ox comes an abundant harvest. My prayer for you this holiday is that you may experience Jesus - that pearl of great price wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger. May the grace of Jesus Christ be with you this Christmas, and may you continue to find joy in your journey with Him.