When The Church Is An Empty Box

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

It is really tough to romanticize the birth of Jesus. You see, Mary and Joseph most likely cleaned the manger the best they could. They most likely padded the manger in some way to make a comfy little bed for Jesus. However, in the end, the fact still remains that the Son of God was not laid in a royal cradle, but instead, He was laid in a common corn crib.  

Now, just to make sure we are all on the same page, a manger was not the building where Jesus was born; instead, a manger was a feeding trough for animals. A manger was an open box that would hold scraps of food that were to be eaten by common farm animals.  

It is interesting to know that the word ‘manger’ comes from a Latin word that means chew or eat. Again, to drive the point home, a manger was typically unfinished, splintery, and most definitely smelly. And yet, the Son of God – the Creator of the universe – was laid on display in a common corn crib that was meant for horses, cattle, and donkeys.  

But why was this the case?  

Well, as we know, there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn – and so necessity demanded that they spend the night with smelly animals. However, we must be careful not to think that this was a fluke – some random misfortune as if Joseph said, 

“Shucks, Mary, they are all full. We have bad luck tonight; not even an overpriced hotel suite is available. Looks like we get to go to the barn tonight.”  

Dear friends, it is imperative to understand that laying the newborn child in a manger was planned. Keep in mind that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem due to a census being ordered by Caesar Augustus. In other words, God arranged that the most powerful ruler in the world at that time would influence Mary and Joseph to go to Bethlehem – the place in which the scriptures prophesied that the Messiah would be born. And so, if God bends the arm of the Roman Empire to get one man and one pregnant woman to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, God could have most certainly made room for them in the inn. The point being the birth of Jesus in that manger is exactly where it was meant to be. The plan all along was for the Son of God to be born and laid in a dirty feeding trough. 

But why a feeding trough?  

Dear friends, this Christian faith has absolutely nothing to do with keeping up with the Joneses. Your God does not have any interest in striving to meet the social standards of the world. God does not care about the manmade benchmarks of class, prestige, or power. He just does not care, which is why the Savior of the world was born to a poor peasant girl in a tiny little town in a tiny enslaved country in a stinky little manger. Your Jesus started life low, not high.  

In a lot of ways, there is a spiritual parallel between Jesus’ birth and the Christian church. Permit me an opportunity to explain. Like the manger that held Christ, the Christian church is like that manger as well. You see, the church is nothing but an empty wooden box. There is nothing special about the church. Nothing important about the church except that in the church, Christ is really present. And so, you and I are like those stinky animals that come to the manger of the church to feast not upon oats or barley but upon Christ and His gifts. 

But it is important to keep in mind that “not all mangers have Christ, and neither do all sermons teach the true faith.”[1]  Stated one more time, if the manger did not have Jesus lying in swaddling clothes, well… the manger would’ve been nothing special. Remember those shepherds?  The shepherds did not go to Bethlehem to rejoice and praise God over a dirty empty wooden box.  The point being, without the Christ, that manger would’ve stayed an empty box without food.  There would’ve been nothing special about that manger. And the same goes for the church. If St. Paul’s Lutheran Church fails to preach Christ Jesus and fails to give out the gifts of Christ Jesus through Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper, then this church is no longer a manger of Christ but a manger of nothingness. Without the Christ, we are nothing more than an empty box of vacuous air. Mark this; there are way too many churches in America that are gathering this evening around an empty manger. They have spent thousands of dollars on church property, pastoral salaries, programs, and the like to do absolutely nothing. Just as there was no room for Jesus in the inn, there is no room for Jesus in these churches either.   

Baptized Saints, may the Lord protect us at St. Paul’s from foolishly peddling a manger without the Christ.

Back to the manger, though, with the Christ: your Jesus was born in Bethlehem and was laid in the manger to start started life very low. In fact, your Jesus started low, and He ended even lower still.  

Consider our reading from this last Wednesday’s Evening Prayer Service again, 

“Though [Jesus] was in the form of God, he did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant [starting his life lower than servants — in a feeding trough] . . . he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”[2] 

This is how it works with Jesus. From infinite deity to a feeding trough to a bloody cross, your Savior descended for you. He started in a wooden feeding trough and ended His work on a wooden cross – all for you. He descended so low that no sinner would be beneath Him.  

Open your ears! Jesus is found at the bottom, where you and I can receive Him at the bottom. He is not at the top competing with the Joneses – out of your reach. But He is with you and me at our worst, with His best – the forgiveness of sins. He is with you in the manger called St. Paul’s Lutheran Church to feed you His Word and Sacraments. He is with you to forgive you of your darkest sins. He is with you when the shadows of death encroach. He is with you in death and will be with you at the end of days. 

Baptized Saints fear not, for there is great news of great joy – a Savior was born unto you and was wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger. And this same Savior wraps himself in, with, and under the bread and wine for you in the Lord’s Supper. He is in the trough of this font to wash you. He is in the Holy Word spoken to you this evening. 

Glory to God in the highest! Unto you, a child was born and laid in a manger - for you. 

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

[1] Luther’s Sermons (Lenker: Volume 1), 146.

[2] Philippians 2:6-9

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