"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).What is this sign? Is it simply a verification of the truth of the angel's message to the shepherds or is there more? Considering the nature of the angel's revelation--what the shepherds saw and heard, the angelic hosts revealed in the skies giving glory to God in the highest and declaring peace on earth and good will toward men--seems to indicate that this sign is more than just a visual attestation of the truth of what they had heard. For in the the shepherds' experience there would be little to question regarding the truth of their message, but there would be much to understand regarding its meaning. The sign given to them not only verifies the angelic message, but it also reveals the meaning of what was said and enacts it allowing the shepherds to receive the promise that accompanies the sign.
Consider 2 Kings 19:29-31 (Isaiah 37:30-32).
"And this shall be the sign for you: this year eat what grows of itself, and in the second year what springs of the same. Then in the third year sow and reap and plant vineyards, and eat their fruit. And the surviving remnant of the house of Judah shall again take root downward and bear fruit upward. For out of Jerusalem shall go a remnant, and out of Mount Zion a band of survivors. The zeal of the Lord will do this."Here the sign surely verifies the promise given to Hezekiah regarding the deliverance of His people. But there is more than that. What Hezekiah is to do actually enacts the promise, and thus, renders more explicit the meaning of that deliverance. God delivers His people as a remnant for the beginning of new and fruitful growth.
Look at Isaiah 7:11-17.
“Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” 12 But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” 13 And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? 14 Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. 15 He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. 16 For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. 17 The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria.”Again, the sign the Lord gives doesn't simply confirm the truth of the promise. The sign enacts the promise, and it invests meaning to what is promised, that God is not far off but with them to deliver them.
So what is the meaning of the sign in Luke 2? What is enacted by it? It all revolves around the words manger and swaddling cloths.
In Luke 2:7 the word manger is in opposition to the word inn. There are two Old Testament texts that help to bring the meaning of this opposition out. First, in Isaiah 1:3 (especially the LXX),
"The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know (me), my people do not understand (me)."Here the Lord compares Himself to the owner of Israel and to its source of sustenance. The LXX makes this comparison more clear by adding the word me to the last two lines. But since the people do not know, since they do not understand, they are judged. In conjunction with this, Jeremiah 14:7-16:
“Though our iniquities testify against us, act, O Lord, for your name’s sake; for our backslidings are many; we have sinned against you. O you hope of Israel, its savior in time of trouble, why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night? Why should you be like a man confused, like a mighty warrior who cannot save? Yet you, O Lord, are in the midst of us, and we are called by your name; do not leave us.” Thus says the Lord concerning this people: “They have loved to wander thus; they have not restrained their feet; therefore the Lord does not accept them; now he will remember their iniquity and punish their sins.”Here, again, the complaint against the people is followed by judgment and punishment for their sins. The prophets prophesying the Lord's name are lying. They declare peace on earth where there is no peace (vv. 13-14) and the Lord is not well pleased with men, with His people (vv. 10, 13). But look at what Jeremiah asks of the Lord. "Why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who turns aside to tarry for a night (the word לוּן is the verbal from of the noun מָלוֹן, which is the word for an inn). So a paraphrase my be "Why should you be like a stranger in the land, like a traveler who lodges in an inn?" In other words, why are you dwelling with your people as a foreigner and not as one of them, one with them? It is because they have sinned. Because the Lord does not have good will toward them. Because they declare peace on earth when there isn't.
The Lord said to me: “Do not pray for the welfare of this people. Though they fast, I will not hear their cry, and though they offer burnt offering and grain offering, I will not accept them. But I will consume them by the sword, by famine, and by pestilence.”
Then I said: “Ah, Lord God, behold, the prophets say to them, ‘You shall not see the sword, nor shall you have famine, but I will give you assured peace in this place.’ ” And the Lord said to me: “The prophets are prophesying lies in my name. I did not send them, nor did I command them or speak to them. They are prophesying to you a lying vision, worthless divination, and the deceit of their own minds. Therefore thus says the Lord concerning the prophets who prophesy in my name although I did not send them, and who say, ‘Sword and famine shall not come upon this land’: By sword and famine those prophets shall be consumed. And the people to whom they prophesy shall be cast out in the streets of Jerusalem, victims of famine and sword, with none to bury them—them, their wives, their sons, and their daughters. For I will pour out their evil upon them."
And finally, the Wisdom of Solomon gives us what the swaddling cloths means:
"I myself also am a mortal man, like to all, and the offspring of him that was first made of the earth, And in my mother’s womb was fashioned to be flesh in the time of ten months, being compacted in blood, of the seed of man, and the pleasure that came with sleep. And when I was born, I drew in the common air, and fell upon the earth, which is of like nature, and the first voice which I uttered was crying, as all others do. I was nursed in swaddling clothes, and that with cares. For there is no king that had any other beginning of birth. 6 For all men have one entrance into life, and the like going out." (Wisdom of Solomon 7:1-6)The king is like any other mortal man. He is flesh. He breathes common air. He nurses and is wrapped in swaddling cloths. "For there is no king that had any other beginning of birth." The swaddling cloths do not belie his royalty. But they also bear witness to what this king shall do. That He shall die. "For all mean have one entrance into life, and the like going out." Only His death will be for His people to save them, to enact peace on earth (Luke 2:14) and peace in heaven (Luke 19:38).
So Jesus is born in the city of David, the place of his prophesied origin. He will not be found in an inn like an alien or foreigner who travels through the land or like an inhabitant who lodges there for lack of family, friends, and acquaintances. He is to be found in an manger because He will be the sustenance of the Lord's people. He will be the Bread of Life come down from heaven, born in Bethlehem, the House of Bread, and laid in a manger the trough holding grain and food to sustain His creatures. But He will also be king. For the swaddling cloths do not betray His royal rank. No king has any other beginning. He will be king as a man, who begins as all men and who will end as all men. Only His end will be the new beginning, the salvation of the Lord's remnant, the first fruits of a new and productive crop.
So the one born in the city of David is a royal child, and His condition exemplifies this rather than contradicts it. He is wrapped in swaddling cloths as was Solomon. And this child will be the sustenance of His people, the salvation of His people. For the child that the manger holds is the savior. It will bring peace on earth for in this child the Lord is well-pleased, has good will, toward men. The sign for the shepherds is more than just a corroboration of the angel's message. It explains the message. It upholds the message. It enacts the message. It gives the shepherds' access to receiving fully that message both in what they heard and what they saw.
He is the Savior wrapped in the meager and mundane, which marks Him as the King who sustains His people. May we, too, seek the sign that accompanies the proclamation of our Lord’s coming in the flesh. May we, too, make our way to that place where our Lord lay, wrapped in the meager and the mundane. Let us seek and receive him in our mouths through bread and wine, the abiding presence of his flesh and blood, whereby we are joined to him, and he to us, for the forgiveness of sin, life, and salvation. Let us receive Him who is our Savior, our King, our Sustenance.