Rev. Zandstra's commentary is taken from a sermon he preached during the 2001 Advent season.
As we mature as Christians, we are able to look at things from different perspectives. In the process of the renewing of our minds and our souls, we learn to think about things from different angles, and this includes how we view the Nativity.
For some, the manger scene is a place to find peace. It is a place of respite. The manger brings comfort to those battered by life's storms. They hear the words of Isaiah 40: “Comfort, comfort my people, says your God.”
For others, the manger is less about comfort than it is about judgment. They hear the words of warning in Malachi 3: “Who may abide the day of His coming? And who will stand when He appears?” This perspective emphasizes the fact that the coming of Christ is not all niceties and vacuous pleasantries. His coming is in response to the sin of mankind. He has come to judge the world.
Another perspective is portrayed with a manger with the cross in the background. Christ, in some sense, is born to die. He is the sacrificial lamb to be slain for our sake. He will save His people from their sins, as His name means, but it will be by means of a bloody and terrible cross.
There is still yet another angle, one that looks back in time from the manger to the Fall, and sees the promise of God beginning to come true in this Child. This offspring of Eve will crush the head of the serpent. He will be a warrior in the battle between righteousness and sin; between life and death; between good and evil.
These are ways to look at the manger. They are perspectives from which we can learn much about what God has done, is doing, and will do in this world. But there is one more to consider. I want to look at the manger with Creation as the backdrop.
There has been and still are some anti-material strains of thought in some Christians' thought and practice. Some practitioners of the faith claim being a Christian is only a spiritual exercise, unconnected to the material. Actually, their thought goes further. In some of the more radical strains of this thinking, everything to do with the material world is evil.
Such thought interprets life on this earth something only to be endured. Our lives on earth are drained of meaning, significance, and purpose. Reality is limited to that which is spiritual, something we will only know when we die and are able to leave the confines of the body.
Those holding to this position deny the Incarnation, they deny that God became flesh. They assert that the Christ Child only appears to be in the flesh. He cannot be “in the flesh,” because flesh is inherently evil. It is the source of sin and the cause of our struggles.
To accept such a viewpoint is to assert that our work and our education have no spiritual meaning. There is no purpose to life or to our families or to our vocations. There is no meaning to our possessions or our recreation or our time on this earth. It is passing and, in the end, unimportant.
But this perspective is heresy. It is a denial of something of profound importance. To see the manger correctly, we must look all the way back to Creation.
We remember that in the beginning, God creates light, it is good. He creates land, and it is good. The sky, the sun, the moon, and the stars all follow and all are proclaimed good. He creates the creatures living in the water and in the sky and declares them good. He creates the land animals and says that they are good. And finally, He creates human beings in His image and declares that they are good.
At the end of six days, God looked over His project – over all that He had created – and declared it “very good.” His creation is right. It is beautiful. It is glorious. It is expanding and growing, filled with vitality.
Yes, there is sin coming through Adam and Eve. Yes, evil and murder and destruction and jealousy are soon to follow. But these things do not completely overpower the goodness of God's creation. They do not cancel out His creative activity.
Sin distorts. It twists. It pushes things out of shape. But it cannot overcome the creative power of God. Sin exists, says St. Augustine, as a parasite which does not have a life of its own, but instead exists off the life of another.
To gain a full appreciation for the events in the town of Bethlehem, we must see that the Child born in the manger is God reaffirming that the world is good. He has become the thing He created to bring restoration, to put things back in their proper order. It is God coming into the world to declare that it is being made good again.
The angels who announce the birth of Christ come to people who are busy with their lives. They are busy in their work caring for the sheep. To them, the angels declare a profound message: Your Savior has been born. He is the Christ. He is the Lord. He is God.
The One Who has come to you has come as a Baby. He is in the flesh. And you will find Him getting along in a very physical, very earthly way. You will find Him wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.
Contained in God's appearance to us is the message that His favor rests on us. We need to understand this as broadly as possible. It is not just His favor that rests on us at some point in the future after we die and go to Heaven. His favor rests on us now. His favor rests on us in every circumstance of our lives. His favor rests on our work, our businesses, and on our family lives. His favor rests on our education and on our recreation. This gives our lives purpose. It gives all that we do meaning.
We do not have a faith that hides from the world. We do not have a faith that does not touch what we do tomorrow and next week and next year. We do not have a faith that views our lives on this planet as a time to wait and persevere until death. Our faith in the Child in the manger is alive and vibrant in this world.
We know that what begins in the manger will only be made complete when Christ returns, but still our lives in the “here and now” have substance. God is here. He is here in the flesh and He has not abandoned His creation. That which He once declared to be good is being made good again. It is being restored. “Glory to God in the highest and on earth, peace to men on whom His favor rests.”