‘This will be a sign to you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’ Luke 2:12
What is your remedy when a glorious spiritual experience, which set your heart on fire and filled you with zeal and joy, has lost all power and become a dim memory? Where do you go for help when you’ve lost your confidence that God is in control?
The shepherds of Luke 2:8-20 have an encounter with divine power. It’s the kind of experience which we might imagine would set them up for life – the spiritual equivalent of a huge financial windfall. 1. An angel of God appears to them. 2. The glory of the Lord shines all around them. 3. The angel speaks to them personally. 4. ‘A multitude of the heavenly army’ (Luke 2:13, lit.) appears alongside the angel. 5. All of the angels begin praising God, with what must have been an extremely high decibel count. Surely the shepherds’ faith in the God of the Bible will be rock solid from that point onwards? The angel knows better. On top of all the marvels they are seeing and hearing, he gives them ‘a sign’. In the Bible supernatural signs are given to help persuade people of the truth, in this case the truth that ‘a Saviour has been born’ (v. 11). What is the nature of the angel’s sign, and how can it possibly trump the signs the shepherds are currently witnessing? The angel says, ‘You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’
This is a prophecy. We are so used to hearing it in carol services and nativity plays that we miss its purpose. The angel predicts that if the shepherds go to Bethlehem they will find the newborn Saviour lying in a feeding trough for animals. The power of this sign comes from the baby’s bizarre and unlikely resting-place. If the shepherds had simply been told that they would find a baby, they might perhaps have put it down to coincidence when they found a newborn child in the village. But to find a baby lying in a feeding trough, exactly as predicted, could not possibly be a fluke. The point we need to grasp is that the most powerful part of the shepherds’ experience in the fields isn’t their personal encounter with an angel, or the sight of the glory of the Lord, or the extraordinary sound of the heavenly multitude praising God, no it’s the sign they receive from the angel: his accurate prediction of the newborn Saviour’s unusual crib. Astonishing sights and sounds come off second best when compared with a detailed message about the future which proves to be accurate. Note how the passage ends: ‘The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.’
Without that sign, the shepherds might have begun joking with one another about the mushrooms in their stew on that evening in the fields. But it is much harder to laugh off the divine power seen in the fulfilment of prophecy. In the Bible, God’s ability to predict the future is presented as proof that he can be trusted. The principle is set out in Isaiah 41:23, where God challenges the idols, ‘Tell us what the future holds, so that we may know you are gods’; and Isaiah 46:9,10: ‘I am God and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me. I make known the end from the beginning, from ancient times, what is still to come.’ Only God can predict something and then make sure that it comes to pass, and we see that happening time and again in Scripture. To take just one example, Daniel 9:26 predicts that after the Messiah has been ‘cut off’, an incoming ruler will destroy the city of Jerusalem and the Temple. God made the prediction, and then it happened.
My friend Roger Carswell once pointed out to me that not long after the joys and wonders of that first Christmas evening, the shepherds had to endure Herod’s ‘massacre of the innocents’ – the slaughter of ‘all the boys in Bethelehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under’ (Matthew 2:16). Perhaps they lost their own boys. What could possibly console them during their mourning, in the face of such injustice? Only the knowledge that God is ultimately in control, which had been proved so indisputably in their experience by his power to predict the future. In our own time when unbelief sometimes seems all-conquering, the accurate prophecies in the Bible persuade us to live by faith rather than sight. They comfort us by renewing our confidence in God’s control.