swaddled? no way! Christmas message 2014

swaddling Ambrogio_Lorenzetti_021Christmas blessings, folks.

Thought I’d share the sermon I preached yesterday (Christmas Day) at Wellers Hill-Tarragindi Uniting Church, Brisbane, Australia. In the wee hours of Tuesday morning (and they were the wee hours) I was prompted by the nuances in Luke 2:7, as it’s expressed in the Common English Bible:

She … wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger …

Things developed from there … in ways that shook the world … the universe.  Anyhow, here it is:

Luke 2:1-20                        25 December 2014 / Wellers Hill-Tarragindi Uniting Church

She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger. (NIV)

That’s the words we heard just before. In other translations:

She wrapped him in a blanket and laid him in a manger (MSG)

 She dressed him in baby clothes and laid him on a bed of hay (CEV) … not sure about the first part of that one.

Or how about this one, from the Common English Bible: She … wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger …

I read that verse (7) a few days ago. It’s a verse of course I … perhaps most of us have heard so many, many times … so many, many Christmases down the years. We’ve sung Christmas carols based on that verse; been part of nativity plays; given and received Christmas cards resplendent with images based on that verse: She … wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger …

Something struck me about that verse. I’ve surely heard sermon upon sermon down the years focused on that one too.

Anyhow: She … wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger … Wrapped him snugly. “Snugly” was not in the Bible translation I grew up on. It wasn’t “snugly”. In the old King James version, it was … “swaddling clothes”. What on earth are swaddling clothes?!?   Apart from anything, it’s surely a poor, Elizabethan-era translation from the original text.

Wrong! It’s actually a very good one! The Greek original is the word: esparganOsen. It means “swaddles”. So what on earth is “swaddling” all about? Intriguing! So off to dictionary.com I go.

“Swaddle” … to bind (an infant, especially a newborn infant) with long, narrow strips of cloth to prevent free movement; wrap tightly with clothes; to restrain as if by wrapping with bandages …

Makes some of the newer translations all too weak and insipid I think!   Wrapped him in a blanket? … no, not really. Wrapped him in baby clothes … no, not really.

She … wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger. Yes!

You see, perhaps that was the only time in the life of Jesus the Christ when he was wrapped snugly … when he was restrained … when they managed to put clamps on him … keep him in the one place for a while. Come to think of it, there is one other. We’ll come to that. You see, Jesus could only be wrapped snugly … swaddled for so long.

According to Matthew’s gospel, in due time, the young Jesus … quite possibly no longer a baby, finds himself a refugee … under the care of refugee Joseph and Mary as they flee to Egypt to escape the wrath of a manic, jealous Herod. Yes, Jesus a refugee.  Such was Jesus plight. Jesus could only be wrapped snugly … swaddled for so long.

Fast forward. Aged 12, what’s that Year 7 age – a thirsty-for-God’s-knowledge Jesus breaks loose from his anxious parents in Jerusalem for the Passover … so he can sit at feet of the temple Rabbis.

Fast forward. A now-adult Jesus travels Galilee: teaching – lots of teaching, healing – lots of healing, befriending – lots of befriending, miracle-working – lots of miracle-working, angering – more and more of that; drawing people into the Kingdom of God; God’s life here on earth – as it is in heaven. Jesus the Christ – unable to be neatly packaged – unable to be wrapped snugly into the constrictions of sanitized, commodified, exclusive religion. Jesus the Christ – standing up to the injustice or prejudice or hypocrisy of the times.  Jesus the Christ – God’s Son – at a still-youthful 33 or so years – crucified out of love – God’s love for the world.

And just when the authorities – the powers of this world- evil, dehumanizing, life-depriving powers of this world thought that at last they had him. That’s right: they had him – back tightly where they wanted him; wrapped snugly, entombed – Jesus once more breaks loose from ties that bind … to reveal his love, power and victory over all the sin and evil and corruption of this age and every age. It’s the Easter than Christmas always points to.

She … wrapped him snugly, and … laid him in a manger.

Mary places this new born child into the pitiful, stinky, squalor of a cattle feed trough … yes, a manger … a cattle feed trough. Right there, swaddled … wrapped tightly … Jesus, God’s Son enters into our humanity. Christ enters into our squalor, enters into the mess of life. Nothing wonderfully romantic and beautiful about where Mary gently lays this baby boy. It’s a cattle stall of some sort where all of this is happening, as Mary and Joseph help birth the Christ child.   The manger, it’s Jesus initial place of refuge.   It’s where Jesus finds comfort and safety, when not in the hands of Mary and Joseph. Refuge. The Jesus who could simply not be swaddled for long, who enters into our humanity over and over and over … and over again, continues to seek that place of rest.

The Jesus who could simply not be swaddled for long is the one who offers hope for the world … a hope we celebrate this Christmas Day; a hope for all who are weary and war-torn … rest, healing and hope is what Jesus offers.  The Jesus who could simply not be swaddled for long points us to a better way … God’s way.

A way, that proclaims to the world – amid the heartbreak and horror of our times, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu puts it:

goodness is stronger than evil
love is stronger than hate
light is stronger than darkness
life is stronger than death
victory is ours through Christ who loved us.

Goodness, love, light, life, victory … freedom that is Christ. That’s what Christmas points us to. This is the Christ of Christmas who breaks free from that swaddling and seeks to make home in your heart … your life; that your life might embrace God’s love -that it might embrace the joy, love, hope and peace the candles on our wreath point us to – Christ, the refugee, the healer, the teacher, the be-friender, the Saviour calls us to find in him our joy, our love, our hope, our peace, our refuge.

Our Uniting Church Moderator here in Queensland Rev David Baker puts it like this:


That is my hope for each one of you this Christmas – that you would find … perhaps find afresh in Christ, your hope, your peace, your love, your refuge … and your joy.

But then … don’t keep it to yourself, all swaddled up, bound tightly on a leash … restrained. It never worked for Jesus. I must never be that way for us, either.
In the beautiful late 19th century words of Christina Rossetti:

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

Love shall be our token,
Love shall be yours and love be mine,
Love to God … all people
Love for plea and gift and sign.

So – be that sign. Be that hope. Be that peace, Be that love. Be that joy. Be that life. Be the sign of the in-breaking presence of God in Christ, Emmanuel … God alive: crying, weeping, rejoicing, saving, welcoming, healing, breaking free in the world. Merry Christmas. Amen!


David MacGregor
Christmas 2014


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