The Lowly King

A Sermon by the Rev. James P. Cooper

And she brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. (Luke 2:7)

Each year our affections are stirred by the familiar passages of scripture which describe the Lord's miraculous birth on earth, for at Christmas time, more than at any other time of the year, we surround ourselves with people that we love and things that remind us of the lovely times we have had in the past. Memories of special tableaux merge with thoughts of our favorite passages, and with other delicious, but far less spiritual memories as well. There are so many things that give us pleasure, so many things to do and to enjoy, so many things that are extra special for Christmas.

Yes, the celebration of Christmas can be quite fancy and splendid, and there is nothing wrong with that – as long as it serves to support our understanding and acknowledgment of the Lord's birth on earth as our Redeemer and Savior.

The Lord did not have to be born in the stable in Bethlehem. He could have chosen to be born in a splendid palace. After all, He was coming to become the King of Kings! And if He was to receive any respect at all from the other kings, He would have to show them all the proper signs of office, and one of the most important signs for a king in those days would have been "conspicuous consumption," the practice of using up huge, excessive quantities of things to show that you had so much wealth that you could waste a fortune and not even feel it. But instead, the Lord chose a lowly, humble birth because it told far more about Him and His mission that would have been the case if He had been born in a palace.

In the Word, an "inn" stands for a place of instruction. In this story, because it is an inn in the city of Bethlehem, it stands for a place of instruction for the Jewish Church, thus the source of the doctrinal knowledge of that church. But there was no room for the Lord in the inn, that is, there was no room for the Lord, the Messiah Himself, in the teachings of the Jewish Church at that time. Yes, they spoke of how much they wished to see the Messiah, but after seeing how they treated Him when He did come, we have to wonder if they were not but giving the teaching lip service?

What would it have meant to the leaders of the Jewish Church if they had accepted the Lord as the Messiah? They would have had to turn over their positions of leadership and power and submit themselves to Him. The evidence of scripture is that they would not have done this easily or willingly.

What would it have meant to the common members of the Jewish church if they had accepted the Lord as the Messiah? They would have had to do as John the Baptist called them to do, to turn away from their evils and bring their lives back into order. We don't have to look very far to see how people react to sudden, drastic change. Nobody likes it, particularly when it is imposed by someone else. In order for the common Jew to accept the Lord as his Messiah, he would have to make drastic changes in his daily life, turning away from many evils which had become acceptable in the Jewish church. When faced with the prospect of such change, most people would try to find another way. The great majority of the Jews did they best they could to avoid the whole situation by ignoring it. Their Messiah came, but He was too much trouble, so they turned away from Him, and hoped for a less troublesome leader.

So we can see that there was no room for Him in the inn, that is, there was no room for Him in the doctrines and the practices of the Jewish Church at that time, for to allow Him in would have required too much change. But why was He not born in a palace?

The Lord could have been born in a most splendid palace, and have been laid in a bed adorned with precious gems, but it would have represented and signified His presence, and therefore acceptance of, those who were in no doctrine of truth at all. He did not come to earth to be with those who had nothing of spiritual truth, for they could not comprehend the meaning of His mission. He had to be born among those who signified the doctrine of truth and the good of life that is derived from it, for it represents the fact that the Lord is born in the hearts and minds of those who seek the truth and guide their lives according to it, and no others. This is why He chose to be born in a stable, instead of a splendid palace. (See AE 706:12)

The Heavenly Doctrines tell us that another important reason for the Lord to be born in a stable is because a stable is where horses and cattle are kept, and the Lord desired to be born among horses and cattle, rather than among kings and princes, because of what horses and cattle represented.

All animals that are mentioned in the Word signify different human affections, which should not be surprising, since we ourselves use such symbolism in common speech. A courageous man is called "lion-hearted," someone who is very clever is compared to a fox, and so on. There are also a number of comparisons that can be made with evil and useless beasts which represent evil and useless affections, but we are interested here with the gentle and useful animals which represent good affections.

The cause of this signification in the Word is from the spiritual world, for we are told that there, when the angels are speaking about various affections, the beasts that correspond to them are seen. For example, once some boys were being taught about the doctrine of faith alone, and they observed a group of people who had held to that faith in the world as they entered heaven. Unfortunately, the visitors felt suffocated by the sphere of heaven, as it contradicted their faith, and the boys saw them fall from heaven. As they fell, their form changed and they appeared to the boys as a dead horse. Their instructor told them that they appeared in this way because they did not have an affection for understanding what the Word teaches. Their understanding of the Word was dead, and since a horse represents the understanding of the Word, and their understanding of the Word was dead, they were seen as a dead horse. This upset the boys, because, as they said to their teacher, they did not understand the Word, and therefore they too must appear to others as a dead horse. Their teacher comforted them by telling them that it was the love or affection that was represented, and while it was true that they did not know much about the Word as yet, the difference between them and the group of those in faith alone was that they loved the Word, and wanted to understand, and this love is what the other spirits saw representatively, and it gave them genuine delight (See AR 611). This then is the reason why in the Word by "beasts" are signified affections; but what affections are signified appears only from the internal sense. AC 5198:2,3

The horse in particular has to do with the intellect and the understanding because it is an animal that can be trained to do so many things that are useful. Swedenborg tells us that once he saw many horses and chariots in the spiritual world. As he and his companions drew near, however, both horses and chariots disappeared and in their stead they saw men in couples, walking, talking with each other, and discussing. The angel then said to him: "Seen at a distance, the different kinds of horses, chariots, and stables are appearances of the rational intelligence of the men of this Age; for, from its correspondence, a horse signifies the understanding of truth, a chariot the teaching thereof, and stables the places of instruction. You know that in this world all things appear according to correspondences." (CL 76:2)

In the spiritual world, all things appear as representatives because those who live there are open to such things, and are capable of thinking spiritually about the things they see. Thus, representatives are a form of perfect communication for them. It is quite different in the natural world, for there the Lord faced a much more difficult problem of communication. The vast majority of the people who would meet the Lord were very simple, uneducated people who made their living through farming or keeping animals. If the message He brought was to reach these people, it would have to be presented to them in forms and images that they could understand, it had to be illustrated by examples drawn from their own way of life.

A farmer would certainly understand the obligation to feed and care for his animals. A shepherd would understand the need to guide and protect the flock. And so the Lord carefully chose to be born in just such an agricultural setting that would communicate deep spiritual truths to the heavens, while at the same time presenting a simple, but accurate picture of His own relationship with the people of that time.

We are taught in the heavenly doctrines that "a manger" means the doctrine of truth from the Word, because "horses" signify the understanding of the Word; and thus a manger, as a feeding place for horses, signifies the doctrine of truth from the Word (AE 706:12).

The Lord chose to be born in a stable among the cattle, the oxen and the sheep, because they represent in the spiritual sense those people in the world who are in the simple affection of what is good and true. He did this to tell us in the spiritual sense that He will be born with those, that is, He will be eternally, spiritually present with those who are in states of simple good and truth. He will not come to the kings and princes, those who are full of themselves, their own power, and their own wealth, but to those who know that the Lord has given them instructions for life and follow them out of conscience and love.

The Lord chose to be laid in a manger, rather than in a bed fit for a prince, because a manger was used to feed horses. He wanted us to know, from the first moment of His life in this world, that He was the Word made flesh, that He had come to feed the hungry, that He had come to bring truth to those who hungered and thirsted after righteousness, that to come to Him was to feed our affection for and understanding of the Word. And He chose to be born in this way to show everyone, in both the natural and spiritual senses, that He was not to be a king in the usual sense, that His kingdom was not what they expected, that His kingdom was not of this world, but of the spiritual world. He turned away from the wealth and pleasure of this world to show by His teachings and example that the things of this world are only temporary, and we cannot put our trust in them.

So as we enjoy our celebrations of the Lord's birth into the world, let us hope that our splendid and fancy decorations and preparations serve to express our sincere joy at His coming, and at the same time call attention to the true purpose of his coming by contrasting with the humble and lowly setting which He chose for Himself. Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." (Luke 2:10-12) Amen.

Hear now from the Word of the Lord as it is written.…

1st Lesson: Micah 5:2-5

"But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, Though you are little among the thousands of Judah, Yet out of you shall come forth to Me The One to be Ruler in Israel, Whose goings forth are from of old, From everlasting." {3} Therefore He shall give them up, Until the time that she who is in labor has given birth; Then the remnant of His brethren Shall return to the children of Israel. {4} And He shall stand and feed His flock In the strength of the LORD, In the majesty of the name of the LORD His God; And they shall abide, For now He shall be great To the ends of the earth; {5} And this One shall be peace. When the Assyrian comes into our land, And when he treads in our palaces, Then we will raise against him Seven shepherds and eight princely men. Amen.

2nd Lesson: Luke 2:1-20

And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. {2} This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. {3} So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. {4} Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, {5} to be registered with Mary, his betrothed wife, who was with child. {6} So it was, that while they were there, the days were completed for her to be delivered. {7} And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn. {8} Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. {9} And behold, an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. {10} Then the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. {11} "For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. {12} "And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger." {13} And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying: {14} "Glory to God in the highest, And on earth peace, to men of goodwill!" {15} So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, "Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us." {16} And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger. {17} Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child. {18} And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds. {19} But Mary kept all these things and pondered them in her heart. {20} Then the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told them. Amen.

3rd Lesson: AE 706:12

[12] In Luke: The angels said to the shepherds, There is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord; and this is a sign unto you, ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger (Luke 2:11, 12, 16).

Since a "sign" means attestation that they might believe that the Savior of the world was born, it is said that "they should find Him lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes;" but that this was an attestation no one can know until it is known what is meant by a "manger" and by "swaddling clothes." "A manger" means the doctrine of truth from the Word, because "horses" signify the understanding of the Word; … and thus a manger, as a feeding place for horses, signifies the doctrine of truth from the Word. It is said in the seventh verse of the same chapter that this was done "because there was no place in the inn," an "inn" signifying a place of instruction. … Because this was the state with the Jews, who were then in mere falsities, through the adulteration of the Word, this was signified by "there was no place in the inn;" for if it had pleased the Lord He might have been born in a most splendid palace, and have been laid in a bed adorned with precious stones; but He would thus have been with such as were in no doctrine of truth, and there would have been no heavenly representation. He is also said to have been "wrapped in swaddling clothes," because "swaddling clothes" signify first truths, which are truths of innocence, and which are also truths of the Divine love; for "nakedness," in reference to a babe, signifies deprivation of truth. From this it is clear why it was said by the angels, "This is a sign unto you, ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger." Amen.

Here end the lessons. Blessed are they who hear the Word of God and keep it. Amen.