Here is my sermon from Christmas Eve. The title comes from a sermon preached by Rev. Adam Hamilton, but the core idea is from a sermon I preached for Blue Christmas three years ago. The scripture lesson is Luke's birth narrative.
I want you to think about a nativity set, it could be the one in your home now, or the one you grew up with or one you saw somewhere. Picture it in your mind. I’m guessing the image is pretty serene. More than likely, Mary is either kneeling at the side of the manager, or perhaps holding the baby Jesus, while Joseph stands on the other side also with an adoring look on his face. Meanwhile, barnyard animals idyllically lay or stand watch over the babe, while the shepherds and wise men, also looking idyllic, offer worship outside of the barn. St. Francis, better known for his love of animals, is widely credited with creating the first nativity scene in the year 1223. In order to keep from being “accused of lightness or novelty” and therefore earning a rebuke by the Pope, St. Francis determined, in the words of Bonaventure, “to keep it with all possible solemnity.” That “solemnity” of St. Francis’ scene has impacted how we have viewed and seen the birth of Jesus ever since, from paintings to hymns to Christmas cards to movies -- we see a beautiful, calm, peaceful, and tranquil scene, but it’s not realistic.
Instead imagine a young girl, maybe no older than 13, engaged to be married to an older man, and before they are married the girl becomes pregnant with all the attending issues and entanglements that come in such a situation. As the pregnancy progress, I’m sure there was some excitement, but also, like with most pregnancies, some trepidation and fear as well. Would the baby be healthy? Would she survive the delivery? Would they be good parents? And then, just at the time that the birth is approaching she is forced by an authority way beyond her control to travel at the very time she should be surrounded by the women in her life, those who can assist her in the birth, be there to comfort her, to tell her everything is going to be okay. She is taken away from the other women who would have helped her deliver her child just at the time they are most important and instead begins a journey with Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of some 80 miles, at least a four day journey.
Now in our stories, we always picture Mary riding on a donkey, but the scriptures don’t say anything about a donkey, and because Joseph and Mary are poor there may not have been a donkey. Mary may have had to have walked that distance. Can you feel her exhaustion? The way her feet and back must have ached? The way the weight of the baby bore on her and wore her out? And just like every woman I’ve ever known who is nine months pregnant, she was probably just ready to be done with the whole thing.
And then to make matters worse, when they finally arrived, probably late at night, Mary already in the midst of labor pains, they found that all of the places to stay were full. Bethlehem must have been buzzing with activity with all of the other people from throughout the region who also had to come to Bethlehem in order to register, and so they found themselves without a place to stay. Mary ready to give birth with no place to call her own, with only Joseph by her side, and let’s face it guys, when it comes to the birth of children we are just about useless. When my first daughter was born, I was grateful for our doula who assisted us, because I simply did not have enough hands to do all of the things that Linda needed me to do for her, and yes I do have permission to tell this story, and unlike Joseph I didn’t need to worry about the actual delivery because there were doctors and nurses there for that. I didn’t have to worry about how the labor was progressing, or what was coming next, or what to do if something went wrong, nor did I worry about disease, or cleanliness or even where I was going to put the baby when she was born.
What did Mary have? Did she have anyone there besides Joseph to comfort her? To wipe her brow, to calm her fears and tell her everything was going to be okay? Can you hear her crying out… Oh Joseph, help me, make it stop?... What do I do Joseph?... When’s it going to be over?.... What’s happening?... “My God, my God,” she might be saying, “why have you forsaken me?” Can you hear her crying out into the night? Can you hear her crying while all around her is the bustle of the town which is teeming with life and energy? Does she feel alone and isolated, abandoned and forgotten? And then in the midst of this we are told that the child is born, and if you don’t believe in miracles then you have never watched a child being born, because if you have ever seen a newborn infant, and held it in your arms, then you know that not only are miracles possible but that they happen every day…
And Mary takes the child, Can you hear him crying out into the night, and she wraps him in bands of cloth and because there is no other place to put him she lays him in a manger. Mary did not have a crib, or bassinet in which to place her child. All she had was what was near, and so she placed him in a common, ordinary feeding trough, which is what a manger is. (PAUSE) Now in our story telling we imagine Jesus being born in a stable, but the scriptures don’t tell us that, instead all we are told is that he is laid in a manger. But even if Jesus was to have been born in a stable, this image too has been sanitized. If you’ve ever spent any time in a barn, or around farm animals, you know there is, how shall we say, a certain odiferousness that accompanies them.
I don’t think we imagine that in our vision of the nativity. But, because all we know is that he was laid in a manger, it is just as likely that he was laid in a feeding trough outside of the inn, in the mud and muck of the street. Can you picture it? Can you hear their cries? Can you feel the mud? Can you smell the manure? And then, out in the fields, the shepherds are watching their flocks in darkness, but then the darkness is shattered and they are blinded by a bright light, and surely they yelled out in terror, and the angel Gabriel says “Do not be afraid; for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you” to you, to you and to me “is born this day in the city of David a savior who is the messiah, the Lord.”
The Gospel of John says that for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, and the word became flesh and dwelt amongst us. God breaks into this world through the birth of Christ not in spite of the muck and the messiness and the smell, but because of it. Just as Mary cries out to God, so too we cry out. Our souls long to be filled and nurtured. We live in brokenness – we are brokenness – we long for something deeper, something more meaningful, something to overcome the darkness and despair that surrounds us, something more than the messiness and the brokenness of our lives. But it is in all of that stuff that God works.
Christ comes because of the messiness and the brokenness, not in spite of it. In the church we often say that Jesus’ ministry begins when, after he is baptized, he proclaims “Repent, for the kingdom of God has come near,” but that is not when his ministry began. His ministry and his meaning for us begins with the lonely wail made by a cold, scared, vulnerable infant, born into the broken world in the darkness of night, who is laid in a feeding trough by his mother because she doesn’t have anywhere else to put him. That is the beginning of God’s presence here on earth in the person of Jesus, it is as one of us, a small crying infant, a cry breaking through the chaos and a light shattering the darkness.
We live in a world that’s messy and broken, and yet into this world a child was born, a child which caused the angels to sing and rejoice, that in the midst of despair and disappointment came a miracle, and there was joy and hope, promise and fulfillment; in this moment God was doing something extraordinary and becoming one of us. This is the story of the birth of our savior and it’s smelly, it’s noisy, it’s painful, it’s chaotic, it’s lonely, it’s aching, and it is also joyful, and exciting and awe inspiring and wonderful, it is a miracle and it is the story of a broken world redeemed and given new hope, new life and a new promise. God was not doing this in spite of the messiness and the brokenness, God was doing this because of those things. Christmas happens not because life is idyllic and always full of joy. If life was like that we wouldn’t need Christmas. We need Christmas because are a broken. We need Christmas because life is messy.
In your bulletin, you have a card which on one side says “Hope, Peace, Love and Joy,” and the backside is blank. Take that card out now. At the center aisle end of the pew you will find a basket full of pens. In a few moments, we are going to pray together, then the choir is going to sing, and what I invite you to do is to take a pen and write on the back of your card something you need to lift up to God. It could be an area of brokenness in your life, an illness, a loss, a job needed; it could be some of the messiness of your life, a relationship that needs help, or some situation that is out of your control that you need to turn over to God. Jesus said “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest.” This is a time to give your burden over to God. Or perhaps, right now what you need to offer up is a celebration, a joy, a miracle, or a thanksgiving for family or God’s abundance in your life. We all come here tonight carrying different things, and with different needs, so what I invite you to do is to offer up to God what you feel you need to lay at the feet of the manager, because the good news is for you.
After you have written out what you need to offer, I invite you to come down the center aisle and like, the shepherds, worship the Christ child by laying what we would like to turn over by placing it at the feet of the manger, and then proceed back to your seat by the side aisle. If you would like, I would invite you to kneel as you are able at the altar rail and offer up your prayers to God, before returning to your seat.
What Christmas reminds us is that our God is not a God who is distant from us, who is out there somewhere. This is a God who knows our name, who cares what we are doing, who wants to be in relation with us, and who loves us so much that he gave us Christ, who was born like us, who lived like us, who died like us and who was raised from the dead so that we too might have eternal life. That is the Christ child we accept into our lives on Christmas, that is the savior we are worshipping lying in the manger, and the Lord to whom we make our prayers.