Luke 2: 1-20
You know, I find it interesting that in this Advent sermon series your pastors are preaching – “Bit Parts In the Christmas Pageant” – I find it interesting that they would include the likes of me. I’m not even a living thing, for crying out loud. I don’t have any lines to speak; I don’t have a costume to wear. What you see is pretty much what you get – nothing more than a few pieces of wood nailed together, or in some cases a hunk of stone carved out in the middle.
Here’s the thing – there are 52 weeks in your year. And for 51 of them, I’m stuck in some random corner in your church building somewhere, and no one gives me a second thought. 51 weeks. No one around Easter is going, “He is Risen! Now where’s the manger?” No one in the heat of July is thinking of me as they’re scrounging around for Vacation Bible School stuff. I’m an absolute afterthought.
Until the week of Christmas – and there’s this frantic search by an entourage of parents and church staff, all looking for me. Someone says they stored me in the basement with the costumes. No no, someone says, I’m up in the attic. Someone else wonders if so-and-so’s Dad took me home to their shop after last year because one of my legs was a little rickety – which, just for the record, it’s been like that forever.
And all the while I’m where I’ve always been, where they put me every year and then promptly forget until they remember at the last minute – usually the day of the performance. They drag me out, busted leg and all, and plop me down in the middle of the stage, where I remain until I’m put in storage again.
Believe me when I say that it is not a glamorous life being the manger!
And I get that. I mean, I’m a manger! I’m the thing the guy puts hay in so the animals can eat. Hay or other scraps – anything, really. It all gets thrown in me for four-legged consumption. And just to be clear, this does not make me a very flattering sight to behold. Imagine your dinner plate after dinner one evening. And then imagine that, instead of rinsing it with warm soapy water like you’re supposed to, you just lay it on the counter as is. Where it becomes your dinner plate the next night, and the night after that, and the night after that, and on and on and on.
Got that disgusting visual in your mind? Welcome to my life. A dinner plate that never gets rinsed.
Of course, you don’t get a sense of this from your lovely Christmas pageants. There, it’s cute kids decked out in adorable costumes – not actual smelly animals. There, it’s the warmth of a fellowship hall and a makeshift stable – not an actual stable that offers scant protection from the elements. And there it’s me – a somewhat rickety but fairly sterile manger, fresh out of 51-week hibernation. Not the version of me that was there that night. Not the way I remember it.
What I remember was this commotion all around me, the hustle and bustle of making the best of things. I wasn’t used to this much activity late at night – by that time, usually the innkeeper had already taken care of things and most of the animals were fast asleep. The only sounds I’m used to are the sounds of them snoring.
But not this night. I remember the frantic chatter. Something about “this is all I have” and “I hope it’s okay for the baby.” What baby were they talking about, I wondered? I remember them throwing some hay on me – which, again, I’m used to. Just not this late at night. I remember hearing her moans and screams, the sounds of some unstoppable force at work.
And then a brief silence, followed by this strange piercing noise, the likes of which I’d never heard. High-pitched and shrill. I believe you sing this hymn that says something about “no crying he makes?” Well, let me be the first to say that this whatever-it-was had some lungs to it! What a loud noise. And what a beautiful and glorious one.
But by far, what I remember most about that night was this sudden weight on me. Gentle, placed there by loving hands. Much more weight than I’m used to; I had to brace my wooden legs a bit. But it wasn’t just the weight that surprised me. There was this warmth, this lovely warmth, emanating right through the hay. And it stayed there, all throughout the night. And eventually I came to understand – it was a child, a human child. It was he who’d made that piercing sound before, he whose weight and warmth I felt. A newborn son.
Now, I get the whole newborn thing, alright? Animals are born in this stable all the time. And I get all the fuss over a newborn. Lots of excitement, lots of extra love and care. But at some point things always settle down and life gets back to normal, and this new addition becomes another part of the stable like everything else there.
The thing is, it was different with this newborn. So much activity! Visitors, coming and going. Shepherds from distant fields. Even a group of strange men wearing strange clothes, bearing gifts far out of place for a stable. All of them talking endlessly about a star, about angels. It was so surreal. I had no clue what to make of it.
All I knew was that, that whole time, that baby kept lying on me. Lying in a manger.
I hear there’s a song you sing about all of this; a song about the baby but about me too. A song that goes something like this:
Away in a manger, no crib for his bed
The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head
The stars in the sky look down where he lay
The little Lord Jesus, asleep on the hay
You call this baby “Lord” in the song. You have other names for him too: Savior, Messiah, Prince of Peace, Son of God. That was no ordinary child that rested on me all those years ago.
And I gotta be honest – in one sense, I just don’t get it. I don’t get why the son of God would be born in an animal stable and laid on the likes of me. Me! A dinner plate that never gets rinsed! Would a king’s palace not be more befitting for a king than rotted old boards and a cracked roof? Would a comfy bed adorned with the finest linens not be more appropriate than a rickety old manger covered in moldy hay and animal slobber?
And then I realize, ah, that’s the whole point, though, right? Because if this baby were born in a palace and laid in a linen bed, he’d be a king alright. But a king for only the few. A king only for those who know the same.
Instead, God was born into our mess. I mean, literally, right in it! It does not get any messier than an animal stable, folks. I’m covered in mess; I’m always covered in mess. There’s a big pile of mess right next to me, and it doesn’t smell very good! And yet, it was into our mess that God was born.
And if I were human, I think that would be the most wonderful part of it all, don’t you? Because let’s face it – life itself can get pretty messy. Pain, confusion, grief, sorrow, heartache, hatred, death, fear – it’s like one mess after another, greeting us at we rise every dawn and weighing us down at the end of the day as we collapse into bed.
But see, we don’t have to endure that messiness alone now – because he is here, right here with us. Not looking down at us from on high, or somewhere behind us pushing us forward or somewhere in front of us pulling us through. He is right here with us in the mess – literally, born into it.
Born into the mess of fractured relationships and family struggles….
Born into the mess of a culture of fear that permeates our politics and our religion….
Born into the mess of silent pain that screams from deep, deep inside….
Born into the mess of human brokenness and the full weight of sin….
He knows all that mess better than any of us do. And shining through that mess with the brilliance of a thousand Christmas Eve stars is his love – a love so great that it drove him to become one of us, and be with us, right in the midst of our mess.
Perhaps you’re a tad surprised at the theological sophistication of a manger! Then again, when you have nothing else going on for 51 weeks out of the year, you have time to think. That, and they store some library books near me, so I’ve done some reading on the subject. I’ve always liked what this Karl Barth guy has to say. Listen:
There, in the manger, in the stable next to the animals, it happened that the sky opened above the dark earth, that God became man, to be wholly with us and for us. There it happened. So praise be to God for this dark place, for this manger, for this stable in our lives! There we need him. There he only waits that we see him, and recognize him, and believe in him, and love him. There is where he greets us.
You know, I used to take it personally about being forgotten until the week of Christmas and then rushed into action with no lines and no costume. I used to take it personally that I served no purpose other than that.
But over the years I’ve come to see – that’s the way it should be. Needs to be. She gave birth to her firstborn son. And she wrapped him in cloths and laid him in a manger. An old, rickety, often-forgotten, filled with moldy hay and covered in animal slobber manger.
There is where he greets us. On this holiest of nights, and always!
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN.
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 From a Christmas sermon by Karl Barth found at https://tellingthetruth1993.wordpress.com/2014/12/22/he-stands-by-us/, visited on 12.16.2015.