Vulnerable in the Manger

Growing up, our porcelain nativity featured an angel with long flowing hair, suspended above the display on a tiny nail over the eave.  She held a banner proclaiming “peace on earth.” I thought about the angel reading Fred Craddock’s Commentary on Luke, which points out that there was no angelic glow around the manger.  The angels appeared to shepherds up in the highlands.  I double checked. Indeed, Luke mentions not one visible miracle in the stable that holy night.  You cannot see a virgin birth. God arrives on Christmas Eve in a humble, human, ordinary way. Angels did not serenade the newborn Prince of Peace with a heavenly lullabye. Human shepherds repeated the angels’ song.  Gabriel did not change a diaper or make a run to Starbucks.

Is that not the way our faith journey usually unfolds?   We are mostly upheld by the ordinary, everyday miracles: a starry night, the simple comfort of singing together, or holding a sleeping baby. Most often our faith upholds us without the benefit of angels filling the sky praising God and cheering us on.  Jesus’ birth is so deeply common,  human, and humble that we like to stick a few angels in our stables. 

It has been a deeply challenging year. If we look closely at our story tonight, we can see the heartache behind the angelic glow. Luke begins “In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists.  This occurred when Quirinius was governor of Syria..” You could score that introduction with the Imperial March (or Darth Vader’s theme). Luke did not set the stage by referring to the High Priest or King Herod, who both lived about 5 miles away. Instead, Luke’s birth announcement features the Emperor who lived a thousand miles away. Luke dates the story with Quirinius, a battle-hardened old soldier. Quirinius rose through the Imperial ranks earning battle scars, a Military Parade through Rome and an eventual appointment to the notoriously rebellious Syran region.  Quirinuis wasted no time ordering “Everyone to go to their home cities to be enrolled.”  This intrusive enrollment made everyone mad and triggered a zealot named Judas to lead a small insurrection against the Imperial Governor and the Jewish high priest! 

Marcus Borg asserts that the angels’ carols amounted to treason. “Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people.  Your Savior is born today in (King) David’s city. The Child is Christ (the anointed King) the Lord.”  Borg asserts, “The proclamation of Jesus as Son of God, Lord, and Saviour directly countered Roman imperial theology…. Jesus was Lord and the emperor was not! ‘Jesus is Lord’ was high treason!… (The) message challenged the normalcy of civilization, then and now, with an alternative vision of how life on earth can and should be.” (Marcus Borg- The First Paul).  Luke’s birth in a stable highlights contrasting worldsview: those of imperial power and oppression and the ways of Christ’s kin-dom of love, justice, compassion, forgiveness, welcome, service, sacrifice, solidarity and peace. 

Even without the daily stress of living under imperial injustice, occupation, and oppression,  Mary and Joseph were having a hard year.  The angel had told Mary the Lord is with you and  promised that nothing is impossible with God, but Mary’s very life was threatened by the dubiously named holiness codes of Deuteronomy 22.  Matthew tells us that when hearing about Mary’s pregnancy, Joseph, being a righteous person, was not interested in protecting his honor, but resolved to quietly break off the engagement. A dream changed Joseph’s mind. Nonetheless, Mary spent at least 3 months couch surfing with Elizabeth and Zechariah. Once together, Joseph and a very pregnant Mary walked 90 miles from Nazareth to Bethlehem to pay taxes to the Empire! Wouldn’t you love to know what they talked about as they walked all that way? Mary and Joseph are facing a lot for a couple just starting out.

While Mary and Joseph were in Bethlehem, the time came for Mary to have her baby.  Mary gave birth to her firstborn child, a son. She wrapped Jesus snugly in a blanket and laid the child in a manger, because there was no place for them in anyone’s guestroom. With a clean sweep and some fresh hay, the stable likely offered privacy no ancient inn could afford.  The Rabbi’s allowed midwives to break almost every Levitical law when delivering babies. Life trumped the law- compassion over rules. 

Without ice cubes, anesthetic, or angel bands, Mary gritted her teeth and pushed the Christ child into our world.  Joseph likely heated up water and learned to wash the child and change a diaper. The midwife surely helped Mary learn with nursing. Jesus would need Mary’s milk to survive.  God needed Mary. Ponder that, hold that image in your heart.  Rejoice in that image. The midwife likely shared that “tight swaddling keeps the spine straight”. That advice was in all the baby books.  Without heavenly trumpet fanfares or soothing angelic harp tunes, God is at work saving the world with human hands. Mary feeds Jesus, Joseph rocks and sings Jesus to sleep, as the midwife offers comforting. Should it surprise us that God came to us in such an ordinary human way?  Does not Jesus tell us God shows up wherever people are being fed, clothes, housed,  welcomed, and cared for?

Without electric lights, the ancient star-filled night sky already shone in ways we can’t imagine.  Up in the highlands, shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep by night. Even while engaged in gentle fireside conversations, they listened for mountain lions, bears, and human bandits. Suddenly the Lord’s angel stood before them, breaking the gentle night. The Lord’s glory shone like a glowing radiant light around them. They were terrified. “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. Your savior, Christ, the Lord, is born today in the royal city. This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.”

What do we make of this sign? What does it mean that our King, Savior, Lord, and God lay in a manger bed that the day before fed cattle? “You will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” How can God arrive in our midst so vulnerable, so human, so needing of our care? Can we embrace this image of God as one who enters the world needing us? 

Beloved let us ponder the manger, God, the Holy One, Love’s Pure Light sleeping in a feedbox.  For me that image reminds me that Loving Christ and Loving our Neighbors, strangers, and even enemies seem to be the same kind of work. So tonight we celebrate Christ’s revolutionary kin-dom, it topples empires with Love of neighbors, strangers, and enemies.  God’s Love comes so close to us as to be born in the most ordinary, human, and humble way. So tonight let us repeat the angels’ songs, but let us remember God’s greatest work on Christmas came when the shepherds shared their songs, Joseph offered compassion, and Mary labored to bring Jesus into the world.  Let us feed, clothe, house, welcome, liberate, forgive, and stand with people, for Jesus arrives whenever we do these things. Amen. 

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