A Way in a Manger

A Sermon preached by the Rev. Nils Chittenden

Sunday, December 24th, 2017

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

No room at the inn.

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Last week was our Christmas Pageant. It was a lovely production with a harmonious theatrical team. Christian seemed fine being cast in the role of ‘cow’. Everyone, in fact, was happy with their assigned roles.

Not so with another pageant that I read about. There, one little boy lost out on the role of Joseph to another of his compadres. Instead he was given the pivotal but – in his opinion – considerably less glamorous and technically-challenging role of The Innkeeper. Deciding that revenge was a dish best served cold, he carefully bided his time and in every rehearsal delivered his lines perfectly. When the day of the performance came, Mary and Joseph schlepped up to his doorstep on their donkey and inquired if he had any rooms at the inn, and he replied, “Why, yes, of course! Come on in!”

All we can infer about the original innkeeper is this: he had an inn, and he kept it. But we can assume something about his character: there was enough empathy and generosity in his heart that when he saw this young couple with their donkey, travel-weary and the woman heavily pregnant, he did what he could to help, even though he must have been fraught and busy with a full inn. He didn’t have to let them stay in his stable, but he did.

Though the stories in the Bible might seem very far removed from our own times, the more we learn about the characters in the story, the more we realize that they are ordinary people like us. People who are trying to do the right thing, and who have setbacks and sometimes mess up, and try to get back on track, and try to do the right thing again.

So let’s hear a little of their back-story.

Mary and Joseph were young, probably late teens. Joseph was a carpenter. Kind of a general contractor in our world. Although our reading says they were ‘engaged’ it was more contractual than what we’d think of as engagement. They were, to use a more old-fashioned word, ‘betrothed’: they’d exchanged vows that committed them to get married. We know that they had, however, not yet had an intimate relationship since Mary describes herself as a virgin when she is visited by the angel.

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What do we know about angels? Well, precious little; but they are described as winged messengers of God. They sound pretty fantastical beings to us. And the angel Gabriel makes a really extraordinary announcement to an undoubtedly terrified young woman. He tells Mary that she, uniquely among women, has been chosen to carry and give birth to God in human form by means that we do not and cannot even begin to understand.

God chose her because she was the right person for the job. But can you just imagine what that angel’s visit must have been like for Mary?

Christian art always seems to portray Mary as cool, calm and collected with the angel. Not only is that highly implausible, but I think it actually does Mary a disservice. Anyone can say yes to a mission when they’re cool, calm and collected. But to say yes to a mission when you’re scared out of your wits, well, that takes real guts.

That evening, Joseph comes home from his job as a carpenter. And you can only imagine how that conversation must have gone.

“Joseph, there’s something I need to tell you.”
“OK… doesn’t sound good… is everything alright?……”
“I’m pregnant…”

I’m guessing this would have devastated Joseph as much as it is devastating the thousands of people around the world who are having that exact same conversation today. All I can say is that Joseph must have been as remarkable a person as Mary, given Mary’s explanation about who the father was. Yet we easily overlook Joseph, don’t we?

 St. Joseph by Fra Angelico (1450)

St. Joseph by Fra Angelico (1450)

To be honest, we don’t know a whole lot about Joseph. He turns up in a couple of the gospels in the narratives of Jesus’ birth. But after that he disappears from history.

Yet in those accounts of Jesus’ birth we glimpse Joseph’s character, the loyal and devoted man betrothed to his girlfriend, who imagines he will have a loving and – yes – normal life as a general contractor in 1st century Palestine and, instead, is faced with an extraordinary set of events that shakes his world – and ours – forever. When his world is turned upside-down, we learn that he is a righteous and good man. His first thought is of Mary when learning of her pregnancy, and he resolves to break off their betrothal quietly so as not to hurt Mary. Then that night God visits him in a dream and corroborates Mary’s story, and Joseph resolves to stand by her. What love Joseph must have had for Mary.

Nine months later, Joseph has to visit Bethlehem – his ancestral home town – to be included in the Roman empire’s tax census, Mary by his side.

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And, next to an inn in Bethlehem that was full, in a dark, smelly stable carved from the bedrock, with some cows and donkeys, the son of God came into this world and was laid in the straw of the animals’ feeding trough. About as lowly and undignified a birth as you can imagine.

Given that this event is the most momentous event in all of human history, how was this news released to the world? In keeping with everything else about this whole chain of events, it was announced in a way that turned conventional wisdom on its head. The first people to be told about this world-changing event were a group of people who, if anything, had an even less dignified existence than those in the dingy stable next to the inn.

A few years ago, Kelly and I had the opportunity of visiting the Holy Land. In Bethlehem, we were able to visit the Shepherds’ Field. This is the place – still fields, still with sheep – that it is reputed the angels announced the holy birth.

 The Shepherds' Fields in modern-day Bethlehem

The Shepherds' Fields in modern-day Bethlehem

We learned a lot that day about the life of a shepherd in Jesus’ time. How they would care for their flock, know each sheep by name, making sure they were all safely in the fold at night.

But the thing we learned that day which stood out the most was this: by the time of Jesus, shepherds were virtual outcasts from society: the lowest of the low, just about; right down there on the social scale along with tax collectors, prostitutes and others deemed disreputable by society.

Yet they were the people God wanted to be the first to know about the literally world-changing event that had taken place in their town that night.

As we hear about all of these players in the Christmas story, certain themes start to emerge.

First, these are ordinary people, just like you and me, called to do extraordinary things. But we tend to think of these people as different from us; more remarkable and special and holy than us. We do ourselves down when we think that. We are every bit as remarkable and special and holy as they are, and all of us are called to do extraordinary things in the service of God. We just need to listen for God’s voice, hear what he is calling us to do, and then summon up our reserves of strength and follow where it leads, knowing that God will empower us in our work for him as much as he empowered Mary and Joseph.

Second, God deliberately seeks out people who are living ordinary, un-showy even marginalized lives. Mary was an ordinary peasant from a dusty and remote one-horse hamlet in a backwater region of the small Roman province of Palestine. Joseph was a regular working guy. And then the shepherds… well, they were shunned by the folks that lived in the village. Sad to say, but Mary and Joseph and their families and friends likely wouldn’t have mixed with the likes of the shepherds, who slept out in the fields with their flocks. You see, despite their stained-glass personas, Mary and Joseph were fallible human beings and had the same prejudices and failings that any of us have. But they pressed forward when they messed up, and they resolved to learn and grow and knew they were capable of being better people. Since their first visitors in the stable were shepherds their own prejudices were being reappraised right there and then.

God is sending us the clearest possible message that no human being is outside the orbit and inclusion of his love and care. God treated those shepherds with more dignity than they had ever experienced in their lives, and God continues to do so. Since we are God’s hands and feet on earth now, it’s our job to treat everyone with that same dignity. Think of the millions of people in our world that we ignore, or sideline, or marginalize or exclude, either individually or through the actions of our society or country. All humans are fallible, all of us get things wrong, and mess up. Being fallible and faulty shouldn’t deny us the right we have to be treated with kindness, dignity and compassion. Let’s ask ourselves this question: if the story of Christ’s birth was happening in 21st century America and not 1st century Palestine, who would the angels proclaim the news to first of all?

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In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth, and created each and every living thing, and created each and every one of us in his own image. God and his creation existed in perfect and mutual happiness and joy. But then something got in the way of that and spoiled it. The book of Genesis in the Bible talks about it as The Fall. The temptation in the Garden of Eden. That something that got in the way was evil in all its forms.

Evil got in the way of that direct relationship with God and prevented us being at one with God in the way he longed for and – if we are honest with ourselves – the way we long for as well.

Evil contaminates everything to some extent or other, sometimes in major ways, but also in very small amounts – you know, the little things that aren’t exactly major wrongdoings, but things that in some way have become tainted by selfishness, or spitefulness, or carelessness.

Jesus came to earth as a baby, and lived and died and rose from the dead to stop evil having the last word. Jesus didn’t just show us how to live life right, he also redeemed the price that evil had put on our heads; he conquered suffering, pain and death for ever, and in so doing opened up the way again for us to be at one with God.

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