Looking for Jesus? Try the Manger
Looking for Jesus? Try the Manger
Christmas Eve 2016
Maple Grove UMC
Are you looking for Jesus? That’s been our theme here this season before Christmas. Are you looking for Jesus—is that why you’re here? Oh, I know—there are lots of reasons to be at church on Christmas Eve. Some people come to sing the carols and hear the Christmas music. Some people come because, well, they’ve always come to church on Christmas Eve—it’s a tradition. Some people come just to make grandma happy once a year. There aren’t any bad reasons to come to church on Christmas Eve. But maybe, just maybe, you’ve come to church this day because somehow or other, in the midst of it all, you’re looking for Jesus in your life. Here’s where we’ve been the past few weeks. Week 1 said that if you’re looking for Jesus, then stay alert—every moment of every day is a time when Jesus might show up. Week 2 told us that wherever bodies and spirits are being healed and wherever the poor find relief, that’s where to look for Jesus. But that Jesus is Immanuel reminded us that in some ways we don’t have to look for Jesus at all—he is God-with-us, always and everywhere. If you’re looking for Jesus, there are many right answers about where and how to look.
And now finally we come to Christmas Eve. Matthew’s gospel tells the story of the Wisemen who come from afar, looking for Jesus. Unlike most men, they stop and ask for directions, saying to King Herod, “Where is this child who has been born king of the Jews?” And the answer is not in the temple or palace, not in the capital city or any important place at all. The answer is in Bethlehem, a has-been village in the hinterlands, not where you might expect the Son of God at all. For my Advent devotions this year, I reread a book of Christmas sermons by Martin Luther who in the 1500s said: “If we Christians would join the Wise Men, we must close our eyes to all that glitters before the world and look rather on the despised and foolish things, help the poor, comfort the despised, and aid the neighbor in his need.”1 Are you looking for Jesus? Well, we’re beginning to find out where to look.
Now I’m going to be careful here. Peter Marty, a Lutheran pastor in Iowa, once preached on Christmas Eve about Herod killing the baby boys in Bethlehem, seeking to do away with this newborn pretender to his throne. Rev. Marty compared this tragedy to a little boy who’d been killed that month in our own country. One mother told him after the service that mention of children being murdered had no place in a Christmas sermon. She said, “I will never set foot in this church again.” And she never did. “What I underestimated,” Marty admits, “on that particular Christmas night, was the peril of tampering with holiday sentiment.”2 Well, I promise not to tell you any stories about harming children tonight. But in principal, I’m with Rev. Marty—the Savior we need is one who isn’t afraid to be found in dark and troubled places, because the world is full of dark in troubled places, even at Christmas
So let’s look at where the gospels say to look for Jesus. In Luke, if you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger. Mary gave birth not in the comfort of home but on the road, and not in an inn but in the barn out back. And she laid her baby not in a crib but in a manger. Now I know we make mangers look cute and cozy in our Hallmark manger scenes. But you know what a manger is, right? It comes from the French word, manger, meaning to chew or eat. It’s the place where farm animals get their feed. Rough and dirty would come closer to describing it than cute and cozy. It is nowhere that any of us would even consider laying our baby. But that’s all Mary had for Jesus. If you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger.
And according to Luke, Jesus’ first visitors were not the grandparents with their cameras nor the neighbors with Babies”R”Us gifts cards, but shepherds straight from the fields, meaning they hadn’t had time to clean up. Now we often romanticize shepherds too, but Martin Luther corrects that. Being a shepherd, he says, was “low-down work, and the men who did it were regarded as trash.”3 What’s more, these aren’t just any shepherds; these are the ones who were keeping watch over their flocks in the middle of the night. If you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger, try the night shift of the worst job you can think of.
Well, that’s Luke’s gospel—what about Matthew? Well, Matthew is the one who tells about King Herod doing that thing I promised I wouldn’t tell about. And because of that, Mary and Joseph had to take their baby and flee for their lives. They wound up in Egypt, where they looked and dressed different from everyone else, didn’t know the language and hadn’t been properly vetted They were what today we would call refugees. In Columbus today there between 40,000 and 65,000 Somalis who have fled violence there. 11 million Syrians have fled the fighting in their country. If you’re looking for Jesus, try among the refugees.
Writer Harriett Richie tells about the year her husband was hungry after the late Christmas Eve service. The only place they could find open was a truck stop by the interstate. By that time the kids were asleep. The air smelled of coffee, bacon and cigarette smoke. The juke box played bad country music; a one-armed man in a baseball cap sat at the bar and drank with a couple of other scruffy guys. A thin woman named Rita came to take their order, looking as any woman might who drew the late shift on Christmas Eve. Harriett admits: the snob in me was enjoying feeling out of place there. “Years from now,” she thought, “we’ll laugh and say, ‘Remember that Christmas Eve we ate at the truck stop? The awful music and the tacky lights?’”
A beat up VW pulled up outside and a bearded young man in jeans got out. He opened he door for a young woman holding a baby. They hurried inside and took a booth in back. As Rita took their order, the baby started to cry. The father lifted the baby to his shoulder but it didn’t help. Rita poured them coffee. The mother took the baby and began rocking it in her arms. The mother picked up the diaper bag and started to leave. But Rita came over and held out her arms. “Drink your coffee, Hon. Let’s see what I can do.” Rita began walking, talking, bouncing the baby. She showed her to the man in the baseball cap. He began whistling and making silly faces, and the baby stopped crying. “Just look at this little darlin’,” she said. “Mine are so big and grown.”
The one-armed fellow took a pot of coffee and started waiting on tables. As he filled their mugs, Harriett felt tears in her eyes. Her husband wanted to know what was wrong.
“Nothing. Just Christmas,” she said. . . “He’d come here, wouldn’t he?” she asked.
“Who would?” her husband said.
“Jesus. If Jesus were born in this town tonight and his choices were our neighborhood, the church or this truck stop, it would be here, wouldn’t it?”
He didn’t answer right away, but looked around the place, looked at the people. Finally he said, “Either here or a homeless shelter.”
The houses in our neighborhood were dark, Harriett writes. As we passed the Mulfords, I wondered what Christmas Day would be like for them. Their daughter died in a car accident during the summer. Next door Jack McCarthy had lost his job. A little farther down the street lived the Baileys, whose marriage was hanging together by the slimmest thread. Mrs. Smith’s grown son had died from AIDS. Maybe we’re not so different from the people in the truck stop, she thought.
After they tucked in the children, she picked up a Bible and found where it says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Then she found the Christmas story where it says, “I am bringing good news of great joy for all the people.”
Many Christmases have passed since that night, she says, but I still believe that Jesus would be born in what I’d call an unholy place. But rich, poor or in between, we’re all poor in spirit. In the places where we are broken, she concludes, in the dark holes where something is missing, in the silence of unanswered questions, the wondrous gift is given.4
If you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger, try the truck stop late at night, try your neighbors’ silent pain, try the broken places of your own heart and life.
Here’s the passage from Martin Luther that really tugged at my heart this Advent season. He says, “There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves, ‘If only I had been there [in Bethlehem]! How quick I would have been to help the Baby! I would have [changed his diapers]. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!’ Sure you would have,” Luther says. “You say that because you know how great Christ is. . . [Well,] why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.”5
Why don’t you do it now? Luther asked 500 years ago. Well, we do, some. And Christmas is the time to turn our hearts to do it more.
Thinking back to Peter Marty’s controversial Christmas sermon, I’m not intending to tamper with holiday sentiment—really I’m not. My home is as decorated as anyone’s. Later tonight our family will give gifts to each other that we don’t really need but that warm our hearts nevertheless. Tomorrow we’ll have dinner and reminisce about Christmases past. I’ll enjoy every card you send and every cookie you give me! Holiday sentiment? Count me in!
But if you’re looking for Jesus, try the manger. Try among the refugees, the homeless couple out back of the inn, the night shift diner, try your neighbor’s silent pain and the broken places in your own heart and life. That’s where the wondrous gift is given.
1 Roland H. Bainton, ed., Martin Luther’s Christmas Book (Minneapolis: Augsburg, 1997), 59.
2 Peter W. Marty, “Christmas Unvarnished: A Savior for a Troubled World,” The Christian Century (December 12, 2012), 10.
3 Bainton, 35.
4Harriett Richie, “He’d Come Here: Christmas Eve,” The Christian Century (December 13, 1995), 1205-06.
5 Bainton, 31.