Away in a manger

Passage: Isaiah 9:1-7; Luke 2:1-20
Date: December 24, 2006
Preacher: Dr Jim Moiso
Guest Preacher:

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The other day, while I hurriedly shopped at Trader Joe's, she stopped me cold in my tracks. With beautiful black, naturally curly hair and an ivory complection, her dark eyes sparkled at me. I am a sucker for babies, and there she was, in her infant seat, propped up in that shopping cart, just looking at me, while her mom rummaged in the frozen food. Of course we talked. Well, I did, and she looked and her tiny mouth moved as if to make sounds, and her face lit up with a huge grin. I thanked her mother for such a gift.

What's not to like about a beautiful child? In the best sense, children give us hope, assurance that there will be a future. They bring a lost freshness, vitality, and innocence to our lives. Curious, they see the world as a wondrous thing to be explored, often testing as much as they can by putting it in their mouths. Not encumbered with the burdens of adult life, they exhibit an exuberance sadly absent in most of us who are older.

I suspect this attraction to babies is a primary reason why we love Christmas so much. Just last week, I overheard someone say, "Christmas is for children, you know." And the listener's head nodded in solemn agreement. Some of our favorite Christmas carols reflect this sentiment, like "Still, still, still," and "Away in a Manger."

Away in a manger, no crib for his bed, The little Lord Jesus laid down his sweet head;
The stars in the sky looked down where he lay, The little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay.

On all sorts of Christmas cards, we are attracted to that warm scene and its simple splendor. And we forget why Jesus had to sleep on hay instead of on his own bed. According to Luke, the Imperial Army of Occupation had forced a census on all of the people. They were required to travel to the towns and cities of family origin, and to register there. It was 100 miles or so from Nazareth, winding south through the hills of the West Bank, through the heart of central Jerusalem, and finally into the narrow streets of Bethlehem, and the Holy Family walked. I wonder how many military check points they had to get through on the way, how much hassle and degradation they experienced. I wonder how fearful the Roman soldiers were of terrorist attacks by nationalists, Judeans deeply weary of Roman oppression. We don't usually think about that on Christmas.

We also love that glad star-studded announcement to the shepherds: "Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord." Do not be afraid. How wonderful is that word? Our whole country lives in fear. So do a whole lot of us. In the middle of the night, even this night, perhaps in weariness or loneliness we too will long for a Savior, someone who can bring meaning and purpose to our lives, someone who can help us make sense of what is going on with us and with our increasingly complex world, someone who can make us not afraid. A Savior. For those early generations who heard the angel proclaiming the birth of a Savior, much more was at stake than now, or so it seems. Only one person in all of the empire carried the title, Savior: Caesar himself. The angelic announcement that God was birthing a Savior was not only spiritual, but deeply political. To call Jesus "Savior" was to challenge the greatest power in the world. A new rival was born, one initiated by God. Thus, to call Jesus "Savior" would be viewed as a threat, subversive. To call Jesus "Savior" was far more than a feeling in one's heart. We don't usually think about that on Christmas.

In our familiarity with the story, we have tamed all of that. For us, Christmas is a warm fuzzy, made for children. It was OK for the picturesque shepherds to quake. We have become so accustomed to the idea of divine love coming in a baby at Christmas that we do not quake at all. The holy message feels rather like "chestnuts roasting on an open fire" or a nice hot buttered rum. We love the black curly hair and dark sparkling eyes of the infant. And I am afraid in the process that you and I miss the truly good news.

Theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed in a Nazi prison camp for attempting to assassinate Adolph Hitler. Of Christmas, he says that we often forget "the serious aspect, that the God of the [universe] draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to us. The coming of God [he says] is truly not only glad tidings, but first of all frightening news for everyone who has a conscience." Have you ever thought of Christmas as frightening? He continues:
Only when we have felt the terror [that God comes to lay claim to us], can we recognize the incomparable kindness. God comes into the very midst of evil and of death, and judges the evil in us and in the world. And by judging us....[God] comes to us with grace and love....God wants to always be with us, wherever we may be-in our sin, in our suffering and death. We are no longer alone; God is with us. ( Watch for the Light, p. 205-6)

Friends, remember the context, theirs and ours. Christmas is far more than an exciting event for children. This night, we celebrate the very advent of God into our lives, God's claim on us. As we come to this table, we say yes to that holy advent, to the terror and the kindness of it. As we eat and drink, we affirm the awesome news that God chooses to be with us, to be with humankind in Christ Jesus. We are no longer alone. We are not left to ourselves. Believe it. Believe it this night. We are no longer alone, thank God. Amen.