The bottom line of the birth of Jesus the Christ is this: If Jesus the Christ isn’t born into the here-and-now of life’s realities, then Jesus the Christ is born nowhere.
The Christmas Eve sermon in my parish is at “T-minus 10hrs 14 min” and counting. The community dinner is behind us. Lessons and Carols has rolled by in stylish worshipful fashion. “Dateline Bethlehem” was a riot! Soon to follow was a tender and painful funeral that cleft the week in twain, placing the parish on its knees, and here we kneel before the manger.
Tonight Luke 2 will unfurl the old, old story before us:
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And 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.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” 16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. (NRSV)
This story is as useless as “teats on a boar” if the characters are limited to Mary, Joseph, an angel, and the shepherds. If Luke 2 is the scope of the matter then we’ve reduced the story to a historic event. We’ve narrowed ourselves and attempted to narrow our Lord’s impact. If the characters of the story are limited to those specifically named characters in the text, then we’ve missed the point entirely. For haven’t we limited ourselves to seeking meaning through the birthing event of Jesus the Christ rather seeking meaning through the birthing experience of Jesus the Christ? Haven’t we opted, even settled, for a story of God-was-with-us, rather than embracing Ancient Israel’s hope of Immanuel, God-with-us?
This “birth of Jesus” story goes far beyond the specificities of time, place, culture, genre, and particularity. This story spills out of Bethlehem’s manger across time and space, through relationships and realities, transecting and transcending perceptions and realities. It truly knows no bounds.
The story that launched from a feed box, taking wing, still finds itself flying into our ears 21 centuries later. Tonight, for many, it comes to us in this way:
“Throughout the season of Advent,
the Church has reflected on God’s promises,
so often spoken by the prophets,
to send a savior to the people of Israel
who would be Emmanuel, that is, God with us.
In the fullness of time those promises were fulfilled. With hearts full of joy let us listen to the proclamation of our Savior’s birth.
Today, the twenty-fifth day of December
Unknown ages from the time when God created the heavens and the earth
And then formed man and woman in his own image.
Several thousand years after the flood,
When God made the rainbow shine forth as a sign of the covenant.
Twenty-one centuries from the time of Abraham and Sarah;
Thirteen centuries after Moses led the people of Israel out of Egypt.
Eleven hundred years from the time of Ruth and the Judges;
One thousand years from the anointing of David as king;
In the sixty-fifth week according to the prophecy of Daniel.
In the one hundred and ninety-fourth Olympiad;
The seven hundred and fifty-second year from the foundation of the city of Rome.
The forty-second year of the reign of Octavian Augustus;
The whole world being at peace,
Jesus Christ, eternal God and Son of the eternal Father,
Desiring to sanctify the world by his most merciful coming,
Being conceived by the Holy Spirit,
And nine months having passed since his conception,
Was born in Bethlehem of Judea of the Virgin Mary.
Today is the nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ according to the flesh. Amen.
That’s pretty much the Christmas story. But it certainly falls short if it ends there around 21 centuries ago. And the only reason it falls short is if the story’s characters are limited to those names in Luke 2.
Aren’t there other stories?
Aren’t there other Christmas stories?
And aren’t those stories propelled forward from Luke 2 with these angelic words, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.”
For all the people—ALL THE PEOPLE—you, me, generations as yet unborn—could this be our cue to take our place and act our parts, get into the story, be more useful than “boar teats?” Is this the prophetic pronouncement that the story is not so much the story of the birthing manger of Jesus, but perhaps the story of the birthing manger of us all? Wouldn’t this mean that the manger of Jesus is the manger of us all?
And wouldn’t it mean that the manger is the feed box that feeds across every boundary and lifetime?
Seems very apt that the manger, the feed box in Bethlehem, whose very name means “House of Bread,” is the box for the giving of nourishment? That’s certainly the truth of Jesus—and for the Christian it should certainly be just as equally true.
There’s only one manger, the manger of Jesus. And it is the very same manger for folks like me, like you.
Tonight we’ll hear the 21 century old story of Jesus and the manger, in a world looking to find that same Jesus in the manger of me, of you?
Who will hear the Christmas story told through me? Told through you?
And where can we find our Christmas storylines?
Perhaps we look deeply into our lives, to the place where the Meal in the feed box of the house of bread has nourished us, cleansed us, called us, changed us, renewed us, freed us, calmed us, released us, called us holy, called us lovely, called us mine, made us new?
Isn’t that really what we’ve come to Bethlehem to see? Aren’t those the moments bringing you good news of great joy? Isn’t that what our world longs to see, for aren’t those the storylines this world waits to hear? Aren’t those the signs of a babe creating meaning far beyond any time locked, time stamped event, working grace in the deepest bowels of human experience?