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Round About the Manger: The Ones Who Said Yes

(a sermon for December 24, 2017, the 4th Sunday of Advent; third in a series, based on  Luke 1:26-38 and Matthew 1:18-25)

In almost every nativity scene you’ll ever see they always look, well… perfect: Mary, all calm and bright, with nary a hair out of place and Joseph, looking properly prayerful and stalwart; dutifully, if quietly, about the business of being an earthly father. And then, of course, there’s the baby, all clean and white and bathed in the glow of a warm light that fairly well seems to shine from his bed of hay in the manger; all this as angels in bright raiment hover overhead, while shepherds and wise men come to call with farm animals quietly milling about.

Now tell the truth; isn’t that the image that always comes to mind when we’re telling this story? It’s a beautiful scene of utter simplicity and serenity; a uniquely holy birth amidst what can only be described as joy expressed in deep and resounding quiet, with a peace – heavenly peace – that could not possibly be contained within the stable, but simply had to overflow out into the dark, shining streets of Bethlehem and outward to all of the world.

At least that’s how I like to think of it!

Actually, I’ve always loved how Barbara Robinson, in her marvelous children’s story of The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, describes a Mary who is “just right” in our imagination: she’s “all pink and white and pure-looking, as if she never washed the dishes or cooked supper or did anything else except have Jesus on Christmas Eve.”  Any and all gender stereotypes aside (!), that does kind of express how we’ve come to view what happens “round about the manger,” as we gaze intently at this truly “Holy Family” – Mary and Joseph and their precious newborn – kneeling in the wonder, the splendor and the hay!

Of course, anyone who’s ever been involved in or present at the process of giving birth knows that most times it’s not like that at all!  Now, there’s no doubt that having a child is a beautiful and natural thing; but often it’s also a painful and exhausting thing; and hard work, most especially for the mother, but also in very real ways for the father and everybody else involved in the delivery (as the saying goes, they don’t call it labor for nothing!).  What’s more, childbirth is an experience that cannot help but create change in the persons involved in a variety of ways: physically, emotionally, and even spiritually. And the thing is that even though there are weeks and months of anticipation and preparation that lead up to the event, inevitably there comes this moment when the actual arrival of the child creates this new and utterly bewildering reality of life!   I remember this well with all three of our kids, but especially on the night that Jake, our firstborn, came into the world.  I’m holding him in my arms, I’m so full of joy and love and I’m feeling all this wonder in my heart; but all the while there’s this fleeting voice in the back of my head that’s asking, “OK, big shot, now what do you do?”

So can you imagine, then, what it must have been like for Mary and Joseph?  This sweet, romantic, bucolic image we have of them to the contrary, the truth is that here were two people who had a great deal working against them: to begin with, they were young (so very young; Mary was no more than 14 or 15 years old and Joseph only a year or two older than that); they were dirt poor and under the thumb of an oppressive Roman government; and not only that, they were engaged but unmarried and expecting, and thus facing the scandal that such a thing would create.  And add to all this that now, thanks to a government edict of taxation, they were both far from their home and trying in vain to find a place to stay in Bethlehem where Mary could have the baby in safety and perhaps some comfort, only to end up having it all happen in the squalor of a stable surrounded by farm animals.

Doesn’t sound quite so sweet or romantic when you think of it that way, does it?

But this was, in fact, the scene of his birth, the “little Lord Jesus” of whom we sing: a tiny, helpless child who was the very light of the universe all wrapped in human skin; ever surrounded by two altogether ordinary people (actually, from the world’s point of view, maybe less  than ordinary people!), two people in whom and through whom God was doing something extraordinary, even as they themselves must have wondered why they were there in the first place!

Max Lucado addresses this beautifully in his book In the Grip of Grace: “He whom angels worship nestled himself in the placenta of a peasant, was birthed into the cold night, and then slept on cow’s hay,” Lucado writes.  “Mary didn’t know whether to give him milk or give him praise, but she gave him both since he was, as near as she could figure, hungry and holy.  Joseph didn’t know whether to call him Junior or Father.  But in the end he called him Jesus, since that’s what the angel had said and since he didn’t have the faintest idea what to name a God he could cradle in his arms.”

“Don’t you think,” Lucado goes on to ask, “[that] their heads tilted and their minds wondered, ‘what in the world are you doing, God?’ Or better phrased, ‘God, what are you doing in the world?’”

Think of it, friends, as that same utterly bewildering reality of life that hits at every new parent sooner or later; but this time it’s hitting on a divine scale… which, when you think about it, pretty much what Christmas is!

For you see, within and beyond the beautiful and peaceful scene depicted at the crèche is this incredible story of God doing something that thoroughly confounds our human sensibilities; which was for the divine to come to us, and to be born and live among us just as any child would do… with everything that entails!    How incredibly wonderful and strange all at the same time that God would become a real, living and breathing, laughing and crying person; knowing every one of the joys we experience in life, but also willing to take on the hurt and the pain as well. What an amazing and yet bewildering thought that the almighty would even deem it suitable to step into the harsh realities of our lives and living, but in fact does it again and again, today, tomorrow and all through our lives, so to understand who we are and how it is that we feel!

But such is this divine love that comes to earth in the midst of a Bethlehem’s manger.  Incredible, isn’t it?  Incredible that out of the harsh reality of his birth a new reality in the world was created; incredible that this was the family that God chose to bring forth this child of love into the world and then to raise him up to be the man he would become; incredible that this one who was called “son of God and son of man” saving the world from its sin would be brought into the world by two young, impoverished and ultimately powerless people who literally had nothing else to give except to simply say, “Yes.”

But the good news is that that was more than enough.  Mary and Joseph said yes… yes to God!

Every year as I return to this nativity story, I’m newly amazed that even though at the very beginning she was no doubt confused and scared at what the angel is saying to her, and that she even dares to ask this heavenly visitor, “How can this be,” still Mary identifies herself as “the servant of the Lord,” saying “let it be with me according to your word!”  And not only that, what’s just about the next thing she does? She sings!  “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”  Mary sings with joy to overflowing for the blessings in her life and in her womb and in her world by the grace of God almighty!

And then there’s Joseph, who legally and socially had every right to turn away from Mary in this unexpected and life-changing situation, but who was not only, as scripture tells us, “a righteous man,” but also loving and compassionate, a “man of incredible faith” who paid attention to dreams and angels and did what needed to be done for the sake of Mary, the child and ultimately, the world.

We might well wonder as we look upon the nativity scene why it was that God chose this family to bring his only son into the world; what the criteria must have been for becoming the most significant foster parents in human history… well it seems to me that with Mary and Joseph, first and foremost it was that they said yes!

That’s important for us to know; especially now as on this Christmas Eve Day we draw ever close to the manger and the miracle of the holy birth; for you see, it turns out some of the most important lessons of this season come from those who were the first to say “yes” to that birth in the first place.

Friends, above and beyond everything else we bring to this time of the year, the whole point of Christmas is that God comes.   “To you is born this day… a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.”   That’s the promise of Christmas, a gift of God’s power and love that’s in fact every gift we will ever need to fulfill every longing we may ever have.  It’s the gift of forgiveness, and healing, and restoration and eternal life all wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ.  As Jack Hayford has put it, “It will take a lifetime to unwrap the essentials [of this gift] for our present, and an eternity to unfold the glories for our future.”   But it starts now… by first saying an emphatic yes to the gift itself, letting our hearts embrace the Christ Child for today and letting him grow with us into the year ahead; accepting God’s presence in Jesus be the solid reality of our lives, and that place where all our hopes for tomorrow are placed and secured!

Think for a moment of the Christmas gift that goes unopened.  Think of the disappointment and sadness the refusal of that gift creates in the giver, and how much less the recipients are for not having had experienced the joy and the wonder that comes with the gift.  But think also of how much deeper the relationship between the giver and those who receive becomes when that gift is received with a whole heart and with great joy and thanksgiving; indeed, in the giving and the receiving there’s a relationship that cannot help but grow and deepen, and life – and the world – changes because of it!

Well, such is the gift of Christmas that’s now offered to us in Emmanuel, God With Us.   When that gift is not received by an open heart, then Christmas remains just another holiday, another opportunity for revelry and gift-giving that’s comes and goes with the 25th of December.  But… when we say “yes” to God’s gift to us of a Savior and Christ is born again in our hearts, then Christmas – true Christmas – becomes the centerpiece of each new day; a way of life and living that is forged in an ever deepening relationship with the Lord girded in love, and joy, and peace, and unending hope.

I hope and pray on this day before Christmas that in the same way that those two who first knelt before the manger bed, you also will say yes to God’s gift.  It’s still a gift, as much now as it was two millennia ago; and it’s still good news, as fresh and as real as the here and now in which we live.  For unto you is born this day is a Savior; one who comes to us so that he might lift the burden from off of our shoulders; one who comes to wipe the tears from our eyes; one who comes to assure us once and for all that we are not alone in this world, and that there is truly hope and joy unending.

And the beauty part?  All we have to do is say yes!!  So say it… Say yes!!   Let our souls this day magnify the Lord!  Let our spirits rejoice in God our Savior, for truly God has looked with favor upon us and has sent us a Savior!

Yes… Yes!   YES!

Merry Christmas, dear friends, Thanks be to God, and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Posted by on December 24, 2017 in Advent, Christmas, Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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Round About the Manger: For Those Who Live Out in the Fields

(a sermon for December 3, 2017, the 1st Sunday of Advent; first in a series, based on Jeremiah 33:14-16 and Luke 2:8-12)

And now, with the start of the Advent season, once again the old and familiar story begins anew.

At its heart it’s a breathtakingly simple story, really; about a young girl giving birth to her first child in a stable, of all places, with precious few even remotely aware that this “blessed” event was taking place; in many ways, it’s no different a story than those of countless young women throughout the ages. But, of course, there’s a reason that this particular “baby story” gets told again and again across the generations: it’s because, in the words of David Lose, “the child born to this young mother will change the course of history, and the fates of leaders and common folk alike hang in the balance of his destiny.”  The child in the manger, you see, is “the Messiah, the Lord,” the very Son of God; and so it’s fitting that each year about this time we do remember the simple and yet utterly powerful story of his advent into the world, and that we are each and all prayerfully waiting and watching for signs of his coming.

In fact, such is the power of this remarkable and miraculous story that it’s long been our custom to set forth something of a tableau of the narrative in the form of a crèche; a nativity scene, if you will.  It’s a Christian tradition that dates back as far as the 13th century and may well have been begun by St. Francis of Assisi as a palpable reminder of the humility of Christ’s birth, complete with manger, ox and lamb, and plenty of hay. Francis, it is said, wished to remind all those looking upon this scene of the simplicity, and the utter poverty, of God’s own Son being born into the world.  And I would dare say that even today, given all the massive chaos, stress and rampant affluence that so often accompanies the holiday season, it’s still a much needed reminder!

Actually, friends, as much as you know I love just about all manner of Christmas lights and decorations (!), I have to say that the crèche has always been my favorite, in large part because it is humbling, a good reminder of “the reason for the season,” and also because it’s serenely quiet amidst all the noise this time of year; and I need that.  Many has been the advent evening over the years when I’ve found myself gazing long upon our family’s beautiful crèche (a family heirloom, handcrafted by my grandmother, with shepherds, magi and an angel who holds the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” banner) and imagining what the real scene must have been on that starlit night in Bethlehem so long ago; even as I’m thinking that as far as I’m concerned, spiritually and otherwise, our crèche gets it just right!

All of that said, however; I do suspect that over the centuries, like so much of the biblical story of Jesus’ birth, we’ve tended to, shall we say, romanticize the nativity scene a bit.  Take the shepherds, for instance; in our crèche at home, the resident shepherd has more of a medieval look about him: he, as you might imagine, has a little lamb about his shoulders; but he’s also wearing a brown, apparently one-piece tunic, he’s blonde, fair-skinned, barefoot and, might I add, very, very clean!  Now, again, don’t get me wrong; I kind of like that image of the beautiful and nicely coiffed, animal-loving Christmas shepherd; but honestly, that’s likely not a wholly accurate description!

The truth is that in Jesus’ time, shepherds were not particularly well thought of; they were, in fact, on the bottom tier of Jewish society.  More often than not, they were mired in poverty (usually you didn’t become a sheepherder because you particularly loved sheep, nor that you felt called to that vocation; you became a sheepherder because that was the only job you could get!); they were often thought of as incompetent and untrustworthy, disreputable rogues at best and hardened criminals at worst; and because of this, they pretty much existed as outcasts on the outermost fringes of respectable society; and yes, let’s just say it: they were dirty, not merely in the sense that these shepherds lived for weeks out in the fields and deserts watching their flocks by night and day, but also in the sense of being ritually unclean.  Jewish law at the time forbade many classes of people from entering the Temple for worship, and shepherds were amongst those who were not welcome.  To put this another way, though the job of the shepherd was to protect the sheep that would potentially be used in sacrifices at the Temple, they themselves were not allowed to participate in that act of worship, nor to know God’s presence in the Temple itself!

So by just about every societal, economic and religious measure you can name, shepherds were considered to be the lowest of the low, not at all good or righteous or even redeemable.  To put this all into perspective, consider these words from the writings of first century Jewish writer Jeremias: that “to buy wool, milk or a [baby goat] from a shepherd was forbidden on the assumption that it would be stolen property.”

Not exactly the beautiful and serene image put forth in your average nativity scene, is it?  And yet…

…wasn’t it such these who were exactly the kind of people that our Lord had come to save? Weren’t these “disreputable rogue” shepherds the very ones who were clinging to those promises of old, the ones we heard in this morning’s text from Jeremiah, that a “righteous branch” will “spring up for David;” that there will soon one who “shall execute justice and righteousness in the land,” bringing forth a time when “Judah will be saved and Jerusalem will live in safety?”  Does it not seem as though these would be the very ones – the poor, the vulnerable, the outcast – whom God would choose to invite into his presence? In fact, I would submit to you that this is why we always find the shepherds “round about the manger!”  To quote David Lose once again, “Here is the promise of Christmas in a nutshell.  God deigns to dwell not with the high and might, but with the lowly, the unexpected, those considered ‘nothing’ by the world.  And here, amid the weakness and vulnerability of human birth, God makes God’s intentions for humanity fully known: [that] God is love.

Christ comes, you see; that is the promise of Advent.  And, the good news is that Christ comes for those who live out in the fields… and the good news, beloved, is that you and I are included in that number.

And no, before you ask, I’m not suggesting we’re a sanctuary full of “disreputable rogues;” at least as far as I know!  But I do know that just because we might not be in the business of tending sheep we aren’t still shepherds, at least in the spiritual sense.  I would suggest to you that each one of us here this morning knows something about what it means to be “out in the fields” of life; most especially as we’re “keeping watch” of things in the dark of night.  After all, so many of us know all too well what it is to be weighed down by the everyday hardships of this life; to be faced with the bleak realities that seemingly come out of nowhere to afflict us.  Debilitating illness and on-going grief, faltering relationships, pervasive economic struggles, the injustice of a world that too often favors the wealthy and powerful in its priorities; this, to say nothing of the deep and pervasive yearning that each and every one of us here have to feel welcomed and included and loved, even as we constantly find ourselves on the outside looking in… it goes on and on; but this is the stuff of life out in the fields… and we are the shepherds dwelling in the midst of our own flocks of sheep.

That’s why it’s good news indeed that just as birth of Jesus in the manger of Bethlehem was unto “certain poor shepherds in fields as they lay,” it is unto us as well.

As we’ve said throughout this service, today does mark the beginning of the season of Advent, our time of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ; a time for each one of us to come “round about the manger” and let the story of his holy birth begin again in our worship, but most especially, in our lives.  It seems to me that as we do so, we can take some lessons from those shepherds who did indeed leave everything behind – including their sheep, apparently (!) – in order to run to Bethlehem in order to gaze upon the divine infant.

We know, for instance, that as the shepherds beheld the spectacle of “an angel of the Lord [who] stood before them, and the glory of the Lord [that] shone around them,” they listened; for as terrifying an experience as it must have been to suddenly be in the presence of one (and then a heavenly host!!) bearing nothing less than the very Word of God, they were open to truly receive that good news with their whole hearts and then their whole lives. And so it should be for you and me, that the good news of Christ be allowed to speak to us and affect us and move us to new ways of understanding and living in this world; and that begins by truly listening.

And then we also know, having received that good news wholly and fully, that the shepherds went.  And not casually, or out of some mild curiosity, either; but with swift decisiveness, and out of a great sense of urgency and excitement to go and see for themselves.  “They came with haste,” the old King James Version puts it, “and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger.”  And why wouldn’t they? In the words of poet J. Barrie Shepherd, they’d been “caught up in the midst of the momentous.”  The question is whether in this advent season the coming of Christ is equally momentous for us; if our priority in this busy and often cacophonous time is to focus our thoughts and energies on beholding this child who comes to save us from ourselves.

And then, of course, we know that the shepherds returned; because after they’d gone to Bethlehem to see the baby Jesus; after they’d told Mary and Joseph what they’d seen and heard; after the whole thing was done and the time had come to leave, they went back.  Back out to the fields; back to the sheep; back to the hard work and back to the silent drudgery of the flock.  It was back to the same old same old; and yet they weren’t the same going back.  Rather, they “returned, glorifying and praising God.”   Life for those shepherds did go on as it had before:  but now that they’d been touched and moved by the mystery and wonder, now that they’d encountered nothing less than the very love of God incarnate, how could they ever again be the same?

And so that ought to be for us as we embark on this time of advent waiting and watching.  For you see, in the end what we’re waiting and watching for is the almost indescribable reality of God, the Eternal One, who is being born into our midst to save us where we are as we are, right now; who comes into the very midst of life-as-we-know-it, even if life-as-we-know-it overwhelms us with pain and bewilderment and confusion.  What the shepherds discovered that night, and what you and I need to embrace for ourselves in this season is the truth of a God whose love for us is so great that it will stoop even to helplessness in order to bring us to him and his strength and his peace.  God did it with the cradle, beloved, and God did it on the cross; and God did it – and continues to do it – so that we might know the glory of life both abundant and eternal, spending our days, whether in joy or in sorrow, glorifying and praising God for all we have seen; living out of the faith and hope that is ours by his coming in Jesus Christ and the advent dawning of his kingdom.

May this be our hope and prayer as in these weeks we draw near to the manger, and also as we come to the Lord’s table this morning to know his presence in the bread and the cup.

Thanks be to God!

AMEN and AMEN!

c. 2017  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 3, 2017 in Advent, Jesus, Sermon, Sermon Series

 

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My Place at the Manger

IMG_0213The aforementioned nativity scene that graces our home most every Christmas season is very much a family heirloom: back in the early sixties my Grandmother Ware crafted each of the ceramic pieces by hand, and they were displayed on a dining room hutch in her house through a great many Christmases while I was growing up.  After my grandparents retired, my mother and father had it for a number of years until Lisa and I were married and it was passed on to us; it’s simple but elegant crèche that not only beautifully evokes the nativity story, but which also harkens a number of very good memories; and it’s something very precious to me.

In all honesty, though, I have to confess that when I remember being very young at Christmas, this is not the crèche that I think of.  It was rather one that my grandmother probably had for years before she’d made the new one, and one that she continued to set out even afterward; but down low, on the lower shelf of an end table, right where a child could sit down and take a close look at it.

Thinking back, it was nothing special: a die-pressed cardboard stable with a hole in the back for a candle bulb to light it up; and a set of miniature wax figures with paint so chipped away that you could barely tell a shepherd from a wise man (in fact, if memory serves, the angel that held the “Gloria in excelsis Deo” banner had part of a wing missing!).  But none of that mattered;  I remember visiting my grandparents as a young child and spending hours at a time arranging and re-arranging the figures, so to tell the story of the birth of Jesus in a wide variety of new ways.

For instance, sometimes Mary would be set off to one side, having a private conversation with the angel while Joseph kept watch over the sleeping child.  For that matter, Joseph could often be found outside the stable leading the three wise men (along with their tragically three-legged camel!) inside, all the while warning them to be quiet because the baby had just now fallen asleep.

The cow, sheep and donkey would usually be placed at the edge of the manger itself; as though each one were curiously sniffing the baby that had just been born in their place of residence.  And then, of course, there was always that one, motley shepherd: the bearded, tattered figure standing attentively at one corner of the manger and who was forever carrying a lamb in his arms.  He always looked as though he’d just arrived from having run from the fields to see this baby, and had either acted so quickly he’d forgotten that he still had the lamb; or else, being a “good” shepherd, it was simply that he couldn’t bear to leave it behind.

It was just childhood play, I know, and evidence of an overactive imagination on my part (!)… but even now as I return to the crèche yet again I cannot help but wonder about all those who were “round about the manger” on that silent, holy night long ago; speculating as to what each one must have been thinking and feeling amid the singular experience of being present as the divine came to earth in the guise of a child; and wondering, however wistfully, how I might have responded had I been there myself.

Actually, scripture gives us relatively little insight into such matters: it suggests that Mary “pondered” these things in her heart, while the always stalwart Joseph immediately appears focused on caring for his new wife and adopted son; for me, their visage of grace and serenity have always represented for me the “calm and bright” quality of Christmas and of God’s gift of a Savior, in the same way the arrival of the Wise Men, along with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, bring something of a gravitas to the event as they pay homage to this one who is born the “king of the Jews.” The shepherds, on the other hand, seem to be the ones who are filled to overflowing the utter joy of “this thing that has taken place;” and why wouldn’t they be?  After having heard such good news on a cosmic scale, all accompanied by a chorus of the heavenly host; and then to come face to face with this crying newborn – in a barn, of all places (!) – who is, in fact, “the Messiah, the Lord;” well, it had to have been, to say the very least, overwhelming.  Luke’s gospel tells us that when the shepherds returned to their flocks, they were “glorifying and praising God for all that they heard and seen,” and I suspect that was putting it mildly; after all, when you’ve just seen the whole world change right before your very eyes it’s pretty unlikely you’ll even begin to keep quiet about it!

I know that had I been there I could never have been as calm and collected as how we usually depict Mary and Joseph; my tendency would have been to fret and stew over the minutiae of taking care of a newborn, and would have spent most of my time that night tending to a lantern or shooing the animals away from Jesus!  And I’m sure that I possess neither the wisdom nor the political savvy of the magi as they ultimately outwitted Herod in their quest to find, and then to kneel before, the child.   No, my place at the manger would surely have been among that motley assortment of shepherds; and yes, I would have been the one with the lamb still in my arms.  But not, I hasten to add, because I’d have been that attentive to the well-being of the sheep; but rather because having heard the glory of the angels’ song and then rushing to get to Bethlehem to see it for myself I would simply been too distracted, too excited, and frankly, too “slack jawed and buggy eyed” to pay attention to anything else!

Actually, it strikes me that as Christmas 2014 draws near, you and I would still do well to be so overwhelmed by God’s gift of a Savior that everything else around us – not only the noise and chaos of the world’s celebration, but the weight of its many concerns and struggles as well – pales in comparison; for this will be a sign that in every way that matters Christ is born in us today and will be with us at Christmas and always.

Truly, may our prayer for this season be that God’s vision of peace on earth and goodwill amongst those he loves truly come in its fullness; and may we know it’s true because it will have already unfolded in each one of us who live as shepherds in search of a stable.

c. 2014  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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