Year C – RCL – 25 December 2012
John Edward Miller, Rector
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph 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. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 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.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
When 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.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.
– Luke 2:1-20
O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
“Therefore the LORD himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”
“And this shall be a sign for you: you will find the babe wrapped in swaddling cloths lying in a manger.”
Our children’s Christmas Eve service is always a major event in our parish life, and it is always beautiful. It draws an Easter-size congregation composed of parents, grandparents, and hundreds of others who simply want to see children celebrate the Nativity of Jesus in their inimitable way. The complications attending this event are legion. Herding in and managing a cast of mini angels, shepherds, sheep, wise men, and the holy family is quite a feat. But I tell the anxious adult directors not to worry, because the service is a guaranteed success. No matter what happens, the story gets told in ways that we cherish. Children get rambunctious; some are cranky, bored, or so geared up about Christmas that they can’t wait for the gift giving to commence. That can lead to disagreements (like two little angels who duked it out in front of their horrified parents), and of course, there are crying children who just want to go home. Still it is wonderful to behold, and it warms our heart year after year.
My favorite image every year is that of Mary and Joseph peering into the rough-cut wooden manger to see a doll all bundled up atop a bed of straw. Their young faces reflect light and shed light; it is a moment of pure goodness. Young Mary and Joseph help us imagine the original couple, standing in a stable, awestruck by the baby they had been given. The little infant, whom they would name Jesus, was not only precious, he was (and is) God’s miraculous message of love. Through him all mankind receives the greatest good news imaginable: God loves us so completely that he gives himself to us that we might fully live. The word portrait of the Messiah’s birth delivers the message in a language that all of us can understand. That is why we have gathered at St. Mary’s on this Christmas Day.
Heirlooms tell stories too. One that I treasure is a belt buckle that comes from the Miller side of my family. My grandfather Edward was the son of a first generation immigrant from Germany. His parents spoke German even as they became citizens of the United States. However, like most Richmonders, their children blended right into the southern culture, speaking English as their basic tongue. Still, there were vestiges of their German legacy, such as food choices, preference for dark beer, ethnic friendships, and artifacts from the old country. The buckle was one of those items. It was part of an army uniform – likely from the Franco-Prussian War era. I don’t know which of my ancestors served in the Kaiser’s military, but one certainly did, because the buckle one of several pieces of military paraphernalia. On the buckle is an imperial crown surrounded by a motto confidently proclaiming, “Gott mit uns.”
“God with us” is the English translation. That was quite a statement of status and privilege. Whoever wore that buckle must have thought that his cause was just. And I’ll bet he felt a little safer than the troops opposing him. Perhaps he sensed an edge in battle, such as Constantine’s army, which had the Chi-Rho monogram (short for “Christ”) emblazoned on their shields. To claim, as the Kaiser’s emblem did, that “God [is] with us” is to impute righteousness to the war aims, as well as a standing of entitlement to the combatants.
They were not the only soldiers or rulers that made this claim. Some were quick to flex their military muscles after a triumph, making common cause with the Almighty. Others, however, lost their campaigns and suffered the defeat of their supposed divine right. And that inevitably begged the question, “If we failed to achieve victory, in what sense was God with us?”
Many who have lost loved ones to tragedy ask that very question. So do those whose life is being depleted by illness, or whose livelihood has vanished, or whose relationships have broken apart, or whose control over their circumstances has ebbed away.
The implication of “with us” is advantage. But what if there is no advantage? What if there is failure and loss? Does that mean that God is absent? Not there? Irrelevant? The ramifications of loss can be devastating. Outcomes depend on our basic assumptions. If we expect that God’s presence with us is leverage, that it entitles us to special favors, then losing can be catastrophic. On the other hand, the story we celebrate at Christmas shows us another way (a subtler way) of seeing God’s presence, and understanding God’s power, in our life.
Early Christians viewed Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecy – especially Isaiah’s proclamation of Immanuel, the sign that “God [is] with us.” That is Matthew’s interpretation; Luke’s view of the nativity of Jesus culminates in the appearance of the Angel Gabriel, who together with the heavenly host, exclaimed, “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” In Luke the sign is a reinterpretation of Immanuel. God with us takes three-dimensional, animate form – a baby swaddled with bands of cloth lying in a manger.
God chose to invest himself in the being of a helpless infant, wrapped up tightly so that he would feel secure instead of anxious, snug instead of chilled in the night air of Judea. This momentous choice – God’s choice to become human – strikes us as counterintuitive. His form is at loggerheads with notions of heroic strength. He arrives as a newborn who has enjoyed the safety and warmth of his mother’s womb, only to be expelled by birth into an alien world that provides no protection against the elements. Besides his mother’s beating heart, swaddling offers the baby Jesus his only comfort.
Is it odd that God would need comforting? Well, no, it isn’t, because this baby is God’s physical presence, God’s sensing, feeling, thinking, emoting, vulnerable presence in a world that does not support infants automatically. In this world, human babies need help, and lots of it, to survive. I think that the Christ child’s powerlessness, his weakness, is the sign. Unlike the way the world measures power, God reveals his power by pouring himself out, by emptying himself, and taking the form of the lowly, rather than the proud. This is preposterous to propose, but it is the deepest of all truths.
But what is even more remarkable is the repository of this Immanuel child. He is lying in a manger, said the angel to those awestruck shepherds. A manger is not a cradle, or an isolette, or a fancy crib. It is a feeding trough – a rough-hewn, straw-filled, saliva-soaked container of feed. A manger, from the French, manger, meaning “to eat,” is in the opinion of one of our preschoolers, “just yucky.” It’s not something you’d order from Laura Ashley or Babies Are Us.
What’s up with all of this earthiness? All this lowliness? All this lack of advantage, privilege, status, or power to bend reality to one’s will?
Maybe that’s the point. God’s way of being “with us” is like that – earthy, involved, simple, humble, unpretentious, willing and able to get his hands dirty in the soil of life. Jesus’ genealogy can be traced through King David’s royal lineage, but he was not to the manor born. He was both the Son of God and the son of man. He is extraordinary, yet ordinary. As my late teacher Donald Dawe used to say, “God is most like himself when he becomes one of us.” Jesus shares with us a common life – one that is human, not extraterrestrial. The circumstances of his birth make it clear that his godliness is gracefully down to earth.
What could be earthier, and less high and mighty, than beginning life in a manger? Mary’s child, born in lowly estate, is nevertheless the Savior of us all. Christ the Lord is not distant, but close at hand; he is not removed from us, but is within our reach. In him God is with us bodily; in him God is literally in touch with us. He experiences our feelings – the sorrows as well as the joys, the disappointments as well as the satisfactions. That is amazingly good news, because the one who sees life through our eyes is the one who can redeem life as we live it.
The one to a manger born came among us not to be served, but to serve. Jesus, our Lord, is no ordinary king, but he is just the one we need – a king who would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with his people, and whose sovereign rule would be the law of love. His ministry will be marked with humility rather than hubris, compassion rather than coercion, giving rather than receiving. Mary, I believe, saw God’s presence in him, and pondered in her heart the godliness, as well as the cost, of the way he live his magnificent life.
God’s manger-cradled Messiah would grow to his full stature and beckon us to set aside our agenda and to follow him. Those who would become his disciples joined the ministry of the humble servant, doing deeds of kindness for the sake of love. Together with him, they have done the work of redemption, and have touched us with God’s presence.
One of his disciples died recently. She was quiet, hard working, and extraordinarily kin, and she left this world more benevolent for her presence. Her acts of service were unheralded and seemingly small, but in reality they were remarkably effective. At her memorial service, her two daughters followed their mother’s example and gave a highly organized, yet soft-spoken account of a life dedicated to love of God and love of neighbor – every neighbor.
For example, this modest mother expressed her maternal care not only to her own children but also to everyone she met. During hot months of summer, she made sure that when the garbage man made his weekly visit to her house, he would find a cool bottle of water and a refreshing snack resting on the lid of the garbage can. She couldn’t bear the idea that he might suffer through that heat and humidity unappreciated.
On a lengthy drive on a turnpike interrupted by tollbooths, this same thoughtful soul handed to every toll attendant a bag containing candy hearts and other confections. She thought that if the turnpike employees had to work on Valentine’s Day, someone should treat them with a kind remembrance.
Seeking and serving Christ in all persons, loving your neighbor as yourself, as well as respecting the dignity of every human being, is a manger-based ministry. It is born in Bethlehem, nurtured in Nazareth, and fulfilled in Jerusalem. We who gather around Christ’s manger are his family. He is our brother, our dearest companion. Because we share his life, we too can grow in grace until we become more and more like him in our thoughts, our words, and our deeds. Christmas reminds us of that, and it gives us an annual re-start on the journey. Christ’s life sheds light on our path. And even if we are only capable of taking baby steps, they are still steps. We would do well to trust him, and to take them. He will be there to catch us when we fall.
May the joy, peace, hope, and love of Christmas be with you this day, and forever more.
In the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, let us open our hearts to receive him, our Lord Immanuel. Amen.
 Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 in his interpretation of the significance of Jesus’ birth, viz., “All this took place to fulfil what the LORD had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us)” – Matthew 2:22-23.
 Luke 2:10b-13.