a sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve
“So [the shepherds] went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger.”
Several years ago we went with haste to find the manger. It was just before the pandemic and construction on our new entrance and gathering areas was still underway. Christmas was only a week away and we couldn’t locate our church’s manger. In the great upheaval of moving things around and removing cluttered items and sifting through storage areas that year lots of things had gotten displaced, including the manger we use every Christmas Eve. And so with haste the office staff sorted through every closet and dumping area we could think about. Trying to imagine how strange and sad it would be to celebrate Christmas Eve without the manger made us search all the more diligently.
In a moment of panic I even called Chris Price, our pastor emeritus, to see if he had borrowed it from usto make one for the church he was serving that Christmas. And as the words left my mouth a burst of fear shot through me: had I just accused my predecessor of making off with a manger??No, he gently assured me—but I had texted him photos of what it looked like for that purpose. So it was here! Photographic evidence! And unless that manger had unknowingly been thrown out it was still here somewhere on site.
As the days ticked down I got really desperate: I started Googling patterns for making another one. Eventually someone had the bright idea to call some of the volunteers to see if they’d seen it. Sure enough, like she always does, Stephanie Hamlett came through. At the time she was a key member of our HHOPE food pantry, a ministry which distributed food straight from our building to people in the neighborhood. She told us had spotted the missing manger way, way, way back in the far corner of the food pantry closet, in the part that goes under the balcony staircase. It was scooted so far back there, past the shelves of pasta and cases of canned vegetables that none of us had seen it.
Go figure that a food pantry volunteer knows where the savior of the world would be laid. Go figure that the manger, itself designed in its original form to hold hay for eating, would be hiding among stacks of food. Go figure that the sign of God’s birth among us is found in the place where hungry are fed and the weary find rest. I came to appreciate the manger a bit more that year.
And so tonight make haste with me to the manger again to remember this is how our God works: he comes to feed and nourish all of humankind through the life of his Son Jesus. Come with haste like the shepherds and find that God, indeed, comes among us, into the deepest, darkest corners of where we shove him to offer life to all of creation. He comes there to strengthen you and me with forgiveness and mercy. He offers his life to nourish us with love that never ends. Find the manger, then, and in so doing find the first sign that with Jesus there is great joy, for God intends to bring life to all people.
But what exactly is a manger? The ones used in Jesus’ time most likely looked nothing like this one. There’s a chance Jesus’ might have been made with wood, but more likely it was something just carved into the floor or hewn right into the wall, like a little ledge with a slight depression in it to hold hay and other food for animals. The word “manger” is rare in the New Testament, so there are not many other clues in deciphering what it actually was. Other than the three times it is repeated in this story, which should tell us something, it only occurs one other time, and there it appears in plural form when Jesus is talking to the Pharisees about helping a woman on the Sabbath. Jesus talks about leading a donkey away from its mangers to get something to drink. This seems to indicate that a manger and the stall or room where it lived were connected in some way. It was a place for animals, and that’s about it.
There is an ancient tradition, going all the way back to the first centuries of the Christian faith, that claims Jesus’ manger was actually a particular rock formation in a cave that was well-known to locals in that area. In fact, some of the oldest manuscripts of this story never say that Jesus was laid in “a manger,” but in “the manger,” suggesting that Mary and Joseph may have been in some cave somewhere at the edge of Bethlehem, perhaps, giving birth at what was essentially a local tourist attraction, like the Natural Bridge of Virginia.
Who really knows?But whatever your imagination lands on,we can all still see them there,Mary and Joseph forced into a moment of extreme resourcefulness.We see them there, huddled in the dark,using what was on handas a place to nestle their young newborn,even if it was intended for livestock.It certainly isn’t perfect as entrances go, you might say,but God is happy to be there and make it his sign.
So much of human progress, you see, has been to go in the other direction for signs—you know, toward the shiny, the advanced, the high-falutin’. We make haste to the moon, to Mars, to the metaverse. We are so driven to better ourselves and our societies, to worship at the altars of technology and expertise and celebrity, Artificial intelligence is on the rise, and soon, they say, robots may run everything. It makes you wonder: where is God in all of this? Where is God making haste these days?
I came across an article this week about the platform Chat GPT and how it’s raising eyebrows, especially in the academic community. I haven’t tried it myself, yet, but some colleagues have. Chat GPT is an AI tool that writes like a human being. Authors are amazed at how fluently it can compose. Preachers have been astounded at how it creates sermons. Professors and teachers are amazed in a bad way at how easy it is for students to get it to write essays for them. A document composed with artificial intelligence not technically plagiarism, because the essays and papers it generates are original (and can’t be caught by plagiarism detectors!). Sociologist Tressie McMillan Cottom shared this week that she finds the compositions written with AI impressive, almost identical to something a real student of hers might write. The main difference, she says, is that essays written with Chat GPT is always grammatically correct, and ones written by humans usually aren’t. The indicator of humanity, that is, is the error—the imperfection, the mistake, the thing we’d just as soon hide.
Technological progress is not bad, but no matter the age, we will always try to deny our humanity, our vulnerability. Dietrich Bonhoeffer once said, “While we exert ourselves to grow beyond our humanity, to leave the human behind us, God becomes human.” On the first night of God’s personal introduction to humankind, God chooses a manger as a sign. Dirty, simple, makeshift: “Why lies he in such mean estate?” It’s as if on this night God acknowledging humankind’s natural imperfections and is choosing to embrace them. And God is! God on this very night looks at our innate, undeniable humility, our crude intelligence and makes haste to love it, to shelter himself there. It is a trajectory that, when we have faith to see it, will bear itself out over his whole life. From manger, to simple fishing village at the edge of the empire, to the cross. God is there, recognizing our brokenness, our simplicity, and yet loving us anyway. God is there making a way, offering his own body to feed the world with love.
It occurs to me that God has been using a lot of mangers among us over the past couple of years. Now that the COVID pandemic is largely past, families and individuals look back and find that God was there, in fact, often in the way, way back, accommodating our resourcefulness, nestled among the small and unbecoming things we dismiss. We have heard countless stories of people learning that disappointment was temporary, and how joy could be birthed around a simple dinner table with loved ones. Or connecting through a Zoom call.
Our Vacation Bible School this past summer, for example, only drew 21 children, which is about one-tenth of what we used to have before the pandemic. We were kind of downcast about that, to be honest, at first. But, as it turned out, because there comparatively were so few of us, everyone one of us could fit together nestled up here in the chancel area instead of spread out in the pews. It was another manger! Joseph here with his guitar, Sarah leading the songs, all close together. And because of that, we think the kids who did come may have learned the VBS songs better than ever before.
Whether it was holding a small smartphone up to a homebound member so she could see her congregation’s worship through YouTube or just dropping off altar flowers to someone in the hospital…or whether it was giving up our previous Sunday School class structure because of a lower number of volunteers and children, in favor of a simpler curriculum and setting, God was acknowledging our simplicity and feeling right comfortable there.
You, no doubt, have your own examples of God making haste to be found in the mangers you’ve had to provide. Tell those stories! Let them ring out! And tonight, let those be your signs again that to you is born this day, in the city of David, your Savior, who is Christ the Lord. Make haste, yourselves, to claim him as your King, for you are being embraced just as you are, imperfections and all, once again. And take heart, you not just of real intelligence, but real giftedness and, most importantly you of the real ability to love: you are always going to be fed with forgiveness, nourished with grace by the one who arrives away in the food pantry to feed the whole world.
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.