Where Is That Manger?

a sermon for the Nativity of Our Lord, Christmas Eve

Luke 2:1-20

“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.

Did Jesus’ manger look like this? Very likely!

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.

Merry Christmas!!!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

Rooting for the Anti-Hero?

a sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent [Year A]

Matthew 11:2-11

Let me tell you: when you go visit Ms. Betsy Williamson in her rehab room at Beth Sholom, expect to be grilled. It’s a friendly grilling, of course, but she will for sure want to know what’s going on at church, and the more details you can give, the better. Ms. Betsy, you see, is our congregation’s sole remaining charter member. At age 94, she has been here for the length of its life. She has watched it grow from just a handful of families back in 1951 to what it is today. She has been here to work with every pastor the congregation has ever called and has contributed to each of the building campaigns. Ms. Betsy has greeted hundreds of first-time visitors at the front doors and has sung with the choir for countless worship services. More than all that, Ms. Betsy has taught Sunday School to just about every 2 year old who’s ever come through this congregation.

But now, even though she is getting great care in rehab and is slowly healing she can’t help but feeling a little bit imprisoned by her circumstances. If you go visit her, Ms. Betsy will expect you to fill her in. She’s going to want to know what’s happening at Sunday School and how many kids are coming to the children’s sermon. She’s going to wonder about plans for Christmas Eve and what the youth group has been doing lately. Your report to her reassures her that people are tending to the newcomers, the children, the vitality of worship. Your report to her comforts her in her concern that the congregation is still going strong, a community and a mission that has been near and dear to her heart for 70 years even though she can’t be with it at the moment.

We meet John the Baptist this morning in a very similar situation. He is in a special 1st century “rehab,” if you will, for people who speak out in critique of the king and powerful people. John’s detention there is keeping him from the community and mission he has been a part of for his whole career. That career has been to announce and prepare people for the arrival of God’s chosen Messiah, the long-awaited leader who would bring about God’s kingdom on earth. He has nurtured this thing from the ground up, taught some disciples, baptized people to get them ready. And John is dying to know how it’s going. And so from his prison cell John sends some of his disciples to Jesus, who is out there in the world with the movement to grill him.

We can’t tell exactly why John is getting anxious or doubtful about Jesus, but he clearly is wanting some assurance that Jesus is keeping the movement going. Has he been pointing people to the right person, especially since John’s own days seem to be numbered? John wants to know if Jesus is the real deal, or do they need to wait for another? John, you see, doesn’t want to put his faith and energy behind the wrong Messiah, the wrong leader, because, as you know, it must be exhausting always rooting for the anti-hero.

John’s questions, and even to a degree Ms. Betsy’s, speak to a deep concern we all have about Jesus and our expectations for how God is going to move and act in the world. Is Jesus the hero or is he an anti-hero, a bust, an also-ran? As we look at the world from our various prisons—be they prisons of despair or poverty or regret or fatigue or apathy—do we get a sense or anxiety or hope from Jesus? Can Jesus lead us to a future of possibility, a future of prosperity for all people, a future of peace and forgiveness for all sins?

One of my colleagues this week posed a question people of faith have wondered for years. That is, is John’s concern about Jesus evidence that John had things wrong?   Even though he was close to Jesus, in fact related to him, was John’s understanding of what the Messiah would be like slightly off? It’s a valid question for the scholars to ponder, but it’s also one I actually think we could turn on ourselves. Do we often get Jesus’ movement wrong? Is our understanding of how God acts in Jesus slightly off sometimes?  

John seems to be hoping for a leader who will seize the reins of the revolution John helped spark and use force to overthrow the powers in Jerusalem and send them away. John appears to be looking for big, sweeping, political and maybe even militaristic changes that establish dominance for a new regime up top. John is looking for Jesus to take that chance, and sometimes we are too.

But God’s kingdom isn’t about taking that kind chance. God’s kingdom is about giving people second chances. God isn’t going to come through and use Jesus to banish the bad people to the wilderness. God is going to make the wilderness break forth in blossom. The good news of the Messiah doesn’t come with fear and fire but with the excitement of joy. And perhaps most surprisingly, the work of Jesus often doesn’t come about through top-down, grandiose maneuvers, but by bubbling up from the bottom through the actions of people like Mary, some disciple fishermen, ordinary tax collectors, a meal of bread and wine.

There is a poem from 20th century Canadian writer Alden Nowland that resonates. It is called, “Great Things Have Happened” and it goes:

We were talking about the great things
that have happened in our lifetimes;
and I said, “Oh, I suppose the moon landing
was the greatest thing that has happened
in my time.” But, of course, we were all lying.
The truth is the moon landing didn’t mean
one-tenth as much to me as one night in 1963
when we lived in a three-room flat in what once had been
the mansion of some Victorian merchant prince
(our kitchen had been a clothes closet, I’m sure),
on a street where by now nobody lived
who could afford to live anywhere else.
That night, the three of us, Claudine, Johnnie and me,
woke up at half-past four in the morning
and ate cinnamon toast together.

“Is that all?” I hear somebody ask.

Oh, but we were silly with sleepiness
and, under our windows, the street-cleaners
were working their machines and conversing in Italian, and
everything was strange without being threatening,
even the tea-kettle whistled differently
than in the daytime: it was like the feeling
you get sometimes in a country you’ve never visited
before, when the bread doesn’t taste quite the same,
the butter is a small adventure, and they put
paprika on the table instead of pepper,
except that there was nobody in this country
except the three of us, half-tipsy with the wonder
of being alive, and wholly enveloped in love.

John’s worry in prison tells us something about our ourselves. The human brain naturally looks for the great things to be the most noticeable things, the flashiest, most spectacular things. Jesus’s response says, don’t look in the halls of power for where Jesus first shows how he will transform the world with his love. Look in the wilderness, or at the mustard seed, or in the life of a young pregnant middle eastern mother in an unusually vulnerable position. Look in the faces of the poor who’ve realized they can go on another day. Look to the children my family saw in the Children’s PICU this week who have miracles of medicine turn their circumstances around. Look for ways people are half-tipsy with wonder of being alive and enveloped in love, wherever that may be.

ca. 1850 — An illustration from a mid-19th century copy of Grand Catechisme des Familles (Christian Doctrine for Families). — Image by © Stefano Bianchetti/Corbis

This is the message that Jesus sends back to John in prison to comfort him. Jesus doesn’t talk about himself, and strangely doesn’t rush to stress his own ideas of his identity. Jesus simply points to the ways that God’s promised kingdom is bubbling up in the wilderness. Yet, on second thought, is it really that strange that Jesus doesn’t just point to himself and seize the title of God’s chosen one? After all, he will eventually go on to hand over his very life and let his identity be determined by love stretched out on a cross. That is where love will truly envelop us all. A moment of such total humility and vulnerability will be the greatest of all great things that has ever happened.

Even though John may have the wrong idea about what Jesus is about, Jesus does not throw John under the bus. Jesus lifts him up and sets him back on track with reports of the lame walking and the blind seeing. He assures him the movement is still going, just as God planned. Maybe we shouldn’t underestimate how much we need that same message too. Things at the top rarely change, whether it’s Jerusalem or Washington or Moscow. But there are loads of examples of the joy of God’s kingdom springing up everywhere.

I often listen to the Bobby Bones Show on K95 in the mornings. They have a segment called “Tell Me Something Good” where they offer up a story of hope and joy to change the mood. Typically bad news sells the newspapers, so this radio show scours their sources to flip that script. So, in the spirit of Bobby Bones and John’s disciples, here are a few Something Goods I ran across in just the past month that might have gotten overlooked:

Two weeks ago it was announced that Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Services, one of the advocacy and public justice arms of our denomination, the ELCA, received a $15 million gift from MacKenzie Scott, former wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. This gift is the single largest in the organization’s 83-year history. LIRS President and CEO, Krish O’Mara Vignarajah, explained in a press conference that the unprecedented funds come right as they are resettling loads of Afghan refugees, people fleeing the war in Ukraine, and asylum-seekers along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Here’s another: a Christmas tree went up on the town square in Bucha, Ukraine, this week, not far from the site where a mass grave created by invading Russians was discovered earlier this summer. Their spirit is indomitable.

And another: Barna, a research group that concentrates on data regarding religion, reports that Christian philanthropy accounted for 70% of all American philanthropy in 2022 at a total of $330 billion. Christians also out-gave the U.S. government in addressing global poverty.

And this congregation, right after donating a record 120 Thanksgiving dinners to people in our community, turned around and provided 96 Christmas gifts to children at a local elementary school, which were delivered yesterday.

Joy is among us, my friends. Christ is on the move. Great things are happening all over the place. The truly great things: cheer for the imprisoned, something good for the disheartened hope for those who wonder what’s coming.

And you are some of the blossoms in the wilderness. and I…I have some more things to report to Ms. Betsy.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.