**Originally preached on Christmas Day at Fourth Presbyterian Church Chicago in 2015**
Luke 2:1-7 (page 54 of the NT)
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.
Every year when I was growing up, my church would put on a live nativity scene the week before Christmas. I lived in a suburb that rested right on the edge of Atlanta but had the remarkable quality of often feeling like its own small town. My Presbyterian church sat keeping watch over one of our major roads, just down the street from my high school, and so our live nativity was viewed by many as they drove past on their way to shop for gifts, or go to holiday parties, or visit with family and friends. Quite a few would pull in to our parking lot and climb out of their cars to bear witness to the nativity up close.
Music would drift over the scene from speakers and in and around the manger the scene of Christ’s first night on earth would play out complete with Mary and Joseph, shepherds, three kings, and one or two cherubic angels. The only parts of the nativity that weren’t “live” in fact, were the baby Jesus (a doll swaddled in cloth), and the animals—donkeys and sheep which were creatively constructed from wool blankets with cardboard faces, and then draped over chairs.
My family participated in this nativity scene for several years when I was very young, and, budding thespian that I was, I took my own role quite seriously. While the three kings, and Mary, and Joseph were all parts reserved for grown-ups, shepherds were open to both children and adults, and the part of the angels was reserved exclusively for children. In my own mind, there was no doubt that “angel” was the most coveted role. You would have had a hard time convincing me back then, that Jesus was the most important part of the show. As an angel, you got to look pretty and heavenly dressed all delicately in white with a shiny halo, standing on a chair above everyone like you were flying. And I wasn’t the only child who felt this way about being an angel—there was stiff competition. Every kid had to pay their dues first. So for a few years, I made peace with being a shepherd and bided my time.
Finally, my year arrived. I eagerly awaited our night for the nativity, dreaming of my impending chance to shine. When the time came, I traded in my winter clothes for the thin, drapey white angel costume and carefully donned the golden halo. With a giant smile on my face, I ventured outside with the rest of the nativity crew, and took my place overlooking the scene. It was my dream come true… for about 30 seconds. And then, I realized—it was cold. Really cold.
Atlanta is not a city known for its winter weather (certainly not like here), but this particular December was unusually frigid. Within minutes I was shivering and looking longingly at the other children—all dressed in heavily layered, wool shepherds costumes. I did my best to summon warm thoughts and stick it out—but I don’t think I lasted even a quarter of an hour before I was crying. One of the adults led me back inside where I quickly re-dressed with numb fingers. I was devastated. I had waited years to be an angel, only to have my moment of glory stolen away from me by the bitter cold. But the nativity had to go on, and somehow or another, I still needed a part to play.
All the shepherd costumes were taken and all that was left was a grungy wool blanket with a cardboard donkey’s head stapled to it. It was ugly and old, but it was warm. So I grabbed it and made my way back out to the nativity. I hunkered down on my knees among the shepherds and covered myself with the wool donkey blanket. It was meant to be the Christmas I finally became angel, but I became a donkey instead. Not beautiful or heavenly, but still happy and warm.
All these years later, the live nativity still goes on at my home church, but now they bring in real live animals for visitors to pet and delight over. The dirty wool blankets with their cardboard animal heads are long gone, but I will always be the first live animal St. Luke’s nativity ever had.
The Christmas story is an old story. Most of us probably know it well enough to tell it from memory. We can talk about the journey to Bethlehem from Nazareth, the innkeeper who can only offer Mary and Joseph a place in his manger. The lowing and bleating animals, the shepherds and angels, the star overhead.
In our attempts to make this old, well-worn story new, we’ve added and embellished things over the years. My childhood church has added their petting zoo—which now includes goats, rabbits, and a Scottish Highland cow.
A classic Christmas carol adds a little drummer boy. In one scene in the modern holiday movie, Love Actually, a mother is surprised to find that her child has been cast as “2nd lobster” in the school nativity pageant. In response she exclaims, “you mean to tell me that there was more than one lobster present at the birth of Christ?”
Just recently, I came upon a snarky cartoon that said “After the three wise men left, three wiser women came” bringing diapers, casseroles, and formula.
These songs, and jokes, and nativity accessories help us to encounter this story in a new way each year as we celebrate Christmas Day. And it’s good, I think, that as time passes we find new and creative ways to make this story our own. But they can also make the story a little crowded and that can make it hard to remember what the true message is. The truth of Christ coming to us in love is not a message the gets old or needs to be made new. It’s a message that always delivers grace to us wherever we are in life, and so we need to be reminded of it over and over again in each new place in life that we find ourselves.
As I read this story of Jesus birth for perhaps the thousandth time, I was struck by the last line: “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.”
What struck me wasn’t the unexpectedness of Jesus’ being born in a manger. After all, I have been a nativity scene expert since I was 6 years old. I was the donkey present at the birth of Christ!
We all know that Jesus was born “away in a manger, no crib for his bed.” In this old, old story, the humble location of Jesus’ birth tells us about the kind of person and the kind of messiah he will grow up to be. He will align himself with outsiders and outcasts, he will make room for those whom the world has not made room for. He will not be a military leader, or wealthy politician, or powerful king. He will be a common man from a common place and, as such, he will provide hope not only for the high and mighty, but also—perhaps especially—for all who are not.
Knowing that the very nature of his birth reflects the nature of Christ’s life and ministry, it makes sense that the crowded inn and Jesus’ birth in a manger were all a part of the plan. It is just part of the story—of how it’s meant to be told.
But none of that is what struck me when I read through this well-worn story this year and got to that final line about the manger.
Instead of all that, I thought, what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if the registration and journey to Bethlehem and the crowded inn and Herod’s anger were all unexpected, troublesome road blocks that could have derailed the whole plan. But they didn’t. None of those things stopped the son of God from coming into this world. None of these things got in the way. I realized as I thought of a tiny baby lying among animals: Jesus Christ was going to come to us and for us… no matter what.” Jesus would have come if it was in an inn or a barn or a shopping mall, with a midwife for company or some sheep and a donkey, or no one at all but his mother. Nothing—not a thing in the universe—was going to stop Jesus from coming to us on Christmas.
The story of Jesus’ birth tells us something about God’s love for us—God’s love is so deep and powerful and profound that God is going to reach us by any means necessary. Come hell or high-water, come unexpected cold, come shivering angels and woolly donkeys. No matter what. That is powerful, powerful love.
It makes me think of the way flowers will wedge their way through cracks in concrete just to blossom and give beauty to the world. The love of God that comes to us in Jesus is a love that will not be stopped. It will come up through the cracks in our lives and blossom like a miracle in our midst. And it comes not just for some people, or for the world in general, but for us too, for me and for you.
This isn’t just what Jesus’ birth is about. It’s what Jesus is about. Jesus’ birth and life and death and resurrection are all about a God who so loves us and so strongly desires to be with us, that God would willingly enter into the confines of a human body, a human life—would experience pain and fear and doubt and even death—just to touch us, embrace us, teach us, and reach us. Just to share in life with us.
The image of Christ as a tiny vulnerable crying baby lying in the arms of his scared mother in a barn in Bethlehem with no place else to go—that is the image of the most powerful force in existence—the unconquerable, unwavering love of God. They laid him in a manger because there was no room for him in the inn—but he still came. For us.
Perhaps this isn’t a new or revolutionary discovery about the Christmas story. But I think it’s one we need to be reminded of, especially now. It has been a hard year for this world. We’ve seen unprecedented violence. We’ve been torn apart by terror and discord. We’ve watched as millions across the world from us face great danger in search of a place of refuge. We’ve seen neighbors face hatred from others because of who they are or what they believe. And at times, it has felt as if our broken, hurting world is so far from what it should be that it might be too messed up for even God to reach.
But this year, the old well-known story of Christmas reminds us anew that the God who didn’t hesitate to come to us in a messy manger, will never be stopped by the messiness of this world. And God won’t be stopped by the messiness of our own lives either. God reaches us no matter what. God comes in love by any means necessary.
In general, I am not one who tends to claim many concrete experiences of really feeling God talking to me. But one December during college, I found myself, late one night, wandering around the parking lot of my dorm, shivering in unexpected cold just like I had on that nativity night years before. I was hurting and sad. My life felt all wrong—I felt all wrong—nothing was going how I had planned or expected or hoped. I was afraid. And in the midst of all the seeming wrongness I felt terribly lonely and abandoned.
I had fallen out of the habit of praying, but that night, alone in the dark parking lot I cried out to God. I said, “If you love me so much, then why don’t you just come down here so I can feel it.” I imagined that the answer was that I was a lost cause. A hopeless case. Too much for God to worry about. But something happened. Almost immediately, I felt deep inside of me a certainty of God’s own yearning to wrap warm arms around me and hold me close. I could almost hear a soft voice whispering in my ear: “I do and I did. For love of you I came.” On that night, the wonder of Christ’s coming and the power of love behind it became real to me like never before. It felt like grace.
Years before, I had dreamed of the perfect live nativity and my angel debut. But the unexpected truth that came to me only after I had traded in my angels wings for a donkey blanket and which came to me again in that college parking lot, was that Christmas has nothing to do with the perfect scene and everything to do with the imperfect one. Christmas is about a God who finds us wherever we are. So however your life looks this Christmas Day—whether it is filled with joy or hard things or both, whether it is crowded with unexpected chaos or hurtles, or if it feels not full enough—know that on this day, Christ comes to you and for you.
So we can crowd our Christmas story with lobsters and drummer boys, and donkeys and wiser women, and we can crowd it with the messiness of our own lives too. Just as long as we remember this day and always, the truth that shines through all of that mess: the truth of a God who comes in love to be with us and for us no matter what. In the manger. In the mess. Through the cracks. By any means necessary.
Merry Christmas . And amen.