The Manger (12/22/02)
University Congregational Church – Wichita, Kansas
Rev. Gary Cox
This morning, you heard the scripture passage from the Gospel of Luke describing the birth of Jesus. Let’s revisit the scene, leaving behind the wise men from Matthew’s gospel that we add to Luke’s story, and the little drummer boy from the modern world of song who appeared at the manger only recently, and even the shepherds who, according to Luke, will arrive shortly after Jesus’ birth. Let’s just go back to that night in Bethlehem, two-thousand years ago, and try to imagine what it was like for Mary and Joseph.
Remember, they have traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem in order to register for the census. That trip was a little over seventy miles, and the Bible does not tell us what mode of transportation they used. It may well have been a donkey, as tradition holds, but regardless of the manner in which they traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem, we can assume it was a difficult trip for a woman ready to give birth.
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Our imaginations have filled in a lot of the details of what happened when they arrived in Bethlehem, but the story itself is quite sparse at this point—a single sentence. It says, “She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them at the inn.” That’s it. The next thing we read is that an angel appears to some shepherds, who soon arrive at the scene of Jesus’ birth. But all we have about the birth itself is that one sentence.
The story gives us no information about the surroundings, with the exception of the manger. That is our only clue. It’s odd the way we have romanticized this scene in our minds. Have you ever noticed how in all of our Christmas decorations, the manger looks a great deal like a crib? It’s a nice, clean, wooden crib, filled with hay. All in all, the whole scene is pretty tidy.
Yet in reality, this scene would have taken place in the midst of filth. A manger was a box or trough, usually carved from stone. It was used for the feeding of animals. Mangers were very common—they were everywhere animals were kept. They were often carved out of cave walls. In the 4th Century the Emperor Constantine erected a basilica over a cave in Bethlehem that tradition holds is the site of Jesus’ birth. Today, that has evolved into the Church of the Nativity.
Some scholars argue that it was indeed a cave in which Mary gave birth. Others say it was a stable, or barn. Still others say it was the lower part of a house, since that is where many families kept their farm animals. The one point that nobody argues is that according to Luke, Jesus was laid in a manger.
Let’s not candy-coat this. Most of us have been in barns that house farm animals. They stink. Seriously, they smell really bad. This scene takes place at night, so there would have been very little light, because you can’t have lots of burning candles and torches in a place filled with hay. So what we have, in all probability, is a damp, dark, cold cave that stinks so badly Mary and Joseph can hardly catch their breath.
That doesn’t quite fit in with the nativity scenes I see all over town at this time of year. That image doesn’t work too well for those who make their living creating beautiful stained glass windows for churches. You’ve seen pictures of those gorgeous stained glass windows in the great cathedrals of Europe. A haloed Mary stands beside a proud Joseph, and they gaze lovingly at their newborn son, who sort of glows as he lies atop some nice clean straw in a tidy little wooden manger. Wise men from the East look on in wonder, bearing gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh, and shepherds view the whole scene in silent awe, as a giant star lights the night immediately overhead.
But then, what kind of stained glass image would we have if we just took Luke’s story at face value? A more accurate nativity scene would probably show Mary and Joseph in a dark and damp cave, weary from a very long trip, their faces contorted from the surrounding stench, looking down at their son, who lies in a filthy feeding trough. And to make the stained glass image complete, perhaps we can have the shepherds, upon finding a scene much more odiferous and much less holy than they expected, quickly making their excuses and hurriedly dashing back to their flocks.
I know many of you think I am being irreverent, but honestly, that is not the case. I don’t think Luke wanted us to romanticize this story. Jesus was born to a poor, unwed teenager, and then wrapped in scraps of cloth, and laid in a feeding trough. That is Luke’s story. Luke doesn’t have a golden halo over Mary’s head, and light shining forth from the baby Jesus. This is the Son of God we’re talking about here, and his first breaths were drawn as he lay in a feeding trough.
Some of you are probably thinking this is the least inspiring Christmas sermon you’ve every heard—but don’t give up on it yet. Because the story as we find it in the Bible is much more powerful than the sanitized version we construct on our front lawns.
When Jesus came into this world, he arrived in an unimportant backwater of a nation, to poor and unwed parents, who were part of a hated and oppressed people. His mother gave birth without medical help, in unsanitary conditions, and laid him in a feeding trough.
Christmas sermons are supposed to strengthen our faith. Faith, it seems to me, is simply believing that God is working in this world. Faith isn’t a matter of claiming God is in complete control of all things—that God micromanages all the little details of our everyday lives. Faith isn’t the secret key that grants us great rewards—financial rewards here in this world and an eternity of leisure where the streets are paved with gold in some future world. Faith is simply recognizing that the Spirit is at work. The Spirit is moving people where they need to be. The Spirit is creating opportunities for things to happen.
With that in mind, I want to say that I have faith that the story of Jesus’ birth is a part of God’s work. There is a reason the story of Christ’s birth has been told millions of times, year after year. There is reason and purpose behind the fact that the person billions of people would one day call the Son of God was born when, where and how he was. There is a reason that Mary—the one some call the Mother of God—was poor and unwed.
Most of us Protestants don’t use the term “Mother of God.” And like most people in our tradition, I believe there are many who elevate Mary to a level that we should probably reserve for Jesus alone. But if we leave Mary out of the story, we are missing something important.
There is a Greek term used in theology that is often applied to Mary: Theotokos (THE-uh-TOE-kus). Theotokos means, literally, “Mother of God.” Now, considering the way we have reconstructed the nativity scene in the light of Luke’s gospel, I doubt if Mary felt very much like the Mother of God on that night in Bethlehem so long ago. We can rewrite Luke’s story all we want to. I don’t think Mary felt especially blessed as she gave birth, without the help of a midwife, in a cave, and then laid her newborn son in a manger—a feeding trough. But that is how Jesus came into the world in the 1st Century.
The question that we should concern ourselves with in the 21st Century is this: How does Jesus come into the world today? Two-thousand years ago Jesus came into the world in the midst of filth, borne by a person that most would have said was entirely unworthy. But how does Jesus come into the world today? Who is theotokos—the Mother of God—in the modern world?
If we were to search for the Mother of God today, there are two places we could look. The first is very logical and practical; and the second is theological. Let’s start with the logical place to look for the Mother of God. Let’s just look at the facts of Jesus’ birth. He was born poor. His mother was young and unwed. He was in a nation that was under the control of outside political forces. He did not receive the benefit of the best medical professionals of his time. And he was born in filth, surrounded by farm animals.
Assuming God has not changed the divine way of doing things, if we were to search for the Mother of God today, it’s pretty clear where we would start. There are countless thousands of women in the poorest parts of the world today, who give birth in conditions not unlike those Mary herself endured. And yet, for the most part, we notice and care for them no more than the powers of Rome noticed and cared for Mary.
Let’s be honest. Then and now, the wealthier people of the world—that’s us—have taught themselves to ignore the poor. Reports indicate that the world of sub-Saharan Africa is about to witness the deaths of hundreds of thousands of children from starvation. Like all of you, I feel helpless when I see all the problems that lead to such a tragic situation. And so I do what I’ve learned to do. I ignore it. I pretend it isn’t happening, and I feel a sense of relief when the story stops appearing on the nightly news, and when it moves from the front page of the paper to an occasional blurb on page eleven.
But if it is true that we are all children of God, then each one of those mothers is, in her own right, if not the Mother of God, at least the mother of God’s children. And who knows? Perhaps one of those children being born in the poorest parts of the world is destined to be another Christ-like figure. If that is the case, what will he say about us?
Well, it’s almost too painful to look for Jesus, or for the Mother of God, in the world today—at least from a logical perspective—because that leads us to people and places that are heart-wrenching to look at. But I said there is a second place we can look for the Mother of God—a theological place. And the good news is that if we find the Mother of God in that theological place, our eyes will be opened to all of those Mothers of God’s children spread across the beautiful but hurting planet.
Once again, the question: Who is the Mother of God in the world today? The answer? We are. Each or us. The medieval mystic Meister Eckhart said it is the duty of every Christian to become theotokos—the Mother of God. Mary gave birth to Jesus in the flesh, but the only way Jesus can come into the world today is in the Spirit, and we are the Spirit’s road into the world. Each of us must give birth to the Spirit in our hearts.
So many of us live with the illusion that God is out there somewhere. We wish we would see God floating down like a mighty bird, making known the eternal presence. When we envision God helping people in great hunger or need, we imagine some ethereal hand appearing out of nowhere and gently feeding those who suffer.
But God isn’t out there. Oh, God is everywhere, in that God is reflected throughout creation. But God’s hand will not appear out of the sky. Those are God’s hands. These are God’s hands. And ours are the hands God uses to feed the poor, and to heal the sick, and to visit the lonely.
God isn’t out there. God is in here! God is in there, inside each and every one of you, begging to get out. I firmly believe there is a lot of work God wants to get done in this world, but until we give birth to God’s spirit—until we surrender ourselves to God and allow God to be born into the world within us and through us, the work won’t get done.
Like most people, I cannot get my mind around God. I believe that God is greater than anything my little human mind could ever grasp. But I also believe that I can learn everything I need to know about God by looking at Jesus of Nazareth. Because it is in Jesus that I see a God whose love is higher, deeper and wider than the limits of my imagination. And Jesus has only one path into this world today: through us.
Jesus wont’ come floating down from heaven to pray for a sick child. But he can pray through us for that child. Jesus won’t rain food down upon the starving people of this world. But he can use our minds, hearts and hands to grow the food and distribute it justly. And Jesus’ tears won’t fall from the heavens in the presence of the world’s injustices. But these eyes of yours and mine—these eyes can shed Jesus’ tears for him.
We can be theotokos—the Mothers of God. Because it is when we tell the story of Jesus; when we perform acts of love in Jesus’ name; when we open our hearts to Christ’s love, leaving behind our petty selfishness—it is then that Jesus once again is born into the world.
If you’re thinking you don’t feel very much like the Mother of God, that’s okay. Remember, I said there was a reason God brought Jesus into the world through a poor unwed teenager. Mary wouldn’t have felt any more worthy of bearing the Son of God than you or I do. The idea of having Jesus come into the world through us—that is humbling. After all, our lives are not nearly perfect enough to bear the Son of God. Sometimes we feel unholy—in fact, in the light of God’s perfect love we feel almost filthy in comparison.
But we have to have someplace to put Jesus, and our hearts are the only vessels made that can hold him. And we should remember that when Jesus arrived in this world two-thousand years ago, he came into this world surrounded by filth, and the vessel he was placed in was a manger. A manger! A feeding trough!
In this Christmas season, I pray that we all can turn our hearts into mangers. Sure, our hearts aren’t perfect. Sure, they sometimes lack compassion. And yes, if we believe our hearts are worthy of bearing the Son of God, that probably proves they are not. But look what Jesus did for that manger in Bethlehem. Once he was placed in it, it became holy. In fact, there is no holier image in the world than that of Jesus lying in the manger. That filthy manger has become something truly holy, almost unspeakably sacred, both in the eyes of God and in the eyes of the world.
If Jesus can do that to a feeding trough, imagine what he can do to our hearts. And if Jesus can do that to our hearts, imagine what we can do for the world.