Tuesday, December 27, 2016

The Nativity of Our Lord: Christmas Eve - December 24, 2016 (Luke 2:1-20)

A very peculiar thing happened this year in the Martin household as we decorated for Christmas. The boxes were down from the attic and we were all set to take the family out to pick out a Christmas tree, when we realized we had no idea where we were going to put it. The birth of a third child this year has crowded things a bit in our living spaces. Lots of stuff comes with babies and children. We tuck them in the corner, we shift things under the ottoman to accommodate it all. So there we were scratching our heads there that day, wondering how we’d solve this problem, wondering if there were maybe another room in the house that could become Christmas central this year until we finally realized we had only one real option: dismantling the baby’s Pack ‘N Play to so that we’d have a place for the tree. If we needed somewhere safe and secure in which to lay him in the month of December…well, sorry kid.

And there, you’ve heard it: we removed a manger because there was no room for Christmas.

Don’t worry! It’ll come back, of course, once the tree is taken to the dump and all vestiges of the holidays are cleaned away, but the irony of what we were doing was profound. One of the main messages of this night—the beginning point of our Savior’s story—is that although things were crowded, a place was found to lay the baby. In all the rearranging that must have been going on—the shuffling around, the last minute cleaning up, the pressure to make sure Mary was doing OK—the priority was finding somewhere the child could sleep and not be trampled on.

Rearranging. Finding a place. The world seems to be particularly full of it these days, and it’s not just Christmas trees and trying to fabricate an authentically festive holiday, whatever that is. A recent election in this country promises us that the government is going to be rearranged. Some are hopeful, others are not. Outside of our country, the world is seeing record numbers of refugees get rearranged due to wars and ethnic conflict. This creates anxiety for many, not the least of which are the ones with small children who are caught between the bombs in their own family rooms and the borders that say, “Nope. No room for you here.” The rising threat of global terrorism causes uncomfortable rearranging, too. “Things don’t seem as safe as they used to be,” we muse as we hustle through airport security, rearranging the boxes on the conveyor belt, and as we reorganize the ways we assemble in public.

When we step back we find that so much of life is about rearranging and finding space, often at the last minute: The massive downsizing to make living in the memory care facility more manageable. The moving around of a week’s events you thought were set in stone in order to make room for a funeral service and burial. The ways we end up having to shelve our joy and relaxation in order to make space for grief or recovery.

Earlier this fall a member of our congregation had to drop everything, take a leave of absence from work, and tend to her mother who had fallen gravely ill. She rushed to the town out of state only to find that every room in every hotel was occupied due to a local university football game. She managed to find the one vacant room available. It was the handicapped room in a 2-star hotel, and things had to be rearranged for it to work for her and her adult children. Her mom managed to cling on, and so this woman had to keep adding on days, but the overworked and probably underpaid hotel staff bent over backwards to make sure she was comfortable. Fresh towels, clean sheets before they even asked for it—and then one afternoon a personal note from one of the housekeepers, left on the nightstand: “I heard about your mother. You’re in my prayers.” A few weeks later, reflecting on those long days and nights in that inn out of town she said to me, “Such a simple place it was. Not fancy. But everything we needed was somehow provided for us. And more. It was like being born in a stable.”

God apparently doesn’t need detailed daily planners and careful clockwork to make an entrance. God didn’t then, and God doesn’t now. We may rearrange, reschedule, reposition, delay and dismantle, but grace won’t. It finds room. It makes itself welcome.

a first-century Pack 'N Play
The traditional understanding of Jesus’ birth story has Joseph and a pregnant Mary going from place to place looking for a room, coming across an inn—maybe 2-star hotel—and learning that there’s a home football game census taking place and they’re going to have to use the barn out back. It’s a fine understanding, and it certainly might have happened that way, but in reality it could just as easily have been that Joseph and Mary were already in a family room somewhere in someone’s house, maybe even a relative’s. The meaning of the word for “inn” in this passage is actually very ambiguous, very unclear. It is not the same word used for “inns” in other parts of the gospels, like, for example, the inn that the Good Samaritan uses when he helps the man he has found beaten along the side of the road.

In fact, this place where Jesus is born may have just been a regular first-century Middle Eastern house. Families lived—that is, slept, ate, worked, raised children—in one big room connected by the same roof to the area where the livestock were kept. The manger was a stone feed trough that marked the separation between where the humans lived and where the animals rested.

layout of a typical first-century house
So, Mary begins to deliver. Things are crowded. There’s not a Christmas tree, of course, but other items are temporarily cluttering the living area because family from Nazareth and other little villages are here. Things are crammed under the ottoman. More towels and bedding and laundry than usual. As it turns out, it’s not that there is no room in the inn, (Mary and Joseph being turned away by cold-hearted innkeepers), but rather little available space left in the living area where they’re overnighting, and the baby needs to be laid somewhere safe and secure. Viola! In all the rearranging, God finds a way in and lies down in the manger.

Of course, we don’t know exactly how it all went down, or what the real meaning of that ambiguous Greek word for “inn” is, but what we do know is that in Luke’s story of Jesus that particular word appears one more time. Years later, Jesus and his disciples are in Jerusalem and he tells them to go looking for a place where they can celebrate the Passover. Jesus instructs them:

10 “Listen, when you have entered the city, a man carrying a jar of water will meet you; follow him into the house he enters 11 and say to the owner of the house, ‘The teacher asks you, “Where is the guest room, where I may eat the Passover with my disciples?”’ 12 He will show you a large room upstairs, already furnished. Make preparations for us there” (Luke 22:10-12)

More rearranging, more last minute readying, and what do you know? The type of place that is too crowded at Jesus’ birth is the same type of place where Jesus’ has his last supper. As it turns out, from birth to death, our God’s life among us is framed by borrowed space, by last-minute rearranging. And that includes our preoccupied lives.

So tonight, as we hear the message from the shepherds and the angels, as we imagine the young couple looking for a Pack ‘N Play, here is what we’re beginning to learn: God is going to find a way. He’s ready to make an entrance. He’s comfortable here, in a world that is constantly shifting around, in lives ever in need of rearranging, ever being reminded of how temporary things are. The One who never changes, will be fine for now amid our ceaseless changing. The One who gives life without end is fine to let his life end.

"Nativity," Master of Hohenfurth (1350-70)
God will find a way, and we discover this will lead to him borrowing one more space that won’t belong to him. It’s on a spot of ground just outside of Jerusalem, in the area where sin gets paid for. As the Christmas carol so bluntly puts it,

“Nails, spear, shall pierce him through,
The Cross be borne for me, for you.”

The part about the inn or the living area, the manger, the Upper Room, well, it’s all prologue to the big rearranging that God has in mind: He comes and finds a way so that we will know the Way.

And so this day and every day, in this room and in all your rooms, in every bit of rearranging you find yourself doing, happy or sad, be prepared for the God of the manger and the God of the cross to leave a note, to set a table, to make a place for you and find a way for faith to be born again.

Thanks be to God!

The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.

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