TEXT: Luke 2:1-20
Our gospel text is, of course, familiar to us as Luke’s account of the nativity—the birth-story of Jesus Christ.
It is a text comprised of three paragraphs. The first paragraph recounts the journey of Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, where God’s greatest gift—Jesus—is presented to the world; the second paragraph relates how angels announced his birth; and the third paragraph describes how the shepherds responded: “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
Gift, announcement, and response. And at the heart of each of the three paragraphs we find the phrases, “laid him in a manger” and “lying in a manger.” A manger—a feed-trough for animals to eat from.
Who would have expected to find a Messiah lying in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem in Judea?
And who would have expected a king to be born into thisfamily—to this poor carpenter and his young fiancée? Jesus was born not into royal luxury, but into impoverished squalor—to a frightened young woman in a cattle-stall, with farm animals looking on.
Thus, into our midst came the King of Glory!
By taking on humanity in this unexpected way … I wonder … what was the Lord of the Universe trying to say? What kind of statement was he making?
When Jesus grew to manhood, he became a teacher who, very often—to most of those around him—appeared to be speaking in riddles. When he wanted to communicate sublime truth, he would tell a story. We call them “parables.”
I wonder if—even in his birth—Jesus was telling us a story. I wonder if—in his birth—he was acting outa parable.
From highest heaven, he came to dwell with the lowest of humanity. He was born into miserable circumstances, to a young, unmarried woman about whom many tongues must surely have wagged. Angels came from heaven to announce his birth—but chose to deliver the glad tidings to shepherds. Not just ordinary working people, mind you—but poor, lowly, smelly-from-the-field, avoided-by-polite-company, flea-bitten shepherds!
Preaching at the National Cathedral in Washington DC in January, 1998, William Sloane Coffin said: “At Christmas the word of the Lord hits the world with a force of a hint. And while we are profoundly moved by God’s love in person on earth lying helpless in a manger, still, in our heart of hearts, wouldn’t we really prefer God to be God rather than to become the frailest among us?” 1
I wonder: is this birth-story itself a parable telling us that in Jesus God sought to redeem and sanctify human existence in all its forms? No one would have been surprised to find the holy child in a palace nursery—but lying in a feed-trough? If a manger can cradle the heavenly child, then surely every human circumstance can be infused with holiness.
And so, surely, can every human heart! Just as Christ came into human history and sanctified a lowly stable, can he not come into myheart—and yourheart—to sanctify, to purify, to transform?
Our Christian tradition hails Christ as God incarnate. Jesus is called “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” In Jesus Christ, we see not a human being becoming God, but God coming into human flesh; Jesus was born intothis world, not fromit. His life is the highest and holiest entering in at the lowliest door.
Jesus is not simply the best human being who ever lived—he is a being who cannot be accounted for by the human race at all! Throughout the gospel story, there is an air of divinity about this man, this carpenter’s son from Galilee. His words, his charismatic presence, the miraculous works he performed—all point to his heavenly origin. And yet, here’s a paradox: Jesus grew up to be a man who said to his disciples, “… the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these …”(John 14:12)
It’s a theme the apostle Paul would later pick up and develop. Writing to the Corinthians, he would say that “the one who is in Christ is a new creation”(2 Cor. 5:17).
To the Galatian Christians—expressing his deep concern for them—Paul wrote: “I am in the pain of childbirth untilChrist is formed in you”(Gal. 4:19).
What about us? Can Christ be“formed in us?”
If Paul was here, I think he might ask us if we have allowed our personal human lives to become like Bethlehem was—a place where new birthcan happen.
Many years ago, the great Scottish evangelist Oswald Chambers wrote: “The characteristicof the new birth is that I yield myself so completely to God that Christ is formed in me. Immediately Christ is formed in me, his nature begins to work through me.”2
“God manifest in human flesh!” This is what is made possible for you and for me, because of that babe of Bethlehem. The Christ-child who was born so long ago comes to us again, seeking to be born into our hearts, and into our lives.
My friends, as this night we come to the Lord’s table with images of manger scenes and shepherds fresh in our minds, let’s remember that the Child of Christmas seeks to be born again in thismoment. As you come forward to taste the fruits of field and vine which remind us of our Lord’s life and death, I invite you also to remember and anticipate his birth—his birth into ourlives.
To allof you—and to eachof you—I say this: Jesus wants your heart as a cradle this night. Jesus came into the world so that we might live through him (1 John 4:9)and so that God might live in us(1 John 4:12).
This is the true gift of Christmas. In truth, let us receive it. And may God grant us grace to receive it with true joy! Amen.
1William Sloane Coffin, sermon preached on Jan. 11, 1998 at the Washington National Cathedral https://cathedral.org/sermons/baptism/
2 My Utmost for His Highest, reading for December 25.