SERMON from 12-24-12: Away From The Manger

Luke 2.1-20

1 In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph 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. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 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. 8 In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger. 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors! 15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us. 16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19 But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

Away From The Manger

It’s quite possibly the greatest moment in American film history. Will Ferrel–playing the formidable and affable Ricky Bobby–prays over a meal which includes dishes from Taco Bell, KFC and Dominoes. The prayer is an epic, yet simple, plea to Jesus for a good meal and a win in the next NASCAR race–as Ricky Bobby is a dynamic force within the racing world. The way in which this is an epic prayer, is in that it is prayed to baby Jesus.

“Dear Lord and Baby Jesus…Dear Tiny Jesus, in your golden fleece diapers with your tiny, little fat balled up fists…Dear Eight Pound, Six Ounce, Newborn Baby Jesus, don't even know a word yet, just a little infant, so cuddly, but still omnipotent.”

Then, he proceeds to thank him for his smokin’ hot wife. A move that an actual pastor repeated at an actual NASCAR race just a couple of years ago. But, I digress…

Ricky Bobby explains–when his wife tells him that it’s odd and off-puttin’ to pray to a baby–that they can pray to any Jesus they want. Grown-up Jesus. Teenage Jesus. Bearded Jesus. However, he likes the Christmas Jesus best.

Some of us like him a bit too much.

Imagine you’re a kid at Christmas. You’ve got two weeks off and you are staying home for the holidays. The time off is great, but that kind of down time can lead to ingenuity–read also, mischief. The rest of the family isn’t getting in until tomorrow and you are already testing the patience of your parents. They tell you to find something to do, so you go find one of your friends. As you are out enjoying the weather–cold enough for a coat, but not enough to sting every exposed patch of skin–your walk takes you by the local church.

Out front–lit up amidst a blanket of snow–is the Nativity Scene. Though you may not attend church, you know what it is and it has always meant something to you. However, you are a teenage boy with nothing better to do. So, you push past the donkey and African king, grab the Jesus from the manger filled with real straw and bolt home as quickly as you can.

You may have had your baby Jesus stolen. You may have, at one time, been the one stealing baby Jesus. What I’m saying is that this isn’t an uncommon problem. Churches have experienced this ever since Martin Luther switched the focus of Christmas from the real life Saint Nicholas to the eight pound, six ounce baby Jesus.

There wasn’t much you could do about the theft of your baby Jesus–until now. Some security company is offering to outfit the baby Jesus with GPS. Yes, you can now track down your baby Jesus if someone has dared attempt to claim him as their own. One Catholic church–just outside of New York City–had always had trouble with their baby Jesus being stolen. After announcing that their baby Jesus was equipped with GPS, they have gone years without incident.

It’s at about this time that someone look into the camera and shouts, “Thanks, Baby Jesus Tracker!”

There’s a kind of cruel irony to all of this baby Jesus talk. Ricky Bobby loves the Christmas Jesus. Companies are trying to keep people from stealing baby Jesus statues. In actuality, the baby Jesus was in almost immediate danger of being stolen. The insecurity of the power structure in Bethlehem–and throughout the world–was such that any danger (perceived or not) must be quashed. Jesus’ parents didn’t install a microchip; just hightailed it Egypt.

What’s with this obsession with the baby Jesus? Whether it’s Ricky Bobby praying to him, mischievous kids stealing him or kings out to destroy him, the baby Jesus garners much attention. With our culture’s attention so pulled towards celebrity, sports stars or super heroes, why are we so obsessed with a baby?

It’s easy to control this baby. Real babies are hard work, but the baby Jesus gives us an opportunity to control the size and scope of our deity. Think about the songs written about this baby. “Infant Holy, Infant Lowly” is an entire hymn. “Away in a Manger” tells us, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he made.” How about the “Holy Infant so tender and mild?”

There are plenty of reasons we love the Christmas season. Time with family. Festive foods that infuse the air. That one thing we wanted for Christmas. Couldn’t it also be that Jesus doesn’t require anything from us when he’s lying in the manger?

If GPS tracking and murderous raids by rulers tell us anything, it’s that Jesus–and anything having to do with Jesus–can be dangerous. Certainly, that means something different throughout the world–especially where Christians still face persecution in so many forms. However, the danger for us is that this baby might just require something of us.

This child will grow up and be a threat to the status quo, a threat to those who wield power through force of arms or the force of their bank accounts. He will expose the inner thoughts of human hearts and call people to a way of living beyond themselves. He will talk about a God who is intimately involved in public, in politics and with people, rather than a God who is merely private, quiet and spiritual.

Jesus will preach about a kingdom that has nothing to do with power, wealth and military might, but everything to do with servanthood, sacrifice and suffering. He will act as though that kingdom was already becoming a reality. He will spend his time eating and associating with people on the margins of society–the sick, the poor, the outcast, the prostitute, the tax collector–while rebuking the religious, the elite, the insiders.

He will challenge the powers of sin and death by taking them on directly, all the way to the cross. You can't defeat someone who wants nothing from the world, who practices what he preaches, and who is willing to die while forgiving his tormentors. Such a person is dangerous to the status quo and must be removed.

Instead of removing him, we’ve kept him in the manger. Jesus can’t require anything of us while he’s wearing a golden, fleece diaper.

The good news for us is that Jesus did grow up. He served, sacrificed and suffered. He challenged powers and tormentors and calls us to new life. He allows us hope in our future and comfort in despair. Babies are great for when you are feeling down, but they cannot help you get back up. The grown-up, bearded Jesus lived his life to show us how to live ours. He challenges the status quo and challenges us to truly live.

Yet, here we are. We are participating in an entire service dedicated to the beatific, postcard image of the star twinkling above the stable. Are we to douse the flame which will light our candles?

Not at all. This night is about God and the love he has for his children. It is an embrace by God of his children. He knows they come to him from many places. Some are here because it’s what they’ve always done. Some are here with their families–from near and far. Some are here in the midst of incredible turmoil–hoping to see a glimpse of God. Some are here remembering those who aren’t.

In the darkness of this night, God turns the despair of the darkness into light. Enveloped in the embrace of a darkness ruled by God, the light stands apart, in stark contrast. That tiny light is that much brighter in the dark.

The darkness of this night is an opportunity to take a breath in the embrace of the almighty, before we turn back to a world which needs the danger of the grown-up, bearded Jesus.

Thanks be to God for the light that leads us that way.



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