Away from the Manger
Sermon from December 27, 2015
"Now every year his parents went to Jerusalem for the festival of the Passover. And when he was twelve years old, they went up as usual for the festival. When the festival was ended and they started to return, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem, but his parents did not know it. Assuming that he was in the group of travellers, they went a day’s journey. Then they started to look for him among their relatives and friends. When they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem to search for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’ He said to them, ‘Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?’ But they did not understand what he said to them. Then he went down with them and came to Nazareth, and was obedient to them. His mother treasured all these things in her heart.
And Jesus increased in wisdom and in years, and in divine and human favor." (NRSV)
It won’t be long now; it won’t be long until we all will be putting away our Christmas decorations. The boxes will be brought back down from the attic or up from the basement. Ornaments, lights, tinsel, garland, talking Santas, pre lit trees, and all of the precious breakables will be carefully wrapped in tissue paper, placed in boxes, and tucked away in their quiet hiding places to slumber for yet another 11 months. Only to be brought out again starting the the entire process over once more.
I must confess that I do not look forward to that day. In addition to the laborious process of schlepping boxes upon boxes up and down and down and up the steps, there is something about that day that makes me a little sad. I fear that along with my decorations, the audacious transformative miracle of the incarnation will be tucked away with them only to be forgotten for the majority of the year.
In the Shivers house there is a traditional Christmas decoration that avoids the endless loop and stays out every day of the year. In fact, 15 manger scenes or crèches from around the world and in various forms remain out throughout the year in our house. I think that my love for these quaint scenes of Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, and random collections of animals, shepherds, townsfolk, and wisemen comes from my maternal grandmother. Each year my family would gather at grandma’s modest house in Marion, Indiana to help her and my grandpa decorate for Christmas. One of the last things that we would do was set up her manger scene on the top of a half wall that separated her living room from her kitchen. My brother, sister and I would gather around the box and go on a treasure hunt through all of the scraps of newspaper to find the characters, the artificial snow, and the small shaving mirror that served as a pond. Christmas officially started for us when this scene was fully constructed.
We also had a similar scene in my parent’s house growing up. The characters were made of resin and the stable was covered in straw that seemed to shed all over the family room. We had a small dog named Fonzie, yes, Fonzie, who had a nasty habit. No matter where we placed the small manger scene, Fonzie would find it and would make off with one of the characters. We would find them hidden in various places around the house. She would steal nearly any character, but she had a special interest in the sheep leading us to think that perhaps she was part wolf. No matter how many times we returned the stolen pieces, they always ended up missing yet again the very next day. It was simultaneously hilarious and exasperating.
But perhaps we misunderstood what she was doing. Maybe this cute little Papillon mix was telling us something. Maybe she was reminding us that we couldn’t stay at the manger. Maybe inadvertently she was communicating one of the most important lessons of Christmastide, we must have the courage to move away from the manger.
The narrative arc at the beginning of the gospel of Luke does much the same thing as it moves the reader, the hearer, quickly to and then away from the birth of the long awaited one. The miraculous birth is anticipated by Mary, Joseph, and Mary's relative Elizabeth. The arrival was celebrated by animals, angels, and lowly shepherds. Songs were sung in heaven and on earth, celestial bodies aligned and rejoiced, mute tongues spoke prophecy, and the old proclaimed the arrival of the long anticipated salvation for all people. “For nothing will be impossible with God," Luke writes.
But the author of Luke does not allow the story to stop there. He keeps the narrative rolling through three vignettes of a family practicing their religious devotion through the rite of circumcision, the ritual of purification, and an annual visit to Jerusalem for the celebration of Passover. And it is here that we find our text where the preteen Jesus is irritating his parents like preteens can sometimes do. He wasn't where his parent thought he should be (sound familiar), but he was found, attitude and all, exactly where he needed to be. He is not the sweet little babe in our quaint romanticized little manger scenes anymore.
It is easy to fall in love with a birth story and the coos and cries of an infant, but Luke reminds us that the child must grow in wisdom, in years, and in divine and human favor. And so must we. We cannot remain at the manger. Life won’t allow that to happen.
So, the question is, will attempt to stay at the manger? Will we allow the advent we waited for so long to remain in a stable or will we grow into its message becoming bearers of this coming to the world in which we live? We are called to be Advent people birthing the long awaited hope, peace, joy, and love into the world that can seem void of such things. Perhaps this is what it means to be people who grow in wisdom, stature, and favor with God and humanity. Perhaps this is what it means to move away from the manger.
Hope – what might it mean to be people of hope?
Hope is not pie in the sky wishful thinking.
Hope is present tense.
Hope is grounded in the assurance of something that is.
It is easy to forget that hope is not found in the promise of something that is to come. Rather, hope is that which has the power to sustain us in the midst of a life of uncertainty and a world of violence right now. It does so not because the power of hope itself but because of that upon which the hope is set.
God is proven to be faithful, steadfast, loving, and good. God, the One who breathes the worlds into existence, the One whose cry speaks possibility into the seemingly impossible, the One who came to dwell in flesh and blood redeeming our own flesh and blood and all of creation is the root of our hope.
This hope is a counter narrative to that which we hear and see everyday. As Advent people we are called to be bearers of this hope. The manner in which we speak and the way in which we live give witness to the transformative power of Advent hope.
Peace – and what about peace?
Peace understood as the absence of visible conflict is not enough.
Peace understood as an external force exerting its power on us is not enough.
Peace understood as attainable by sheer determination of our will is not enough.
Peace understood as personal contentment is not enough.
Peace must be more if our world and our lives are to be truly transformed.
The peace the Advent of the Christ Child brings is more. This peace breaks through our fractured existence and births wholeness, completeness, shalom. This is a peace for all of creation and for every creature. This peace is the way of the Lord where all things are brought together and there is no more division. It is God's peace that fills every valley; brings low every mountain and hill; straightens all crooked paths; makes smooth the ways that are rough. This is the salvation of God for all.
May our prayer be that God would "guide our feet into the way of peace."
It is so easy to misunderstand joy. The depth of its meaning and its power to transform are often mistakenly replaced by the temporal pursuit of happiness.
However, happiness is circumstantial and its effects are fleeting. Happiness is dependent upon experiences and outcomes. It is something we all desire, but it cannot be seen as an end in and of itself. If happiness is pursued as such it becomes something that can never fully satisfy and only leads to the pursuit of what's next.
Joy, the joy of Advent, on the other hand, is transcendent. It is a gift. Joy is that which sustains us in spite of circumstance. This joy can be found in the bright sunshine of satisfaction as well as the fierce winds of sorrow. This joy is not the fruit of our own labor. Joy is the very gift of the coming Christ Child.
As Advent people, may joy not only infuse all that we do, but may it become the root out of which our actions grow. May we choose to see and pursue joy each and every day.
And Love – perhaps the most difficult of the four themes of Advent.
If you were to ask 100 people to define, describe, or give an example of love, you will likely receive 100 unique responses. And those responses would likely be as varied as the personalities of the people giving them.
Love, love is something we all desire.
Love, love is something we all chase.
And love is often sought after in places and in ways in which it can never be found.
Love cannot simply be minimized to a fuzzy feeling or sentimental emotion.
Love cannot just be seen as an experience or an act of devotion.
Sure, love is often evidenced within all of these.
But the love of Advent is much more complex than all of these combined.
Advent love is decisive.
This love is "yes, and".
This love is stubborn.
This love is no matter what; no matter when; and no matter the cost.
Love is that which holds us together when all else is crumbling apart.
Love is reckless and illogical.
Love stands when it more convenient to sit; stays when it is easier to leave; is silent when all you want to do is speak; speaks even when fear tries to steal your voice.
Love makes no sense and yet is the only thing that makes sense out of this everyday nonsense in which we live.
Love is not something that can be found because Love is.
Here is the rub…
The incarnation is the most controversial and critical thing that has ever happened in history. The incarnation is what should move us away from the manger. It asks for more from us than adoration.
Advent, this coming, this birth, this incarnation calls us toward difficult things.
It asks us to see the world differently; to live in our world differently.
It is a call for us to be "as if" people in a "not yet" and "maybe never" world; as if the promises of God are already true in a world that often either says these things have not yet come or may never exist. This is a grand counter narrative to that which we are otherwise told is true.
The hope, peace, joy, and love of Advent begin with a promised arrival, are evidenced in a babe wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, and continue here at the font. The promise of baptism is not that those who come to this font will stay here. The promise of baptism is that this grace with which they are marked is with them now and wherever their tomorrows may lead. The promises we make to those baptized is that we will nurture them, walk with them, encourage them, be gospel for them as we and they grow in wisdom and in years. The divine claim on their lives, and on every person's life, that we are all children of God compels us to do so.
This calling is not something that sets is apart in a self-righteous manner, but it compels us to bear the spirit of the Christ to the world. And this message isn't our possession as if we could ever hold the effulgence of the light that has come. This advent, this coming, this incarnation is good news for everyone.
We have long awaited the arrival of hope, peace, joy, and love made flesh. And now, my friends, light has come, and we are called to move away from the manager giving birth to the grace of this advent into our world again and again and again.
Perhaps, perhaps we are that which we have been waiting for all along. Let us together move away from the manger. Amen.