Joy to the World

Rev. Tom Baker
St. John’s Church, Harrison, AR
December, 24 2011
The Nativity of the Lord
Luke 2: 1-20

I call them “submariners” my friend said with a smile on her face. A submariner is what she calls the people who surface twice a year and come to church on Easter and Christmas. Even though she meant it as a joke I could hear behind her words a bit of judgment. And behind that judgment was sadness that church, which plays such an important part in her life, no longer plays center stage in the lives of her neighbors. Let’s face it; there are those for whom church is their second home and there are those for whom church is a place you visit on holidays – if then. I told my friend that maybe the reason church has become a place people only visit is just as much the church’s fault as theirs. Perhaps it’s time for the church to realize we have allowed faith to become something we defend instead of a gift given to all. And Christmas is all about gifts.

Tonight we celebrate the nativity of the Lord. Everyone knows the manger scene. Mary in her blue serenely kneeling by the child Jesus. Joseph steadfastly standing by, protecting mother and child. Squeaky clean white sheep quietly join the other animals in worshiping the baby. The shepherds, awed by the wonder of it all, watch as the wise men set down their gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Above it all a star shines brightly as choirs of angels sing glory to God in the highest. It’s all perfect. Everyone and everything all point our attention to the Prince of Peace, the Son of David, the Messiah, and the Savior of the world.

But that’s the Norman Rockwell version of the manger scene. If manger scenes sold in stores were scratch and sniff no one would buy one. Those who work with animals know what a real barn smells like and anyone who has spent time in a labor and delivery room you knows it’s not all meek and mild. The real manger was cold, dark, and smelly. It was what Mary and Joseph had to settle for – no one else wanted anything to do with them. The shepherds, we forget that in Jesus’ time, shepherds were the lowest of the low – the kind of smelly, dirty and dangerous looking people we see today sleeping on cardboard. Even the wise men on their camels were foreigners who didn’t belong in Bethlehem. All those gathered at the manger aren’t the people we expect to welcome God’s son. Where is the ten o’clock live action news team, the red carpet, and why wasn’t the whole thing sponsored by Macy’s? That is after all the King of Kings lying there; doesn’t Jesus deserve only the best of people to witness his birth? God send out a personal angel singing invitation to the whole world and only the help shows up?

We need to take notice that God doesn’t show up in the holy of holies, in the temple of Jerusalem where the faithful religious could worship him. He wasn’t born at Johns Hopkins Hospital or in a private birthing suite at Georgetown Hospital in Washington, D.C. Instead he shows up in a backwater Nazarene barn and is laid in a feed bin. We need to remember that it’s the outcast, the lowly, and the unexpected who gather around the Christ child. The manger scene, Luke writes about, is far from perfect. And yet we seem to think that to approach the manger one must get straight with God, accept Jesus as their personal Lord and Savior, and be saved. Yet, at Luke’s manger, the shepherds don’t stop being shepherds, the animal’s still smell bad, and Mary and Joseph are a couple of kids facing an unknown and dangerous future.

That’s the real manger, gritty and down to earth. Shouldn’t our faith life be the same? What would happen if we saw faith not as an answer to all of life’s questions but as a light ready to guide our steps as we journey through our faith. What if we saw church not as a meeting place for the people who got it all together but as a community of flawed, hurting, welcoming, and accepting people who know faith is too hard to go through alone? What if we heard the words of scripture not as a command from on high but as a small still voice calling us to come home? What if we saw this table not as belonging only to us but as belonging to the Lord who welcomes everyone to the feast? And what if we admitted our vulnerability? If we admitted that we all struggle to find meaning and purpose? And what if we admitted that even with all our technology and good intentions we aren’t enough? And we were never intended to be enough – alone – that’s why God came. Emanuel. God with us. And that’s why God continues to come. And that’s why we come back again and again to meet God in this place and at this table.

We gather here not because we have all the answers but because we are willing to struggle with all our questions. We gather here not because we got it all together but because we can learn from each other’s flaws and find healing for our wounds. We gather here again and again because this child invites the unexpected, the outcast, the foreigner.

Something strange and wonderful is happening. Something unbelievable good and amazing. For onto you this night hope and redemption are being born again. Glory to God in the highest, peace to all of us here. Joy to the world the Lord has come. The Lord has come indeed… hope to see you again as we celebrate all year long the gift of Christmas.