December 13, 2020
The story is told of a ten-year-old girl who went with a group of family and friends to see the Christmas light displays at various locations throughout the city. At one church, they stopped and got out to look more closely at a beautifully done nativity scene. “Isn’t that beautiful?” said the little girl’s grandmother. “Look at all the animals, Mary, Joseph and the baby Jesus.” “Yes, Grandma,” replied the granddaughter. “It is really nice. But there is only one thing that bothers me. Isn’t baby Jesus ever going to grow up… he’s the same size he was last year.”
I love this little girl’s curiosity. She seems to recognize what our quaint nativity scenes often fail to depict: that God entered our world as a real life baby. This isn’t some baby doll or wooden carving we’re talking about. The Christmas story reminds us that God came as an actual baby who grew a few inches more each year, who cried, who pooped and peed, who needed to be burped and held. For those of you who have raised a baby and know the messes and the joys that come with it, I doubt you looked as put-together and serene as Mary and Joseph look in our nativities.
The Christmas story is a story most of us have grown up hearing every year. Even if you didn’t grow up going to church, this is such a famous story that you’d have to live under a rock to have never heard at least part of it. And the more often we hear this story, I wonder if we begin to romanticize it. After seeing so many beautiful nativity scenes and after hearing the story told around candlelight each year, I wonder if eventually, in our imaginations Jesus’ birth unfolds more like a Hallmark movie plotline, rather than a messy birth in a shabby cave or smelly stable. I wonder.
I wonder what it was like for Mary to be going into labor, knowing that she didn’t have a comfortable place to give birth? I try to imagine the sights, the smells and sounds of that fateful night when God entered our world as a vulnerable newborn baby. It’s clear there were animals present where Mary gave birth. Did the smell of manure make Mary nauseous? Did the cattle quietly chew their cud and lay upon the soft, dirty ground while Joseph held Mary’s hand? Perhaps a curious calf or lamb wandered over to see what was going on. Did Mary think it wrong or fitting that the King of the world who came to save the least and lost should be put to bed in feeding trough? We don’t know. Luke leaves it to our imaginations to fill in the details.
And in fact, Luke gives almost no details or description of the climactic moment when God took on flesh and entered our world. It takes Luke all of a sentence and a half: “While they were in Bethlehem, the time came for her delivery. And she gave birth to her firstborn son.” Just like that, Jesus is born. There’s no fanfare. No declaration that the child is the new and superior king to Caesar; he is simply born, swaddled and laid in a manger.
In the background, Caesar Augustus, the most powerful man in the world, is calling for a census as a way of demonstrating Rome’s power and collecting taxes. And it’s against this backdrop of Rome’s immense political power that an ordinary couple travels home to some backwater town of Bethlehem and they give birth to a child in a place where animals feed.
If this story had been carried out in front of a live audience, I imagine there might have been some whispers, “That’s it? That is the fulfillment of all those angels and songs and visits?” In the next scene, those songs and angelic announcements will resume; however, in this moment in Bethlehem, there are just two ordinary Jewish people following the edict of the emperor, who give birth to God’s son and lay him in a feeding trough because there is no place for them to stay. This is supposed to be the climax of the story, and Luke blows it. Thirteen hundred years of Israelite and Jewish history have all been pointing and leading to this moment. And Luke spends all of thirty-six words on it. There’s nothing even particularly exciting or climactic about any of those thirty-six words. Luke obviously needs to go back to college and retake Writing 101 so he can learn to write a proper climax.
On one particular Fourth of July in high school, my friends and I decided that we wanted to buy a bunch of fireworks and set them off. Any type of firework was illegal to shoot off in Colorado city limits, but for whatever reason, there were still plenty of firework stands scattered all across the city to buy from. So my friends and I loaded up on a bunch of fireworks and prepared to shoot them off in the street by one of our houses. And being the brilliant and obviously responsible high schooler that I was, I thought it would be a fun idea to make a sparkler bomb. Now, a sparkler bomb is exactly what it sounds like: a bomb made out of sparklers. You get a hundred or so sparklers, duct tape them tightly together, and leave one sticking out the top for a fuse. It’s supposed to explode with a loud boom and a bright light – the perfect climax for our firework show.
So once it got dark we started shooting off different fireworks. Most were dinky little ones that were fun to watch spin around the street. After about an hour of fireworks, many other neighborhood kids and families had come out of their homes to watch. We had an audience. What a perfect moment for the big finale.
So we put the sparkler bomb in the middle of the street and made sure everyone was at least fifty feet away—because safety first!—and then we lit it. Or we tried to light it. And we tried and we tried. To no avail. The climactic moment of our neighborhood firework show was slipping through our fingers as minutes passed and we could not get the sparkler bomb to light. But then in a fateful moment, the wind died down, the match met fuse and started burning down. We ran away as quickly as we could and waited for the big moment. The fuse burned down and….nothing. Nothing happened. The climax we were waiting for didn’t play out exactly how we had hoped.
During her pregnancy, as Mary had months to ponder what it would be like to give birth, I wonder if she had something bigger, more extravagant in mind for the moment the King of Kings enters the world. It was certainly not the attention-grabbing event she or we might have expected.
We live in a society dominated by those who seek to grab our attention. Advertisers work tirelessly to entice us with new cars, new homes, new fast food menus, new pills that can solve all our medical problems. Sports events are marketed to us as “the biggest showdown of the century” and are presented to us as issues of utmost importance. In the twenty-four hour news culture striving for our viewership, how often do we hear anchors declaring that this election or this congressional vote is “the most important decision of our times”?
The church also falls victim to this cultural phenomenon of seeking attention. Churches try to be “hip” and young; they try to attract people with movie events, carnival events, or music events that have little to do with their mission. We form coalitions and committees to influence politics, we make public displays of action to draw more attention to the concerns that we care about. None of these things are necessarily wrong, but as Andrew Whaley writes, “Change, we often believe, comes through making our voice rise above the rest.” In order for real change to happen, we grab people’s attention and something of monumental significance must take place, we assume.
But Luke’s gospel account is empty of this type of attention-grabbing, earth-shattering fanfare and commotion. Jesus’ birth appears incredibly ordinary. God’s son is born in obscurity and odd normality.
This past week, as I was pondering this story, I went for a walk. There’s nice walking path that Meghan and I like to take. And there’s two ways to get to it from our apartment. One way goes down a nice street lined with sleek apartments, nice patios that are fun to look at and manicured lawns. The other way goes down a dilapidated street with cracks in the sidewalk. The houses that line this street aren’t as new or nice to look at. There’s a food bank, usually with some of its patrons sitting on the ground outside or waiting in line. Most of the time I take the first street. But this week as I was taking my walk and came to the choice of which street to take, I pondered Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, and I found myself wondering, “If Jesus were to show up right now, which street would he show up on? The nice sleek-looking street, or the old worn down one?”
If Jesus’ first entrance into the world is any indication, then I think he would show up on the dilapidated street that doesn’t necessarily look pretty or have much going for it. And this is Luke’s point: when God came down to Earth, God chose a humble, ordinary space, devoid of any fanfare and away from the action. God chose two ordinary Jews who faithfully and quietly joined in. There’s nothing particularly exciting about Jesus’ birth; there’s nothing that grabs our attention like the marketing and news of our day. Jesus became just like us, in all our normality, our ordinariness, our quiet livelihood. Jesus did not need a throne or a multi-thousand dollar crib his first night on Earth. A manger is all he needed.
Jesus did not come for all the comforts, excitement or popularity of being human. He came for us—to be with us in our ordinary living. To show us how much he loves us. He came to be with the least, the last and the lost, with all who also know what it’s like to not have a place to stay for the night. Jesus came to show us that “there may be a time, and there may be a hunger in the world, for a community of disciples who quietly go about being faithful” (Andrew Whaley). No fanfare, no media stunts. Just ordinary and faithful community living. These are the communities who show up with casseroles when a loved one dies. These are the communities where children are raised to know the stories of Jesus and who grow up looking for God around every corner and in every encounter. These are the communities who show acts of mercy and pursue justice each day without recognition on the nightly news. These are the communities where people pray with and for one another, where they call each other brother and sister, because they have become a family of faith who struggle and grow and weep and rejoice together. Jesus came to remind us about the power of faithfully ordinary living.
I realize that I never told you the end of my firework story. Well, eventually it blew up. After several minutes of waiting, the sparkler bomb finally blew up. And it did not blow up at all the way we expected it to. Instead, it shot off like a rocket straight at my friend’s house, lighting the grass on fire as it zoomed through the air and then fell to the ground sputtering in a ball of flames.
Jesus’ birth is the pregnant pause before he begins his world-changing ministry. It is the proverbial calm before the storm, when all of creation takes a deep breath. The rest of Jesus’ life reminds us that following Jesus is dangerous. You have no idea what might happen or where you might go. But Jesus’ entrance into this world reminds us that we can trust this God who was born to us in humble and lowly estate. This year, we are reminded again at Christmas that this God who entered the world swaddled in a manger would give up anything to show us how much we are loved. Amen.