Friday, 25 December 2015

Christmas Midnight: Come to the Manger

I wonder what has drawn you here tonight? People come to church for many reasons at Christmas. Some of you may be regulars, here with us throughout the year.  Some may be visitors, staying with family perhaps. For some, coming to this service might be a tradition, something which makes Christmas feel like Christmas for you. Others might have come on the spur of the moment, because you feel a particular need right now. You might have come to give thanks and celebrate something. Or you might have come because this year has been difficult or you are mourning a loss. Or maybe you’re just feeling hungry for something you can’t quite put a name to. Whatever your reason for making the journey here in the darkness of this December night, you are welcome, truly welcome. I am glad you have found your way here today.

The Bible reading we just heard reminded us of another night-time journey; the journey of the shepherds to the manger. What made them want to set out? What motivated their journey? It could have just been curiosity - watching over your flocks by night is probably fairly boring – but I think we’re meant to understand that it was more than that. They went “with haste” we are told. They really wanted to get there.

I think the shepherds were probably like many people of their time, yearning for deliverance. They lived under the oppressive rule of Rome. Life was precarious for everyone, but it was especially difficult for those at the bottom of the heap, as it always is, the poor and the powerless, people like these shepherds.

But somewhere deep down, they believed that God would help them, that he hadn’t forgotten or forsaken them. They told each other stories from their past, stories they’d recorded in their Scriptures, stories of God rescuing them from slavery in Egypt, and later from exile in Babylon. God hadn’t abandoned them then, so he wouldn’t abandon them now. He would send someone to rescue them again, his chosen one, a leader anointed for the job – Messiah literally means the “anointed one”.  This was the hope they held onto.

So when the angel announced that the Messiah had been born, there was no holding the shepherds back. This was the answer to their deepest longing.  No wonder they were off like a shot to see what it was all about.

But for all their excitement, they were probably also rather puzzled by the angel’s announcement ,because there were at least two things about it that must have seemed very odd.

The first was that it had been made to them at all. They were just shepherds, a group regarded with suspicion at the time. Why would God even notice them, let alone send his angel to them? And yet the angel had been quite clear “to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, the Messiah, the Lord.” Of course the good news was for all people, but at that moment, quite specifically the message was for them. God was for them. The child was theirs. “To you is born…” Not to someone else, someone better, more important, more sorted out and respectable – to them, right there, where they were, as they were. There were no conditions, no ifs and buts, no “put your lives right first and then I’ll come to you.” And as if one angel wasn’t enough to convince them, a whole host of angels appeared, underlining the message. “Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth peace among those whom he favours.”  Whoever else that last phrase referred to, it surely meant them, because they were the ones the angels had sung it to – a bunch of unwashed, uneducated, unprepossessing shepherds.

That was the first puzzle, but the second may have been even more baffling.

 “You will find a child, wrapped in bands of cloth”, the angel had said – well that was pretty standard; all children would have been wrapped in bands of cloth– but then he went on. He told them they would find this child “lying in a manger”. That definitely wasn’t standard. We don’t know where this manger was – the Bible doesn’t actually mention a stable. It could have been in the open air, or in a cave used as an animal shelter, or in a room in a house shared with animals, as many were at the time. But wherever it was, a manger wasn’t for babies. It was for animal feed. It was probably none too clean, and I daresay the straw was home to any number of creepy crawlies.  No sensible, self-respecting parent was going to put their baby to sleep in a manger if they had any other choice. But apparently these parents didn’t . It was the manger or the hard, cold ground.

We are so used to the image of Jesus “asleep on the hay” that we’ve probably grown immune to its shock, but it wouldn’t have made sense to the shepherds at all. If this child was the Messiah, why would God let him be born among the animals? Why would he let him lie in a manger? Why would he not send him to a family who could at least give him a safe and comfortable bed?

The birth stories in the Gospels are meant to point forward to the life and ministry of the adult Jesus; they are a sort of prologue, alerting us to its themes. This little detail certainly does that. It points forward to another time when people would wonder what on earth God was up to, and why he didn’t take better care of his son. It points forward to the crucifixion. Those who witnessed Jesus’ death asked why, if he really was the Messiah, he was on a cross and not on a throne. Crucifixion was humiliating as well as painful; a sign to everyone that you’d been cursed and abandoned. When Jesus was crucified it looked as if everything had gone wrong. But Luke’s inclusion of this detail of Jesus’ birth is a big hint that suffering and dying aren’t a sign that God’s plans have failed; they are the plan, somehow vital to what he is doing in our world.

We still tend to assume that God is most likely to be found in beautiful, respectable places, in the beauty of a candlelit church or in a glorious sunset, in lives that are upright, sorted out. We still, lazily, call some places god-forsaken – the grimy sink estate, the refugee camp, the bombed out city – but the Gospels proclaim is that nowhere is god-forsaken. In fact, they tell us, God’s first choice is to be in places where there is pain and disgrace, poverty and need.

Christian faith has been co-opted and distorted again and again by the rich and powerful over the centuries. But Christmas and Easter, if we keep them properly, bring it back to its roots, in a child laid in a manger and a man pinned to a cross. We can dress Christian faith up in gold and silver. We can build great cathedrals in God’s name, but if we truly want to follow Christ, sooner or later we will find ourselves kneeling in the dirt of a stable, or standing in the squalor of an execution site.

It may sound shocking, but there is a sense in which Christianity is really a faith for losers. It is a faith for those who have lost hope, lost their good name, lost their power, lost their way. None of us likes to think of ourselves that way, but all of us, at some stage discover that we are mortal and fallible. It all goes wrong, and we don’t know why, and we can’t do anything about it. When we come to that point, the God of the manger and the cross is the God we really need, the God who comes to us at our lowest point, into our greatest pain.

There’s a poem by the early twentieth century writer, Philip Britts, which seems to me to sum this up, and perhaps to sum up what those shepherds might have felt as they hurried to Bethlehem.

We have not come like Eastern kings
With gifts upon the pommel lying.
Our hands are empty, and we came
Because we heard a baby crying.

We have not come like questing knights
With fiery swords and banners flying.
We heard a call and hurried here –
The call was like a baby crying.

But we have come with open hearts
From places where the torch is dying.
We seek a manger and a cross
Because we heard a baby crying.
(Philip Britts 1917- 49 )

To hear that poem properly you have to abandon the idea that  “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes”. However sweet it might seem, it’s not realistic, as anyone who’s had a baby will know. Babies cry. It’s the only way they have to let us know that they are uncomfortable, hungry, thirst, cold, hot. They can’t do anything for themselves, and if they didn’t cry for our help, they wouldn’t survive.  So of course Jesus cried. His cried because he was human, the Word who had become flesh . In him God inhabits our cries, embraces our vulnerability and helplessness, stays with us through the dark nights and brings us hope and life.

I began by saying that I didn’t know why you had come here tonight, but perhaps for some of us it is the cry of a baby that has drawn us here, a sense of need, a hunger for hope. That crying child may be within us, or we may have heard it in someone we love. It may be in the voices of those we see on the news, the refugees crossing the Med in their flimsy boats, the homeless, those struggling with the hard grind of poverty, the people whose stories tug at our heartstrings and make us despair of the world we live in. But God’s promise to us is the same as it has ever been. He is there in the mangers and on the crosses of our world, born in us, dying with us, and, if we let him, transforming those dark places with the light of his love. 

To you is born this day a saviour, and you will find him lying in a manger. That’s the good news.

No comments:

Post a Comment