By Jim Taylor
Matthew 2: 1-12
Luke 2 1-13
If you’ve been following this series of services during Advent, in which I’ve explored the “Cast of Characters” in the story, you may have noticed that none of the characters come out the way they’re supposed to.
Herod is supposed to be an authority figure. Turns out he’s clueless and has to ask the Wise Ones to do his intelligence work for him.
Matthew 2: 1-9 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus had been born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star in the east[b] and have come to pay him homage.” 3 When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him, 4 and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah[c] was to be born. 5 They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea, for so it has been written by the prophet:
6 ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah,
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd[d] my people Israel.’ ”
7 Then Herod called for the magi[e] and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. 8 Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
Mary and Joseph should be the hero and heroine, the ones the story is about. But they turn out to be pawns, pushed around by forces beyond their control, shut out by their own relatives.
Luke 2: 1-7 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 So Joseph 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 cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.
No room for THEM in the inn.
The shepherds are the first to hear the message about the birth of Jesus. But they are essentially the clowns in the story. You can almost hear Frank Sinatra singing, “Send in the clowns. Where are the clowns?”
Luke 2: 8-18 8 Now in that same 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,[a] 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,[b]praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace and goodwill!”[c]
15 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.
The Magi, the Wise Ones? Well, they don’t come off badly at all, all things considered. If there’s a miracle in this story, they embody it. They came to Jerusalem with some preconceptions about the hierarchies of power, and they got some new insights. They went away with a distrust of power structures – including their own.
Matthew 2: 1-..12 In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, magi[a] from the east came to Jerusalem, 2 asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews?
The star that they had seen in the east went ahead of them,[a] until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw that the star had stopped,[b] they were overwhelmed with joy. 11 On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And they went home by another way.
Which leaves only Jesus. And he is certainly the hero of this story. The central character. The person around whom all the rest of the story circles.
But once again, there’s a reversal of roles. Because this hero is utterly helpless. There is no other animal quite as helpless as a newborn human. Chickens can waddle around as soon as they crack open their eggshells. Horse colts can stand up and nurse soon after birth. Kittens and puppies can crawl to their mother’s nipples. Infant whales can swim, as soon as they’re born – they have to, or they’d drown.
But human babies are, in their own way, a miracle. They can do nothing for themselves except breathe. They can’t feed themselves. They can’t move around. They can’t keep themselves warm. Without the help of others, human babies will die.
My grand-daughter, Katherine, is alive and assisting with this service, because her birth-mother left her at the gate of a mission, knowing that someone there would take care of her baby.
Another baby, also adopted, was dumped right after he was birthed, into a pile of tires. He’s alive only because someone heard a baby’s wail coming from the pile of tires, and pulled the newborn infant out. I’m not telling you this to shock you – just to make the point about how fragile babies are, without help from caring humans.
Babies are helpless. In our Christmas story, Jesus is the helpless hero. Everything revolves around him, and he can’t do anything about it. Except be loved. At this stage, he can’t even give love back.
And yet we say, we believe, that this is how God is manifest here on earth, among us.
The Christmas Story crystallizes, or encapsulates, into a single magnificent example, God’s way of working in the world.
The holy mystery we call God chose to be incarnated, enfleshed, in God’s creation. Does God also work through cockroaches and alligators? Through songbirds and salmon? We can’t know; that’s up to them to figure out. But we can know that God works through humans, because we have seen it happen. Over and over.
And we see it especially in the Christmas story. God doesn’t have to move mountains or fling thunderbolts out of the clouds. God works through humans. Through you and me. And most especially, through Jesus.
As Elizabeth Gilbert wrote in her book Eat Pray Love, “God lives in me, AS me.”
God lives in you, AS you.
God lives in Jesus, AS Jesus. And so Jesus shows us what God is like.
And the baby Jesus shows us that God is willing to be helpless, dependent on other humans, who are just like us. And just like him. The Christmas story reminds us that we too can sometimes feel helpless. We too have to depend on other people to do their part. We have to trust them.
When we tell the Christmas Story, we think mostly of the child in the manger. The helpless infant surrounded by farmyard animals. But we can’t separate the baby Jesus from the grown-man Jesus. Because the 30-year-old Jesus was the same flesh-and-blood as the one-day-old Jesus. He wasn’t replaced by a different being of some other kind.
In that sense, Christmas is a pre-quel to the later story of betrayal and crucifixion. During his lifetime, during his ministry, Jesus called himself many things. The good shepherd. The light of the world. The true vine. The gateway through which we must go. Living water.
But perhaps his most frequent metaphor is this – “I am the bread of life. Whoever eats of me will never go hungry, and whoever drinks of me will never be thirsty.”
And he made that point most dramatically, in what we call the Last Supper. He told his disciples, “This bread is my body, which is given to you. Take and eat. Do this in remembrance of me.”
And so, we placed in the manger this evening, not a doll, but a loaf of bread. Eat this bread, he said. This is me! Eat this bread and remember me.