Christmas Eve, Monday, December 24th, 2012
Preached by Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Salem, OR
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
As you came in the front door this evening, you may have noticed the nativity scene at the top of the stairs. You may have one at home—I do. There are many styles of nativities and crèches, from everywhere in the world there is a Christian community. Some are realistic, some are highly stylized. All are beautiful. You will see a baby Jesus—sometimes serene, sometimes smiling—lying in a manger, just as the Gospel said. Oddly enough, he often looks more like a six month old baby than a newborn. You will see Mary, fully dressed, kneeling beside her son in an attitude of prayerful devotion, looking beautiful. You will see Joseph, standing or kneeling beside them, looking handsome. You will probably see beautiful snowy white lambs, with athletic and handsome young shepherds. You will see a star or a beautiful angel hanging overhead. You will see three men in kingly robes bowing down, with boxes full of treasure. It’s a beautiful picture, serene and perfect. Our Christmas hymns describe it the same way: perfect and beautiful.
Here’s the thing, though. My grandfather was a dairy farmer, and I remember spending time in the barns as a child before he retired and sold off his herd. There’s something missing from all those beautiful nativity sets: the smell.
We don’t know what kind of animals might have been in that barn, possibly a cow, possibly a donkey or two, possibly some goats or chickens. But all farm animals have one thing in common: they smell. Or rather, the inevitable by-products do. In any stable, no matter how clean or well-maintained, you will have dung. Carved wood animals don’t make a mess. Real farm animals do. Let’s assume that the holy family had a clean stall or two with nice clean hay, they would still have been in the same barn overnight (and possibly for several days) with a bunch of smelly animals. Certainly not a place I would have wanted to have a baby!
It would also have been cold and dark. It’s true, Israel doesn’t get as cold as we do. But the desert does get very cold at night, and a stable would not have had a stove or a fireplace to help keep out the chill, nor any insulation to keep away the cold night air. The animals would help keep things warm, and the straw would be good insulation, but still, not very comfortable. They didn’t have electric lights, of course; the best they would have had would be oil lamps to give off a dim and flickering light. So the Holy Family would have spent their time in that stable shivering and unable to see much.
And have you ever noticed how clean Mary looks? I was there when both of my younger brothers were born, and I know many of you have either had children yourself or been in the room during a birth. There is sweat, blood, other bodily fluids, cursing, yelling, pain, hard work, and by the time the baby is born its mother is a mess and completely worn out. And that’s in modern hospitals with doctors and epidurals. Mary, as a stranger in town, might not even have had a midwife. Just her and Joseph in a dark, cold, smelly stable, neither of them with any experience in this whole childbirth thing. Even if we assume an easy birth, would Mary be fully dressed and looking perfect within a few hours? Would she be up and kneeling, or would she be lying down and resting, trying to recover? Then there’s the baby Jesus himself. Even assuming that he was a perfect baby, he would still need to get fed and changed regularly. Babies are hard work.
As for the shepherds, well, shepherds were notorious for being filthy, scruffy, crude guys, who spent all their time out in the fields with their flocks and had little time for niceties like bathing. Nobody wanted them around.
So when you stop to think about it, the stable that night probably didn’t look much like our crèches at all. As for hymns, well, the only Christmas carol that I can think of that mentions anything less than pretty about the birth of Jesus is “Do You Hear What I Hear,” which at least mentions the cold. Throughout history, Christians have tried to pretty it up, sanitize it, make it perfect. The word we use most often to describe Jesus’ birthplace is “humble,” as if Mary and Joseph chose that stable because they didn’t want to look too proud. But that’s not the case: Mary and Joseph chose that stable because it was the best they could get.
Prettying things up is a natural human response. We like our world nice and neat and tidy. We like there to be simple answers. We like it when the good guys always win and good things happen to good people and bad things happen to bad people. We like to think that prosperity is a reward for goodness, and peace and security is a reward for faithfulness. We don’t like thinking about injustice, and poverty, and sin, and the dirty, messy realities of life. Realities like the wind blowing in through cracks, and the perfume of manure competing with the frankincense and myrrh of the Wise Men’s gifts.
Did you feel uncomfortable when I talked about the smell, and how messy and cold and dark it would have been in that stable? It’s a lot easier to think of God being born in a perfect picture, than it is to think of God being born in pain and squalor. Yet that’s what happened: that’s where God chose to be born, in the form of Jesus. We claim that God is almighty, powerful, creator of all things and ruler of heaven and earth. Why choose an insignificant woman from nowhere in a backwater province of the Roman Empire? Why not choose to be born into all the riches and wealth of the world? And, once God had chosen Mary, why let her be shoved off into some stable, instead of claiming a room in a palace? Surely, God Almighty could have arranged at least one spare room somewhere in the city of Bethlehem.
If Jesus was born in a stable, it wasn’t an accident or a coincidence. God chose Mary, and God chose that stable, the last place you or I would have chosen. God chose to come into the world just like billions of other babies throughout history: poor, cold, in bad conditions, ignored by society. God chose the mess, the indignity, the pain and the sweat and even the smell of animal dung. God chose all the things we shy away from, the things we like to pretend don’t exist. God chose the people we’re all too happy to overlook: the young mother from out of town, pregnant in suspicious circumstances, the people out doing the dirty jobs no one else wants.
God chose to work through those insignificant people, those outcasts, those strangers. God’s great work of salvation began in mess and squalor. God doesn’t shy away from all the messiness and pain in the world. God came to redeem that messiness, to claim and save all people, not just the nice and pretty ones. God sees the things we would prefer to forget, the dark things, the cold things, the ones that stink. And God chose to use them to bring about the kingdom of God, the kingdom where there is no more darkness or cold, no more hunger or pain, no more sorrow, the place where all are welcome and all are loved.
Our world can be a pretty dark place sometimes. Even when we ourselves are happy and healthy, we know that others are not as fortunate, here in our community and around the world. And no matter how much we try to do good, how hard we try to be perfect, we are sinful and broken people. We can’t fix that brokenness in ourselves or in our world. Jesus Christ, the Son of God, came to save us, to bring light to the darkest corners of our selves and our world. Christ came that we might know the truth that will make us free. Christ came to give us the peace that is deeper than just the absence of war. Christ came to give us abundant life.
Jesus Christ was both fully human and fully God. He was God in human flesh, God with us in the most fundamental way imaginable. He was born in a real, working stable with real animals and real cold and real darkness. He experienced human life in all its goodness and with all its flaws, and he experienced pain and heartache just like a human. And like a human, he had to bear the consequences of our brokenness and sinfulness.
Jesus knows what life is like. Jesus knows what we’re like, every single one of us, not the pretty picture we like to present to the world but the hidden parts of us, warts and all. Jesus knows the darkness inside us; Jesus has suffered because of it. That little baby in the manger grew up to suffer and die for our sakes. He knows every blemish, every broken place, every sin. We don’t have to hide from him, because he knows us and loves us. He loves us so much he was born as a human to save us. He sees our every flaw, and loves us still.
Thanks be to God. Amen.