Light in the Darkness

Christmas Day, December 25th, 2016

Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-4, John 1:1-14

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

I think it’s hard for us modern people to understand the miracle of light in the darkness.  Sure, we get that darkness is bad—you’re a lot more likely to hurt yourself when the lights are out, either by tripping over something or walking into something you didn’t see.  And when it’s dark, the animal part of your brain gets a lot jumpier.  Or, at least mine does.  When I get up in the middle of the night to get a glass of water by the light of the nightlights, there is always that bit of my brain that is sure there is something lying in wait to get me in the shadows.  I know perfectly well that there isn’t anything there, under the bed or around the corner, but there’s always a little corner of my mind that just won’t listen to reason.  I know the darkness is bad.

But at the same time, I have light any time I want it.  I can flip on a switch, or turn on my phone, or grab a flashlight.  There are streetlights outside so that I can talk through town even after dark with enough light to see.  And if the power went out for a long time, I’ve got a lot of candles I could dig out.  The only time I ever have to deal with darkness—truly deal with it—is when I want to.  When I choose not to turn the lights on.  But that wasn’t the case in Jesus’ day.

In Jesus’ day, they didn’t have electric lights.  They did have oil lamps … but those were expensive, and a lot dimmer than any modern electric light.  The oil to provide good light for fifteen minutes of work could cost as much as a day’s wages for a poor laborer.  So poor people generally didn’t use lamps at all.  When the sun went down, the only light available was that of the cookfire.  And, since the Middle East is arid and trees are scarce, even wood was expensive.  You didn’t burn it unless you had to; you might only light the fire when you actually had a meal to cook.  If you were a poor person, you went to bed with the sun.  And while middle-class people could afford lamp oil, it was still an expensive and precious commodity.  There were no streetlights, no lamps on peoples’ front porches.  When night came, the light went away.  You went home, probably to bed, and stayed there until dawn.  The darkness could be pushed back a little by a lamp or a cookfire, but only dimly, only temporarily.

So when our Gospel reading calls Jesus the light of the world, that means something far more significant than we really get.  The light that shines in the darkness, that the darkness can’t overcome.  This is not just a dim and feeble lamp that you save for when you absolutely need it.  This is a light that shines, always.  That gives light to everyone, not just those huddled around it.  This is a light that shines deep into the gloomiest corners of the world, the murkiest corners of our hearts.  There is no shadow that can hide from it, no evil that can escape it, no hate or fear or selfishness that can prevent that light from shining.  That light sustains our life, sustains our souls.

That light came into this world in the form of a baby, born in a manger, the Word of God made flesh and blood and bone.  That light is Jesus Christ, and his light still shines in this world.  It does not matter how dark the world gets.  It does not matter how much sin and evil try to hide, it does not matter what shadows they try to cast over all the world.  The light of Jesus Christ will always be there, guiding us to God and showing us the truth.  The light of Christ will always be there to soften the hard-hearted and heal the broken-hearted and judge the cruel-hearted.  The light of Christ will always be there to expose our self-deceptions, to quiet our fears, to help us see the world as it really is.  That light helps us to see the truths deeper than any illusion.

Much as we fear the dark, we sometimes turn to it.  Because, you see, the dark is easier.  It’s easier to let our fears control us than it is to be brave.  When dealing with people who are different, it’s easier to hate than it is to love.  It’s easier to cling to comforting illusions and self-deceptions than it is to face the truth.  It’s easier to puff ourselves up with self-righteousness than it is to follow God’s true path of righteousness.  It’s easier to assume we’re always right and good than it is to face the times when we fail, when we make mistakes, when we are wrong.

But the light of Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.  The light of Christ helps us see God as he truly is, and turns our hearts and minds to God, so that we may become his children ever more truly.  The light of Christ helps us see ourselves and others more clearly.  Thanks be to God for Jesus Christ, our light and our life.

Amen.

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The True Prince of Peace

Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2016

Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Two thousand years ago, there was a man who was called the Savior.  He rescued his people from the doubts, fears, and wars that consumed them, and so they called him the Prince of Peace.  He was worshiped as a god.  His face was put on the money.  He brought a new peace and prosperity that was supposed to last forever.  And his name was Caesar Augustus, Emperor of Rome.  He did some great things, but within a century the peace he created had crumbled, replaced by civil war and corruption.  No empire lasts forever; no merely human peace can prevent hostilities.  And the only salvation a human can bring is temporary, limited, and finite.  The good news that Emperor Augustus brought did not long outlast him.

But during his reign, something else happened.  A baby was born.  Not in a palace, not in the center of power, but in a stable in a backwater town in a backwater region of a remote region of his empire.  A baby born to a poor, ordinary couple, completely unremarkable in every way except one: God had chosen them to raise his son, Jesus, born on a cold winter’s night, in poverty and obscurity.

While the man the world called the prince of peace was feasting in his palace, attended to by slaves and courtiers, the true prince of peace was being laid in a manger.  While Emperor Augustus was sending out messengers with his laws and decrees, God was sending angels to shepherds and wise men with an invitation.  God’s instructions were simple: don’t be afraid, for something wonderful has just happened.  Go see the baby in the manger, and rejoice, for there is good news for all people!

And they went, and they saw, and they told everyone, and everyone who heard it was amazed.  But you know, the Bible didn’t say what they were amazed at.  Did they believe? Was it that kind of amazement?  Or was it the kind of amazement where they were surprised and perplexed at the things the shepherds and wise men told them?  Because then, as now, they were used to saviors and princes of peace like Emperor Augustus.  So what did they think when they were told that their savior, the one to bring peace, was an ordinary-looking baby born in the middle of nowhere in a stable?  Could they imagine the kind of peace and joy and hope that the baby was born to bring, or were they imagining the kind of peace and joy and hope that they were used to?  Could they really believe that it was for all people?  Can we?

Emperor Augustus brought peace through the sword.  He was a great military leader who crushed his enemies, and then used politics to benefit his supporters.  He made sure that his supporters prospered and his enemies suffered.  It was great news if you were one of his people, but bad news if you were one of his enemies.  And so the enemies became bitter, and just waited for the chance to strike back, and others just coveted Augustus’ power and sought to take it from his successors, and the peace that Augustus brought could not last.  That’s the way the world works, so often.  We make peace by suppressing violence, rather than by building relationships.  We treat life like a zero-sum game where no-one can benefit unless someone else suffers.  And so what’s good news for one group is bad news for another.  And so conflict flourishes, jealousy and hate prevail, and peace is more of a temporary ceasefire than a lasting reality.

That is not the kind of peace that Jesus came to bring.  That is not the Good News that Jesus is for all people.  Jesus didn’t make those kinds of distinctions.  Jesus came for everyone: rich and poor alike, men and women, old and young, sinners and saints, of all races and tribes and nations.  For those who were sick or hurting, Jesus brought healing.  For those who were lonely or outcast, Jesus brought community.  For those who were hungry, Jesus brought food.  For those who were oppressed, Jesus brought the promise of justice.  For those who were rich, Jesus brought the promise of a deeper love and joy and purpose than is found in mere possessions.  For the sinners, Jesus brought forgiveness.  For those who were imprisoned, Jesus brought the promise of freedom.  For all people, Jesus brought new life.  For everyone, good news and hope.  The kind of good news and hope that endure in good times and bad.

That is the kind of Good News Jesus came to bring 2,000 years ago, and that is the Good News that Jesus continues to bring to all who open their hearts and minds to him.  Not the good news brought by politicians or military leaders.  Not the good news that benefits only some and hurts others.  But good news for all people, good news that endures no matter what, that brings a peace the world cannot understand.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

The Baby who Breaks the Cycle

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2015

Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20, John 1:1-14

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

Normally, when I read the words of the prophet Isaiah that we just heard, I focus on the light, and on the announcement of the child’s birth, that child who will be the Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, the Prince of Peace, who will bring justice and righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. But this week, as I was pondering these texts, I found myself struck by other verses. The ones about the boots of the tramping warriors, and the garments soaked in blood, and people suffering under the yoke of oppression. And two things came to mind: first, what words to hear on the night of Jesus’ birth! And second, how much the boots of warriors and garments rolled in blood have been everywhere, this last year. How much fear and violence and hate there seems to be in the world. Isis beheading people and sending terrorists to Beirut and Paris. Mass shootings in the US. Police killing people and then trying to cover it up. Race riots. Women and children and disabled people abused and murdered by husbands, fathers, teachers. Every kind of evil under the sun. There has been so much violence and bloodshed this year, and I wasn’t expecting to hear it in the Bible texts appointed for Christmas Eve, and I didn’t want it to be there. I wanted to hear about peace, and light, and a beautiful baby. I don’t want to hear about violence and baby Jesus in the same breath.

And yet, isn’t that very contrast the reason that the birth of Jesus is such good news indeed? We live in a world filled with violence on a grand scale that reaches across countries, and violence on a small scale that lives in our own homes and schools. We live with violence and injustice, and desperately need peace; we walk in darkness and need light. And whenever we rely on our own abilities to protect ourselves and make the world safer, it seems things backfire against us. We get rid of one terrorist only to have another, worse one take his place. We fight to defend ourselves and only add to the cycle of violence. We fight fire with fire, only to find we made the whole blaze bigger and more dangerous. The more we rely on our own might, the more tramping warriors there are, the more garments soaked in blood, the more darkness there is. It seems an endless cycle.

But in Jesus Christ, that cycle is broken. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us, and that son is the Prince of Peace who will rule with justice and with righteousness. And with that birth, the yoke across our shoulders—the burden of violence, of hatred, of fear—is broken. There is a new way, a different way. A way that gives light in the darkness, that brings joy instead of fear and hope instead of hate. This baby, to us this night, is a king indeed—but not a king like the kings of this world. This baby looks nothing like the kings and rulers of this world, for this baby hasn’t come to set up another country just like all the rest. This baby has come to turn the whole world upside down, to change the way we live, to change the way we relate to one another. This baby has come to make the whole world new.

Because the peace this baby has come to bring isn’t the temporary peace of a ceasefire while both sides get ready for the next fight, or the false peace where you grit your teeth and smile at people you don’t like because it’s the holidays, or the unjust peace where you don’t speak out against those who hurt you because you don’t dare. This baby has come to bring true peace, the peace that the world cannot give and doesn’t understand, the peace based on justice and mercy and love for all people and all of creation.

Jesus did not come into this world to play the same old power games in the same old way. If he had, he would have been born in a palace. But instead, God chose for his son to be born in the cold, in the dark, in a backwater village where nobody wanted him or his family. And God chose to send the first messengers announcing the birth of his son to shepherds—poor, dirty, outcasts. I think part of the reason he chose that is so that we wouldn’t be able to fool ourselves that this Prince of Peace is anything like the other princes, lords, presidents, governors, and leaders that we see around us all the time. This prince is different. This King of Kings, this Mighty God, does not come with a sword to try and fight us into peacefulness. He doesn’t come to respond to hate with more hate. He comes with open arms to bring love in the midst of hate, justice in the midst of oppression, mercy in the midst of judgmentalism. He comes to take everything we think we know about the way the world works, and turn it upside down.

Jesus Christ came into this cold, dark world to build something new. To bring light, and life, and peace, and hope. He came to bring a new way of being, a new way of looking at the world. A way based on love, instead of fear and hate; a way that opens up the possibility for true peace, in our hearts, in our community, and in our world. And though that peace will not be fully known until Christ comes again in glory, its light shines among us even now. That light shines every time we choose love instead of hate, every time we choose justice and mercy instead of revenge, every time we choose to put down our fists and our hateful words and raise our hands to help instead. That light redeems us, breaks us free from old, worn patterns, from despair, and helps us see the world through God’s eyes, instead of the world’s eyes. That light shines every time we help those in need, every time we choose to be generous, every time we open our hearts and our minds to God and God’s people. That light shines every time we set aside our fears and our doubts to do the right thing.

Thanks be to God for that light, for hope in the midst of a hopeless world, for peace in the midst of a violent world, and for joy despite all the things the powers of this world can throw at us. May the light of God shine in our hearts this Christmas and throughout the year.

Amen.

A barn for a home

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2014

Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20, John 1:1-14

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 

May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.

One thing that struck me, as I was listening to the radio this December, was how many Christmas songs are about being home for the holidays. There’s I’ll be Home for Christmas, There’s No Place Like Home for the Holidays, and many others. They’re all very heartwarming, and they really strike a chord with me, because I’m so far from home myself. I, too, am going home for the holidays, but not until tomorrow, obviously. And I can’t wait to see my family and friends, do all the Christmas things my family has postponed until I can get there, have a big ham dinner with all the trimmings.

But let’s not forget that when Joseph and Mary headed to Bethlehem for the first Christmas, that wasn’t the kind of homecoming they were expecting. I mean, obviously, they were Jewish, so they wouldn’t have been eating ham. But even though Bethlehem was Joseph’s home town, the town his family was from, there was no welcome for them there. None of his family opened their arms to the holy family; nobody offered them the guest bedroom or even a spot on the living-room floor. No one invited them in for a big family meal. And so they ended up in the stable. As you’re gathering with family and friends, think of that. Being in your own home town, with nobody to take you in. That’s what happened to Mary and Joseph, and to too many people in this world.

Now, we don’t know why nobody welcomed Mary and Joseph in. Maybe most of the family had moved away from Bethlehem, as Joseph had. Maybe there were only a few of his kin living in town, and they were already full up—although I don’t know about you, but I would imagine that most families, if a family shows up expecting a baby, they find a place for the mom-to-be even if they have to turf out somebody else. But maybe Joseph’s family just didn’t want to make room for them. Maybe they knew that Mary had been pregnant before she and Joseph married, and maybe they were punishing them for the shame and scandal of it. Maybe they didn’t want to associate with those kinds of people, or maybe they didn’t want their kids exposed to that sort of thing. I don’t know why; the Bible doesn’t tell us. But when Joseph and Mary went back to Joseph’s family’s home town, they had to go to the inn. And the innkeeper didn’t have room for them, either. Maybe his inn was bursting at the seams. Maybe he knew about the scandal. Maybe he thought that it would be better for Mary to have some privacy as she was giving birth—privacy she wouldn’t have gotten in an inn where there were probably several families in each room. Whatever the reason, Mary and Joseph ended up in the barn, and that’s where Jesus was born.

People get so wound up about Christmas. Everything has to be perfect: food, presents, goodies, trees, decorations, music. You hear people talk, and you think that anything less than perfection means utter failure. And if you’re not home, with your family, well, that’s horrible, too. We have this picture of what Christmas should be like, and yet, the first Christmas wasn’t like that at all. Mary and Joseph were far from home, among strangers, without even a hotel room to call their own, with no feast, no goodies, no decorations—no nothing. And that’s how Christ was born. In that lonely stable, God became flesh. God became one of us.

God’s very nature is relationship. God is three persons—Father, Son, and Spirit—together in a great dance of love. The first letter of John tells us that God is love, so that we can’t know or understand God without loving other people. We are made in God’s image, which means that we are made for relationship, too. We are made for love. It’s imprinted in the DNA in every cell in our body. And yet, when God became flesh, when the Son took form in Mary’s womb and was born as the infant Jesus, he came to a family alone in the world, isolated from friends and family, away from home.

I think he did that on purpose. Because even though we were created for love, there is a lot of hate in the world. Even though we were created for relationship, there is a lot of isolation in the world. We hurt other people and we hurt ourselves. We think that it’s better to rely on our own skills than to reach out for help even when help is deeply needed. There are people, right now, tonight, who feel desperately alone. Some because they are alone, and some because their family or friends treat them badly. It’s possible to be alone in the midst of a crowd—even among family—if those family hurt you and demean you. And all too often, that’s what we do to one another.

When Jesus was born in that stable, the love of God became real flesh and blood. And I think part of the reason he chose that lonely stable was to show the world that God’s love is not just for those who already have loving families close beside them. God’s love is also for the loners, for the outcasts, for the ones who have nobody or whose family and friends are worse than being alone. God’s love is for everyone, in every country, in every village, in every city. For no matter whether we are white or black, Asian or Latino or Native American or Arab or Pacific Islander, no matter what language we speak, we are all children of God. We are all loved by God. And God comes to us, in the mess and problems of life, just as God came to that stable 2,000 years ago.

I pray that you all have loving families and friends around you. I pray that you all share the love of God with one another this Christmas. But whether you are in the midst of your family or alone, God is with you. Thanks Be To God.

Amen.

the Word made flesh

Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013

Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-20, John 1:1-14

Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND

 May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Titus wrote: “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all.”  What a poetic and beautiful way to describe the coming of Christ, the Messiah!  The grace of God, which brings salvation, coming to earth.  And in the prophet Isaiah, the Messiah is called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  In a little while, when it comes time to light the candles, we’ll read the opening of the Gospel of John, which describes Jesus as the Word of God through which all the world was created.  That’s quite a lot to put on the shoulders of one little baby, born in poverty and darkness in a stable in a tiny town in a backwater part of the world!

And yet, he’s not just a baby, is he?  Jesus is more than that.  So often, when it gets close to Christmas time, we let our sentimentality take over.  Isn’t that a cute baby in that pageant?  How sweet those children sound, singing Away in a Manger.  How heart-warming to have family and friends coming together for a special meal.  How beautiful that picture of Mary and Joseph and baby Jesus looks!  The sentimentality overflows, from made-for-tv movies to Christmas pageants in churches.  We think of the “reason for the season,” and we try to be a little nicer, a little more generous, as we go about our daily life.  And that’s a good thing!  That heart-warming message of hope and love is an important part of Christmas.

But let’s remember just how great the love is; let’s remember how awesome the hope is.  Because Jesus’ birth isn’t just a reminder that babies are sweet and we should be kind to one another.  There’s a reason that all those different Bible texts we read tonight have extraordinary expectations of that little baby!  You see, that little baby is God in human flesh.  God, immortal, all-powerful, chose to come to Earth and be born as a human.  The Word became flesh, truly God and truly human at the same time.  Yes, he was a human baby, born in sweat and tears and blood in a cold stable to a poor family.  He probably cried and fussed like any other baby; he definitely needed to be fed and have his diaper changed like any other baby.  But he was also God, present and active in the creation of the universe.  He is the grace and love of God given physical form.  He is the one who breaks the chains of slavery and oppression.  He is the one who brings justice and peace.  He was and is the light that brings hope and joy to the world.  That hope is for more than just a little extra kindness at Christmastime.  That hope is for the redemption and renewal of the whole world.  God, who created the world and watched his good creation become broken and marred by sin, became human for the sake of saving the world.

Why would God chose to do that?  Why would God choose to be limited by becoming a human being—and a baby, at that, the most vulnerable and helpless that any living creature can ever be, a baby, totally dependent on others for even the most basic needs?  In Christ Jesus the greatest power in the world chose to be the most vulnerable and powerless he could possibly be.  What could God possibly think worth it?  I’ll tell you: us.  Every person who has ever lived or ever will, and all of creation around us.  God thinks we’re worth that.  God loves us so much that he was willing to do anything to save us, and he proved it when he became a human being, when he became a baby who was born in a manger, wrapped in bands of cloth and laid in a manger, because there was no room in the inn.  What extraordinary love that is!

But that’s just the beginning of the story.  You see, Jesus grew up.  And he taught people how to live better lives; how to see the kingdom of God in their midst.  He taught people how to build better relationships with one another and with God, how to forgive one another and to see God’s face in all of creation.  And then he proved his love in the most dramatic way possible: suffering and dying on the cross.  And in that ultimate act of weakness, in that death, were the seeds of the greatest victory possible.  In his resurrection, Jesus Christ shattered the gates of hell.

That’s why the angels sing at the birth of Jesus: they know what he really is.  A baby in a manger, yes, but also the light and hope of the world.  God in human flesh, God become human, coming to heal all of creation.  God came to live among us so that we might become his children, loved and cared for just as Mary cared for Jesus as a baby.  That is the great joy of Christmas, for in the dead of winter, in a lowly stable in the middle of nowhere, hope is born for the whole world.  Two thousand years after Jesus’ birth, twenty-five hundred years after Isaiah’s prophecy, we still live in a world filled with boots of tramping warriors and blood-soaked garments.  We still live in a world where there are people who have no home, and no family to care for them.  We still live in a world where there is fear.  But God’s light has come into the world; God’s hope has come into the world; God’s Word has come into the world.  That is the grace of God: that he would take on flesh and blood for our sake, to save us from our own sin and brokenness.  Thanks be to God.

Amen.

A Dark, Cold, Smelly Stable

Christmas Eve, Monday, December 24th, 2012

Luke 2:1-20

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.