During the time before the internet, an Episcopal Priest named Fleming Rutledge had a dynamic ministry in New York City, particularly to self-described “sophisticated urbanites,” who looked down on religion, and Christianity in particular. At a Christmas party, a close friend who had been raised in the church, then left the church because he married a woman who was strongly opposed to Christianity, asked Fleming Rutledge to hear a strange confession. He confessed that he had purchased a King James Bible without his wife’s permission. He hid all of the evidence and locked himself in a bathroom to read the passage that we have just read together from Luke’s Gospel, which we always read on this holy night. He simply had to hear it.
Rutledge reflected on this bizarre confession in a Christmas Eve sermon many years ago, and asked “Do you think that his wife would have required him to take “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” into the bathroom? Or “A Child’s Christmas in Wales”? Or Dickens’ A Christmas Carol? It’s something to think about, isn’t it? The only Christmas story that has something transcendent about it is Luke’s. That’s why it continues to have a hold on people. God is in this story. Something greater than the birth of a baby is here. This is a story about something mysterious, something ultimate.”
Whether it is materialism disguised in moralism that marks our Christmas celebrations, calling Christmas a “season of giving,” or telling kids that they will get stuff for being well-behaved. Or whether it is the celebration of good things like Christmas snow, being inside during cold weather, ornate decorations and greenery in our homes and churches, or time spent with family during the holidays. None of these parts of Christmas have the hold on us that this Gospel story does, because God is not in them. God is in this story because God is in the manger.
God is in the manger. God is in the manger, surrounded by the wrong kinds of people, and with animals. In one of Martin Luther’s Christmas Sermons, he slowly takes stock of the situation described in St. Luke’s Gospel, and he reflects with incredible honesty at how he imagines he would have responded to the notion that God was actually there in that manger. Luther says, “If I had come to Bethlehem and seen it, I would have said: ‘This does not make sense. Can this be the Messiah? This is sheer nonsense.’ I would not have let myself be found inside the stable.” What an embarrassment. No wonder we turn Christmas into a time about family, or material goods, or cozy weather, or greenery. They are far easier to embrace than the notion that God is in the manger.
God is in the manger because we do not have room for Him anywhere else. We read that Mary, “gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.” “There was no place for them in the inn.” To say that there was no room for Jesus and His family in the inn is a far more meaningful statement that speaks to the entire life of our Lord Jesus Christ among us than simply saying Bethlehem was crowded. Perhaps Bethlehem really was so crowded that there was no room for the Holy Family. Perhaps the Holy Family was simply so poor, that any available space offering the dignity of childbirth in a real room was simply out of the question. Whenever the Holy Family makes a sacrifice in the Temple in Luke’s Gospel, Luke goes out of his way to remind us that the offering they make is one explicitly set aside for those who are very poor: just two pigeons.
We do not have room for Jesus. Not in our inns, not in our lives, not in our systems of thought, systems of governance, or anywhere else. We have no room for God with us. St. John’s Gospel would say that he came to his own people, and his own people did not receive him. Jesus would tell his disciples that foxes have holes, and birds have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay His head. We do not even have enough room for God to kill Him in a city, where normal, dignified human life is supposed to end. Much like in his birth, Jesus’ death will take place outside of the walls of the city, outside of the bounds of dignified human existence. “There was no place for them in the inn.”
“In the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.” It should come as no surprise to us to encounter Shepherds outside of the city of Bethlehem, the city of David. If you have ever been to the Holy City of Jerusalem, you would know that Bethlehem today is a southern suburb of Jerusalem. The city center of Bethlehem is only five miles away from the city center of Jerusalem. If we literally translate the name “Bethlehem” into English from the original Hebrew, the name itself means “house of meat,” or “house of flesh.” Bethlehem was the rural community near the Temple in Jerusalem, where lambs that were slaughtered as a sacrifice for the sins of God’s people were born and bred and led to the Temple in Jerusalem to be killed. Bethlehem is where the holy, cleansing food that nourishes God’s people is born. Of course, this is why David was himself a shepherd. His family’s life revolved around providing such sheep for God’s people.
But for the vital role these shepherds played in the life of Israel, shepherds were by no means holy men or the kind of people you would expect to find in the presence of a newborn king. Much like the actual cowboys and ranchers that shape so much of the folklore of the American West, shepherds were dirty. They lived and slept outside. You did not need to get a four-year degree to become a shepherd. You would not want your children listening to how shepherds spoke to one another or imitating the language as filthy as their bodies.
And yet, it is to these men, also living outside the bounds of the city, to whom the good news of the birth of a Savior is given. “An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born in this day in the City of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.’” As if it is not enough that the angel of the Lord brings this message of good news to the last people we would expect to hear it first, the form of this message would strike the ears of the shepherds and all who heard it as being far too absurd to be true.
St. Luke goes to great lengths to tell us who was in power at the time of Jesus’ birth. The great Emperor Augustus Caesar, the adopted son of Julius Caesar, was in power and reigned over Jesus’ people. Augustus claimed to be a god, a tradition begun by his adoptive father Julius. When an emperor had a son, the birth announcement would spread throughout the Roman Empire, and the form it would take was, “Behold, I bring you good news of great joy. Unto you is born in this day in the city of Rome a Savior, who is Caesar, the Lord.” This is an imperial message to announce the birth of a King. Except this King is not born in a capital city. He is not born in a city, a real room, or even in a bed. God is in the manger.
Finding themselves in the peculiar situation of receiving a parody of a Roman imperial birth announcement from an Angel, the shepherds ask for something natural, a sign that this is really true. When we ask God for signs, which is not something encouraged in Scripture, we are asking for something grand, over the top, and decisive. Waters parting, pillars of fire, rivers turned to blood. Of course, for the hard-hearted, these signs change nothing. What is the sign given to the shepherds? “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
The sign promised to the Shepherds is the most underwhelming sign in all of history. Really, it is more like an anti-sign. What assurance do we have that this is really God, that this is really the one who will save us, that this is really the one who we have been waiting for for so long? You will find a baby, wearing baby clothes, and lying in a manger. Yet, these unlikely men who receive this ridiculous message trust this strange sign, and so they meet God in the manger. They then “return, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen.” The shepherds of Israel’s sheep who remove sin are the first to hear of the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. Though this baby will put them out of a job, they glorify God.
I find it difficult not to take great comfort in how imperfect and underwhelming God’s entrance into the world is at Christmas. Christmas as we practice it in our culture has a cruel ability to expose how imperfect and far from ideal our own lives really are, as the commercialism of Christmas paints ideal scenes of perfect families, perfect presents, perfect meals, and perfect moments. These ideals are really more like outside pressures, signs reminding us of brokenness and division in our families; the empty hollowness of getting exactly what we ask for; and a season marked by chaos, sickness, and death once again. I find such comfort in remembering that the Holy Family too did not experience an ideal Christmas.
I am certain that I am not the first preacher to say this on Christmas Eve, and probably not even the only one in this town to say it tonight, but I love the “Charlie Brown Christmas Special.” I have always loved it, with all of the nostalgia about snow, and presents, and Christmas trees. Now, I also love it because it is one of the few places where almost everyone can hear this story of God’s gracious and mysterious entry into our world when Linus reads the Gospel account from Luke that causes so much embarrassment while bringing so much life. That reading is bookended by the disappointing Christmas tree that Charlie Brown purchases and brings to his friends, earning their derision and that loving description of him as a “hopeless blockhead.”
Charlie Brown first brings in the tree, disappointing his friends, spurring the question, “what is Christmas really about?” That question is answered by Linus, reading the Birth narrative from Luke, and before he begins reading, we see Charlie Brown standing next to his tree. After Linus finishes reading, Linus returns to the side of his friend, who is still standing next to his tree, and the redemption of that disappointing tree becomes the focus of the remaining few minutes of the Christmas special until it concludes with the singing of “Hark, the Herald Angels sing.”
Charles Schulz, the creator of Charlie Brown, was himself a man of faith, with some unusual ideas, but faith nonetheless. I do not know if he intentionally framed the infancy narrative from the Gospel of Luke between a disappointing tree, but intentional or not, it is the perfect frame through which to view Jesus’ birth. Being Christmas Eve, some of you may not come often, and you are probably asking if I have anything better to do other than over-analyzing children’s programs. If you ask yourself that question, the answer is “no.”
The infancy narrative read beautifully by Linus is all framed by Charlie Brown’s disappointing tree. The entire life of Jesus Christ, in which we will have no room for Him so that He can only reach those outside the bounds of dignified human life, will also be defined by a disappointing tree. Just as Messiahs should not be born in a manger, they should not die on a cross. Even here, in this blessed birth of a baby in humility, we are reminded of Jesus’ death in humiliation. Remember that Epiphany hymn, “We Three Kings,” where the final gift offered to Jesus after his birth is myrrh, an embalming liquid. “Myrrh, I bring, its bitter perfume, breathes a life of gathering gloom. Sorrowing, sighing, bleeding, dying, sealed in the cold, stone tomb.” In T.S. Eliot’s poem about the Epiphany, “the Journey of the Magi,” he describes the Magi slowly riding towards Jerusalem as a new dawn is breaking, and gazing up over the valley to see “three trees on the low sky.” The birth of Jesus Christ and the death of Jesus Christ are deeply intertwined, as much as we may not want to think about Jesus’ death during a season like Christmas.
God is in the manger, the same God who will soon be on the cross. There is little that is warm and fuzzy like a hot cup of cocoa with loved ones about this, but this is the only way we have life, graciously given to us by God in great humility. So, we pray, “God, make room in us for you to live and grow. In your birth, we are given second birth, so that through your life, death, and resurrection, you make room for us with you.” There was no room for Him in the inn, no room for Him in our lives, yet He has come to make room for us with Him to share His life. To quote the great Anglican Poet-Priest George Herbert in the conclusion of one of his Christmas poems, “Furnish and my soul, that Thou mayst have a better lodging than a rack, or a grave.” Amen.