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Imagine a Stable
Presenter:Rev. Megan Foley
Sermon Date:Sat, 12/24/2011
If you’ve been celebrating Christmas for a while, then you probably know a lot of stories about the baby Jesus and the strange circumstances surrounding his birth so many years ago.
You probably know that an angel came to Mary and told her she was to be Jesus’ mother, and that Mary was engaged to be married to a man named Joseph but Joseph was not the father of Jesus – God was the father.
You probably know that when Mary was about to give birth to Jesus that she and Joseph had to travel a long way so that they could register with the government of the time - or at least it was a long way to travel in those days when there weren’t any cars or buses or trains. And you probably know that when Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, there wasn’t any place for them to stay, because the town was so crowded with everyone else who had to register with the government.
You probably heard the story that Mary and Joseph could not stay in the hotel in town, so they were shown to a stable where the innkeeper’s animals were kept. And all of a sudden it was time for Jesus to be born, and so he was, and Mary and Joseph wrapped him up in swaddling cloths, which means he was all bundled up tight like babies like to be, and then Mary and Joseph laid him down in the manger, which is the place where hay is kept for animals to eat, because they didn’t have a crib.
And then you already know all about the shepherds in the fields, and the three wise men, all of whom saw a giant star in the sky, and they followed it and found the baby Jesus, and they gave him presents and generally worshipped him, while the animals stayed all around, and Mary and Joseph stood over him.
All of this is the main story that we have heard about the birth of the baby Jesus. We hear it every year in all sorts of different books and movies and TV shows. We see it depicted in the little crèches that sit in our houses and we watch the story unfold in nativity plays.
I bet if you take a minute, you can easily imagine the scene in the stable, with Mary and Joseph and the baby Jesus in the manger, and the wise men and the shepherds, and the animals all around. Go on, take a minute to imagine it.
Was it hard to imagine? I didn’t think so.
What’s interesting is, for a story that most of us know so well that we can imagine the scenes in it as if we were there ourselves…the interesting thing is, we didn’t get a whole lot of this story from the bible itself. The bible itself is surprisingly low key about the birth of Jesus.
The story of the baby Jesus is only discussed in two of the four gospels – the gospels are the parts of the bible that talk about Jesus’ life. Only Matthew and Luke talk about the birth of Jesus at all – the other two gospels, Mark and John, begin the story of Jesus’ life only when he began his ministry as an adult.
And of the books of Matthew and Luke, Matthew only really talks about Joseph – which is fair, I think, because poor Joseph deserves a lot more credit in this tale than he gets, in my opinion.
The book of Matthew tells the part of the story where Joseph is engaged to a nice girl who is suddenly mysteriously pregnant, and when Joseph is just about to tell her that he has changed his mind about the whole wedding thing because it seems like she might really like someone else better than him, Joseph has a dream where an angel tells him that he should go ahead with the wedding because this baby really is the son of God, and the pregnancy is a miracle. And so Joseph does stick with Mary after all. But that’s pretty much all that the book of Matthew says about Jesus being born. Matthew doesn’t talk about the inn or the manger or a stable or any of that at all.
Which leaves us with Luke. And there is not much more to the story, even in Luke. What you’re about to hear is the entirety of what Luke has to say about the birth of Jesus. I mean it, this is all Luke says about the traveling and the inn and the stable and all of that.
Luke 2: 5-7
[Joseph] went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
That is what the bible says about the birth of the baby Jesus, although it does go on to talk about the shepherds for another short chapter.
All the rest of the things we know about the story of the baby Jesus, all the traveling on the donkey and the innkeeper showing them to the stable out back and all the animals gathered in the barn, and all the things about what Jesus looked like or did or what Mary and Joseph did, all the details we’ve known about all of our lives, all of these parts of the story are creative embellishments to the very spare and simple tale that the book of Luke tells us. Those details that we know aren’t in the bible at all.
And that’s okay.
There is a wonderful Jewish tradition of interpreting the bible called Midrash. A Midrash is a bible story that not only tells the story as written in the bible but also adds in all sorts of details to what the bible says, especially if the bible depiction alone does not have enough information to satisfy.
When doing a Midrash, you can add in all sorts of things to a bible story. You can talk about what things look like, and who else might also be there. You can add in what people are thinking or feeling about what’s going on, or background stories that explain why they are doing what they do. In a Midrash, you add in anything you want to, to make the story deeper and more meaningful and more appropriate for the audience who is hearing the story.
Midrash is considered a very holy way of interacting with the stories from the bible, and it’s effective too. Because, think about it - if all we had to think about Christmas were these three sentences from Luke, we wouldn’t have as much to be interested in or excited about on Christmas Eve. Luckily, somewhere along the line, people started a Midrash tradition about the Christmas story, and now we have all sorts of things we can imagine about the stable where the baby Jesus was born.
Let’s take just a minute or two now to imagine the baby Jesus in the manger, just born. Imagine the stable walls, and the straw on the floor. Imagine the animals there. Imagine the shepherds and wise men making their way to them, because a star shines bright overhead showing them the way. Imagine a young couple, tending a baby here in this setting. Imagine that baby, so tiny, so precious, put on earth to bring a new message of love and hope to his people, a message that couldn’t be more important, or more timely, or be more meaningful to those people for thousands of years to come.
He is not surrounded by the things we usually think will protect something small and fragile and precious, like walls or wealth or experience or power. What will keep this baby safe, so that he can do the work he is meant to do? Think about this scene, for just a moment.
Even with the sparse tale told in the bible, we can tell that this baby is perhaps not exactly located where we might think he ought to be if he really is so important. The song we just sang is calming and peaceful, and we like to think of the baby Jesus in the stable that way.
But it doesn’t take much analysis to know that sending the Son of God to teenage parents who don’t completely trust each other or completely know what’s going on, and who have the baby in a strange town in a barn of all places, it doesn’t take much to know that this is maybe not the safest of situations for this precious child. If nothing else, think of the poop. This is definitely not what Parents Magazine or your average pediatrician or the Department of Social Services would recommend as an optimal environment for a newborn.
The Reverend Kate Braestrup, a Unitarian Universalist game warden chaplain up in Maine, thinks that maybe this peril, this potential threat, is exactly the point of the story. She thinks the story needs a little danger in it, a little worry that maybe the baby won’t be okay in that manger, a little concern that those swaddling cloths are not quite enough to keep the baby safe.
Christmas is already celebrated in a scary time of year, when days grow short and cold, and nothing grows out of the ground that could feed us. But Braestrup says that Christmas itself is also scary, “because this is a season of love, and to love is to risk.”
She writes, “[w]hat if our love is not enough, what if it isn’t returned, what if we cast our hearts into the world only to reel them in broken?” She says, “God put God’s heart into the world, the Christmas story goes, in the form of an infant born wet into winter air. Look what happened to him.”
I agree that the fact that the infant Jesus is in a precarious position is an important part of his story. Because Love does not just enter into the world easy and lie around in golden cradles with a blazing fire nearby and already on the list for just the right preschool. Love does not come guaranteed with a nanny or a health plan.
Sometimes, lots of times, Love comes in tiny and delicate, to people who are unsure, to an imperfect place, and it takes those around the Love to see it, to nurture it, and to make sure it grows into all it can be. Just as the baby Jesus was cared for two thousand years ago. Love is sometimes, is often, born wet into winter air. What happens next is what makes all the difference.
We live in a world where choice abounds. We can certainly choose to live without making an effort towards creating more love, towards fostering more hope, towards pointing out more wonder and joy. We can just take the baby versions of all these things and leave them in the precarious stable they arrived in and tell them, “Good luck, see you around! Hope you make it!” And then we’ll go off to live lives that are flatter, duller, more tense, more disconnected, less meaningful than they would have been otherwise. And when the time comes to treat each other kindly, or fairly, or justly, or just the way that we would like to be treated ourselves, it’s easy enough to choose...not to.
Or. Or we can commit ourselves to helping out when we see Love born at great risk. We can make the effort to help love grow, to keep it warm when it’s in danger, to bring it gifts and shout out its presence in our land. We can, in fact, drop everything we normally do, whether it is tending the sheep or leading a nation, and bring ourselves to where Love resides, following the star all the way. We can choose to do that.
Loving is a risk, to be sure. We don’t know if our hearts will be broken or our efforts rebuffed. But in the end, we learn from what Jesus taught: that choosing to foster love is the only thing that truly protects us, the only thing we can be sure of, because Love is the most solid thing that there is.
Love is always there somewhere, maybe in mean estate. You won’t actually be safer by having unquestionable parentage or hoarding all the gold and incense you come across. You can’t keep yourself from risk if you move into a fancy house with thick walls and vow to never return to the stable. You have to risk Love to get the reward, the reward of security and joy and peace.
This is, in fact, what Jesus was born to teach us. That joy and hope and peace abound for those who make the effort to love, and for those who foster and protect the love that they see around them. Joy and hope and peace abound for those who choose to protect Jesus like the stable did – maybe not the best, but willing, and good enough. Joy and hope and peace abound for those who choose to protect love like the stable protected Jesus over two thousand years ago.
 Braestrup, Kate, Beginner’s Grace. New York: Free Press, 2010. P. 127