The Manger

HOPE Point @Wesley Memorial UMC
December 18, 2016
Christmas at the Manger: Reflections in Word and Song

Luke 2: 1-20 (CEB)
In those days Caesar Augustus declared that everyone throughout the empire should be enrolled in the tax lists. 2This first enrollment occurred when Quirinius governed Syria. 3Everyone went to their own cities to be enrolled. 4Since Joseph belonged to David’s house and family line, he went up from the city of Nazareth in Galilee to David’s city, called Bethlehem, in Judea. 5He went to be enrolled together with Mary, who was promised to him in marriage and who was pregnant. 6While they were there, the time came for Mary to have her baby. 7She gave birth to her firstborn child, a son, wrapped him snugly, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the guestroom.

8Nearby shepherds were living in the fields, guarding their sheep at night. 9The Lord’s angel stood before them, the Lord’s glory shone around them, and they were terrified.

10The angel said, “Don’t be afraid! Look! I bring good news to you—wonderful, joyous news for all people. 11Your savior is born today in David’s city. He is Christ the Lord. 12This is a sign for you: you will find a newborn baby wrapped snugly and lying in a manger.” 13Suddenly a great assembly of the heavenly forces was with the angel praising God. They said, 14“Glory to God in heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”

15When the angels returned to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go right now to Bethlehem and see what’s happened. Let’s confirm what the Lord has revealed to us.” 16They went quickly and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in the manger. 17When they saw this, they reported what they had been told about this child. 18Everyone who heard it was amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully. 20The shepherds returned home, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen. Everything happened just as they had been told.

Last year, Ken and I moved to a home over here in the East Brainerd area. In the midst of the move, we decided we would trash our artificial Christmas tree that was really worn and misshapen, and that we would buy real Christmas trees in our new home. So December rolled around and we headed off to find the perfect Christmas tree. We didn’t even have a Christmas tree stand, so on the way home, we stopped at Ace and picked out the latest new-fangled Christmas tree stand for our beautiful Frasier fir. When we got home, Ken trimmed the bottom of the tree and we maneuvered it into the house to the waiting stand before our large front window. The whole time Ken was tightening the screws around the tree, he was saying, “This stand is a piece of junk!” I just sort of figured it was frustrated that he was lying on his back with tree branches in his face trying to tighten down four very tight screws. In any case, by the time we got the tree positioned in the stand and got the lights strung on to it, it was time to make some dinner, which we did. Then, as we were sitting in the kitchen eating, we heard this crash from the front of the house. Needless to say, when we peeked around the wall, you can guess what we saw. The tree, on its side, propped up by the dining room table, and water from the base was spreading across the floor quickly. After dinner, we took the tree out of the base and Ken returned it to Ace in favor of a more traditional base, which of course has worked much better!

We approach Christmas-time every year with expectations of perfection. We spend time decorating our homes just so, we buy candles with holiday scents to create a certain mood and ambience. We make sure to purchase these amazing gifts for our loved ones, and especially our children. Even the music this time of year is special. And when things don’t go right; when the tree falls down or the dog eats the turkey, we very quickly do whatever we need to do to remedy the situation, don’t we? Because Christmas is supposed to be perfect.

And I imagine that because we work so hard to make Christmas perfect every year, we also imagine that the first Christmas was absolutely perfect. In the stable, all was serene. The baby slept quietly in the manger while two adoring parents looked on. All around them were animals, nestled into the hay, sleeping soundly. In the fields outside of town, the shepherds were serenaded by the most beautiful of heavenly choruses, the likes of which earthly choirs can barely match. And thousands of miles away, in the East, some wise men calculated the meaning of a bright star newly revealed on the horizon. All is calm. All is bright. Right?

Well, in all truth, I doubt seriously things were anywhere close to perfect the night Jesus was born. Things started south eight or nine months before when Mary got the news that she was pregnant out of wedlock. The pregnancy got a little more complicated when Mary and Joseph had to travel to Bethlehem near the end of her pregnancy to register in the census. And wouldn’t you know, not long after they arrive, Mary goes into labor, but there is no proper place available for them to settle as Mary prepares to give birth. At the point at which the innkeeper pointed Mary and Joseph to a stable, Mary must have been absolutely frantic, and Joseph perhaps even moreso! I still remember vividly what a tizzy Ken had when my doctor told me one week before my due date that I needed to be admitted to the hospital and induced immediately. These are not serene moments, and to be relegated to a stable, among animals, to give birth… definitely not ideal!

The animals were probably agitated that there was a disturbance in their resting place. Mary was probably freaking out because there was no bed, she was surrounded by animals, and it was cold and dirty. Then, when the baby was born, there was no place to put him but a manger. The manger that held the hay that the cows ate—as they were chewing their cud—for the third time. I don’t think we could concoct as less-ideal Christmas scenario if we tried. On the Christmas-perfection scale, this one would ring in at right about 0. The unplanned pregnancy, the sudden census, the stable, the manger—if anything could go wrong for Mary and Joseph that year, it did. And here they are now, surrounded by animals, with their newborn child lying in a feeding trough.

But here’s what that little child lying in a manger proves to us: Christmas doesn’t have to be ideal in order to be perfect. Indeed, at Christmastime, perfection is our goal. We want everyone to love their gifts, to have their fill of food. We want to create the most wonderful memories that will last a lifetime. But here’s the thing about our “typical” Christmas celebrations; the joy they bring is relatively shallow, it’s only temporary, and it’s all but forgotten within a few weeks’ time.

Each of us has within us a longing for something great, something to bring us overwhelming joy, something to satisfy our greatest hopes and deepest longings. Yet, I am certain that there is nothing you or your family members will open on Christmas morning that will satisfy the deepest desires of your hearts. But think for a minute about that manger. In the confines of a stable, the manger is where the hungry are fed.

My friends, we all have within us a deep hunger. We try every way we know how to satisfy those longings, even at Christmas-time. But we won’t find what we’re looking for at any mall. It’s not neatly wrapped under a tree or even in Santa’s sack. We won’t even find what we’re longing for on a holiday visit with family. No, we have to go to the feeding trough in Bethlehem. The only place we can find our hunger truly satisfied is at the manger. Here, in the presence of our Savior, Christ the Lord, we find meaning and purpose. Here we have value. Here we are not alone, but know that God is with us. Here we are loved and forgiven. Here we are offered life eternal.

That’s why we are gathered here tonight, though, isn’t it? We know there is more to Christmas than just giving and receiving gifts. We know that in the birth of that Christ child, there came an answer to our deepest prayers. So come to the manger. Come to the feeding trough. You are hungry, and what you are longing for is here. Find your fulfillment in God’s presence this Christmas and everyday!

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