Rev. Teri Peterson
Beyond the Manger
Luke 1.26-38, Matthew 1.18-25, Luke 2.1-14, Luke 2.15-38, Matthew 2.1-21
30 June 2013, Singing Faith 4, Christmas and a Half
(we're singing basically all the christmas carols in the hymnal and reading the entire infancy narrative from both Luke and Matthew, so the message is straight-to-the-point...)
It feels a little weird to hear these readings and songs in the middle of the year. We have so identified Christmas with winter, that we sort of forget about the whole Incarnation Thing the rest of the year. Of course, in the Southern Hemisphere, where a majority of Christians now live, Christmas happens in the summer, so the traditional carols must feel weird to them every year!
So often when we hear the beginnings of the Christmas story, we start to unconsciously tune out. We know the story so well, and it gives us all kinds of warm fuzzy feelings to remember children’s pageants of years past. We sing the carols with gusto without stopping to wonder just what we’re saying when we sing “you better watch out, you better not cry” or “no more let sin and sorrow reign” or “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.” Christmas is all about how we feel—and having it in winter, surrounded by parties and presents, is part of that feeling.
Yet when we read the full story, noticing that Matthew and Luke tell us very different perspectives on Jesus’ birth, and looking at more than just the stable, we find that there’s more to the Incarnation than warm fuzzy feelings. In fact, there’s a serious dearth of warm fuzzies. When God takes on flesh and comes to live among us, it’s not to make us feel good about ourselves, but to change the world. So we find old barren yet pregnant women and unmarried pregnant teenagers singing together of God’s goodness. We find foreign astrologers walking hundreds of miles to look for a baby. For the second time in the biblical story we hear of a king whose fear of losing power is so great that he’ll murder children. Once we look at the picture beyond the manger, the Christmas cheer rapidly dissipates.
And then of course we remember: this is not the whole of the Greatest Story Ever Told. It’s just the beginning of the story. An overture, if you will. We begin to see the themes that will mark Jesus’ life and ministry, a foreshadowing of the work he will do in his life and in his death. People who should be on the outside are brought in. Disgraced outcasts are central to the story. The grace of God will call to people beyond the boundaries of nation, race, religion, background, and economy. And people will do anything to maintain the status quo and keep their grasp of power, even in the face of God in their midst.
The story continues even now—God’s love is made flesh not just in Jesus but in the body of Christ, gathered to hear good news and sent out to be good news, to incarnate grace. Not just to make us feel good, not just to kneel at the manger and ignore the rest of the picture, but to change the world. Beyond the manger is a world desperate for hope, for peace, for love, for grace. Jesus grew out of that manger and headed out into that world. So should the Body of Christ. When we keep Christmas to warm fuzzy midwinter sparkles, we miss out on our calling.
Which is why we, with Mary, sing of the great reversal that speaks hope even into the darkest of situations:
‘My soul magnifies the Lord,
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is for those who fear him
from generation to generation.
He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
and lifted up the lowly;
he has filled the hungry with good things,
and sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
in remembrance of his mercy,
according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.’
May it be so. Amen.