24 December 2011
St. John United Church of Christ
St. Clair, MO
Were You Born in a Barn?
Based on St. Luke 2: 1-20
By Rev. James Semmelroth Darnell
Several years ago the film Love Actually came out to rave reviews. The film depicts the intimate relationships of several different couples during the Christmas season. In one of its most memorable scenes, a young girl, Daisy, tells her mother excitedly, “We’ve been given our parts in the nativity play. And I’m the lobster.” Her mother asks, “The lobster? In the nativity play?” Daisy beams, “Yeah, the first lobster!” Her mother asks “There was more than one lobster present at the birth of Jesus?” To wit Daisy just responds, “Duh.”
As the saying goes, it’s funny ‘cause it’s true. Nativity scenes like this exist – where penguins, giraffes, and lobsters are added to the scene. One of our locals stores sells nativity scenes featuring your choice of snowmen or marshmallow figures. They’re cute in their own way, and harmless enough. We don’t really know what animals were really present in the stalls where Jesus was born anyways. I suppose a lobster could have been present, if say, he had been born under the sea.
But we make a great risk when we cute-sify the story of Jesus’ birth. When we domesticate and sanitize the nativity we rob the story of much of its meaning. It is a good thing for children and adults alike to reenact the story, because it helps us to live out the story in the midst of our lives. But the meaning is deeper than a serene and beautiful Mary, ruddy and confident Joseph, baby Jesus who doesn’t cry, and all the adorable farm animals that bow in worship. St. Luke gives us a narrative that is deeper and complex, which leads to a more profound meaning in the Christmas story. Let’s take a closer look.
St. Luke begins his gospel with Jesus’ genealogy. A few weeks ago in Sunday morning worship we took a look at the genealogy in St. Matthew, reflecting that both saintly and shady characters comprise Jesus’ family, which is Good News for all of us as a part of God’s family. He continues in his second chapter, where our reading tonight began, stating that “In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David.” This is important because once again it places Jesus as the descendant of the great king David, from whose house the messiah is supposed to come. It also places the family in Bethlehem to fulfill the prophecy that the messiah will be born there. We often skip over those first lines though. Just a bunch of names of old guys and old places nobody remembers, right? Well, not so much when we look at the history. Emperor Augustus was the great-nephew of Julius Caesar. He was the emperor of the Roman empire. Quirinius, well, just replace the title of governor with something like overlord. Why begin with these guys? Because it places Jesus’ birth in the midst of Palestine’s occupation by Rome. Those Jewish people who hoped and prayed for the coming messiah, often did so with the hope that he would overthrow the Roman rule that oppressed them. So Jesus’ birth is placed in contrast to the Roman rulers, who we are told, had just ordered the first census (along with their regular, unjust taxing) of the area, hence why Joseph and Mary head to Bethlehem. They come from Nazareth to go to Joseph’s hometown of Bethlehem, over 70 miles away. While Nazareth is now a bustling city of 72,000 and relatively stable economy due largely to so many pilgrims who visit there, it was then a backwater that most people had never heard of, probably having then less than 400 citizens. In fact, the name of the town was so obscure that the New Testament is the first place it’s found in print – and wasn’t mentioned outside of the Christian community for another 300 years. No wonder a Pharisee would later say of Jesus, “Can anything good come out of the Galilee?” It is there in Nazareth that the Holy Family will eventually live and raise Jesus, not in a center of power and prestige, but out in the sticks, on the margins, where they go much unnoticed. It is worth mentioning, that then as now, Bethlehem and Nazareth remain occupied by outside forces.
So they go back to Bethlehem, a long journey of 70 miles of rough terrain. Scripture doesn’t say whether they walked or rode animals, but likely Mary, full with child rode a donkey while Joseph led by foot on the long and arduous journey. St. Luke tells us “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.” Here we get to the part most everyone knows: Jesus wrapped in swaddling clothes in the manger filled with hay, because there was no room in the inn. But don’t forget this is a barn. It smells like a barn, it stinks like a barn. The animals –horses, cows, goats, chickens, or even pigs –whichever was there, probably weren’t as cute to Mary as we make them out to be, certainly not as sanitary as they look in our nativity scenes, particularly for giving birth to a baby. Some theologians used to try to suggest that Mary had no birthpangs, no difficulty giving birth, because she was believed to be without sin. I think the mothers here can attest that there was probably plenty of pain. Remember, there were no nurses, doctors, no sedatives, no anesthetics for the mother Mary. It was not easy to bring the very flesh of God into the world, it was painful. Mary probably always struggled with understanding her role of being the earthly mother of God’s Son. And so she struggled in the midst of childbirth, with the same searing pain that all mothers bear. She probably yelled some of the same things at Joseph, or at God, that mothers giving birth yell still at their husbands. I’ll leave it to the fathers here to let you know what those words might be. Yes, there was blood and pain and screams on the dirt floor of the barn, in the midst of the stink of the animals. This was no silent birth. But there was also surely tenderness and love. Was this an arranged marriage? We don’t know. But perhaps Mary and Joseph only had begun to know one another, and there on the road to Bethlehem and there in the stall of a barn was their relationship and bond formed as Mary squeezed Joseph’s hand in the midst of childbirth. They’re not the perfect figures in our nativity scenes – they’re probably dusty from their journey, disheveled, Mary exhausted, and Joseph still thoroughly confused. Perhaps they don’t know exactly what to think, with this child who both their son and the Son of God. But they gaze at him and hold him, taking turns nestling him in their chests. They find some piece of clothing to warm the baby Jesus. Joseph searches the barn for something to lay the child in. All he can find is a trough that the animals feed out of – or a manger as we know it. He cleans it out the best he can and places the hay in it, and there they place the babe.
It’s almost an afterthought “there was no place at the inn,” found as it is at the end of the gospel writer’s sentence. We often rightly place a great deal of focus on this part of the story. It is a scandal that God takes on the form of a human, a poor baby no less, an no room can be found in the inn. We often target the innkeeper for his inhospitality, but to be fair there must have been many returning to Bethlehem for the census and surely the inn was completely full. And after all, God does choose to be born in a barn. I imagine Mary frustrated with teenage Jesus saying, “Were you born in a barn?!” and Jesus’ snarky response of “So I’ve been told!” But apart from inhospitality, perhaps there’s a different angle here. Ron Rolheiser offers that, “there is a deeper lesson in Jesus having to be born in a stable because there was no room for him in the inn. What is being stressed is not so much lack of hospitality by an innkeeper, but rather the fact that Jesus was born outside of a city, outside of what is comfortable, outside of glamour and fame, outside of being recognized by the rich and the powerful, and beyond notice by the everyday world. Jesus was born in anonymity, poor, outside of all notice, except for family and God.”
The only others to notice we are told are the shepherds out in the fields watching their flocks by night. No little drummer boy or kneeling Santa Claus here. These shepherds are as bad as the animals. While to us they seem innocuous, in Jesus’ day and culture they were considered unclean, among the most unclean, because of their daily physical contact with the sheep. According to theologian Bruce Epperly, “Shepherds lived a hardscrabble life, had few assets, and were often maligned as shiftless and untrustworthy by people in the trades and in more comfortable and remunerative occupations.” What we have here are not only shepherds, but the guys stuck on the night shift. Those of you who work the night shift or ever have, know what short shrift you get. These shepherds are considered to be little more than hired hands, tasked with the dirty work that no observant Jew would be stuck with. And yet, it is to these shepherds that the angel and the heavenly host appeared saying “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’” It is to these dirty, grubby guys that receive the news first; not kings and queens and all the elite, but those who lived on the margins of society, in the fields with their sheep. We are told that they went and saw the child with Mary and Joseph, as the angels had promised. The shepherds were the first to go out and spread the news, and we hear that ‘all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” The Good News is disseminated not from top to bottom, from the center of society to the outskirts, but from the outskirts, from the lowest classes to the upper.
Mary ponders what has happened, and the shepherds go back to work, all the while praising God for having given them this marvelous opportunity and gift to see heaven come down lying in the manger. That’s where our passage ends. The wise men will wait – they do not come until later, which we will commemorate in two weeks on Epiphany Sunday. David Lose, who our adult education class has been reading the past several weeks, summarizes the whole event saying, “Luke sets his story amid a census, the act of ordering — that is, registering, counting, and taxing everyone — par excellence. Yet this is only background for Luke; the main action takes place elsewhere, on the fringe, far away from the centers of power, in a little backwater town called Bethlehem, where a scared young girl and her equally scared husband can’t find any decent place in which to birth their first child and so are forced to take refuge with animals, with only dirty shepherds and their even dirtier sheep to notice.” So what does all this mean? Where is the hope in this nativity scene?
On the first Sunday of Advent, we traditionally sing ‘O Come, O Come Emanuel.’ Immanuel means “God-with-us.” The Good News and the hope here is that God is indeed with us. God so loves us, so desires a relationship with each and every one of us, that God takes on human form to demonstrate that love, and to teach us how to love God, each other, and our own selves. God comes to live among us as Jesus Christ, and comes not powerfully like Caesar’s triumphal entry into Rome, but humbly and vulnerably as a poor, homeless baby to a scared young mother and earthly father unsure of his role in the whole thing. The United Church of Christ Statement says that “In Jesus Christ, the man of Nazareth, our crucified and risen Savior, you have come to us and shared our common lot.” This means that Jesus has shared our worldly experience, and the messiness of our lives, for himself. He was born a crying baby, hungry for his mother’s milk, and would be a pre-teen who ran off to the temple scaring his parents, he probably sassed his parents as a teen, surprised his hometown when he preached prophetically and healed, and his mother watched in horror as he was crucified and died on the cross, and his family and disciples were as astounded as anyone at his resurrection. That sharing of our common lot began in the manger, in the same weakness and helplessness we are all born into. Jesus came in much the same way we all do, to experience life much the same way we do, in order to give us new life and give it abundantly. He does this not among the powerful elites, not in the centers of culture and politics, but on the margins to the marginal. The shepherds were thought unclean, Mary and Joseph were considered of no account by those who supposedly mattered. And yet it’s there in the midst of all that that God comes breaking into our world to make all things new, to transform our very lives. The hope was and is and will always be that God is with us. God shares the joys and pains of life with us – the birthpangs, crying, screaming, in the blood, muck, and mire the stench that’s almost unbearable, as well as the love and tenderness that comes with bearing life into this world. God is there with us, walks beside us, grieves besides, has joy beside us, and ever teaches us and prods us on to live in love.
This Christmas remember you don’t have to have a perfect holiday. The first Christmas wasn’t perfect in the world’s eyes either. It barely went noticed except for a few blessed shepherds and farm animals. Given that God is present in the messiness of life, perhaps the more imperfect our holidays are the more God’s presence can be found in them. So don’t worry about that present you couldn’t afford, the dish that got overcooked, the string of lights that keeps going out, or the Christmas tree the cat keeps knocking down- Jesus was born in a barn after all.
Jesus is born this night! Rejoice, God is with us! Merry Christmas!