Wednesday, December 28, 2016

No Empty Manger

In Nomine Iesu
St. Luke 2:1-20
December 24, 2016
Christmas Eve

Dear brothers and sisters in Christ Jesus~

And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. What would Christmas be without the manger? Most of us wouldn’t even know what a manger is
if our Lord hadn’t been laid in one. Most of us have miniature mangers in our homes—one piece among many that gets carefully placed in the crèche every December. And inevitably there’s a baby Jesus who fits nicely into that little manger.

Here at Our Savior we have a real manger—a life-size manger—a manger from which real livestock could very possibly eat (although we’ve never actually tested it out with real livestock). Instead, we pull it out for nearly every children’s Christmas program. Many years ago, I recall, there was a bit of a dust-up regarding the manger. I was directing the program that year. And after our first rehearsal one little girl came up to me with a rather grave and grim look on her face. She reported her concern to me: “Pastor, there’s no baby in the manger. The manger is empty!”

Of course, I knew that. In my mind, there were thousands of other problems that needed addressing—costumes needed altering, lines needed memorizing, music needed practicing. I quickly offered an explanation to my concerned little girl: (Although I sounded a bit like the Grinch trying to get Cindy-Lou-Hoo to be quiet and go back to bed,) I told her that the manger was just a prop—that it was just there for “effect,” that even though she could see it was empty as she stood next to it, the people in the pews wouldn’t know the difference. So, let’s not worry about it, okay? “Pastor,” she said, “I have a doll at home and I could bring that to put in the manger.” Oh, that’s okay; you don’t have to do that. “I’ll bring my doll, Pastor, so that we can have a baby in the manger.” Well, by this point it was pretty clear to me that there was not going to not be a baby in the manger for that year’s Christmas program. And sure enough, for that year’s program, the manger was not empty, but occupied. There was a baby in the manger, and everything was right in the world.

As I look back now, that little girl was right to be concerned. An empty manger just won’t do. The fact that Jesus was once a baby like us is what Christmas is all about. The fact that God has a human body in Jesus—that Jesus was born of a woman—that Jesus wore diapers just like all of us once did—these things aren’t just insignificant details or theological trivia. This is the essence of the whole story. God in Christ was born like you—suffered like you—got hungry, sleepy and thirsty—was tempted like you in every way, but did not sin—was crucified, died and was buried, all for you. Your Savior became what you are, so that you can be what He is. This is the message of the manger; this is why we need babies in our mangers.

I regret the fact that, in my role as director of the Christmas program, I overlooked something very important. I had reduced and relegated the manger to nothing more than a prop—a prop designed to produce the intended effect—to conjure up the Christmas spirit and make a memorable Christmas program for everyone. Perhaps you’ve never directed a Christmas program; and perhaps you never will. But we all aspire to be award-winning directors. We all desire to manage and script how life plays out for us. We often see ourselves as both the star of the show and the director. And in our sinful quest for control over our supporting cast members, we are fond of using Jesus as our favorite prop.

Jesus becomes a prop in our lives when we use Him to achieve a desired effect. When we use our faith in Christ to make ourselves look good in front of others. When we portray ourselves as good and respectable and religious so that others will look up to us and admire us and say good things about us—then Jesus is nothing more than a shiny prop that helps us get what we want. When we piously promise other people, “I will pray for you,” but never actually get around to praying for them, we have used our faith as a prop—to make ourselves look good. Or when we use our faith as an excuse to sin—when we say, “Since I know that God will forgive me anyway, there’s no harm in crossing the line occasionally,” then too our faith in Jesus becomes just a prop to help us stage and direct our lives according to our own whims and desires. The always-quotable Shakespeare once wrote that “all the world’s a stage.” But one day this world will come to a halt for each of us. At that moment each of us will stand before the Christ and there will be no stage, no applause, no supporting cast, no props, no costuming, no make-up, and no script—just you and your sin and Jesus.

The only hope that you will have is the baby in the manger—who became the man on the cross. In the same way that we need the baby in the manger, we need the Christ on the cross. For the Christ on the cross—like the baby in the manger—isn’t just an insignificant detail or theological trivia—it is the essence of the story. This is why the Christ was born in Bethlehem—to save us from our sins—to pay for those sins with the offering of His own life. Both the manger and the cross are reminders of reality—the reality of our sin and the reality of God’s great love for sinners.

We spend so much time trying to direct and control and stage and script and pretend. But tonight, on Christmas Eve, reality breaks in—truth breaks in—God breaks in and He rearranges everything according to His grand and glorious script: Fear not: for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And in this show, written and directed by God, sinners are born again, death is destroyed, and everyone lives (by faith) joyfully ever after.

But in the Lord’s production, there are no props. You are not a prop or a minor player or a tiny pawn in God’s great plan. You are the object of His love and affection. The baby in the manger and the Christ of the cross are the essence of God’s great plan for you—to save you, and to have you as the apple of His eye, and to give your life eternal significance. You don’t have to be an actor when you come here to church. You don’t have to pretend to be something you are not. For Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He came to seek and save the lost and the least and the lowly. His power is made perfect in your weakness. He meets you where you are—bringing you forgiveness for your sins and resurrection life.

Jesus is no longer in the manger; although that was critically important for your salvation. Jesus is no longer on the cross; although that was critically important for your salvation. And we don’t hesitate to portray Him in the manger or on the cross—because the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Here in the church is where the Christ is to be found. Here in the church where His promises are proclaimed—this is where the Savior’s arms are opened wide to receive you. Here in His church He claims sinners as His own family in the splash of baptism. Here the Christ of Christmas feeds us with the bread that is His body and the wine that is His blood. Here Christ comes whenever two or three gather in His name.

The manger and the cross tell the whole story tonight. They tell your story on this Christmas Eve—that you are loved and forgiven—that you are not alone. God has a plan for you. The scenes that come and go in your life are not random or haphazard. They are not meaningless. Your days and your deeds have been lovingly sketched and scripted and blocked-out by the God who knit you together in your mother’s womb. When you leave here tonight it won’t be to go home and direct the world’s most perfect Christmas. No, when you leave here you step onto God’s stage, where there are no minor parts, no bit players—but sinners redeemed by Christ the crucified—men and women who are the light of the world. So ponder that in your heart this Christmas. Glorify and praise God for all that you have seen and heard. The baby in the manger is the Christ on the cross—a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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