Note that this is a “repeat,” with some editing, of a sermon I preached two years ago in Wyoming.
Nativity scenes are beautiful, aren’t they? And they often have such special meaning for us. I have several Nativity scenes at home. One of them belonged to my grandmother and was given to me after she died. It comes complete with shepherds, wise men, animals, and some other random characters, but does not include angels. So this year I placed it under my tree and hung angel ornaments around it to make it complete. Oh, and by the way, the wise men have been relegated to the hallway, because they don’t arrive until Epiphany. Tonight is just about the shepherds. Another Nativity scene that I have is the one that I grew up with, and it would be placed under our Christmas tree each year. When my mother decided that she wanted a new one, she let me have that one because she knew that I liked it. I placed that one on one of my window sills this year. Nativity scenes give us a sense of the holy at Christmas time, with a serene and beautiful Mary gazing in wonder at the new baby Jesus, and a fatherly Joseph looking on, ready to protect his wife and her child from anything that might threaten them. And then, of course, there is “the little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” lying in the manger, looking out at those around him with curiosity.
But, there’s just one problem with these beautiful, perfect-looking Nativity scenes. And that is this: while they give us the sense of something holy at Christmas time, they also give us the sense of something that is not real. These perfect looking human beings don’t seem to have much relationship to the real world. The plastic or porcelain figurines don’t give any indication that Mary has just given birth to her baby, her firstborn, without the benefit of any pain medications. I’ve never given birth myself, but from what my mother tells me, it’s not a pleasant process, and pain medications help a lot. Our stable scenes don’t remind us that, with animals around, there is going to be a mess and it’s not going to smell very good. If any of you here tonight have grown up around farms, you can vouch for that. A Lutheran pastor colleague in Cody, Wyoming, was telling a group of us pastors a few years ago that someone in her congregation wanted to have a Nativity scene in the church building complete with a baby donkey, and seemed unaware that a baby donkey would not only make noise, but would probably make a mess because it was nervous. She had to tell that person gently, but firmly, that there would be no baby donkeys in the sanctuary that Christmas.
The technical theological term for God becoming human in the person of Jesus is incarnation. And incarnation is not a beautiful, perfect process, because to become human is messy. We are messy creatures, both physically and spiritually. God could have chosen not to deal with our mess. God could have chosen some other way to save us from our sinfulness. But no, God, the perfect and holy, loved us so much that God chose to become one of us messy human beings. He chose to go through that untidy birthing process, to live and to die as one of us, in order to understand us completely and fully. So, yes, I’m willing to bet that Mary screamed in pain when she gave birth to Jesus. Jesus himself probably looked like a typical newborn and wasn’t very pretty when he was first born. And that line about “no crying he makes”? Please. Jesus cried. Because healthy human babies cry and get hungry and make messes. That’s what being human is all about, and that’s why God came to earth in the person of Jesus—to be one of us, with all that being human means.
Now, I’m not saying this to ruin anyone’s Christmas. Quite the contrary. What I want is to bring you the good news: God became one of us when he was born in the person of Jesus in that manger in Bethlehem. Jesus was part of a real human family, with real human problems, and was not in some stylized, perfect, static picture that we have in our Nativity scenes. And because Jesus became human, because he entered into our messy lives, we know that we ourselves don’t have to be perfect to become his followers. We don’t have to “clean ourselves up” and “get our lives in order” before we come to worship. We can come with all of our sinfulness: our broken relationships, our broken dreams, our bad habits, our addictions, and so on, and know that Jesus loves us for who we are in all of our messiness. And as we lean over the manger and look at the baby Jesus, we might feel an odd sensation. And that sensation is God embracing us, and kissing us, saying, “It doesn’t matter that you’re a mess. I love you for you. But I won’t leave you in your mess. I will be the one to wash you and make you clean.”
Isn’t that wonderful news? God, the holy one, comes to us in our mess, but doesn’t leave us there. God is the one who washes us and makes us clean. We don’t have to do it ourselves, because we are quite unable to clean ourselves up. But you know something? The messiness of the human condition doesn’t make Jesus dirty. Instead, somehow, Jesus makes the messiness, the ordinariness, holy. Just in case you didn’t hear that, let me say it again: Jesus doesn’t become sinful by taking on our humanity. Instead, he makes us holy. Somehow, in the stinky mess we make of our lives, Jesus is still with us and makes us holy. And as his beloved and holy people, we are called to broaden that circle of Jesus’ love for us. We are called to tell all whom we meet about this baby in the manger, God come down to earth to show us how much he loves us.
And with such great love, how can we keep from telling all we meet about Jesus? The shepherds understood that. The angels had come down to them in their messiness: unclean because they could not keep all of the religious purity laws, outsiders in society, and told them about the Savior of the world. The shepherds heard the news—not the Pharisees, not the rulers of the people, but poor and lowly shepherds. They saw the baby and “they made known what had been told them about this child” and then returned to their fields, “glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen”. The Gospel tells us that all of the people whom the shepherds told about this were “amazed” at the news. But then we don’t hear any more. Did the people of Bethlehem go to see the baby? Or, did they brush it off, saying, “Oh, those crazy, unclean shepherds,” and go back to their daily lives? Perhaps there was a little bit of both. It still happens that way today, when we tell others about Jesus. Some people listen, and the Holy Spirit brings them to trust in Jesus, while others continue to go about their daily lives as if nothing had changed. When that happens, we should not be discouraged. Instead, we should continue telling all those we meet about the miracle of God loving us so much that he became one of us, making us holy and making us his beloved children.
So, let us go from here to spread the good news about this baby in the manger. Let us tell everyone that Jesus knows us, and knows us intimately, because he was one of us. He was born, just like we were, he cried when he was hungry or when he fell down and hurt himself or when a friend of his died. Let us tell everyone that they don’t have to clean themselves up and make themselves right before coming to worship Jesus, for Jesus loves us as we are, in all of our human messiness and broken relationships and broken dreams. Jesus is the one who comes to us, who speaks his love for us, and who makes us holy. Isn’t that great news? Now, let’s go and tell it out to everyone we meet. Amen.