Bedlam to Bethlehem: The Manger

Scripture: Luke 2:7
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
December 6, 2015

One of my favorite Christmas stories has been told and retold by so many preachers that it has taken on a life of its own.  

It’s the story of a nine-year-old boy named Wally.  Wally was larger and slower than the other kids.  All the kids liked him because he had a gentle heart and looked out for the smaller kids in the playground.  Christmas was coming, and the children were preparing to act out the Nativity story.  The teacher cast Wally in the role of the innkeeper because he would only have to remember one line.  All Wally had to do was stand at the inn door and say, “No room.  Go away.”

Christmas Eve came and the play was going well.  The shepherds didn’t trip on their bathrobes and the wise men didn’t lose their gifts.  The angels were managing to keep their wings attached and their halos in place.  Mary and Joseph arrived at the inn and knocked on the door.  Right on cue, Wally shot back, “No room. Go away.”  Joseph pleaded, “But sir, we have come a long way and we are tired from the journey.”  Again, Wally called out, “No room.  Go away.”  With all the dramatic emotion the nine year old Joseph could muster, he pleaded, “But please, my wife is having a baby.  Don’t you have a room where the baby can be born?”  There was silence as Wally stared at Joseph and Mary.  Everyone in the audience wanted to help Wally remember his forgotten line.  Finally, the teacher called in Wally’s line from backstage.  The young Joseph put his arm around Mary, which was a feat of dramatic training for a young boy.  Sadly, they began to walk off the stage.  But it was more than Wally’s kind heart could take.  He shouted after them, “Wait!  You can have my room” (Author unknown).

Wally teaches us the true meaning of Christmas – to find room in our hearts for the birth of the Christ child.  Wally found peace in a moment of panic. Wally found Bethlehem in what must have felt like bedlam to him.  Last Sunday after I kicked-off our Advent sermon series, Bedlam to Bethlehem.  Little did I know in selecting that theme how much bedlam there would be in our own community to this season.  Little did I know how desperately we would need to find Bethlehem in its midst.  Our journey, this year, from bedlam to Bethlehem is real.  It is tangible.

Now more than ever we need to come and light candles to remind ourselves of the opening words of John:  “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot overcome it.”  Now more than ever we need to surround ourselves with evergreens in our sanctuary and in our homes to remind ourselves of God’s everlasting love.  Paul declares, “Nothing (no thing, no amount of bedlam) in all of creation can separate us from the love of God, neither life nor death, neither depth nor height, neither present nor future (and I would add neither mass shootings nor terrorist attacks can separate us from the love of God), which is ours in Christ Jesus.”  Now more than ever we need to remember the words of the angel spoken to the shepherds 2000 years ago, “Do not be afraid, for behold I bring good news of great joy for all people, born to you, this day in the city of David, (that is Bethlehem) is the Savior, Christ the Lord.”  Oh, I know that it doesn’t feel like good news of great joy right now, which is why our journey from bedlam to Bethlehem is all the more important!  In fact, our journey in Redlands, California this year very much reflects the journey of Mary and Joseph 2000 years ago to Bethlehem.

We often associate the first century Christmas with sweetness and sentimentality, warmth and comfort, but nothing could be farther from the truth.  Even before King Herod order the slaughter of the innocence, the mass killing of babies under two, Mary and Joseph made their way to Bethlehem to register for the census. Caesar thought, “How else are we going to keep these Jews in their place if we don’t enroll them?”  So Caesar Augustus decreed, and cruel King Herod enforced the order.  That’s how Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem; it was the city of Joseph’s ancestors.  Mary and Joseph were Jews under the heel of the powerful Roman Empire, the greatest empire the world has ever known.  Yes, that first century Christmas was anything but sweet and sentimental.

Mary and Joseph were forced by imperial political decrees to pack up, to travel 70 miles by foot from Nazareth to Bethlehem.  I know we have seen pictures on Christmas cards and in Christmas plays of Mary riding on a donkey and Joseph walking beside her – but that is not in the Bible story.  Poor Mary may have very well walked for four straight days, 9 months pregnant to get to Bethlehem.

After the four day walk, they are desperately looking for a place for Mary to rest and give birth. Though the Bible never uses the word innkeeper, it does say, “There was no room for them at the inn.”  Interestingly, the gospel writer, Luke, uses the Greek word kataluma here, which translates into guestroom.  It is the same word that Luke uses for the room in which Jesus shared the Last Supper with the disciples.  It describes the upper level room of a typical Palestinian home.  There are other words that Luke could have used, but he chose to use the word kataluma for both the birth of Jesus and the Last Supper.  

Since there was no room for Mary and Joseph in the inn, Mary gave birth to Jesus in a cow stall.  The songwriter says, “What Child is This… Why lies he in such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding?”  Yes, the one whom the Angel calls a Savior is born in the most filthy, unsanitary place possible – among manure, muck and mire.  Talk about complete bedlam.  And then he is laid in a manger – of all places.

Did you hear the true story on NPR about the baby found in a manger a little over a week ago from the series, “Bible Stories Come to Life?”

On Tuesday morning before Thanksgiving in Queens, New York, the caretaker set up the Nativity scene at the Holy Child Jesus Church.  The caretaker put up the manger, and went to lunch.  He came back at about 1 p.m., when he heard the cry of a baby.

The baby was in the manger, swaddled in blue towels. He was so young his umbilical cord still sprouted from his belly.

The custodian ran to tell the priest.  The priest has been ordained for only five months. Imagine being a new priest, and told: there’s a live baby in your manger.

Surveillance video reportedly shows a young woman enter the church with a baby in her arms, but leave without a child.

New York, like other states, has what’s called a safe haven law. It permits parents to leave their infant in some safe place—a hospital, a firehouse, a church—without being charged with child abandonment.  

The priest had only love and compassion for the mother.  And now members of the congregation want to raise the baby – believing that he is a gift given to them this Christmas season.

I am sure that the mother thought, “If a manger is good enough for Jesus, it must be good enough for her son.”  Yes, she took what felt like bedlam to her, a baby she could not care for, and found Bethlehem in a church manger.

It’s a touching story, but I want to talk for a moment about mangers.  (Thank you to Nick Godfrey for making our manger.)  When I think of little baby lying in a manger, I imagine him in a little crib.  But a manger is not a bed.  A manger is a feeding trough.  A manger is not a bed but a table!

Yes, baby Jesus was laid on a table, in the city of Bethlehem.  Bethlehem comes from two Hebrew words, Beit (house) and lechem (bread).  Literally, Bethlehem means “House of Bread.”

This manger becomes a foreshadow of the Last Supper. Jesus becomes the bread of life!  The babe in the manger for whom there was no room – kataluma – now makes enough room, kataluma, for us all where he is the host at the table of bread!  Jesus leads us from bedlam to Bethlehem!

Jesus gathers with us this day, as the host of this table, takes bread, blesses it, breaks it…