Bedlam to Bethlehem: The Unlikely Nativity

Scripture: Luke 2: 8-12
Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN
December 13, 2015

My friend, Marcus, tells a wonderful story about his two year old daughter.  She was having a temper tantrum and so his wife, the daughter’s mother, put the baby on time out in the playpen.  The 2 year old was crying and crying.  It was more than Marcus’ heart could handle.  He picked up the baby out of the playpen and cradled her in his arms.  His wife said, “Marcus, every time you pick up our daughter when she is crying you reinforce her behavior.  She thinks, ‘All I need to do is cry and daddy will pick me up.’  Now put her down and leave her there in the playpen.” Marcus said, “O.K.” and he put her back down into the playpen.  The wife leaves the room.  A minute later the daughter looks at Marcus and begins to cry.  Marcus sees that his wife is not in the room and so he picks her up and cradles her in his arms.  The wife comes in from the other room and says, “Marcus, put her down!”  “O.K., o.k.,” he says.  He puts her down into the playpen.  The wife leaves the room.  The 2 year old looks at Marcus and begins to cry.  Marcus looks around, his wife is out of the room.  He picks his daughter up out of the playpen and cradles her in his arms.  The wife comes into the room, “Marcus, how many times do I have to tell you?  Do not pick her up again.”  “O.k., o.k.,” says Marcus.  He puts her down into the playpen.  The wife leaves the room.  The 2 year old looks at her daddy and begins to cry.  Marcus looks around.  His wife is out of the room.  He leans over to pick her up.  The wife calls from the other room, “Do not pick her up.”  “O.k. o.k.,” says Marcus.  He paces back and forth in front of the playpen not sure what to do.  Finally, he gets an idea.  “My wife said that I could not pick up our daughter, but she never said that I couldn’t climb into the playpen with her.”  And so he stepped over the edge of the playpen, sat right in the middle, and cradled his daughter in his arms.

It is a great image – especially at Christmas God.  God does not lift us up out of our life, but steps right into our lives.  The baby in the manger is called Immanuel which means God-with-us.   Not the God-Up-There but the God-Down-Here.  The God who comes in the midst of tantrums and tears.  The God who makes a home right in the middle of bedlam.

That image of the Divine entering into the bedlam of our lives is made tangible through our Nativity sets.  Thank you for bringing your nativity sets this morning. I find myself especially drawn to the creative, unusual nativity sets for the characters of the nativity, 2000 years ago were very unusual.  As we unroll the various characters from their bubble-wrapped hibernation of the last 11 months, it would be fitting if every time we unrolled another one we say (in our best shocked voice), “What are you doing here?”  The entire cast of characters is meant to take us by surprise and give us, at the very outset of the Gospel, a sense that something unexpected is happening here.  These characters have all of the ingredients of bedlam.

First, in our nativity sets we have the shepherds.  Unlike our Shepherd leaders in our congregation who are well respected, the shepherds in Bible times were considered to be the lowest of the low in society.  We need a scratch-n-sniff Bible to understand why this profession was not high on the list of young professionals.  Because of what they did, their work kept them away from the temple and synagogue. Therefore, they were rendered as unclean.   Yet, before anyone else, the shepherds were the only invited guests to the birth of Jesus.  Hmmm…the poor and marginalized have a front row seat.  

And who invited them?  The Angel.  The Angel says, “Do not be afraid.”  You can forget all those chubby little cherubs on Christmas cards.  In the Gospels, angels frighten the living daylights out of people.  That is why they always begin by saying, “Don’t be afraid.”  The Angel then says, “I bring you good news of great joy for all people.”  Not some people, but for all people.  All people.  All people.

Yes, Jesus is good news of great joy for all people. That is why we lit the candle of joy today. For also, at the nativity, were wise men from the East. First, it is important to note that the wise men show up only in the Gospel of Matthew.  Matthew is focused primarily on a Jewish audience.  And yet, these wise men are Gentiles.  Strangers in a strange land.  Foreigners in odd clothes.  Yes, Gentiles are part of the Jewish nativity scene. And not only are they gentiles, but foreigners from the East. Gentiles from the East were looked at with great suspicion and fear. For it was gentiles from the East, the Assyrians and the Babylonians, who had conquered the Israelites centuries before.  Now, the gentiles, the wise men from the East come to pay homage to the baby Jesus.   And they bring the oddest gifts:  gold, frankincense and myrrh. The joke is that if the wise men had been wise women, they would have brought diapers, a warm blanket, and a casserole.  But they were wise men who brought gold, frankincense and myrrh.  So bizarre – Gentiles dressed in strange clothes from the East bringing gifts not fit for a typical baby. But the Angel did say, “I bring good news of great joy for ALL people.”  I guess they are part of the ALL people for gathered around Jesus we have the most unlikely of pairs– the shepherds and the wise men, the poor and the rich, the native and the foreigner, the uneducated and the scholar.  The Angel declared, “I bring you good news of great joy for ALL people.”

And of course there are animals in the nativity.  Humans and non-humans alike.  The Angel says, “I bring good news of great joy for all people.”  I would add, “for all creation.”

Then at the heart of the nativity is the Holy Family.  Mary, Joseph and Jesus.  Mary is 14, maybe 15 years old.  She is poor – which means we need to be careful about how we treat the poor.  She comes from Nazareth.  Nazareth was considered the armpit of Israel.  .  Even in the Gospels someone asks, “Can anything good come from Nazareth?”  There is a part of the Inland Empire I use to compare to Nazareth (unlike Redlands, which we call the jewel) until someone said to me, “Hey, that’s where I am from.”  So, I now just say think of the most unsophisticated, undesirable a place, a place you would never think of living, and that is Nazareth.  Yes, God chose Mary, a poor, unwed, pregnant teenager to give birth to Jesus.

There are libraries of information written about Mary and as there should be.  But there is an equally important person who too played a central role.  Joseph, the father of Jesus, appears almost as an afterthought in the Christmas story.  Look in your hymnal and see if you can find a single carol about Joseph.  Centuries of religious art have produced numerous “Madonna with infant” scenes, with no signs of Joseph — as if he has been cropped out of the family portrait.  In our nativity scenes, Joseph seems like another bystander among the cows, sheep, wise men and shepherds.  Joseph is mentioned by name 18 times in the Gospels.  Yet, he remains completely silent in the gospels.  He speaks no words.  Probably because he is scratching his head wondering how he ended up in the midst of bedlam.  

Right in the middle of this motley crew is a baby.  At the center of every nativity set is baby Jesus.  I have not seen a nativity set yet where Jesus is put to the side.  No, he is at the center.  Of course, our challenge is to keep him there.

Also, I would like you to consider for a moment that the Christmas story tells us that the Creator of the Universe, the Creator of Heaven and Earth decided to come as a baby – a helpless, vulnerable baby.  One has to wonder about the wisdom of that.  And not only came as a baby entrusting humanity with the Divine’s care – but then is placed in a manger.  Remember a manger is not a crib – a manger is a feeding trough.  Yes, our nativity has all the elements of bedlam!

I brought in mine and Karen’s nativity set to display this morning.  If you look closely, the baby Jesus in our nativity set is chewed-up.  A few Christmas’ ago, Karen and I were dog sitting for our friend, Kenny Reese.  Kenny’s dog, Zoey, was just a puppy at the time and quite a chewer. (Kenny and Zoey were in worship with us last Sunday.)  We came home after worship on Christmas morning (Christmas fell on a Sunday that year) and baby Jesus was all chewed-up.  I knew instantly who the culprit was.  Zoey had turned our home into a place of bedlam on Christmas morning while we were at church. I said, “Zoey, out of all of the pieces you could have chewed-up, why did it have to be the most important piece, the baby Jesus?” I called Kenny, expecting an apology.  He just laughed and said, “Zoey knows her favorite person in the nativity.”

So recently, I said to Karen, “I want to display our nativity set at church.  But if you remember baby Jesus is all chewed up.  So, I am going to try to see if I can go find another baby Jesus to replace him.  I can’t bring a chewed-up Jesus to worship.”

And Karen said, “I don’t think you should replace baby Jesus.  I think it is quite symbolic that Jesus is a bit scuffed up.  Look at what has happened this season in the community with the shootings. It is symbolic that he looks less than perfect.”

I’ve got to love it when Karen, a lay person, teaches me a minister, something about incarnational theology!  Karen is right.  I wanted a brand new, pure, clean, untouched baby Jesus.  But Jesus is Immanuel which means God with us.  Not God above us, who lifts us out of our problems.  But God with us.  The God who steps into the muck, mire, manure, and bedlam of our lives.  It is fitting that baby Jesus look less than perfect this year of all years.

Of course, this Immanuel grew up and was willing to be scuffed up, chewed up, battered and bruised and even crucified in this life – all in the name of love.  Next week, we will light the candle of love as we give thanks for the Immanuel who brings love in the midst of acts of hatred, joy in the midst of tears, peace in the midst of global conflict, hope in times of despair.  Immanuel, God with us, leads us from the chaos of bedlam to the heart of Bethlehem!