Isaiah 62: 6-1
Titus 3: 4-7
Luke 2: 1-20
Perhaps this has happened to you. As a child, or even as an adult, you read a book and it quickly became one of your favourites. Maybe you read it several times. With each reading you developed a mental picture of what the people looked like. Maybe this mental image of yours included details such as the look and feel of the surroundings, the house, the room, the landscape. Perhaps you could even see what the characters wore or ate. Maybe your mental picture of the book was pretty detailed. Perhaps it was quite simple. In either case you had an image, a feel that brought the book alive for you, and you could literally see and smell it all.
And then you saw the movie. And boy were you disappointed. The people looked all wrong. The house was not as you imagined it. Important details were left out. Or things were put in the wrong order. And where on earth did that character come from? They weren’t in the book.
I had that experience as a child reading Little House in the Big Woods and its sequels. I loved Laura and Mary and Ma and Pa. I think if I bumped into them on the street, I would have known them instantly. I could see their log cabin. I longed to churn butter and make cheese and help Pa butcher the pig. (Well, maybe not that!) I wanted to learn how to quilt and build a smokehouse and make sausage. (At this point the brothers in the community are thinking, “Ah, this all makes sense, we’ve actually been living with a character out of the Little House books all these years!”) I think it is safe to say that the Little House books not only turned me into a reader but shaped my life in a profound way.
And then I saw the TV show. And boy I was disappointed. Michael Landon didn’t look anything like Pa. Where was his beard? What was up with that timber frame, board and batten house? It supposed to be a log cabin or a sod hut, or even a cave in the river bank for Pete’s sake! And where on earth did the adopted brother Albert come from? He was never in the books. In the end, I just couldn’t watch the show. As much as I loved the books, the show was a huge disappointment.
I had a similar experience years later when I visited Bethlehem for the first time. By that time, I had read the Christmas story dozens, if not hundreds of times. Like Linus in A Charlie Brown’s Christmas I had the story pretty much memorized. I knew what everything should look like. For years I had been the one in my family to put our manger scene out on the mantel each Christmas. I didn’t just have a mental image of what the stable looked like, I had a real life model of the stable. I knew what Mary and Joseph were wearing. I could see the shepherds and the sheep. I was certain where everyone was standing. And most of all I knew exactly what Jesus looked like lying in that manger of straw.
And then I got to Bethlehem. And it was all wrong. Where did these heavy velvet curtains come from? And all this marble? What kind of stable has marble floors? And the place smelled. But not of donkeys and cows and sheep and sh…… (oops!). It smelt of roses, or at least rose incense. And what stable, what barn has a marble manger?
I had to remind myself over and over again that my mental picture was just that, my mental picture. But at the same time, I had to remind myself that all this marble and velvet and incense was not an historic reproduction of a first century cave-stable, but it was a way to honour what had happened in this place. It was a way to invite people into the story.
We gather today around another stable. This one is of olive wood and stone and evergreen, and yes, marble. And while there are no velvet curtains, there is lots of fine silk fabric. It’s not how I imagined it. Perhaps this is not how you imagined it. But that doesn’t matter. What is important is not how we have imagined the story, but that the story has become part of us. Just as the Little House books became part of me, so the story of God can become part of you. Not only can you find yourself watching something unfold before you, as you watch would TV or a movie, but you can find yourself drawn into the story and become a part of it.
In just a very few verses Luke gives enough details of the story for it to take root in our minds and hearts. He takes us to Bethlehem and the stable; to the shepherds and their field; to the angels and their song. In our minds eye we see an inn full to overflowing with weary travelers and the exasperated innkeeper wondering what to do with this man and his pregnant wife. We see campfires dotting the field as shepherds watched and dozed through the night. We see sheep grazing and hear the clang of their bells in the distance. We see a sky brilliant with stars. We see a stable rough and weathered, where cattle and donkeys contentedly sleep. Luke tells us very little of this, yet still we see it, because the story has taken root deep in our imaginations.
Today it is to Bethlehem, not just the literal or scriptural one, not just the one here before you, but also to the one which spreads itself in your imagination that we go today. For it is there that we will see “this thing that has taken place”
The Bethlehem of our minds and hearts is a place of encounter where we can come to know that this story of a strange birth is true in a stable is true. It is true because it is in our hearts that we make a stable for God and in the manger of our hands that the infant is laid.
St. Augustine of Hippo reminded his congregation in North Africa one Christmas over 1600 years ago that Christ “finds no room in the inn, but he builds a [stable] for Himself in the hearts of those who believe.”It is to this stable of our hearts that we come today prepared to welcome the Saviour and allow him to be laid in the manger of our hands.
For many, Christmas is something that happened long ago. Like some historical event encased in the distant past it appears to have no relevance for today. It is simply a memory of a simpler time and a more innocent age. And for some Christmas is only that, celebration of innocence. Yet the harsh realities of the first Christmas were neither simpler, nor more innocent. Then as now the world was wracked by violence and tragedy and upheaval. Nations were on the move as one used its might to oppress and others were forced into the role of resistance. As always many were caught in the middle and were forced here and then there at the whim of the powerful and the militant. In 2000 years things have not changed.
It was not in a time of peace and stability that God chose to be born in Bethlehem. It was not in a time of order and tranquility that God chose to be born in Bethlehem. It was not in a time of simplicity and innocence that God chose to be born in Bethlehem. It was into a world of violence and tragedy and upheaval that God chose to be born into a family caught in the cross currents of political events.
Now, like then, we do not live in simpler and more innocent times. Now like then we do not live in a time of order and tranquility. Now like then we do not live in a time of peace and stability. Now like then we live in a time of violence and tragedy and upheaval where many, including ourselves are caught up in the cross current of political events. And yet now like then God chooses to be made known to us as the Babe of Bethlehem.
We may all have a mental image of what that first Christmas looked like. We may have an image of sheep and shepherds, stars and angels, mangers and babies, cows and donkeys. But the mental image and reality are probably as dissimilar as any book and its movie as I discovered trying to watch the TV show Little House on the Prairie.
What is important is not if your mental image matches the picture painted for us by Luke, or even by the carver who created this manger scene. What is important is that you made the story of God that Luke tells us, your story. What is important is that you have built stable in your heart and can create a manger in your hands to receive again the one who is the Saviour of the world.
As Phillips Brooks, who wrote the carol O Little Town of Bethlehem tells us:
O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels, the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!
The angels are singing once again today. Can you hear them? Above the din of violence, tragedy and upheaval, the Christmas angels are once again proclaiming the good news of the Saviour’s birth. Can you hear them? Can you hear those angels proclaiming to you that a savior is born in Bethlehem? You needn’t go far to find him. You only need to go to the stable of your heart and stretch out the manger of your hands and there you will see the Saviour once again.
This is the good news of Christmas, and we don’t need to go far to find it. Just open the stable of your heart and make a manger with your hands and there you will behold him whose birth we celebrate today. Merry Christmas everyone! A savior is born!
 Luke 2:15
 Augustine of Hippo, Christmas Day Sermon 190, as found in Ancient Christian Writers volume XV, page 106
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