Sunday, January 5, 2020

Promises Made, Promises Kept: Low Places

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,

“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. --Luke 1:1-20 (NRSV)

Grace, mercy, and peace from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ:  Emmanuel, God with us. The Word made flesh. Amen.

Over the season of Advent, it’s a tradition here at Grace & Glory to read through a devotional book - something that puts us as a community literally on the same page each day as we wait for this night.

This year, we’ve been reading a devotion entitled, “Low,” by John Pavlovitz. He’s a contemporary writer and pastor who writes about the gritty reality of life. One look at the titles from some of the days give you a sample: Twisted Bowels, It is Not Well With My Soul, Sorry and Sorrow, A Messy Nativity and Low Places.

It’s that title - Low Places - that has really stuck with me over the past few days. In fact, as I reflected on this phrase, I must admit that this is the first thing I thought of.

Now, the themes in this song are probably not the best material on which to preach on Christmas Eve. Yet, there is real truth and honesty in this song. And, with the Christmas story, we've so romanticized that we've forgotten the truth of the story. The gritty reality. That it’s really about a lowly teenage girl. Who is pregnant. And unwed. And about a carpenter, who in his broken-heartedness keeps their engagement, even with the knowledge that the child she’s carrying isn’t his. And knowing that, if he breaks off their engagement, the possibility of her being stoned to death in their time and their place was very real. These were people in “low places.”

But, my focus tonight actually isn’t on Mary and Joseph. It’s not even on the baby, helpless and small as he was. My focus tonight is on the lowest-of-the-low characters in our story. So low, in fact, that they are unnamed, even though they show up in nearly every single nativity scene we see. 

Who are these lowly, unnamed characters? They are the animals.

Now, we assume that there were animals present, because, even though they are unnamed, the story tells us that Mary and Joseph ended up in a stable, because there was no room for them in the “inn.” 

Now, to be honest, a more accurate translation is that there was no “guestroom” available for them. Joseph was from Bethlehem, which meant that he had family there. And a place to stay. So, when they arrived at his relatives’ house and found that the guestroom was already full, they settled into an animal stall. In Palestine, these stalls were usually adjacent to human living quarters, on a lower level. It’s where families would bring their domesticated animals in for the night - animals like oxen, and donkeys, and sheep, and chickens. This must have been such a noisy place. At least until all of the animals settled down for the night. 

It was here in this stall where Mary went into labor, which is a noisy thing, too. And a messy thing. One has to wonder what the animals in that stall were thinking. Birth was nothing new to them. But, one wonders if they had ever been witness to the birth of a human baby. And, particularly, a one like this.

In the famous verse, John 3:16, which is the Gospel in a nutshell, but which is so often used to beat people over the head, we hear these words, “God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son.” Human-centric as we are, I would suggest that when we hear the word “world” we think only of us. Of humanity. Of human beings. 

Yet, in the Greek, the word is used to refer to the entire cosmos - to all of creation. That Jesus came not just for humankind, but for everything. Animals, birds, fish, insects, dirt, clouds. In Romans 8, Paul writes that “creation waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed..that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”

That night, as the animals witnessed Mary’s pains of childbirth, one wonders if they were wide-eyed with the possibility that this baby, helpless and powerless, much like they were, might be the beginning of their own redemption as well.

Near the end of our service tonight, we will light candles and listen to the opening verses of John. That the Word became flesh and lived among us. The Greek word here translated for “flesh” once again describes not only human flesh, but all flesh - both human and animal. 

Now, I’m not saying that as Jesus, the Word, became flesh, he took on animal characteristics. But, I am suggesting that in taking on “flesh,” Jesus was coming alongside all of creation - creation formed by him at the beginning of time in love. 

And, that night, as these animals watched this baby being born, one can only believe that they knew they were witnessing something profound. That they were witnessing the in-breaking of God and the unfolding of God’s cosmic plan for their redemption, as well as for ours.  

Perhaps this is why, as we play with and love on our own animals, we get such a sense of profound love and commitment. Because they know. And they are just waiting for us to get it. To get that God loves us and all of God’s creation. That our believing and living in response to this love is what leads to abundant life. That it is abundant life - a life of peace and wholeness - that God desires for all creation. And that what we do - our own believing and our own living - affects the work of God for the good of all.  This is why God comes to us and all creation. This is why God comes to the low places. That all of creation might experience redemption and life. 

May you hear this tonight. May you hear God’s profound love and desire for you. And may you hear that, just as God seeks redemption and abundant life for these animals, God seeks the same for you. You, who are loved, called, and claimed as a beloved child of God.

All this. All this from a collection of unnamed noisy animals in the lowest of the low places that night in Bethlehem. Amen.

Preached December 24, 2019, at Grace & Glory Lutheran Church, Goshen, KY.
Christmas Eve
Readings: Micah 5:2-5a, Luke 2:1-20.

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