Note: The idea for this sermon came from the title of a poem by Dwight H. Judy, “A Place of Nativity.”
Every year at Christmas, I remember my family’s manger scene. The first year of their marriage, my parents used what little money they had to buy a single strand of colored lights and a package of silvery icicles for their cedar Christmas tree. As they stepped back to look at their tree, my mother grew quiet. And then she said, “My family always had a manger scene under our tree.” Something essential to a proper Christmas was missing: a place of nativity.
My parents bundled themselves up and drove to the dime store. Stretching their budget just a little more, they returned home with the manger scene my family still uses every Christmas: a cardboard stable, Mary, Joseph, and the infant Jesus in a manger. Christmas set right: a nativity at the center.
After my brother and I were born my family made an annual journey to the dime store, where we selected an additional figure until we had a full complement of angels, shepherds, sheep, donkey, and wise men under our tree. As a child, I loved to lie on the floor; gazing at the manger scene, playing with the figures, imagining the birth of the baby named Jesus.
My first year in seminary, I had my first church job that would keep me away from home at Christmas. I took my laundry quarters and made a journey of my own to the dime store, to buy a manger scene. Thirty-seven years later, I still love to unwrap it every year and arrange the figures, to imagine the birth of the child Jesus.
To this day, my gift of choice to newlyweds is a manger scene: a gentle reminder that in a manger, in a home, in a nation, in a world: God comes at Christmas, seeking a place for love to be born, a place of welcome for God’s Son, a place of nativity.
According to Luke’s Gospel, God’s nativity begins when the angel Gabriel bursts into the life of a poor, ordinary teenager. A teenager living in a depressed, forgotten, oppressed part of the world.
Mary: barely old enough to birth any child; much less the one God asks her to carry. Unmarried, though betrothed, Mary seems undone by the angel’s announcement. “Greetings, favored one. The Lord be with you.”
We hear this story, as though there can be only one outcome. After centuries of art, music and Hallmark cards rendering Mary as the picture of composure, sweetness, and serenity, we hear this story as if God had everything prearranged; that God’s agenda is moving along; and all that remains is for God’s messenger to let Mary in on the plan.
That would make Mary a pawn in the hand of God. I don’t think so. Listen to Luke’s gospel: “Mary was much perplexed by the angel’s words, and pondered what kind of greeting the angel brings.” That’s Bible speak for “scared half to death”
“How can this be?” Mary asks. We hear her anxiety; her rising panic. Mary begins a conversation with God’s messenger. Gabriel gives her the name of the child God asks her to bear. Gabriel promises her the presence and the power of the most high. And Gabriel gives Mary a sign: her elderly and barren kinswoman, Elizabeth, is pregnant. Also God’s doing.
Then, and only then, does Mary say yes. God’s messenger does not depart until Mary agrees: agrees that her body, her life, her womb, will serve as the birthplace of love, as the place of God’s nativity.
At Christmas, God comes pleading: pleading for a place to be born. Pleading: because have you noticed how little space we make for Jesus in our world? Remember his life? No room in the inn, no place to lay his head, no welcome in his hometown, no hospitality in the temple, even buried in a borrowed tomb.
In the world of the bottom line and the top dollar, of the 1% and the 99%, God struggles to gain a foothold for the way of mercy, forgiveness, and sacrificial love. God claims allies where God finds them, among ordinary people: shepherds and astrologers, lonely prophets and itinerant disciples, in a teenager and a carpenter, because God cannot get the attention of the comfortable and the confident.
In the world of our making, God finds it hard to birth love. God’s nativity needs Mary, or someone like her. Someone willing to listen to God’s messenger; someone capable of imagining the impossible; someone courageous enough to say “yes” to God’s nativity in a world unwilling to back down in it’s resistance to God’s coming.
And so God comes: pleading with anyone who will listen and who will agree to welcome the child of God’s heart, God’s only begotten and beloved Son. A pleading God challenges us, for we do not wish to imagine a God bruised, beaten and bloodied, especially at Christmas.
And yet the shadow of the cross always falls across the manger. We know the indifference and fear of our world; the self-seeking behavior and our commitment to violence; the entrenched muscle of money and the crushing power of corporate might. Hold that in one hand. And over against that, consider a stable, a manger, and a teenager.
God comes pleading with us to take up our treasured roles as God’s allies in birthing love; to bring light to every dark place; to strengthen weak hands and make firm feeble knees; to proclaim the gospel of peace and the salvation from on high. Rome has battalions. Jehovah God has Mary, bearer of God.
In the days before Christmas, God pleads with us to consider the possibilities of holy love and the poverty of our own response. “What good is it to me” Meister Eckhart writes “if Mary gave birth to the Son of God centuries ago and I do not give birth to the child of God in my time and in my culture? We are all meant to be mothers of God. For God is always waiting to be born.”
Go. Find a manger scene. (I hope there is one under your tree.) If there’s not, find one. Look at it. And see for yourself who God comes to when God needs help. Discover the pleading God, who yearns to hear us pray: “O Holy child of Bethlehem, descend to us we pray. Cast out our sin and enter in. Be born in us this day.” (Verse of O Little Town of Bethlehem)