Call to Worship/Isaiah 11:1-9 (NRSV)
1A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. 2The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. 3His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; 4but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked. 5Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins. 6The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. 7The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. 8The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den. 9They will not hurt or destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.
God of hope, we come to you in the midst of a world filled with troubles. Although the night around us is powerful, open our eyes to the light of your presence. Give us faith to stand against the voices of division and violence. Through your Spirit, remake us into hope-filled disciples, discovering lives attune to your wonder, and inspiring in others a desire to know you more. In the name of the One who comes to us, we pray, Amen.
Scripture Lesson/Romans 8:18-25 (NRSV)
18I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory about to be revealed to us. 19For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; 20for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope 21that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. 22We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; 23and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies. 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.
The Mystery (…and The Manure) of Christmas
Perhaps the most favorite of all the great carols of the Advent and Christmas season is “Silent Night.” Even during this time of pandemic, this Christmas Eve, candles will be lit and, these words will, if not aloud, be sung and echoed in our hearts: Silent night, holy night all is calm all is bright, round yon virgin mother and child. Holy infant, so tender and mild, sleep in heavenly peace, sleep in heavenly peace! While recorded by hundreds of soloists and singing groups across many music genres, the version sung by Bing Crosby in 1935 remains the fourth best-selling single of all-time. Both its tune and the lyrics evoke images of a peaceful moment in which all the world seems to hold its collective breath for the birth of the Messiah, the One who was coming into the world to bring about salvation and usher in a new era of peace.
But was the night really that silent? Far be it from me to squash the feelings that this favorite, familiar carol arouses within us, but, if we follow the story as it comes to us, it probably wasn’t that “silent” and, while it was a distinctively holy moment, Jesus’ birth wasn’t an event that took place in a temple or any other place that had been set apart and dedicated as sacred space. If you’ve ever been in or worked around a barn, you know that there are usually lingering odors from the animals who find their home within its stalls and dirt floors covered with straw, among other things. It doesn’t seem to us like the most hygienic place to birth a baby. We would probably be aghast if we found a labor and delivery ward in our time filled with cobwebs and smelling like a cesspool. We would be calling the local health department and raising a fuss on social media. The Washington Post and Sixty Minutes would be rushing correspondents to the scene to capture video and photos of the unclean environment in which infants would breathe their first breaths.
Given our propensity to domesticate the scene of Jesus’ birth in our minds and in most of our cultural expressions thereof, we give little thought to the muck and the mire into which Jesus was born. While the manger scenes on our mantles and coffee tables often have animals represented in them, our ceramic, wood, or resin figures fail to offer us a reasonable facsimile of the reality of that moment. We much prefer the whiff of pleasantly scented evergreens adorned with ribbons and bows, or the smell of peppermint issuing from a steaming cup of tea, or the enticing aroma of gingerbread emanating from the oven. These, I am certain, were not part of the palette of odors to which the baby Jesus was exposed.
But, in light of our predilections for a more sanitized version of the Christmas story, it seems to me that we struggle with the idea of this unlikely combination of the mystery and the manure of Christmas. It offers a tension in which we find ourselves extremely uncomfortable. The Savior of the universe born in a cattle stall and placed in a feeding trough for beasts of burden seems rather odd, disturbing. Why not a suite at the Jerusalem Hilton or at a cozy bed-and-breakfast in the country? The Christmas story confronts all of our notions of propriety. It is in the ordinary and the profane that the Holy One draws his first breath of air. It is in the presence of both angels and animals that the Divine enters our world, becoming a living, breathing part of creation itself.
Perhaps it shouldn’t come as such a shock to us that the Savior of creation would enter our world and our lives in this way. We live in such an anthropocentric world—a world of our own creation, so to speak. We erect multiple-story buildings high into the sky. The stadiums we construct can hold the entire population of a small city. Sprawling suburbs represent humanity’s domination of what was once considered rural frontier. We are not far removed from Alexander Pope’s historic dictum: “Know then thyself, presume not God to scan; the proper study of mankind is man.” In many ways, we have lost touch with creation around us. Instead of milking cows, we purchase milk in sterile containers located in cleverly engineered refrigeration units. Cars have replaced the need to board and care for horses. Our ham comes in cans or plastic wrapping, negating the need to muck out pig sties.
Most of us live our lives within synthetic cocoons. We breathe recirculated air and enjoy climate-controlled environments. We dress ourselves in manufactured fibers, feed ourselves with laboratory-devised nutrients, and live in homes with furniture created from synthetic substances. We move from once cocoon to another by means of ingenious traveling devices. We entertain ourselves in front of glass and plastic boxes filled with distorted images of our own devising, instead of finding ourselves inspired by a stunning sunset or clear, starlit sky, accompanied by the soothing soundtrack of droning crickets. We are resentful when storms or ice or snow break into our lives and disrupt our tightly organized little worlds with which we have surrounded ourselves.
So it is when we look back at the Christmas story—when we are faced with the fact that Isaiah described the reign of God in terms of peace among the animals. The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together (Isaiah 11:6, NRSV). Predators and prey existing together without enmity. When we engage the Christmas story, we remember that Jesus wasn’t born into a human habitation, but rather a stable and that it was heralded not by some cleverly devised Madison Avenue media blitz, but rather angels out on the back forty, in a nation that was considered the “backwater” of the Roman Empire, far removed from the centers of human power. Are we simply to say that the Christmas story is a relic, fossil lingering from the old agrarian system to which we are seldom, if at all, exposed? Or might the fact that Jesus came in this way offer us something even more about the way God works in our world and turns places we once deemed ordinary, even profane, into holy places and moments? How do we live in this tension that lies between the mystery and the manure?
I remember as a kid the animated or Claymation Christmas programs that would be shown during prime-time hours at this time of year. One was The Little Drummer Boy. Accompanying him were animals of all sorts. In addition to the animals you might expect find in a stable in first-century Palestine—donkeys, goats, sheep, camels—there were chipmunks, racoons, possums, kangaroos, and other animals that showed up who were not native to that part of the world. Yes, there was a “cuteness” to this presentation of the story. After all, who doesn’t like cute animals? I sure do. Certainly, such glaring inaccuracies would probably not intrude on the thoughts of a child transfixed by the story. But it does seem to indicate that we have insulated ourselves from the harsher realities into which Jesus came. It seems we’re more than a little embarrassed, maybe even downright offended, that God chose to enter creation quietly through the backdoor rather than with great fanfare through the front gate. For example, back in 1635, the fastidious Queen Anne of Austria instructed her royal architect concerning one of her building projects in these terms: “The church must be a sumptuous and magnificent sanctuary, in order to compensate as much as possible for the extreme vulgarity and poverty of the place where the Eternal Word chose to be born.” While I appreciate both her attention to detail and her reverence for a set aside space for the worship of God, it seems that somewhere along the way, she missed an important point.
You see, it was important that Jesus was born among the animals, because it sets us in our rightful place; not at the center, where we like to think of ourselves, but as one with all of God’s good creation—animal, vegetable, mineral. Think of it—the heart of this vast universe somehow, some way, was contained within the wildly-beating heart of a newborn babe. I am suggesting that the animals belonged there every bit as much as you and I. The salvation that Jesus brings is not just for homo sapiens but for all of God’s groaning creation. As the apostle Paul boldly declared in his letter to the church in Rome: We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now (Romans 8:22, NRSV). Looking back at Genesis, we see God offering blessing upon each day’s creation, including the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, the creatures of the sea. In one of the most familiar verses from all of Scripture, we hear an echo of this hope: For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life (John 3:16, NRSV). The word that John used that is often translated as “world” in this verse is the Greek word “kosmos” which means “everything that God has created.” The entire created order from the smallest microbe to the largest blue whale, from the smallest spec of space dust to the swirling galaxies visible from the Hubble telescope, from the smallest moon to the largest black hole. All of this was created by God, and blessed by God, and brought redemption through the Christ event. We must never forget that, while we may be sitting atop the food chain, God blesses everything at every place in the larger pecking order.
This past week, one of the tree sitters who is protecting one of the last remaining trees in the path of the Mountain Valley Pipeline shared some thoughts about what she has learned from her experience sitting vigil for over 820 days in nature: “It’s like another world up here. The wind sways the sit. My little red lantern swings with it. I read a lot of sci-fi. Sometimes I imagine the sit moving with the tree is a freight train shunting, getting ready to pull off into the wilderness. There are tracks nearby where I can hear the train whistle blow. Other times, it’s like a boat in choppy water. The stink bugs, like little rocks with legs, have nestled deep in some of my belongings. They hibernate, I’ve been told.”
A bit further in her reflection, she shares this interaction between two characters in one of the sci-fi novels that she has been reading: “’Then she said a good ruler has to learn the world’s language…she said she meant the language of the rocks and the growing things, the language you don’t hear with just your ears.’ I’m reading Dune by Franklin Herbert. Trying to learn the language of the growing things. I think about being so connected with the woods; I wish I could feel it like it was my own body. With wind like breath and tree roots deep in the earth like little capillary veins pouring new warmth back into me. The way pine needles stand stiff with frost like tiny glass filaments or hair standing on end. I can hear the stream beneath me crawling, but it no longer seems to babble drunk and boisterous like it did in the hot days of summer. It’s a mistake—the way we’ve been told we’re somehow alien or foreign to this place. Whenever I’m here, it feels like the house I grew up in or a greeting from an old friend. I’m sad the kids of the next generation won’t have the same house I got. I remember chasing fireflies when I was little. Pretty soon there might not be any more fireflies.”
The animals at the manger remind us that it’s not just about us. They, too, are witnesses to this glorious birth. They, too, stand in for the larger created order, what John would call the “kosmos,” as active participants in the story—with all of the associated snorts and smells, hair and dust, straw and dung—the animals stand vigil with Joseph and Mary over the Christ-child. As Paul foresaw the goal and consummation of all things: this entire universe itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God (Romans 8:21, NRSV). The mystery and the manure of Christmas is a tension to be lived into. It is a reason for us to stop and wonder. And, in our manufactured, matter of fact, twenty-first century world, waiting and watching in the attitude of awe and wonder isn’t such a bad place to start.
In patience and in hope, let us offer our prayers to God.
For all who walk in God’s Holy Way: those in the pews and in the pulpits; those at home and on the streets; for all who ponder God’s promise in their hearts, and all who carry the good news into the world.
For the nations and their leaders: that eyes may be opened and ears unstopped, and that peace and justice break forth in every land.
For all the world: heaven and earth, the seas, and all that is in them. For the early and the late rains, and the precious crop from the earth. For the light of hope in the midst of chaos.
For this community and all who live in it, each member of the whole body: friend and stranger, parent and child, brother and sister, widow and orphan. Strengthen weak hands, dear God, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong! Do not fear!”
For all who are nearest to you, O God: the lonely, the out-of-work, and the underemployed, the sick, the fearful, the cold, and the hungry. For the one who is sorry, and the one who is ashamed. It is you, our God of hope, who sets all prisoners free.
For all who are grieving and heartbroken; for those for whom the holiday season brings sorrow instead of joy.
We are waiting, O God, with all the patience we can muster. Beloved of angels and archangels, lover of saints and sinners, O God, we pray in the name of your Son Jesus, who shared with us these words:
The Lord’s Prayer
Our Father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.
Thy kingdom come; thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us this day our daily bread.
And forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us.
And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from evil.
For thine is the kingdom, and the power, and the glory, forever. Amen.
Perhaps Christmas is an opportune time for us to learn “the language of the rocks and the growing things, the language you don’t hear with just your ears.”
May starlight guide your steps on your journey toward Bethlehem.
May angels sing serenade you with good news as you travel to the manger.
May the attitude of awe and wonder fill these days as live in the tension between the mystery and the manure.
Emmanuel is coming, and we, along with the animals and the entirety of creation, will offer our praise and thanksgiving.