Peer Into the Manger

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December 24, 2018. Pastor Stephanie invites us to peer into the manger this Christmas Eve and be amazed by God’s love made flesh.


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Well, here we are at Christmas Eve at last. Most likely, you’ve had at least 24 days of preparation for this night. Now, some of you started much earlier than that, when December 1 arrived and you turned that over in your calendar. Some other people here might be squirming even now and hoping some store is still open because you’ve just got one more person for whom you probably should get a gift. Or some of you are smiling smugly and saying, “I just started my shopping this morning and got everything I needed, so what’s the big deal?” At any rate, I imagine each one of us is experiencing a mixture of feelings this night. There’s the eagerness for the experience of sharing this time with loved ones and taking in the lights, the music, and the festivities of the season — as well as more than a little bit of fatigue and the weariness of perhaps too many late nights and early mornings than usual to get everything ready.


Whatever your routine has been of getting ready for celebrating Christmas, we are grateful to be able to welcome you here tonight. We’re glad that you have come to celebrate this special night with us. Even as I say that, I’m wondering about the various motivations represented tonight for being here. Do you know why you are here? What has prompted you to come? We’re not taking a poll. But I think it’s safe to assume that some of you are here because this is your Christmas custom. You cannot imagine not being in a place where the carols are sung, where the familiar story of Jesus’ birth is read, and the candles — or in the case of this particular service, the glow sticks will be activated — as we sing during a lovely, peaceful moment the beautiful strains of “Silent Night.”


Just as likely, some of you are here because you felt a little pressure to join a family member who wanted to be here. Or perhaps worship is no longer a part of your regular weekly life, but there is just something about this night that draws you in, filling you with good memories of Christmases past, and reminds you of what used to hold meaning in your life, what once gave you a frame of reference. Perhaps you are here because you are searching. You have a deep sense, or a deep hope, that there is more to life than merely what you see around you. And so you have come. And finally, I imagine some of you are in worship on this Christmas Eve because you were lonely or grieving. On this night of all nights, you need to be among people, any people, in a safe space, a holy space, a space where you can just breathe.


Regardless whatever the motivation, whatever has summoned you into this time of worship, at some level it probably has to do with the baby who is the center of the Christmas story. At some level, your reason for being here is intertwined with a desire to peer into the manger, once again, to see who exactly is in that manger and try again to comprehend what that baby means for us, and for our lives. Deep down, perhaps that is the real reason you are here. It is one reason that I am here. I am here to peer into the manger once again. I am here to imagine that baby’s face. I am here to listen for, to remember, to ponder the story of God becoming flesh.


I am well aware that this is a concept that is not easily understood, and I’ve come to accept that this is just part of the mystery that holds me in its grip — that the almighty God would become human flesh as an expression of love. It’s a concept that has inspired all kinds of speculation about a conversation that just might have happened when God told the angels about this plan. In response to God announcing this plan in the Heavenly realm, one of my favorite authors, Barbara Brown Taylor, surmises: This could have happened. We don’t know. But the angels might have asked God, “Could you at least create yourself as a magical baby with special powers? It wouldn’t take much, just the power to become invisible. Maybe the power to hurl bolts of lightning as the need might arise.” The angels all felt like God coming as a baby was a stroke of genius idea, but it lacked adequate safety measures. God thanked the angels for their concern but said no. God thought just becoming a regular baby would be best. How else could God gain the trust of God’s creatures? There was a risk, a very high risk, but that was part of what God wanted us to know, that God was willing to risk everything to get as close to us in hopes that we might receive this gift as a love letter from God, for each and every one of us.


That’s why we need to peer into the manger to be reminded of this wonder. God has chosen to come near to us, to be with us even in our everyday, normal lives. That’s why we need to look at the baby Jesus’ face. We need to once again be drenched in the mystery of the Incarnation, the gift of God becoming Emmanuel, God with us. God with us forever. For when we peer into that manger, we believe, we trust that we don’t only see the face of the baby Jesus. When we peer into that manger, we believe and trust we also see the face of God. The baby reminds us that God loves us in this world so much that God simply could not stay away. God had to come and be one of us, one with us, so that we would know once and for all that no matter how much darkness we see, and how heavy life can feel, it will not overcome us and it will not last forever. When we peer into that manger, we are reminded that we worship a god who decided to get down into the dirt with us, down into the messiness and complications of life with us. When we peer into that manger, we see that God knew we needed a god, a savior who had tasted the darkness and the tensions of human existence firsthand. The baby in the manger proclaims to us that, because God chose flesh and blood, and we now know that there is nothing we can live with that God has not already absorbed into God’s own heart as a result.


Because of Jesus, God knows what it’s like to be born, to be pushed out into this world. Because of Jesus, God knows what it is like to be vulnerable, to be a child, to be weak in power and completely dependent on others. And because of Jesus, God knows what it’s like to grow up, to hurt, to die, to lose a loved one, and to weep. Because of the face of the one we see when we peer into the manger, we believe and trust that God knows all of what it means to be human, to be a creature, to be you and me.


What is it that we see when we peer into the manger? We see a god who is strong enough to become a baby. We see a god who is powerful enough to take on human weakness. As former Yale chaplain John Vannorsdall once proclaimed, “By coming to be with us as a baby, God was demonstrating unilateral disarmament with humanity. Any concept we might have formed that God relishes coming to us in judgment can just go away in the face of the baby Jesus. Any god who comes as a baby,” he preached, “is a god who intends us absolutely no harm.” No harm. Only life. Only loving relationship. The kind of god is the one we see when we peer into the manger on this night. So whether you are part of worship on this Christmas Eve out of curiosity, or guilt, whether you are part of worship out of a routine and a deep desire for meaning, whatever has called you to this set apart moment, I hope you’ll take the time tonight to look again and see.


Every Christmas Eve I want to do that, to peer into the manger, to imagine that baby’s face. I hope we will all indeed pause and consider what it means that God did not decide to simply act from above to save us, that God did not decide to swoop in with all power and might to force us into some kind of redemptive relationship. Nor did God simply decide to create us and just walk away, leaving us to stew in our own brokenness and despair. Rather, the baby in the manger proclaims to us that in Mary’s body and with her consent, God became one of us. Not in theory, but in truth, so that we might know forever how God embraces us and this world, the world that God created and continues to redeem, and is making new, bit by bit.


In the baby Jesus, God became one of us, one for us, one with us, so that we could see that indeed Isaiah’s promise has come true. The people who walked in darkness will see a great light. This light shines for all, and the darkness shall never overcome it. Indeed, one day the darkness will give way to everlasting light. That proclamation is what we see when we peer into the manger this evening. That proclamation is what we most earnestly longed for. That proclamation is the promise that’s already on the way. That proclamation is Christmas. So come, look, and be amazed. It’s God’s love made flesh to show us love.




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2018, Christ Lutheran Church, Webster Groves, sermon, podcast, transcript, Pastor Stephanie Doeschot