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Goodnight Manger by Laura Sassi, Illustrated by Jane Chapman
Grace and peace to you, sisters and brothers in Christ.
I love this “Goodnight Manger” book because it forces us to take a look at our expectations about Jesus. If those expectations make us feel like we’re not good enough to be around Jesus, they’re false. We discover that God comes to us in all our messiness. That means that God comes in love to each one of you, right now and forever.
How do you usually imagine that first Christmas? My picture of that night of Jesus’ birth is an image removed from reality. It’s sketched in by our hymns. “Silent Night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright.” “The cattle are lowing, the baby awakes, but little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes.”
Whenever I remember the story of Jesus being born in a manger, I think about the rejection of all the innkeepers, the crowds that have left no room for the Holy Family, forcing them to find shelter in a stinky stable.
I always have had this sense that Jesus is born and everything is made better. The sheep don’t stink anymore. There’s no drool from the horse overhead. There’s no craziness, because God is born into this world and makes all the messiness go away.
But if that were the case, then it would be that somehow this stable was elevated out of reality when Jesus was born. If Jesus requires all around him to be better than what it actually is, then we might have to admit that Jesus could never find a home among us.
I like my picture book, because it reminds us that God enters the messiness and the messiness continues, but God is there, making it holy, making it sacred, meeting us in our messiness, not requiring us to get cleaned up first. In Jesus’ birth, God says – I love you- as you are- and I love you so much I want to be with you- even though you’re not always calm or bright, even in your frustration and pain.
That is a relief for me. I find a lot more in common with the Mary who ends up in a tizzy as she tries to get a tired baby to sleep than with some glowing virgin leaning against a fuzzing cow cooing a lullaby to the sleeping savior.
The good news of the great story of this day is that our God comes, to us, in our real lives. God brings the holy into our hectic.
God embraces messy, complicated, broken people. God is found among all of us. Even though God has entered our lives, we haven’t yet been transformed out of our brokenness. God is with us, but we still mess up. God is able to love us through our difficulties, and we are called to love each other through the same. As you gather with family and friends, you might be stretched to love each other through the messiness of your relationships. I’ll let you figure out how this applies in your family, but let’s consider the example of our congregation.
Many of us come to church expecting that this will be our hour of peace. That we’ll make friends here, who will never gossip behind our back. We expect that will be there for each other, making meals, praying for each other. We envision that anything we work for together will be accomplished, that together we can save the world from all its problems.
When we gather together, we meet the reality. We realize that we need to be here and we need to meet Jesus because we are broken people. We don’t get love right, and that’s why we need to receive Jesus’ love. But it also means we don’t always live in community the way we want. When we gather as a congregation, we discover that we don’t have our lives together, we haven’t loved – because even among our closest friends we have betrayed, we have neglected.
So when we gather together, things aren’t perfect.
God has come into our midst, and yet, it just isn’t that much different than the rest of our day or our communities. People annoy us. Someone doesn’t sing on key, someone doesn’t answer with the correct response, someone talks when it’s time to be silent, and that’s the kind of community Jesus comes into. Hectic, hopeful, strained, loving- holy.
The manger wasn’t silent. The manger wasn’t clean. The shepherds didn’t have all the right words. And frankly, those kings, those wisemen weren’t prepared with the right gifts. We’ve told the story with such conviction in our spiritualization of their gifts, but let’s get real people, this carpenter and young mother do not need these things.
We are at a loss when God enters our world. We are not prepared. We have silent Night playing in our head, and we are not ready for the God who comes in to creation as it is, in all its complicated relationships, in a stable where you just might step into the droppings on the ground.
God brings the holy into our hectic. When our lives don’t match the calm of Silent Night and our actions don’t match the holiness of the blessed Virgin, God still comes to us. What kind of God chooses to be housed in a noisy, stinky stable? in broken hearts? in fragile community? Our God, the God With Us- Immanuel, Jesus Christ our Lord.
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