Today it is better to sit by the manger than stand in the pulpit, and listen to the voice that is bringing big name Jewish leaders from their posts in the Temple in Jerusalem, and ordinary folks they shunned, judging them to be too common, too irreligious, and, therefore, unclean.
But now the haughty and the lowly are standing amid the rocks in the Judean desert with its jagged rises and deep crevices. They have come to listen to the voice of the hermit-like, last of the Hebrew prophets, John the Baptizer, who when questioned by the Temple authorities and scholars of the Law, “Why then are you baptizing if you are neither the Messiah, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” answers, “I baptize with water. Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.”
Here, by the manger, where next Sunday, our children and youth will turn his words “the one who is coming after me” into the pageantry of the story of Jesus’ Birth, here where a toy doll wrapped in a blanket will be laid to rest on this straw-lined bed, and role-playing Mary and Joseph will take their place, we hear the Scripture lessons read a week earlier, on this Third Sunday of Advent, this rose-colored candle Sunday, inviting us to, “Please open BEFORE Christmas.”
Here, by the manger, where we anticipate spending another Christmas reliving the Story of the Birth of Jesus, we know, for us, it will be a looking back to the One Whose Birth Story is remembered rather than anticipated.
Here, by the manger, we pick up on John the Baptizer’s answer to his critics, Among you stands one whom you do not know, and know it forces us to ask, “What do I know about Jesus?”
Not the Baby Jesus, but the grownup Jesus, the Jesus we hear the prophet Isaiah saying will be God’s Gift, which when opened, will:comfort all who mourn; …give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
All the reasons to open the Gift BEFORE Christmas, so that the Gift God intends us to receive in Jesus will be the Gift that affects the way we celebrate Christmas, especially for us and others who are those “who mourn.”
Come, sit by the manger, sit and take Mary’s place, and remember how she came to that first Christmas, hounded with gossip, suspected as having lived too promiscuously, unmarried with child, saved from being stoned to death as Joseph stepped up and took her as his wife; labeled a contriving liar, or a lunatic, telling a story of an angel announcing she has been blessed to be chosen by God to bring Messiah into the world.
Come, sit by the manger, and open the Gift that has us see what May saw, as she followed Jesus through His ministry, and trial and death; as she came to the tomb and found it empty – the sight to confess: “truly God’s Messiah, conquering not only sin but also death”- the promise and the hope waiting to be received by all who come to this Christmas in need of comfort.
Another reason was played out in the TV series “Bull,” the PhD psychologist, Dr. Bull, who works in the courtroom setting of clients, lawyers, and juries. Last week it was a nine-year-old girl who wanted a divorce from her parent. As the story unfolded it was the drama of a child filled with anger projected on her too busy, always absent father, who expected a nanny to take the place of a wife and mother who had died too soon. When Dr. Bull works to get to the real cause that is unresolved grief, the father confesses his blindness to his daughter’s need of his time for her, the confession that melts the hardness of a child’s unforgiving heart. Their embrace of each other becomes the gift that brings them back to life, just in time for Christmas.
A scene, though fiction, happening in the real life drama of individuals at war with each other over suppressed grief or guilt or a personal hurt that seems too deep for the offended one to overcome with forgiveness; but then it happens for those who hear and receive the words of the Advent prophet, Isaiah: The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, …to provide for those who mourn in Zion— to give them… the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
Here, at the manger, open that Gift BEFORE Christmas and rejoice in what the Advent prophet says of those who do: They will be called oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
Martha Spong, a UCC pastor and blogger reminds us: “What a gift it is when we remember the Messiah will not come to congratulate the happy couples, or high-five the winners, or bend an elbow with the successful. He will come to walk with the widow, to comfort the lost, and to (kneel) with the oppressed. Mark this. The prophet promises release, liberty, comfort, rebuilding, binding up of the brokenhearted, and restoration of what has been lost. This is the good news.” (Quoted from “Sunday is Coming, Christian Century for Dec. 17, 2017, Martha Spong UCC pastor, writer, and workshop leader on spiritual practices) The Gift meant to be opened NOW so the Gift we receive will be the Gift that is given.
Chaim (Hāyem) Potok the American Jewish writer and rabbi, told of wanting from boyhood to be a writer, but his mother would say, "Son, now I know you want to be a writer. But I want you to think about brain surgery. You'll keep a lot of people from dying. And you'll make a lot of money." Finally, he cut off his mother with, "Mama, I don't want to keep people from dying, I want to show them how to live." Susan R. Andrews, Sermons for Sundays: In Advent, Christmas, and Epiphany: The Offense Of Grace, CSS Publishing Company, Inc.
Come to the manger, sit by the manger and open the Gift of the One Who came to give us life and show us how to live, and today, by the light of the rose-colored candle, to see to sing Mary’s song (The Magnificat). Amen.
Rev. Dr. Martha B. Kriebel is the pastor of Trinity Reformed United Church of Christ in Collegeville, PA