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For what it's worth, if you ARE thinking about it, and you are wondering what you might get for that special someone who is difficult to buy for, I may be able to help. This week on the internet was news you can use.(1) Now available: an eight-inch hand-painted "Jesus Bobble Head", designed to sit in the space on a car's back shelf. The manufacturer says, "Of course, nobody knows what Jesus really looked like, but this is our best guess since we know he had a head that moved." Yup.
I think I'll pass on that one, but I know I'd better get busy. This will be "Decorating for Christmas Week" around the Leininger house - tree up, ornaments on, lights everywhere, manger scenes out and Sounds of the Season - carols on the stereo. All accompanied by the delightful smell of holiday baking from the kitchen. Delicious.
But as I think about it, it occurs to me that the marvelous sights and smells of 2002 are about opposite those of the first Christmas. We hark back to the images that fill our minds and note that a stable is not a pretty place. The light is not that good. Walk into a stable and take a deep breath...if you dare. Whew!!! No, those marvelous sights and smells we associate with our modern celebration have nothing to do with our conception of the original event.
But now it is the Christmas season and suddenly stables take on a different image. Instead of the dark, grimy, smelly places that they really are, we let our minds picture them as much more socially acceptable. In our house, we have I-don't-know-how-many manger scenes - some wood, some plastic, some ceramic, some paper maché. We put them on the coffee tables, on the mantle or under the tree to help us remember the occasion we commemorate...the coming of God in human flesh, the birth of the baby Jesus. It is a rather romantic picture, the way we do it at our house. At yours too? And the reason it is romantic is the same as so many things we make romantic - they are not real. And to be quite honest, our popular picture of that manger scene is wildly inaccurate.
Be that as it may. I wonder whether we do the Christmas story an injustice by trying to pretty it up. To be honest, I do not think God wanted it to be pretty. If God had wanted it pretty, it would have been handled differently. For years we have heard that Jesus could have chosen a palace. After all, King of kings and Lord of lords. But if the Lord's reason for steering clear of palaces was simply not to scare us off with too much majesty, or to demonstrate humility, there could have been some middle ground, couldn't there? Some place decent, at least; some place that smelled a little better, that had a little better light? But no, it was a room shared with animals... dark, grimy, smelly. I wonder why.
Actually, I do not wonder. I feel fairly certain that I know. The Lord chose the location for that miraculous birth precisely BECAUSE it was lousy. It was not any reverse snobbery. It was not just to convey some image of humility. No, I think the message was that God would be available to us even in the most putrid circumstances we could imagine, those circumstances when we would normally feel that God would be a million miles away.
Think about it. I will give you some "Boy Meets Girl" stories to show how it works.
Story #1. Boy Meets Girl. They fall deeply and deliciously in love. They plan a beautiful life together. They marry. They have children. They create a lovely home. All goes well. And suddenly, it's over. You see, boy has met another girl...younger, prettier, no stretch marks, no independent opinions...and boy takes off, leaving girl number one with the kids, the mortgage, and a boat load of broken dreams.
That is HARD to deal with. The situation is miserable. And anyone who has gone through it knows what I mean. There is anger. There is hurt. There is grief. There is a feeling of abandonment...and not just the sense of being abandoned by a lover, but by everyone and everything good. Home is not the same anymore. It may as well be a stable. Is God in the midst of that? Or has God left too? The story of Christmas says God is there!
Story #2. Boy Meets Girl. Love. Marriage. Eventually a beautiful daughter, the apple of her daddy's eye. Anything she wanted, she could get. She had daddy wrapped around her little finger before she ever knew she HAD a little finger.
Oh, she was raised right - Sunday School and church, good training in the home, a sound set of values. She did well in school and was one of those who might be voted "Most Likely to Succeed." One could easily have pictured her future as one which would hold a successful career, a bright and talented husband, a beautiful home, handsome children, and all the rest.
But time marches on. She has become an independent young lady with ideas of her own. She meets a fellow who is somewhat less than mom and dad might have hoped for - no job, no education, no money, no future, and apparently no razor - just a motorcycle, one earring, and a ponytail. She drops out of school, runs off with him, gets pregnant, and dies in child birth.
Mom and Dad sit there under the tent during the graveside service hearing the preacher talk about life and hope and resurrection...but they are not really listening. Both are thinking the same thing: "Where did we go wrong?" Who knows?
Finally, the funeral is over. The people who came by the house to offer their sympathy and condolences are gone. All that is left is a kitchen full of uneaten food...and two people full of unanswered questions. They have gone to bed now and lie quietly thinking that this will be a miserable Christmas. The house is dark - just a little light shining through the window from the street lamp outside. Probably not much more light in that room than was there that night in Bethlehem - stables tend to be dark. But the story of Christmas tells us that GOD is there in that dark.
Story #3. Boy Meets Girl. More love. More marriage. No kids this time. Just two people who will grow old together in great contentment. They had stood before the minister years ago and vowed to love and care for each other "till death us do part" and they had kept their promise. But now one of them is no longer able to do that. He hardly even knows who he is anymore. Not only can he not love and care for his sweet wife, he cannot even take care of himself. SHE has to do it all. Oh, she does not really mind. She loves him more now than she ever did. But there are times...oh, there are times...when she gets exhausted and wonders how she can go on. She gives and gives and gives some more...and gets nothing in return. Not even at Christmas. That is hard.
It is almost what one would expect in a stable. After all, people do not come to stables looking to be cared for. When we go to a stable, we expect there is work to be done. No thanks, no rewards, just drudgery. And the story of Christmas says that, in the midst of the drudgery, God is there.
Story #4. Boy Meets Girl. They fall in love. They marry. They have kids...two good ones and one miserable wretch. Two "A" students, one drop-out. Two with successful careers, one who could never hold a job. Two who were pillars of society, one the dregs of society. Could the conclusion be "two they loved and one they didn't?" Not at all. They loved each one.
And now it is December 24th. The phone rings and the voice on the other end says that their child is in jail...caught selling drugs to an undercover cop. Ho, ho, ho, Merry Christmas.
They go down to the police station to bail the kid out. No luck. Bail has not been determined yet and arraignment cannot happen until after Christmas - the judge is out of town. It does not matter how much money you have. If Santa is going to see THIS kid, this year it will be in a cage. Hmmm...a stable with bars.
There is something in that story we should probably note about stables - money means nothing. How much you have or how little you have make no difference. And for people who have grown up in a money economy as we have, for people who have learned to keep score of how well we are doing by how much we have, for people who have almost made a god of money, that is hard to deal with - to hear that all your money is worthless, that it is a false god, is a shattering experience. No, that god has no place in a stable. But the story of Christmas says that the God of heaven does.
Now, I will grant that the stories I have told are extremes. But extremes happen...all the time, and we know it. For most of us, though, the stables in which we sometimes find ourselves are much less dramatic: the disappointments that come when our youthful dreams sink into the quicksand of grown-up reality; the day-to-day grind of a job that is just work; the dull pain that hangs on and on about which the doctors cannot seem to do anything; the emptiness of a home that is now just a house where people stay - the love is gone; the boredom that comes in retirement after a life of fulfilling activity. Nothing dramatic, but then stables rarely are.
The trouble with stables is not that they are dark and dirty and smelly - that is the nature of a stable. No, the trouble with stables is that there are so many of them. They are everywhere... not just in Bethlehem. They are everywhere that people reach the end of the line, when there are no more choices...no more rooms in the inn...when all that is left is to just desperately hang on.
In Robert Fulghum's best seller of a few years ago, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, he writes that what he wants for Christmas is "to be five years old again for an hour. I want to laugh a lot and cry a lot. I want to be picked up and rocked to sleep in someone's arms and be carried to bed just one more time...I want my childhood back."(2) To put it in this morning's terms, he wants the stables of life to be clean and neat and to smell good, just like the one sitting up on the mantle. But that is not possible.
What IS possible is the realization that we are not alone in our stables. The story of Christmas tells us that God is there in that undramatic, dingy, dreary place. God is there in those hours of our lives when it seems that everything is wrong, when all is dark, when things just STINK - precisely the hours when we need God most. The Christmas story tells us that GOD IS THERE WITH US! And the reason is that God wants to be.
That is awfully important. God's home was no stable. God's dwelling is all the glories of the universe, but the choice was made to leave that. God chose to come SEEKING us. On that night of nights, heaven reached down to earth, and that reaching has continued, and WILL continue, until heaven and earth finally pass away.
And Thy kingly crown
When Thou camest to earth for me.(3)
Will God lead us out of the stable? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The promise is that even that stable will turn out to be something or someplace good for God's children. We might not be able to SEE that good for a time, but we can count on the certainty of the promise. And more than that...we can count on the certainty of God's presence. It may be a stable, one of MANY stables, but GOD IS THERE!
Yes, again this Christmas we will walk into our dens and living rooms and kitchens and be confronted with an array of delights that signify celebration (but no bobble-head Jesus, please). Just remember that the OTHER sights and sounds and smells, the STABLE sights and sounds and smells, are real life. They may be your life right now. If they are, the good news I have for you this morning is those are the REAL sights and sounds and smells into which our Savior came and comes and comes again...to be with you. Have a blessed holiday.
1. Reuters, 12/6/02
2. Robert Fulghum, All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, (New York, Villard Books, 1989), pp. 97-98
3. Emily E. S. Elliott, 1864