More Than a Mannequin Challenge

I preached this sermon on December 18, 2016, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, our “Christmas Sunday” at First Church, Simsbury. During the Children’s Moment that preceded the sermon the entire church participated in “The World’s Largest Nativity Mannequin Challenge.” The children came forward to fill the roles of Mary and Joseph, and shepherds and animals. I stood in the pulpit, arm outstretched, frozen in the middle of an impassioned sermon. Others also played themselves including our Bell Choir, the Ushers, and our Women’s Praise and Chancel Choirs. The rest of the congregation all posed, arms outstretched, as angels. The Nativity Mannequin Challenge can be found on the First Church Facebook Page (scroll down until you find it).

Who doesn’t love a beautiful nativity scene? Our family had a lovely old one when I was a kid, we called it a crèche. I remember the wooden manger required careful handling or its legs would collapse and baby Jesus would tumble out.

I have this tiny nativity set from Peru, the figures carved from Alabaster.

Then, there are all manner of odd nativities, dog and cat nativities, Lego nativities, a marshmallow s’mores nativity, nativities made from butter, from Spam, and from cupcakes. And new this year, a hipster nativity, with the wise men delivering their gifts from Amazon on Segway scooters, and Mary and Joseph taking a selfie!

Whether sacred or profane, we love nativity scenes. Whether children’s pageants or a Sunday morning mannequin challenge, we love nativity scenes. Like a snapshot, they capture a moment, snatch it out history, shepherds, angels, Mary, Joseph and Jesus stand frozen in time in a church chancel or on a front lawn, reduced to fit on a mantelpiece or in the palm of your hand.

Yet their very timelessness also speaks to the limitations of our beloved nativity scenes. The story of Jesus’ birth is so much more than a mannequin challenge frozen in time. God birthed God’s-self into human history. Removed from its historical context the story of Emmanuel, God with us, loses its meaning. Something preceded Jesus’ birth, and just as importantly something immediately followed his birth.

So, here the first of this morning’s readings from the gospel of Luke:

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

 

This part of the story is familiar to many. The Roman emperor Cesar Augustus orders that all Jew in Judea be “registered.” The province of Judea had been put under direct Roman rule, and a distinguished soldier and Consul, Quirinius, was appointed as its Governor. The Jews initially went along with this but soon began to chaff at the loss of their autonomy, and a small number of Zealots tried to resist Rome and incite violence. So this “registration” is ostensibly a census taken in order to tax the Jews, but it is not hard to imagine that uprooting all Jews and ordering them to travel to their ancestral homes was also an effort to assert Roman power and disrupt plans for rebellion. Of course this requirement wasn’t voluntary, and we can only assume there would have been serious consequences for disobeying Rome.

Like thousands of other innocent Jews Mary and Joseph had nothing to do with resistance to or agitation against Rome, but they were required to be “registered” along with everyone else.

Imagine the disruption this would cause. Disruption and fear. Fear of Rome, of what could happen in Bethlehem, of the well-being of Mary’s baby. Nazareth to Bethlehem is about 90 miles, about the distance from Simsbury to Providence, RI. Imagine the US government telling you that you needed to walk to Providence to be “registered.” Then, when you get to Providence, there is no place to stay. The weather forecast in Bethlehem for today is a high of 51, a low of 42, and raining.

So a far cry from our fun loving Nativity Mannequin Challenge, the events preceding Jesus’ birth were miserable and terrifying.

And what followed Jesus’ birth? Well this is a story that ministers rarely get to preach on. This reading comes up the Sunday after Christmas, a Sunday that is a “low” Sunday as far as church attendance. Everyone is still basking in the warm glow of Christmas so no one wants to hear a story like this, from Matthew:

Now after the Magi had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

 

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

 

As soon as the Magi depart, an angel comes to Joseph and tells him to flee to Egypt. King Herod, feeling his throne is threatened by the one “who has been born king of the Jews,” orders all male children in and around Bethlehem, age two and under, to be killed. Fleeing one who would murder their newborn child, not for anything they had done but just out of fear for what the child might become, Mary and Joseph become refugees. The Holy Family lived on the run in a strange land for anywhere from a few months to several years.

So there you have it. Our beloved Nativity scene of angels singing, shepherds quaking and cows lowing is sandwiched between two absolutely horrifying events in human history, an Empire’s forced registration of Jews, and a vicious king’s infanticide.

At this point, I should promise you that it is not my intent to ruin our happy Christmas buzz. Rather, I hope the context of Jesus’ birth will make this Christmas more meaningful for all of us.

Jesus’ birth takes its meaning from its particular historical context.

The hymn we will sing after the sermon, Star Child, begins:

Star child, earth-child, go between of God, love child, Christ child, heaven’s lightning rod.

God birthed Jesus, his love child, not in the midst of merriment, not to celebrate some victory or as a reward for an achievement. No, God offered a go between, Emmanuel, God with us, in a dark and scary time in Israel’s history. And God gave heaven’s lightning rod to a particular, ordinary couple in the midst of their fear and fatigue.

The Christmas story isn’t frozen in time like some mannequin challenge. It continues to take its meaning for us today from our context.

Like Mary and Joseph, we also live at a time when politicians talk openly of registering an entire population of faithful people, this time Muslims. Some have even proposed forcibly moving them out of fear of what a few might do. And like Mary and Joseph, today millions of refugees in Syria flee their homeland because children are being indiscriminately slaughtered by a vicious and fearful king.

And so it is today that Christ is born to ordinary people in the midst of our fear and fatigue. The hymn continues:

Street child, beat child, no place left to go, hurt child, used child no one wants to know.

 

Hope for peace child, God’s stupendous sign, down to earth child, star of stars that shine.

So this is the first thing we learn. In response to our fear and fatigue, God births God’s-self into the darkness of our world as a stupendous sign of hope. But that’s not all there is to this Christmas story. No sooner was this down to earth child born than one who feared him wanted to snuff out that star of stars that shine. Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt to keep that hope alive.

The Nativity draws its meaning from what precedes it and what follows. In Herod’s slaughter of the innocents we quickly learn that the birth of Jesus did not magically dispel all darkness to usher in a fear-free happily ever after. But that star child born in a manger reminds us that we need never again doubt God’s presence with us in the darkness.

The Gospel of John does not include a story of Jesus’ birth, but it does include these powerful words:

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

When Mary and Joseph fled to Egypt with Jesus, God’s grace and truth went with them. And so it is today. When we enjoy a Christmas pageant or enact a Nativity Mannequin Challenge in church on a Sunday morning, sure it’s fun, but it serves as a powerful reminder that we carry God’s grace and truth with us, within our very flesh, as a force for good in our lives and in the world.

So this is what we have learned so far. First, Jesus is born right smack in the middle of the darkest of dark times as a stupendous sign of hope.

Second, Herod serves as a reminder that dark forces will remain, but through Jesus’ birth we now know that God’s grace and truth live on within us, and through us a light shines in the darkness and the darkness shall not overcome it.

And there is a third thing we learn about this still-speaking Christmas story. When Mary and Joseph became refugees in Egypt they did so not out of fear for their own lives but to preserve the life of their Star Child. They had been entrusted, not only to give birth to the light of God, but to ensure that that star of stars not be extinguished.

And so, brothers and sisters, this is also our charge this Christmas. We have been entrusted to preserve the life of this earthly Star Child, the heavenly earth child, God’s grace and truth that lives still within humanity.

One of the ways we do this is by telling the story, not just the nice parts about angels and shepherds, but the tough parts that come before and after, about an empire that sought to register a faithful people out of fear of a few, and of the Holy family  become refugees to flee a murderous king. And God calls us to share this not just as a story of long ago, but as a story that continues to unfold today.

Because empires still seek to forcibly register faithful citizens, and refugees still flee murderous kings. This is our story. And when we tell it, Jesus will live on within and among us, teaching, healing, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, overturning the tables of the greedy. And when we tell this story, Emmanuel accompanies us, suffers with us, even dies with us, and will ultimately triumph over death with us. But we have to tell the story. The whole story. The ancient story and today’s story of an encroaching darkness and of God’s light.

For the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

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