God in the Mud

A Sermon Preached by the Rev. Claire Nevin-Field on the Feast of the Nativity.

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I speak to you in the name of Holy, Incarnate Love.

I suspect I am not alone in this, but I am struggling with Christmas this year. Or at least with the super joyful, happy all the time, everything is perfect at Christmas sort of Christmas. I look around at the world and I see a lot of grief, and pain, and fear. I see a world in which trucks are used as weapons of death, and the wholesale slaughter of the Syrian people occurs while the world watches with a mixture of indifference and claimed helplessness. And right here in our own country divisiveness and hatred are on the ascent, and many of us are deeply afraid for the sick, the poor, the vulnerable, the outcasts—afraid for the future. And in the midst of this darkness we hear again the Christmas tidings—unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is Given. And we see the picture the Gospel paints of the perfect manger scene reflecting a peaceful love-filled world that we desperately want to be true. With Joseph standing adoringly and protectively near the mother and child, Mary looking serene and beatific, and Jesus sweetly sleeping, a smile on the holy face. This perfect well-ordered world is what we yearn for, and if we could design a Savior, it would be one who swoops in and fixes the world, rescuing us from the everyday difficulties of life as well as deeper pain and despair. And so God, in divine wisdom, sends us not a superman savior but…a young woman in labor. A frightened teenager, struggling to give birth, without assistance, in the straw and filth of a barn. Labor, as those who have experienced it or ever witnessed it know, is neither serene or peaceful. It is gritty, messy, bloody, and painful. And it is dangerous. Not so much for us any more in the western world, but worldwide 830 women a day still die in labor. Bringing new life into the world is frightening, risky business. And yet this birth in riskiness and pain is exactly how God chose to enter the world—born exactly the same way you and I were born. Instead of a flashy god, God gives us a fleshy one—a baby-born like every other baby, in the midst of the dirt, pain, and suffering of the world. 7 or so pounds of helpless humanity-a vulnerable, crying, burping, barfing little human being—Holy Immortal Majesty wearing diapers and crying to be fed.  And yet, despite this most ordinary, least threatening, most easily ignorable of  entrances into the world, the Empire, the powers that be, in Jesus’ day took note. And were afraid.

In fact, fear is all over the birth story of Jesus. Everyone’s reaction to his birth, from Mary’s encounter with Gabriel, through the shepherd’s trembling on the hills, to the Wise Ones high tailing it in a different direction after their encounter with a very oily Herod, is tinged by fear. Even Herod himself, that great and powerful ruler, who held all the power of Empire, was very afraid. Because somewhere deep down he knew, all earthly rulers know, the power of perfect love. Herod had heard the echo of Mary’s magnificat—her song of a world turned upside down by God. He knew that this child came not just to comfort the brokenhearted but to challenge the norms of Empire. The Empire, the way the world just is, is the way of getting ahead at the expense of the vulnerable and weak, feeding the rich and the full, and exalting the mighty and the use of power and violence. Yet as Mary sang, this baby comes to exalt the humble and feed the hungry—comes to repudiate violence, to reveal that there is a deeper, stronger power alive and loose in the world. It is not as flashy as Empire, and at times it may seem weak and ineffective, but it is deeply powerful and it persists. It persists because it is written into the fabric of the universe by the Creator, and was not just enfleshed in this Holiest of Babies, but because it is born again and again, all over the world—in unexpected places and the most unlikely people. Still making the Herod’s of the world very nervous.

So let’s go back to the perfect Christmas image. Because if the camera that took the snapshot that appears on so many Christmas cards had stuck around for a while and stayed focused on the little family, the glow of perfection would have dissipated rather quickly. Within a few moments of the shutter snapping the startled baby Jesus probably began to wail, not a little gentle murmur like the cooing of the dove, but a flat out newborn howl of indignation and distress. And Mary, still feeling exhausted and sore from giving birth, may have joined in his tears, overwhelmed by all that just happened. Wondering what the heck she was doing sitting in a stable with her new husband. Wondering why she didn’t run when she heard God’s daring proposal, thinking she should have listened to her Mom and married Jacob, the nice boy from down the street instead of Joseph who seemed to make life altering decisions based on visits from angels during dreams. And Joseph? His brow probably furrowed with distress as the weight of being responsible for this new family sank in and he wondered what kind of mess the angel had gotten him into and how crazy was he for listening? And why were they sitting in a stable anyway? Joseph had family in Nazareth, that’s why they were in that city. Why didn’t his family take them in—what kind of breach was there in that relationship? We don’t know, but there they were in the stable. And then the cow stepped on the goose, which honked loudly, the sheep shoved one of the pigs out of the way causing a great long squeal, and chaos erupted in the stable and reigned for a while. But then Joseph and Mary clung to each other and reassured each other that—yes they were sitting in a cold, dark place, but really, everything would be alright.  And Mary cradled her wailing baby whose sobs began to peter out in that hiccough-y way baby’s cries sometimes end.

And that image of chaos, that image of the reality of incarnation, God’s and ours, is exactly where the hopes and fears of all the years are found.  Because the hope of the world is found in the knowledge that God is right where God has always been and will always be, right in the middle of the fray. The spectacularly good news of tonight is that God is with us, right here, right now. No matter what sort of a mess we have made of our world, of our lives, God is in the center of it, loving us. Christmas assures us that God became flesh and still becomes flesh.  Assures us that there is nowhere God will not go to reach us. Assures us that God doesn’t need a perfect world or a perfect place to be born, God is born anywhere, anywhere we can make a baby-sized manger in our lives. If ever there was a Christmas, at least in my lifetime, that it is clear we need to make room so the Christ Child can be born in us, it is now. If ever the world needed people who strive to live God’s love, justice, and peace, it is now. It is true that living that way is a challenge to our Empire, is an invitation to mockery, or worse, from the Herods of the world. And it is also true that each of us can give birth to Christ, can change the world in small but powerful ways. And, yes, giving birth is messy, painful business so it is OK to be afraid—no one ever goes into labor without a healthy dose of fear and trembling.

And yet we have exactly what we need, we have God with us here and now, and God’s promise to always be with us. As close as our next breath and as present as the beating of our heart. We have our hands, our feet, our hearts-with them we can be Christ for this beautiful, God filled, hurting world.

So rejoice with the angels and the shepherds, because right here, right now, to you, is born this day a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And all you need to do is reach out your arms, pick him up and cradle him in your life.

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The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field

The Rev. Claire Nevin-Field is the rector of St. Peter's Church.

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