Luke 2:1-7; Colossians 1:15-23
“She gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger.” We love the manger scene as we gather here on Christmas Eve, but if you think about it, it’s not exactly the kind of place you’d want to have a baby and not the kind of crib you’d choose. We would much prefer the hospital to a cave (which is probably was—that’s the setting in the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem); we’d rather hear the controlled voice of a doctor and a labor coach than the grunts of goats in the room; and we’d much prefer a climate-controlled room with a sanitized bassinet than a cattle trough that was likely made of stone, chiseled in the floor, and filled with hay.
But the truth is that having babies has always been a risky business, and the places where people have laid said babies after their birth has also been suspect. The crib as we know it, for example, wasn’t invented until the 19th century. Before that children generally slept with their mothers (which we now know is dangerous). In the 19th century, the infant crib was invented and raised up from the floor because there was a belief that toxic fumes existed at floor level and explosive fumes hovered near the ceiling of any room, thus the crib was raised to put the baby in the “good air” in between. Because bed bugs, lice, and moths were a problem, many of these cribs were made out of iron to make them more sanitary, but then were painted with lead paint which we now know is poisonous. Not only that, many of these cribs had a “drop side” to make it easier for parents to pick up the child, but also made it easier for the child to slip down between the slats and get seriously hurt. They weren’t outlawed until 2011.
But one of the most bizarre baby conveyances emerged in the early 20th century. Back then, experts thought that fresh air, particularly cold air, was vital to a child’s health and development. If you lived in a city, however, getting out regularly was a problem, so moms improvised. In 1922, a woman named Emma Reed applied for a patent on a “baby cage”—a cage that attached to an open window like an air conditioner where baby could catch some fresh air while suspended several stories above the street. Here’s an early commercial from the late 30s:
When you add stuff like this to the fact that most of us grew up without car seats or bike helmets, and played with stuff like chemistry sets and lawn darts, it’s a wonder that any of us made it to adulthood! Even with all the modern safety improvements we’ve made (including not hanging children out the window), raising kids is still a risky business.
But it was even riskier then. Mary put Jesus in a manger because she really had no other choice, unlike those moms dangling their babies over a city street. The house was full (probably not an inn, due to a mistranslation) and the cave at the back of the house where the animals were kept was the only place left for privacy. A manger wasn’t that much more unsanitary than any place else in those days, when the infant mortality rate was probably as high as 30% and life expectancy was about 35. Mary herself would have been at high risk in giving birth—many women died in childbirth. It was a dangerous situation, much more so than we can imagine given our postcard images of the nativity.
But if the manger itself was a dangerous situation, the leaky, burpy, vulnerable little baby wrapped in cloths lying within it was even more so. It’s hard to think of a baby as dangerous—a toddler, maybe—but not a newborn. And yet, just eight days after his birth, the old man Simeon will declare at his dedication in the temple that this child would be “destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.” And, he says to Mary, his mother, “a sword will pierce your own soul, too.”
Those are ominous words about a baby. Then again, this is a very particular baby—one who was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of a Virgin. As the angel had announced to Mary, this child “will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” In John’s Gospel he is “the Word” of God—the hidden God—made flesh and who dwelled among us. And as Paul said in our New Testament lesson from Colossians, he is “the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation”—all things were created through him and in him “all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” This baby is God become human—fully human and fully divine.
That in itself is a dangerous statement to make for two reasons: First, if Jesus is fully divine, fully God, then all other definitions of God are rendered false. And, second, if Jesus is fully human, then all other definitions of true humanity are also false. That’s a problem in a world in which, from the very beginning, people have tended to want to manufacture their own gods and where people have tended to see being human as a limited and undesirable thing. We tend to like our gods to be “spiritual” and consign them to a distant sort of heaven where we can keep them at arm’s length and not have them interfere with us very much, and we tend to hold up our humanity as a default excuse for our brokenness. After all, we’re “only human.”
But the incarnation, the fully divine God becoming fully human in Jesus, challenges our concept of both God and humanity. According to recent surveys, 74% of Americans believe in God, but the question is what sort of God do they believe in (or not believe in?). Poke the surface and you see that most people think of God in purely spiritual, mysterious, and arbitrary terms—a God who is unknowable, distant, and not that concerned with human affairs. If God is merely a spiritual entity, kind of like the Force in Star Wars, then we need not think about him too much.
The manger defines who God is.
In Jesus, however, we learn that God is not unknowable, distant, unconcerned with human affairs. We learn that the God who created the heavens and the earth is intimately involved in his creation—involved to the point of coming to walk among his people in person. We learn that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is the God who entered into human history for the purpose of redeeming it from sin and death.
In other words, a God who becomes human is a God who must be reckoned with, and that makes him dangerous to the way the world normally works. We cannot consign him to heaven because he has come to earth. We cannot push him aside as a figment of our imagination, because he has come with a human face. He is a God who has entered fully into the human mess—living in poverty, living as a refugee, living with people who have major issues; he associates with outcasts, gives help to the poor, the sick, and the broken; cares about immigrants and strangers; doesn’t care that much about money, or sex, or power. He is a God who calls us to follow him—not adhere to a philosophy or a mantra—but to be like him and do as he does. He is a God who has come not only to live, but to suffer and die for the people he created.
The people of Jesus’ own day had a hard time imagining this sort of God. He was, as Paul put it, “a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles.” It’s no wonder the world continues to have a hard time with it. Better to have a God we can control and keep out of the public square than one who enters our mess and gets personal. Believing in a God who becomes human will cause all kinds of problems—might even get you crucified, too.
But this is the God who has come in Jesus Christ—this is the most important fact in the universe and it’s a fact that every person must deal with and decide about one way or the other. As C.S. Lewis put it, if Christianity, the belief in this Jesus, is not true, then it is of no importance; if it is true, it is of infinite importance. They one thing it cannot be is moderately important. When Christians use the word “God,” we mean the God revealed in Jesus Christ—a God who cares about his creation and his people so much that he would come in person to live with them and die for them.
The manger defines who humans really are.
The danger doesn’t stop there, however, for if the birth of Jesus defines what it means to be fully God, it also defines what it means to be fully human. In Genesis 1, God makes humans “in his own image” and calls this creation “very good”—no other created thing gets that designation. God is pleased with this human creation — a reflection of God’s own being, character, and love.
But while we often argue about the nature of humanity’s physical origins, Genesis is more concerned about their vocation. God’s first commandment was for these humans, God’s own image, to reflect his care for the creation by exercising dominion and stewardship over the whole project. If creation is made as a temple in which the triune God will dwell, then humans were to be priests in that temple, reflecting God’s glory to creation and reflecting the creation’s worship back to God. In other words, God doesn’t see these people as being “only human” but, rather, “fully human” — the full representation of God’s own image, character and vocation. They aren’t equals with God, as Genesis 3 will clearly reveal, but they’re invested with a status of divine favor, made to be indwelt by God’s presence — their full humanity enabled to be filled with the very Spirit of God. Although many see our humanity as a curse, we forget that God created us for his own “very good” purpose and for relationship with him.
Genesis 3, of course, reveals that the first humans sought to be like God — to be more than they were created to be — and instead wound up being less than the image of God and less than human. Idolatry, worshipping gods of our own making, always leaves us short. That’s what the word “sin” actually means—to miss the target, to fall short of the glory of God. We are not “only human” because we sin, it is sin that makes us less than human. After all, sin is inherently dehumanizing: Violence turns people into targets, lust turns people into objects of pleasure, greed turns people into commodities, and on an on. Our humanity isn’t the problem; it’s our sinful sloughing off of our humanity that gets us into trouble.
It’s our distorted version of humanity that also enables us to be enslaved by that sin. When we believe that we are only human or less than human, we will start to act that way and allow ourselves to be treated that way. We will treat others as less than ourselves; we will allow our bodies to be abused and objectified and we will abuse and objectify others; we will take on identities that are defined by our resumes, our sexuality, or our bank accounts rather than our identity as humans created in the image of God. The world counts on us retaining a less than human vision for ourselves—that’s why it can keep selling us products that promote better living for our less than human selves. That’s why the world rejects Jesus—it’s dangerous when people start thinking they can be free—from from sin and death.
If we embrace that freedom, however, take on the identity God gave us from the beginning, however, we become the people God created us to be—full of purpose and vocation. Jesus showed us what that life was like. He revealed what it meant to be fully human and, at the same time, fully indwelt and one with the Divine. He isn’t merely a perfect icon to admire but an example to follow in how to fully engage one’s capacity for relationship with God. In the Gospels, Jesus is constantly trying to teach his disciples how to be one with him and one with the God he reveals in his own person. He taught them how to be fully human, made in the image of God.
Jesus does more than model full divinity and humanity, however. In his death and resurrection he gives us the power to live it now and forever. We could not be redeemed on our own. God needed to enter into our humanity and deliver us from slavery to sin and death. By becoming human and by dying a human death on a cross, the naked and bleeding Jesus was dangled above a city street—not in a cage but on a cross—and experienced the ultimate dehumanizing act on our behalf. He became a slave himself, as Paul says in Philippians 2, so that we might become free from slavery. In Jesus, God would go through the very death that ends human life, but then he would rise from the dead, defeating death and offering the amazing and wonderful hope that the curse of death, which now ends our humanity, will someday no longer be in the way of an eternal, resurrected, embodied, fully human life with God — the way it was meant from the beginning. “In him, all things hold together,” says Paul (Col. 1:17), and “through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of the cross.” We are reconciled to God, given the light of God’s Spirit dwelling in us, to be lived out in our fully human lives — lives that are meant to reflect and hold together both the human and the divine. This is the life he came to bring us. This is both the danger and the opportunity represented in the manger. It’s a danger because it challenges us in our less than human ways of life, and it brings hope because we see that real human life is gift that God has gone to great lengths to redeem. The manger is a game changer!
Speaking of mangers, in Finland, there is a 75 year-old tradition that every expectant mother in the country gets the gift of a large box from the government that is filled with baby supplies including clothing, bathing products, sleep sets, bedding, and even a small mattress. With the mattress in the bottom, the box is designed to become the baby’s first bed.
When the tradition was started in the 1930s (about the same time moms in the U.S. And England were hanging their babies over the street), the infant mortality rate in Finland was 6.5%. Once the box was introduced and babies had not only the clothes and supplies they needed but also a secure and safe place to sleep, those rates dropped steeply. It was the gift of a cardboard box cradle that made all the difference and is still making a difference today. Everyone is offered one and, in Finland, everyone takes it! It’s a gift for new life!
Tonight we have been handed a similar gift—a manger box filled with the gift of a child who changes everything. Here is everything we have ever needed—the fullness of God and the fullness of humanity. It’s a box containing danger for a world in darkness, but the ultimate gift of life for all who will receive him. He is a gift offered for all of us.
Will you receive him?