It’s no paper on Pico della Mirandola, but if you’re interested here is most of yesterday’s message:
Psalm 145: 1-13
Maybe you’ve heard the story I’m about to tell before. I heard it several years ago and recently found it again. Back in 1994, two Americans were invited by the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics in their prisons, at their businesses, fire and police departments and even at a large orphanage. They were also told they could teach from the perspective of their faith.
The experience of these two in the Russian orphanage proved to be particularly illuminating. According to one of them named “Will Fish” – the name of a real person, perhaps, or a pseudonym for an anonymous Christian – there were about 100 boys and girls in the orphanage, children who had been abandoned, abused and left in the care of a government-run program. Fish tells the following story of what happened when the holiday season approached and it was time for the orphans to hear – for the first time – the traditional story of Christmas.
“We told them about Mary and Joseph arriving in
“Completing the story, we gave the children three small pieces of cardboard to make a crude manger. Each child was given a small paper square, cut from yellow napkins I had brought with me. No colored paper was available in the city. Following instructions, the children tore the paper and carefully laid strips in the manger for straw. Small squares of flannel, cut from a worn-out nightgown an American lady was throwing away as she left
“The orphans were busy assembling their mangers as I walked among them to see if they needed any help. All went well until I got to one table where little Misha sat – he looked to be about 6 years old and had finished his project. As I looked at the little boy’s manger, I was startled to see not one, but two babies in the manger.
“Quickly, I called for the translator to ask the boy why there were two babies in the manger. Crossing his arms in front of him and looking at his completed manger scene, the child began to repeat the story very seriously. For such a young boy, who had heard the Christmas story only once, he related the happenings accurately – until he came to the part where Mary put the baby Jesus in the manger.
“Then Misha started to ad lib. He made up his own ending to the story as he said, ‘And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mamma and I have no papa, so I don’t have any place to stay. Then Jesus told me I could stay with him. But I told him I couldn’t, because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But I wanted to stay with Jesus so much, so I thought about what I had that maybe I could use for a gift. I thought maybe if I kept him warm, that would be a good gift. So I asked Jesus, “If I keep you warm, will that be a good enough gift?” And Jesus told me, “If you keep me warm, that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.” So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and he told me I could stay with him – for always.’
“As little Misha finished his story, his eyes brimmed full of tears. The little orphan had found someone who would never abandon nor abuse him, someone who would stay with him – for always.”
We often romanticize the Christmas story. You can google “nativity images” and come up with all sorts of beautiful pictures, imagined by numbers of artists. Many of them are alike: a beautiful, chubby baby Jesus reaches out to his mother, who looks impossibly well rested and peaceful while clean, well-behaved and adoring animals look on and aren’t a bit upset that there is now a baby where there used to be food. I don’t know about you, but I know better. As much as I love the image of nativity that is alive in my head, imprinted from numbers of children’s programs and dramatic presentations, I know that the real scene was most likely not anywhere near as pristine and perfect. Some people might not like me to say it, but I’m sure that in reality, it smelled. Bad. Like farm animals. And I bet the hay was dirty and Mary was tired and cold after coming so far by foot and Joseph was frustrated that his betrothed had to give birth in a barn. I imagine it was scary when the shepherds arrived because they were strangers and their intention was not immediately clear. I bet Mary cried and wondered why God was letting God’s son be born in such conditions.
I wonder, too. After all, Christmas is about the birth of the Messiah—the King of Kings, Savior of all nations. Royalty isn’t born in a barn! A king deserves a palace. But this king would not touch gold and silk and crowns of precious jewels. This king was born to touch lepers and blind eyes and children. This king does not sit far away in a palace filled with servants. This king is a humble, suffering servant who is Emmanuel.
Emmanuel—God with us. To me, it’s the one of the most wonderful and awesome concepts in Scripture. That God came near to us—as close as God could get to us. A human—a baby who was born and grew up. Jesus knows what it’s like to have a skinned knee and upset stomach. Jesus knows what it feels like to laugh and to cry. Max Lucado states: “Jesus may have had pimples. He may have been tone-deaf. The little girl down the street may have had a crush on him. It could have been that his knees were bony. He was completely divine and completely human.” This is the miracle and the reason we celebrate Christmas. It’s not just that Jesus was a nice or important guy and that we remember his birthday—like we do Abraham Lincoln’s. In the manger, there’s a shadow and it’s shaped like a cross. We recognize the birth of the baby because we realize what became of the man. We realize that this baby brought grace and hope to a world in need of just that. We are free because the Creator became one of the creation and came to where we live.
It’s an incredible move that God would leave heaven to be born as a tiny, helpless baby in an animal’s bedroom, to parents with no social status or great wealth. God came to where we are and the Word Made Flesh is to be spoken to everyone. Not just people of a certain ethnicity or social class, but to lowly shepherds, peasant parents and magi from foreign lands. From the least to the greatest, the gift in the manger was a gift for each person.
What does this mean for us? It means that we worship and serve a God who understands us more deeply than we know. Not only was it God who created us, but it was God who came to earth and made the bridge that brings us to freedom. What a merciful, loving, gracious and wonderful God that is! Is that understanding reflected in our relationship? Do we sometimes pray as if there’s no possible way God could understand us or really know what it’s like. Do we pray as though God isn’t acquainted with our innermost hurts and concerns—even the ones that seem silly to others? Thanks be to God for a savior we can follow who knows what it is to be human.
Little Misha may have added his own heartfelt wish into the story of the manger, but in a way, he wasn’t far off. A lot of times, we hear God referred to as “Father–” including in our scripture passage this morning. For some of us, that’s a pretty good image because some of us have fathers who are loving and kind and care about our well-being. But for Misha and for some others in our world, describing God as “Father” is an imperfect analogy in many ways. When you’ve been abandoned or abused or neglected by your father, then it’s not very comforting to think of God as “Father.” Little Misha had no father, but he understood something about God. God is so much more than parent or friend or confidant or whoever the best person in your life is. God is the one who created us and God knows us fully. Each of us is invited to worship and follow a God who knows what it’s like to be in our skin and walk miles in our shoes.
We call Jesus by the name Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” In this Advent season, let us discover, like the orphan Misha, that the God who came in Jesus Christ will never abandon or abuse us, but will stay with us – for always.