Luke 2: 1-20
December 24, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
When you came in this evening, I hope you noticed the nativity sets on display. They’re out there in the narthex, the big room out there beyond the sanctuary. They’re on the tables, and on the shelves, all sorts of nativity sets from all different homes.
Did you have a nativity set in your home, when you were growing up? (It’s okay, nothing bad will happen if you nod or raise your hand.) Do you have one on display in your home now? I have a LOT of nativity sets. A collection of them. I didn’t mean to collect them. It just happened.
There is a website that every December posts weird nativity sets – homemade clay mangers, badly carved wooden holy families, nativity sets from all kinds of places.
But they are not lovely. They’re just weird. Like, they’re made up of dogs, or bears, or ducks, or cowboys and cowgirls. Or they’re made of meat. I don’t collect those.
My favorite sets are not necessarily the most beautiful. This little one was made in Mexico – just a little tiny holy family, a gift to me from a friend who is from India – so it’s very multicultural. One set I really like is this one – the cloth stable with the stuffed people and the little wooden manger. It’s a nativity set that kids can handle, and play with, without anyone getting nervous that they will break something.
The first year I owned this set, I was children’s ministry staff at a big church. The kids were setting up the stable for Advent, and they placed Mary and Joseph a few feet away from the stable, planning to move them closer each week. But something wasn’t right…………they conferred. Kids are realists, you know. They like to get things right. Then one of them said, “Mary is supposed to be pregnant.” Somebody else grabbed baby Jesus and tucked him up under Mary’s robe. Mary looked nine months pregnant then, uncomfortable, unsteady as she rocked back on her little cloth heels, probably pretty much like she really felt.
I think we enjoy nativity sets because they help to make Christmas real. They’re real enough - enough like us to make us smile, and feel sentimental. Then we wrap them back up and pop them away in a box until next Christmas. Of course if we think about it, we know that the whole event couldn’t REALLY have looked like our nativity sets.
We know that the holy family was not a blue-eyed fair skinned trio, all clean and well-dressed. The creators of my little Mexican nativity knew that Mary and Joseph and Jesus were not really Maria and Jose and Jesus. The people who make Peruvian nativities, with llamas, don’t actually believe that there was a llama at the place of Jesus birth.
Another thing we know isn’t true, but is really part of our story, is that Jesus probably wasn’t born in a barn, not a barn like we know it today. Even though it makes such a good joke. You’ve heard that – the boy Jesus heads out of the house and Mary yells, “Jesus, shut the door! Were you born in a barn?”
The story is so familiar that we don’t really think much about the reality of it. When I hear the Christmas story, I like to hear it from the King James Version, because it is the poetic language of the grand story that I know.
Like nativity sets, though, the King James, for all its beauty, doesn’t exactly tell the whole story. For instance, we don’t know how long Joseph and Mary were actually in Bethlehem before the baby was due. Even though we picture Mary on the verge of going into labor as they looked for a place to stay, she probably didn’t make that arduous journey of eighty miles when she was that far along. And there’s no donkey in the Bible story. Really, not at all, I double checked.
But there is one detail that we’ve gotten wrong for such a long time, and the real story is so much better! We’ve had it wrong because the men who translated the King James Version took the Greek words and interpreted them into common English words the common English of the time.
So here’s Luke 2, verse 7: And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.
And that last word is “kataluma,” the word that got translated as “inn.” is the one that has thrown us off. It’s not a bed and breakfast, or a hotel or hostel, a kataluma – it’s really a guest room. So Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem, probably to a relative’s home. You know how that is – lots of family comes to town, you crowd them in wherever you can.
But the guest room was taken.
So they had to stay in another part of the house - the part of the house where the animals were kept. In houses of the time, there was a sleeping room, where everyone slept. The other room was the stable, where the animals slept. Not a barn, not a separate building.
More like the front hall, only with animals in it. It would be warm, in that room. There would be family nearby, which would be helpful, if you are far from your mom and having your first baby.
There would be someone there to check on you, reassure you while you were in labor, bring you something to eat, maybe some clean cloths for swaddling the baby. Much better than being alone, out in a barn far away from the house, in the dark, and without anyone to help you.
I love knowing this, love having Jesus be born right there in the house. It lets me keep my childhood pictures, and my nativity sets, with the cow and the donkey and the straw, but it brings Jesus right inside, right where he needs to be. Up close. Warm. Personal. Alive.
Because all too often, I think, we prefer to keep the little baby Jesus figure of the nativity set, small and safe and distant, out there in the barn. We wrap him up in tissue paper after Christmas, and we put him away and we don’t really pay much attention to Jesus again until Easter.
But here he is, now, all snuggly and warm, right here in the house. He is here in the house, and he didn’t stay a sweet snuggly little baby. He grew up, to be a teacher, and a healer, and a lover of humankind to such an extent that he was willing to go to the cross, suffer a humiliating death, and lie in a tomb for three days. He loves us so much that he conquered death and rose again. And on that last night, before he was betrayed and handed over, he gave us a great gift, a gift that, like this nativity set, helps us understand.
He gave us communion, a way to remember him, to taste and see his goodness, to make him real and present to us. He came that night so long ago, an infant, wrapped in swaddling clothes. And he was real, and he was alive, and he was in the house. Not far off, apart from the people, but close – with them, for them, in humanity and love, even as he comes to us tonight, in this manger, and at this table, with us, for us, in humanity and love. May we welcome him into our homes, into our hearts, into our lives.