The Rev. Clare Fischer-Davies
St. Martin’s Church
December 24, 2011
The baby is in the wrong place.
At the Monday night women’s bible study this past week, I asked the group if we could take a look at this Christmas Eve gospel – because I’ve preached it for almost thirty years and I’ve been thinking I could use a little extra help and insight. These lines are so familiar and so weighted with memory and sentiment and symbolism, that I wasn’t sure I could uncover anything that would feel fresh and new and inspiring enough to be sermon fodder.
But the Monday night bible study never fails me. Our method is very simple – someone reads the passage and before any discussion takes place, each participant just identifies a word, or phrase that catches her attention. And as we shared those fragments with each other, I heard the angels’ proclamation to the shepherds in a new way: “This will be sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
The baby is in the wrong place. The baby is in a feed box – who would ever think to look for a baby there?
I’ve been reading some scholarly articles this week to help prime my sermon pump, and one of them suggested that putting a baby in a manger was actually a perfectly ordinary and normal thing to do. This biblical archeologist described a typical Palestinian peasant dwelling of the era as a one room house that held both human and animal inhabitants.
Ancient homes have been excavated that clearly show how animals were housed on one side of the little building, to be kept safe at night. Remember we’re not talking about enormous herds – a family might have had a goat or two, maybe a donkey, only the most prosperous household would have a cow or an ox – and many of these excavated buildings show a manger made of stone, built right into the walls of the house.
So – the scholar goes on to say – it would have been perfectly normal for a new born baby, safely swaddled, to be put to bed in that manger, filled with hay. It happened all the time – as ordinary as having the animals in the house in the first place. So really, the baby is right where he should be after all.
But that can’t be right.
Oh – I don’t dispute the archeological evidence – but if it were perfectly run of the mill and ordinary – why on earth would Luke make it a “sign” for the shepherds? If every peasant baby in Bethlehem is swaddled and put to bed in the family feed box – how on earth could that detail make this baby, our baby – special?
According to Luke – finding a baby in a feed box is a sign that something amazing has happened. The baby is not where a baby is supposed to be – and that’s how the shepherds will know they’ve found their Savior – Christos kyrios – Christ, the Lord. So whatever the archeological evidence – Luke wants us to know that one of the very first special things about this special baby, is that the baby is in the wrong place; the baby is not where a baby should be.
Now theologians and preachers have talked for millennia about how this baby is in the wrong place. A king born in barn! A Messiah cradled in a manger! One way to understand the baby being in the wrong place, is to focus on Jesus’ poverty and humility. This king, this Messiah will not claim earthly power, or revel in earthly wealth. Our king, our Messiah will show us instead what it means to be a servant and what it means to lay down one’s life for others. And our first glimpse of all that Jesus will be and do and teach, is seen in the manger – in the baby in the feed box.
That is a very important part of understanding who Jesus Christ is, and I expect I’ve preached a couple of Christmas sermons about that.
But this year – I think there’s more to be learned from that baby who’s in the wrong place – the baby who’s not where a baby should be.
Think about what happens when things aren’t in their right place. Now some of us are more regimented and compulsive about this than others, but even those of us – like me – who are messy desk kinds of people – know where things belong and like to have things where we can find them. When something isn’t in its right place, then we have to go looking for it – and we have to pause and re-examine that environment we take for granted and sometimes, in searching for whatever it is that isn’t in its right place, we discover something new, and see the ordinary and the familiar in an entirely new way.
So that got me thinking some more about the baby in the feed box.
The angel says that the baby in the wrong place is a sign – it’s how the shepherds will know that what the angel proclaims is true. The authority of the angels’ message is established by finding something in the wrong place – the shepherds know that this baby is Jesus Christ, because he isn’t where he should be.
I think Luke is telling us “get used to it.” This baby is never going to be where he should be. Jesus is going to grow up to be a man who’s always in the wrong place.
Luke is the only Gospel writer that tells us the story of Jesus teaching in the temple in Jerusalem. He’s 12 years old – and he is supposed to be heading home to Nazareth with his family, after going up to Jerusalem for Passover. But his parents realize that Jesus is not where he should be; instead of being in his place with them, he has gone right into the Temple where he sits down among the scribes and scholars and talks Torah with them. Jesus is in the wrong place – no 12 year old boy would ever presume to dispute Scripture like that with his elders and his frantic parents are dismayed to find him there. But what does Jesus say? “Why did you have to look for me? Didn’t you know that I’d be here, in my father’s house?”
For Jesus – being in the wrong place means being in the right place.
What begins at this baby’s birth, will continue throughout his life and ministry – even into and through his death.
Jesus keeps getting into trouble for being in the wrong place – he eats with tax collectors, he keeps company with prostitutes. He won’t stay where he’s supposed to be – he’s always in the wrong place. On the last week of his life, he heads back into Jerusalem – even though he knows the authorities are seeking to have him killed. He ends up being put to a wretched death – suffering crucifixion as if he were a despised common criminal – surely the cross is the wrong place for him to be. And finally – when it is all finished and he should be dead and quiet in the tomb – even then, Jesus is not where he should be. The tomb is empty – and that empty tomb is just as much a sign as the baby in the manger – wherever you think Jesus should be, he’s somewhere else.
For Jesus – being in the wrong place means being in the right place. What begins with the baby in the feed box, continues with the man who keeps company with the wrong people, who suffers a wrongful death and who finally won’t stay dead and silent in the tomb like he’s supposed to.
Jesus is always in the wrong place – and that makes us have to keep looking for him. Jesus won’t be where we think he should be – but instead, will be found in the most unlikely places and in the most unlikely people.
For most of us, Christmas will always be about preserving traditions and about having things in their right place. We put the tree up in the same spot, and we haul out the same decorations and hang them in the same place. We cook the same food – from childhood, Christmas breakfast has always been bagels and lox – brought to rural Virginia every year by my Jewish grandparents. Those traditions are precious: I love that as I’m writing this, my eye can rest on a little Christmas music box that Gerry and I bought the first year we were married.
But the baby is in the feed box. Jesus is not where he is supposed to be.
He is in the wrong place – and he will always be in the wrong place. But just as the shepherds will learn, as they hurry to Bethlehem to look for this special baby, we too will learn that for Jesus, and for all of us who for two thousand years have looked for him and follow him – sometimes – being in the wrong place, means being in the right place after all.