The text for this sermon is Luke 2:1-20.
Every month, Thadd or I lead the preschool children in chapel. We sing, pray, and tell a bible story. In December, of course I told the nativity bible story. I stumbled on the part of the story where they put Jesus in a manger. These kids, even though they are 3, 4 and 5 know about the manger. They have been singing Away in a Manger, since they could talk. Yet, they hadn’t quite got what a manger was. This is Reynoldsburg. None of them are farmers; they haven’t seen animals eat out of mangers, feeding troughs or anything else.
So, an idea came to me, who here has a dog? Hands shoot up. They all want to tell me about their dog. After listening patiently, I move them on. Do your dogs eat at the kitchen table? They laugh, no, that’s silly. They start shouting at me that their dog eats out of a dog food bowl on the floor. Smiling, I say, after Jesus is born they lay in him something like a dog food bowl, instead of a crib like what your parents had for you.
When Jesus was born they laid in him a dog food bowl. It is honestly a pretty startling image. Of course, one of many surprising twists to the story in Luke. Where Luke starts the story you don’t really guess it is going to end at a manger in a stable. He begins at the greatest city known to humanity in his day, Rome. Luke’s story has emperors, priests, temples, prophets and wonderful, caring relatives. Everything is beautiful, what we would expect in a story about God coming to us. Stop there, and our guess would be that this baby born to the Virgin Mary is going to have a beautiful nursery, if not in a palace, at least in a warm home full of love.
Then, as Luther Seminary professor David Lose writes, it all lands with a thud in a manger. Three times Luke tells us that they laid Jesus in a manger, a feeding trough, because no one in Bethlehem, no one in creation, no person would make room for Jesus in their home or lend Jesus’ parents that old crib lying unused in the corner. The story that starts in Rome, surrounded by palaces, temples and beautiful people robed in silk ends in a stinky, dirty stable surrounded by stinky, dirty animals and stinky, dirty shepherds. Jesus’ nursery would not be featured in a People Magazine cover story on the rich and famous. Instead, it would be a photo in an expose in the Dispatch on the painful reality of homelessness in Columbus.
Jesus was born then laid in a dog food bowl. Jesus was born on the fringe, to the poorest of poor. God chose to come to us not in the beautiful Manhattan nursery that overlooks Central Park that one of the Kardashians have ready for their expected child, but in a tent over by the railroad tracks near the river and Spring Street. Call me crazy, but laying Jesus in a manger sounds like a significant part of the story.
I’ve got a couple of ideas what it could mean. First, this whole story is about God revealing God to us and this detail says quite a bit about who God is. God’s heart is with all of us, but this story tells me that God’s heart aches for the people on the fringe, refugees, the homeless, the poor, the gossiped about pregnant teens, people without the means or the power to make their life better. God loves all of the creation abundantly, but God seems to notice the back alleys, bridges, cars and empty fields where people in poverty find shelter. God loves all of us, but the God revealed in Jesus hopes that those who love God will notice these places, too.
God chose to come to us in poverty not in riches. For those of us, who have beautiful nurseries or at least cribs instead of dog food bowls to lay our babies, we should notice this. Why? Because God does. Our efforts as church should be to welcome the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked and comfort the crying children exposed to the dangers of the world at such a young, fragile and tender age. God chose us, God’s church, to love and help heal the broken, painful lives of those in our community that many do not notice at all. On a day of abundance, when many of our Living Rooms are full of toys and gifts, and our Kitchen cupboards and shelves are overflowing with food waiting to be prepared for a Christmas feast, let us remember those who like Jesus are born with so little.
Jesus was born and laid in a dog food bowl. The second thing I think this reveals is that maybe the animals hovering around that manger, sniffing and trying to figure out whether they were supposed to eat Jesus or eat around him had the right idea. In preparing for this sermon, I read about but did not get to see an icon of the nativity that pictured a donkey in that stable actually nibbling on the arm of Jesus. On one level it makes sense. That stupid donkey eats there every day. Whatever the farmer puts in that trough, he sticks his long nose in and starts chewing.
On an even greater level, that icon reveals a truth that we might miss in this very familiar story. Jesus is meant to be eaten. Jesus is laid in a feeding trough, a dog food bowl, because Jesus is the water of life, the bread of salvation. Jesus is in that manger because all of us are called to gather around Jesus and eat and drink the very presence of God. Like the dumb donkey, we are called to nibble on what the master has laid before us.
In our churches, we are also called to feast on Jesus. To eat this bread of life, drink the blood that has been shed to save us. Our master will fill us with himself, and all we need do is gather around the manger and share this meal. That nibbling donkey was likely the first one to ever receive communion. The manger becomes the altar that offers up the lamb that was slain for all of us.
When Jesus was born he was laid in a dog food bowl. The manger reveals God’s heart for the poor and eyes that see the poverty around us that we so expertly miss. Surely, God longs for the Church to have this same heart and these same eyes. The manger reveals God’s promise to feed all of us, those who are dumb as donkeys, rich as Roman rulers, poor as carpenters, scared as pregnant teenagers. God will feed us with not just bread that nourishes our body, but food that brings us salvation, hope and rest eternal. Amen