Based on Luke 2:7
For the past few years we have begun this new tradition here on Christmas Eve, called “Strawing the Manger.”
As we just did, we invite the youngest children up to put the straw in the manger – to prepare a soft bed for Jesus to lay.
When we first thought of it, I had never heard of it, and thought it must be an old German tradition.
But no, I was told later, it’s just an idea someone had – the hay has to get into the manger somehow, why not let the children put it in?
And the idea is that just as the children need to help prepare the manger for the baby Jesus,
so too we need to help prepare a place in our hearts for the child who comes to us this night.
This works out a little differently every year, depending on who comes up, and how eager they are to fill the manger with straw,
but one thing that we can count on every year is: a big mess.
There is straw in the manger of course, but also straw on the steps and in the chancel, and perhaps even a little straw on a few Christmas dresses and on pants legs.
I don’t know, but you can check.
And whoever climbs into the pulpit at 5:00, at 10:00 tonight, or in the bright light of Christmas Day will also see the straw, the product of our children’s efforts to welcome Jesus, to prepare a place for him tonight.
A big mess.
Have you ever wondered about what it must have been like on the first Christmas?
Of course we like to paint a picture in our mind.
The songs we sing and the artwork we see help us: “silent night, holy night” makes us think that it must have been very calm indeed,
and all of the creches make Mary and Joseph look so serene, and the worshiping visitors look appropriately, well, worshipful.
So in our minds we have a serene and holy scene in Bethlehem, on the night of Jesus’ birth.
“And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
Think about this verse, so often recited, and known by heart.
What about this verse says calm and serene to you?
It’s only because of all of the songs that we have sung, and all of the manger scenes that we have seen that we can possibly think about this verse and think of anything quiet.
Think about it: why do you think there was no place in the inn?
Not because the innkeeper was an old grump who had something against Mary and Joseph.
No, it was because Bethlehem was full; on this evening the little town of Bethlehem was bustling with activity,with chaos, with all kinds of people scrambling to find a place to stay, all kinds of people displaced by the census.
Everyone was going back to the town of their birth; Bethlehem was full of visitors, more than they could use, more than they had room for.
It was anything but quiet in Bethlehem on what we call the holy night.
In fact, I have a suspicion that it was, in its own way, a big mess.
A big mess.
That’s something perhaps that most of us can relate to on this Christmas eve.
Oh, perhaps there are a few people out there, the ones with perfect houses, perfect children, perfect jobs, perfect lives
– but most of us have lives, like the streets this Christmas eve – that are a big mess, in one area or another.
We have cleaned the house and made it ready for the guests, but there’s a closet that we hope that no one knows about!
Or, we have cleaned and decorated the house for no one in particular, because we will not be celebrating with loved ones this Christmas.
Or we are grieving or wondering or doubting, or we have made a mess of something that we really really wanted to turn out well.
Despite our best efforts, there is straw all over the floor, there is the empty chair at dinner, there is the person we really want to apologize to but can’t, there is the person we know we ought to love, but don’t.
It’s a big mess, and part of us wants to be home, trying to get everything right, or just being by ourselves,
but instead, we fought the snow and the cold and the ice to be here, singing carols about that not-so-calm and serene night, the night the Son of God came into our messy lives.
“And Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and she wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid in him a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”
I heard a story recently about a woman who was expecting company.
I don’t know if it was Christmas, but she was having some Very Important Guests over, and she scrubbed and cleaned like crazy, trying to get everything right.
But in the end she was not quite prepared, and (this was the era before dishwashers) she hit upon the bright idea that she would hide some dirty dishes under a cupboard, where nobody would know.
Everything seemed to be going along quite nicely until her little daughter tried to impress the guests by opening the cupboard and showing everyone what was there.
A big mess.
Like the woman welcoming guests, like the children with the straw, we really do, with all of our hearts, want to prepare a place for Jesus.
We want to prepare a place for him in our hearts.
We want to prepare our lives for him and for his presence.
We want to do justice for the least of these; we want to bring the little ones in from the cold; we want to welcome others into our lives; we want to heal relationships and pray the cancer away.
We want to prepare our world for the coming of the Holy One, the little Lord Jesus. Don’t we?
But despite our best efforts, it often comes out to be a big mess.
Dishes undone. Burned casserole. Hard words. Straw all over the place.
And yet.... “Mary gave birth to her firstborn son, and she wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger....”
And yet, he comes, and he comes not in the quiet and peace of a silent night, but he comes in the pain and joy of birth, new birth, new life.
He comes in the pain and joy of birth, and he is placed into human arms, our arms: unto us a son is given, a child is born – unto us!
In the messiness of our lives he comes to give us life, new life, and peace, to prepare our hearts, to welcome us.
Here he is, among the lowing cattle, on the slippery streets, in the manger, among the poor ones, in the chaos, in our arms, on the cross.
Here he is.
He came down to earth from heaven who is God and Lord of all
and his shelter was a stable, and his cradle was a stall;
with the poor and meek and lowly, lived on earth our Savior holy.