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The Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2012
The Gospel: Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Sermon: "Stealing Baby Jesus"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
Watch the complete video of this service on our YouTube Channel
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to be registered. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she 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.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see-- I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
"Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!"
[When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, "Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us." So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them. ]
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
Stealing Baby Jesus
Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
It's a familiar scene that we see everywhere at Christmas: a loving mother and a slightly bewildered father, a group of awestruck shepherds, some regal wise men, a few assorted barn animals and, perhaps, a decked out camel all gathered in a stable to gaze with holy countenance upon a manger and the little one who's laid there. But, not always!
You may not have noticed this, but apparently there's been a rash of thefts of baby Jesuses from outdoor nativity scenes around the country. Just Google "Stolen Baby Jesus" and you'll see page after page of stories about churches having the holy infant stolen right out of the manger, leaving all the characters looking at nothing but straw.
Most of the thefts are simply pranks. The baby Jesus thieves aren't usually the sharpest knives in the drawer. Take the case of the five sorority sisters arrested in Monmouth, Illinois. They stole the baby Jesus out of the manger scene on the town square and dumped him on the lawn of the Monmouth College president's home. They hatched the plot (as you may have guessed) in a bar. Then there’s that woman in Fredericksburg, Virginia. She stole an 80-pound statue of baby Jesus and then bragged about it on Facebook. She even posted a picture. One of her Facebook “friends” turned her in. As our daughter Caitlin would put it, “Well, duh!”
Of course, there are a few who steal baby Jesuses out of anger against Christianity. Plenty of people want to remove Jesus from the public eye, and stealing a plastic baby, while not exactly grand theft, is nonetheless symbolic of a desire to get rid of him before he and his followers cause more trouble.
But regardless of whether it's out of stupidity or out of anti-Christian vandalism, little baby Jesuses are disappearing at an alarming rate. So, what's a church to do?
Enter a company called Brickhouse Security. It is offering to install free GPS trackers in baby Jesuses used in outdoor nativity displays. The idea is that a church could use a computer or smartphone to track baby Jesus' whereabouts when he is "away from the manger", as opposed to “Away in a Manger.” Saint Ambrose Roman Catholic Church in Old Bridge, New Jersey installed the device after suffering from thefts and vandalism several years in a row. "There's been no attempt of theft since we announced that we're tracking our Jesus," said Alan Czyewski of Saint Ambrose Church. "This is our third year, and we love this. People are now well aware of our GPS Jesus, so they leave it alone." That's right. We're tracking Jesus. Leave him alone.
Now, nobody likes to have things stolen, but there’s a potential theological question here. Which is worse: stealing Jesus, or just leaving him there in the manger. Consider for a moment that there were people who wanted to steal the real baby Jesus right after he was born. The gospels make it clear that the arrival of this baby, while a joy for many, was a threat to many more. Matthew tells us of Herod who was so threatened by the possibility of a rival to his throne that he ordered all the babies in Bethlehem under 2 years of age to be taken from their cribs and killed. Even Luke’s account implies that the baby Jesus was vulnerable. The story starts with Caesar Augustus, the self-proclaimed divine ruler of the Roman Empire, ordering a census. Augustus didn't know that Jesus, the Messiah, God's anointed king, had been born in Bethlehem. Had he known, though, he certainly would have made sure the Bethlehem baby didn't live to see adulthood.
Call them what you will, but maybe those who want to eliminate Jesus from public view out of anti-Christian angst actually get the story of Christmas better than most of us because they know what Herod knew and what Augustus would have known: This baby is dangerous.
If you doubt that, just consider the words of his blessed mother Mary from our Gospel lesson this morning. “My soul magnifies the Lord…He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” The words of the Magnificat! Mary understood this truth about her son.
This is the real back story of Christmas. The child who is born in the postcard manger scene will grow up and be a threat to the status quo, a threat to those who wield power through force of arms or the force of their bank accounts. He will expose the inner thoughts of human hearts and call people to a way of living beyond themselves. He will talk about a God who is intimately involved in social fabric of politics and people, rather than a God who is merely private, quiet and spiritual.
Jesus will preach about a reign of God that has nothing to do with power, wealth and military might, but everything to do with servanthood, sacrifice and suffering. Indeed, he will act as though that reign is already becoming a reality. He will spend his time eating and associating with people on the margins of society: the sick, the poor, the outcast, the prostitute, the tax collector, while rebuking the religious, the elite, the insiders. He will challenge the powers of sin and death by taking them on directly, all the way to the cross. You can't defeat someone who wants nothing from the world, practices what he preaches, and is willing to die while forgiving his tormentors. Such a person is dangerous to the status quo and must be removed.
Interestingly, the world seems to get this, even while many Christians do not. We want Jesus to stay right where he is in that manger. We are tracking Jesus. Leave him alone.
- We want a Jesus who stays within our own set of doctrinal boundaries, a Jesus whom we can keep privately and quietly on display at church while we ignore him the rest of the week.
- We want a Jesus who matches our expectations, and who blesses our political agendas -- a personal Jesus who orbits around us, our purposes and our needs.
- We want a baby Jesus we can admire rather than the living and active Jesus who cares less about our religious expectations than he does about the world's redemption.
The truth is that while some people might be stealing Jesus, we who claim him must actually go a step further and let him run loose in our lives. The manger-born baby, God's Word made flesh, came to change the world and us along with it. When that love runs loose in us then it will find its way outward in good works toward others. We receive him and we pass him on. We don't hold on to Jesus; we share him with the world.
So here's the deal: Jesus doesn't need to be protected, guarded, tracked or defended; he just needs to be followed. And if we follow him, he will take us out among those who need the gift of his love the most: people who hatch drunken plots in bars, people who clamor for attention, people who are angry at the world and angry at God, people who are broken and have no happy in their holidays. It's a love that's dangerous because it calls us to risk ourselves in service to the world. But that's where Jesus' love goes: toward those who have none. The prophet Isaiah was right, "A little child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11:6); one who is born not only to be admired in a manger, but to be "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace" (Isaiah 9:6). We don't track Jesus in order to keep him in our lives. We follow him biblically, prayerfully, joyfully in order to see where he leads us with our lives.
In Dittmer, Missouri, stands Saint Martin's Church. They were plagued for years by those who kept stealing their baby Jesus from their outdoor nativity set. Rather than devise another way to keep the manger occupied, they came up with another idea. They explain it this way, "We didn't want to be found nailing Jesus down or tying him to an anchor or putting him on a chain. We wanted to find a way to put a display on our lawn that symbolized the meaning of the season; that Christmas is really about giving." What they have done instead is quite unique.
Oh the church still puts up its same nativity display. All the characters and figures are there. But, in the manger, there's no statue or doll of baby Jesus. Instead, there is a pile of hundreds of ornaments depicting the baby and a large sign that says, "Free, take one." Rather than trying to keep Christ in the manger, they’re giving him away.
So may we do the same; not harboring him as a babe in the manger, but through the witness of our lives, giving him away as the Lord of Life.