Today is the second Sunday of Advent, the second of four Sundays when Christians are called to prepare for the advent, the coming of God, in Christ in the babe of Bethlehem. This preparatory Advent season ends on December 25, the beginning of the 12 days of Christmas celebrating the birth of Jesus.
My Advent/Christmas sermon title this morning is taken from a book by Conrad Hyers called And God Created Laughter: The Bible as Diving Comedy. Chapter 4 of this book is labeled, "Mary Had a Little Lamb," a title taken, of course, from Mother Goose's nursery rhyme so named. In that chapter, Professor Hyers presents a Christmas comedy. "The Christmas message," he writes, "begins in a comic absurdity: the bridging of the divine and the human, the juxtaposition of the royal son born in an animal shed, the visitation both by Jewish shepherds and Gentile magi. As the story unfolds, however, it moves toward what seems to be a tragic end."
This morning I shall present these two sides of Christmas, building upon Hyer's provocative thesis. One side is fantasy/comedy; the other side is reality/tragedy. So hear the Christmas story anew.
First a look at the nursery rhyme/fairy tale/fantasy/comedy side of this nativity tale. Once upon a time in an unlikely place, Nazareth of Galilee, there was an older man named Joseph who became betrothed, engaged to be married, to a very young woman named Mary. One day this virgin girl, who was probably 12 years old at the time (the usual age for female betrothal then and there), was visited by an angel named Gabriel (a kind of fairy godmother figure). This divine messenger greets the girl as God's favored one, tells her not to be afraid, then proclaims, "You shall become pregnant through the Holy Spirit, bear a child, and name him Jesus. This Jesus will be great and will be called the Child of the Most High; and God will give him the throne of King David and he will rule, and of his rule there will be no end." (Luke 1:31-33) Quite a message for a 12-year-old! It does have a touch of comic absurdity about it, doesn't it? Nevertheless Mary consents.
Later, when Joseph discovers that Mary is indeed pregnant and he decides that the honorable thing to do is divorce her, he too has an angelic visitation, in a dream. This divine messenger instructs Joseph to marry Mary, because it is God's will that this virgin conceive and bear a child. And one of the child's titles shall be Emmanuel, which means God with us. Joseph obeys.
Chapter 2 of Luke's Gospel, our fairy tale-like story, has great Caesar decreeing an enrollment for taxation, meaning that Joseph and spouse must travel south to Bethlehem. There, in a barn, Mary gives birth to the promised child, who is placed in a manger, a feeding trough for cattle. There was no room for them in the nearby inn. Shepherds, informed by an angelic host, and magi, informed by the stars, visit the baby and parents. Yes, Mary had a little lamb. And they lived happily ever after ... or so such tales usually end.
The story of Christmas, a divine comedy. So much of it seems improbable, almost preposterous, full of very unlikely people and most unlikely places. Look at the key actors in our story once more.
There is Joseph, the husband, but not the actual father of this special child. He is a God-fearing Jew who takes his religion quite seriously, yet he is certainly not a religious figure of any particular importance in that day. He is a carpenter, a common working man.
And there is Mary, the peasant girl. She too has no apparent outward credentials to set her apart to be the handmaid of God, the mother of God's anointed one, the Christ. Yet this unlikely vessel of the divine boldly proclaims the exalted Magnificat. Mary sings, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior ... henceforth all generations will call me blessed." Then Mary goes on to reveal why God might select such a lowly one as she. "God has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. God has put down the mighty from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; God has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich God has sent empty away." (Luke 1:46-53) Quite a message from a 12-year-old!
Also in our story, there are shepherds, not a glamorous occupation, rural folk of the land who are quite different from the magi who are rich, wise, cultured persons. What a contrast in visitors, all rather comical. And yet the medium is the message, the message that God's child came for all people. To quote Hyers, "In Jesus the oppositions between rich and poor, royalty and peasantry, learned and ignorant, are united and transcended. Those human distinctions to which we give such loyalty and importance, which we spend so much of our lives developing and defining and defending, are blurred and set aside by this birth. A common humanity before God is affirmed and celebrated in the presence of this child. In Christ 'there is neither Jew nor Greek, neither slave nor free, neither male nor female.'"
Also there are the unlikely places, the God-forsaken places, in this Christmas comedy. Nazareth, the home of Mary and Joseph, elicited a proverb in that day and age, "Can anything good come out of Nazareth?" (Ha ha.) Bethlehem, not great Jerusalem, is the place of the birth. Bethlehem's only claim to fame is as the birthplace of King David, that is, its only claim to fame until then. I have a cartoon depicting the three wise men approaching Jerusalem proclaiming, "There's the palace. The star should be stopping any moment now!" (Again, ha ha.) So on to Bethlehem they go. The God who created laughter has a way of transforming what the world labels God-forsaken places into God-filled places. And let us not forget Hotel Bethlehem with its "no vacancy" sign. Thus the place of birth becomes a stable smelling of manure. Comic surprises abound! This deity rarely seems to travel first-class.
Finally, there is the child. The prophecy of Isaiah declares that the one to be born shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Parent, Prince of Peace." (9:6) That's what is expected. Then look at what we get in that place, with those people present. How strangely out of place are the Magi's dress in this barn and their gifts for this peasant child: gold, frankincense, myrrh. "These are gifts for the child who has everything, one cradled in fine cloth and to be fed with a silver spoon. Gifts of the rich to the rich ... like giving gold medals and lace evening gowns to the starving and homeless of the world," writes Hyers. Ludicrous, or so it seems.
Yet this is how God came and how God comes (advent) in the lowly and lonely places, the dark hours, among little things. And when God comes to us now, today, will we notice? The realities presented in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke are that scarcely anyone noticed this birth then. Will we stand with the innkeeper, the inn guests, the religious and political leaders of that day. and not notice? Or like the shepherds and wise ones, will we behold the mystery and miracle of God?
Well, there you have it, the fantasy/comedy side of Christmas. Again Hyers, "In some mysterious way, in an infant born to a poor peasant girl, in a donkey shed in a small, remote town in a minor province among a conquered people of no particular importance, God was specially present. Emmanuel, God with us. What divine foolishness is this?" And it did not all end happily ever after.
Now it is time to examine the reality/tragedy side of Christmas. Mary had a little lamb. Do you hear the ominous note in that title? A lamb in that day and age was often destined for sacrifice, for death; the lamb was the sacrificial animal par excellence; the passover lamb and all that. In John's Gospel. the very first time John the Baptist beholds Jesus, the Baptist exclaims, "Behold, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!" (1:29) through sacrifice, through sacrificial death. That's Mary's little lamb!
The first note of tragedy, of Jesus as victim, is already struck in the Christmas story, and this part is far from comedy. King Herod does notice, thanks to information from the magi, that a special child has been born. And Herod, feeling threatened, responds to birth with death. "Then Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, was in a furious rage, and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time which he had ascertained from the wise men." (Matthew 2:16)
Hallmark sells no Christmas card depicting this "slaughter of the innocents," but it is part of the Christmas story. Contrary to the angelic choir, there is no "peace on earth, goodwill among people" here. "Then was fulfilled what was spoken by the prophet Jeremiah: 'A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they were no more.'" (Matthew 2:17-18) And mothers like Rachel throughout the world today still weep for their children, their homeless, unclothed, starving, dying, slaughtered children. The Christmas message goes unheeded today, the Christ unnoticed today.
Jesus, the lamb of Mary, the lamb of God. Jesus, the suffering servant as prophesied by Second Isaiah: "He was oppressed, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before his shearers is dumb, so he opened not his mouth." (53:7) Why? This prophet explains, "He was wounded for our transgressions, he was bruised for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that made us whole, and with his stripes we are healed." (53:5) Mary had a little lamb ... for us. The one who died on a cross became and remains the resurrection lamb of God. The Christmas story moves from comedy to tragedy to joy. God has the last laugh!
This advent as you and I prepare for Christmas, then as we celebrate the 12 days of Christmas, we are called to remember the birth of Jesus in all its fullness, to remember both sides of our story. Too much of what passes for doing Christmas today is nothing more than "The Sweet Baby Syndrome." What's that? The Sweet Baby Syndrome celebrates the lovable infant in a crib, smiling and cooing. He doesn't make any demands on anyone; he just lies there and looks sweet. He spends most of the year in the closet with all the other Nativity scene paraphernalia. But once a year we get the babe out and say, "What a sweet baby." Of course, we always put him back in the closet when the new year begins.
No, that is not what Christmas is about. A child was born, God's child, for us. Thank God! The child grew up, for us. Thank God! The child, now an adult, lived and taught and acted and healed and helped and cared and suffered and died for us ... and rose again, for us. Thank God!
Hyers writes, "Who, then, could be lonely, and Jesus had not been lonely? Who could be ignored, and Jesus had not been ignored? Who could be poor, and he had not been poor? Who could be oppressed, and he had not been oppressed? Who could have nowhere to lay his head, and Jesus, too, had nowhere to lay his head? Who could be despised and rejected, and he had not been despised and rejected? Who could be persecuted, and he had not been persecuted? Who could suffer and he had not suffered? Who could be betrayed and mocked and killed, and he had not been betrayed and mocked and killed? Who could be forsaken, and Jesus had not also cried out, 'My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?'" And who need be without life eternal and abundant, for Jesus prepared the way for us as Mary's little lamb. Thank God!
Advent and Christmas challenge us, each one, to enter anew into the presence of the babe of Bethlehem. How are we to behave? By becoming more childlike: a little less hateful and a little more loving, a little less selfish and a little more generous, a little less distrustful and a little more innocent. And becoming a whole lot more caring and sharing! Then other words of the prophet Isaiah might at last be fulfilled, "And a little child shall lead them." (11:6) Yes, a little child shall lead.
God, we thank you that Mary had a little lamb.
Originally published as an online web extra for The Grinnell Magazine, Summer 2004