Away from the Manger
Special Installment: Christmas Eve
A rash of baby Jesus thefts from living nativity scenes is ruining Christmas for some churches. Maybe that's a good thing.
At a Glance
There's been a rash of nativity-scene thefts. People are stealing baby Jesus. Now, a company offers to give churches GPS tracking devices to help them get their Jesuses back. But should the church want to give Jesus away?
For material based on this same gospel reading, see "The Boy Who Wouldn't Grow Up," December 24, 2004, at HomileticsOnline.com.
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.
One would hope.
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 disheartened and disappointed churches having the holy infant stolen right out of the manger, leaving all the characters looking at nothing but straw.
The police say that most of the thefts are pranks, and that baby Jesus thieves aren't usually the sharpest knives in the drawer. Take the case of the five sorority sisters arrested last year in Monmouth, Illinois, who 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 (you guessed it) in a bar. Or how about the woman in Fredericksburg, Virginia, who stole an 80-pound statue of baby Jesus and then bragged about it on Facebook, even posting a picture? One of her Facebook friends turned her in. Duh.
Of course, there are others who steal baby Jesuses out of anger against Christianity. There are plenty of people who 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. What's a church to do?
Enter a company called Brickhouse Security, which 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" -- ostensibly to get him back. Saint Ambrose Roman Catholic Church in Old Bridge, N.J. -- about 40 miles (64 km) southwest of New York City -- 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.
This baby is dangerous
Now, nobody likes to have things stolen, and theft is certainly wrong, but the theological question we want to ask is about which is worse: stealing Jesus, or just leaving him alone, secure in the manger?
One of the problems with preaching on Christmas Eve is that everyone knows the story -- Mary and Joseph, no room at the inn, a baby born in a barn, shepherds, angels. We know it well, or at least we think we do. We come to church on Christmas Eve expecting to see Jesus in the manger, and we're happy about that. Who doesn't love babies? Who doesn't love this scene? Why would anyone want to wreck that by stealing him away?
But the truth of the story is -- and what we often miss -- is 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 the story of Herod the Great, who was so threatened by the possibility of a rival to his throne that he ordered all the babies in Bethlehem under 2 years old to be taken from their cribs and killed -- a lot of empty mangers and empty homes were left behind. And while Luke's story, which we just read, is not as violent, Luke implies that the baby Jesus is still 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, but had he known 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.
But why is this baby so dangerous?
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 public, in politics and with people, rather than a God who is merely private, quiet and spiritual.
Jesus will preach about a kingdom 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 kingdom was 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, who practices what he preaches, and who is willing to die while forgiving his tormentors. Such a person is dangerous to the status quo and must be removed.
The world seems to "get" this
Interestingly, the world seems to get this, but many Christians do not. We want Jesus to stay right where he is. "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. In one of the little-used readings the lectionary offers for Christmas, Paul's letter to Titus, Paul writes these words:
But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life. The saying is sure. I desire that you insist on these things, so that those who have come to believe in God may be careful to devote themselves to good works; these things are excellent and profitable to everyone. (Titus 3:4-8)
What Paul is saying here is that God's goodness and love is poured out to us in Jesus, and when that love runs loose in us then it will find its way outward in good works toward others. We receive a gift and we pass it on. We don't hold on to Jesus; we share him with the world. There are many like the Herods and Augustuses of the world who do not know love but, only power. Like Jesus, we are to love them anyway, even when they try to steal our joy.
Jesus doesn't need to be protected
So here's the deal: Jesus doesn't need to be protected, guarded, tracked or defended; he just wants 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 bring him back into our lives. Rather, we track him biblically, prayerfully, joyfully in order to see where he wants to lead us.
In Dittmer, Mo., Pastor Scott Lohse of Saint Martin's United Church of Christ recognized that baby Jesus gets stolen out of outdoor nativity sets every year, but rather than devise another way to keep the manger occupied, Scott had another idea: "We didn't want to be found nailing Jesus down or tying him to an anchor or putting him on a chain," he says. "We wanted to find a way to put a display on our lawn that symbolized the season, but also symbolizes the fact that Christmas is really about giving."
So, the church has a nativity display, but in the manger there's no statue or doll of baby Jesus. Instead, there are hundreds of ornaments depicting the baby and a sign that says, "Free, take one."
"Christ is a gift," says Pastor Scott. "He doesn't belong to us and so you can't steal him from us."
A gift to be shared away from the manger.
Possible Preaching Themes:
- We need a fresh vision of what Jesus comes into the world to accomplish.
- Christmas calls us to humble ourselves and be like Jesus.
- We share the gift of Christ through our service to others.
"Jesus saves, but who's saving Jesus?" Brickhouse Security Blog, December 1, 2010. http://blog.brickhousesecurity.com/2010/12/01/gps-jesus-programs-enters-fifth-year/. Viewed December 18, 2011. (Note: The video with the story about Pastor Scott Lohse's church and their innovative nativity solution has been taken down from the web by the local TV station in that area, but Homiletics' senior writer saw it and then wrote the transcript.)
Sun, Eryn. "Sorority girls caught stealing Baby Jesus after visiting local bar." Christian Post website, December 12, 2011. christianpost.com/news/sorority-girls-caught-stealing-baby-jesus-after-visiting-local-bar-64701. Viewed December 18, 2011.
"Woman busted after bragging about stealing Jesus on Facebook." Associated Press report on the Bluefield Telegraph website, December 22, 2011. http://bdtonline.com/seriously/x1477830226/Woman-busted-after-braggging-about-stealing-Jesus-on-Facebook. Viewed December 18, 2011.
FILM CLIP IDEA
December 24, 2012
The Text: Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
The Movie: The Nativity Story, a re-telling of the Christmas story.
The Scene: The scene of Jesus' birth.
O Little Town of Bethlehem
The First Noel
O Come, All Ye Faithful
Away in a Manger
Joy to the World
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The Cost of Christmas
What Not to Miss at Christmas
The Neon Nativity
How to Make Your Christ Wish List
An Iconoclastic Christmas
The Bethlehem Wall
The Knockoff Jesus
The Advent Conspiracy
Tree Christmas O
The War on Christmas
The Hollow Days
St. Nicholas Nicked
How Christmas Works
The Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up
The Other Side of the Tray
Two Babes in a Manger
Lord of the Kings
100 Years of Magic
The Bethlehem Disconnect
Noise Makes News
Go to Voice, then F2F
The Secret of Living Is Giving
What Jesus Wants for Christmas (Part 2)
What Jesus Wants for Chrismas (Part 1)
What Are You Getting Me for Christmas
The First Christmas Card
The Crime of Christmas
The God Who Sleeps Over
@ the Name of Jesus
100 Years of Magic
The Riddle of the Christ
Go to Voice, then F2F
The Great Intrusion
on Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)
from Dec 24, 2012
Luke begins his account of Jesus' birth with a customary announcement: "In those days a decree [dogma] went out from Emperor Augustus [KaisaroV Augoustou] that all the world should be registered" (v. 1). The dating formulation is common to state and biblical annals, including the gospel of Luke (e.g., see Luke 1:5; 3:1), and ascribes
commentary (you must
be logged in to read the commentary)
The baby-Jesus-tracking GPS units can be hidden inside the baby Jesus, where no thief would think to look. No sooner does the baby go missing than church authorities can flip open a cell phone or power up a laptop and track him down -- to within 10 feet or so of his location.
Imagine the shock and horror of some poor mother, who answers her doorbell only to find the local minister or priest standing on the doorstep, along with Officer Joe Friday. "Just the facts, ma'am," says Joe. "Do you have a teenage son? We need to search his underwear drawer. We have reason to believe baby Jesus is hiding there."
There's a quirky little story from the Old Testament about a stolen set of figurines, rather like those that populate church nativity scenes, at such risk of being pilfered.
In Genesis 31, Jacob has been trying for years to figure out how to break free from his in-laws -- the clan of the wily Laban -- and strike out on his own. Laban has tricked him at every turn into working for the family business, which is herding livestock. Jacob's been saving up his shekels on the sly. Finally he has enough money, and he tells his two wives Rachel and Leah -- Laban's daughters -- to pack up all their worldly possessions so they can make a quick getaway.
At the last minute, Rachel grabs something that doesn't belong to her: what the book of Genesis calls her father's collection of "gods." These are little clay idols Laban uses for his religious devotions. (Rachel, his daughter, appears to have done the same -- despite her marriage to the grandson of Abraham, master of monotheism.)
Clan Jacob breaks camp and slips out in the dead of night. Jacob is reasoning that, when Laban finds his daughters missing, he'll grudgingly let them go. But that doesn't account for the problem of the missing gods.
A memorable scene ensues in that hugely dysfunctional family. Laban accuses Jacob of stealing his gods. Jacob loudly protests his innocence (in truth, he's got no idea of what his favorite wife has done). Finally, Jacob says, "I've got nothing to hide! Search our caravan." So, Laban and his men pull out and paw through every last piece of baggage.
Fortunately for Jacob, as soon as Rachel sees her father coming, she wisely snaps up his collection of figurines and hides them underneath her camel's saddle, on which she also happens to be sitting. None of Laban's security detail dare to demand that she -- their master's daughter -- dismount and submit to a saddlebag search. Rachel's secret is safe. Embarrassed by what appears to be a false accusation, Laban sits down with Jacob and they make covenant together. For the first time, the two men recognize each other as equals. Jacob has finally won his freedom.
What if Laban had access to a GPS? History would be different!
Lord God, some of us are a little like the Shepherds;
Just carrying on with our jobs... despite the turbulence in the world scene.
Give us a message ... send us an angel
That will start us seeking a new way of life.
Lord God, others of us are like the Wise Men from the east;
We can see the need of some power to come and to give us direction;
But we don't know in which direction to go.
Give us the wisdom to see that it is not in physical power
that our salvation lies, but in love and humility.
We ask You to make us expectant, instead of planners.
We ask You to make us seekers, rather than know-it-alls.
We ask You for grace so that we are ready to receive.
We ask You for humility so that we are prepared to accept
Your way of doing things.
We ask You for faith, and faith is a gift, really to believe.
--"Send Us an Angel," by George MacLeod. An excerpt from The Whole Earth Shall Cry Glory: Iona Prayers (Wild Goose Publications, 2006).
I was confined to bed rest during the last half of my pregnancy before my daughter, Kate, was born. ...
Because of my mandatory confinement to the bed or the couch, I was unable to do the usual baby shopping and preparations. I was also feeling quite sorry for myself and afraid that I wouldn't be able to give my daughter everything she'd need during her first few weeks. One Tuesday afternoon, I was complaining ... well, whining really ... about this. I was frustrated, and I wondered out loud how I'd get the highchair, baby carrier, bassinette, stroller, baby bathtub, etc. that we needed.
The wise woman visiting that afternoon, listened intently. When I finished, she very firmly and warmly asked, "Do you have a blanket?" I nodded.
"Do you have a drawer you can empty?" I looked at her quizzically. "Dear, if you have a blanket and a drawer, you have everything a newborn needs." In that moment I was transformed; instead of feeling sorry for myself and afraid I couldn't provide, I felt overwhelmed with gratitude for what I did have. ...
My daughter never slept in a drawer, and she had a lot more than a blanket. It's amazing how much more than enough we have, isn't it?
--Wendy Bailey, from "A Blanket and a Drawer," November 21, 2011 blog entry, Changing Church -- Changing World blog, http://njregionalpresbyter.wordpress.com/
Place a nativity scene in front of the children and point out the various figures. Pick up the baby Jesus, and ask them if they can guess where Jesus was put down to sleep. Say that he was put in an animal trough called a manger; the Bible says that Mary "wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn" (Luke 2:7). Place the baby Jesus in the manger and say that it was an unusual place for a baby, but God intended it that way so that the shepherds would know that it was really Jesus. Ask if it would have been easy for the shepherds to find Jesus if the angels had said, "You will find a child lying in a crib ... a bed ... or a blanket?" No! Explain that there were probably lots of babies in Bethlehem who were lying in cribs, beds and blankets, but there was only one who was lying in a manger! Say that there are many special things about Jesus, but one of the most wonderful is that God helped the shepherds locate Jesus by putting him in a surprising place, which made it possible for them to find "Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger" (v. 16). Close by saying that God wants us all to find Jesus for ourselves, and he helps us to do this in unexpected ways.