December 24, 2017: Traditions - Nativity

Pastor Steve Mechem

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John 1:1-5 New Revised Standard Version (NRSV)
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

Christmas Traditions.

One of the oldest among all our traditions is the Nativity Scene. Nativity scenes come in all shapes, sizes, formats:

blow up,
pipe cleaners,
tin cans,
Bottle caps,
lights on frames,
snow globes,

real live human beings and live animals.
I once saw a nativity set made entirely out of orange peels.

Some nativities fit on a shelf, others sit on the floor; some are life-size, while others are small enough to in a Walnut shell.

Nativity sets are everywhere. Inside, outside, in church yards, store windows, on people's lawns. I drive by 12 outside nativities on my way to church.

Nativities are not just the product of the Western Church. They popular throughout the world. On a recent visit to Plough Shares, I uncovered fair trade nativity sets from: Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, Haiti, Columbia, Kenya, India, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Vietnam.

Nativities differ somewhat from place to place as they incorporate local cultures, so a Nativity set from Peru might feature lamas and one from India might include elephants.

Nativity sets can be realistic and serious as can be.

They can also be silly and fun. Playskool makes a nativity set complete with smiling animals (I refuse to use the smiling pink pig though). There is a Peanuts nativity set that stars Woodstock as the infant. There are gnome nativities, precious moments nativities, and rubber duckie nativities, and Sesame Street nativities, and super hero nativities and a Star Wars nativity with Yoda in the manger. And I saw a video recently of a nativity using only dogs.

Tradition has long held that St. Francis was the first to design a Nativity scene, using an empty manger and live animals in a cave on Christmas Eve in the year 1223. Francis, having recently taken a pilgrimage to Bethlehem, was inspired to tell the story of Christ’s birth in a visual way, choosing to emphasize Jesus’ poverty and common- ness.

The popularity of the Nativity Scene, according to tradition, quickly spread throughout Italy and across Europe, and in time to the rest of the world.

The purpose behind the Nativity Scene, (at least the ones that are intended to be taken seriously) is to present a beautiful depiction of what happened on that very first Christmas and to remind us of the central focus of the Christmas holiday for those who name Jesus as Lord.

Now, truth be told, most Nativity sets are not biblically accurate.

Generally Nativity sets include three wise men with gifts. The wisemen, and who know how many there actually were, were not present at the birth of Jesus. By the time they arrived, up to two years later, Jesus and his family lived in a house.

There is a large outdoor nativity at a Lutheran Church on South Lindbergh. The wisemen, riding camels, are on the far side of the building away from the stable and the baby. I am supposing that they are trying to indicate that the wisemen were on their way, but not there yet!

Some Nativity sets include snowy roofs to indicate that it was a white first Christmas in Bethlehem on December 25, year aught. Maybe, on rare occasions it does snow in Bethlehem, but nonetheless, the chances that Jesus was born on December 25 is 1 in 365, There is no date or season mentioned in the birth story in the New Testament.

It appears that Jesus’ birth was celebrated on the equivalent of December 25 beginning in the 300’s c.e., probably to coincide the Roman celebration of Saturnalia, the winter solstice and perhaps to coincide with the Jewish celebration of Hanukkah.

I appreciate Linda's children's sermon and most nativities include a donkey, cow or two and a sheep or three and maybe a dog, but the Bible is silent about actual animals in the stable that night so it’s fun to imagine who might be there and what role they played.

Most Nativities include an angel, but the angel’s presence, in the story as told by Luke, is in the field with the shepherds and not at Jesus' birth.

Oh well, none of any of that matters. What does matter is the purpose of the Nativity. It is intended to share with its viewers the elements of the larger story and the meaning of it all for us. At its core, the nativity is more than a tradition, more than a Christmas knick-knack, it is meant to represent something profound.

God, in God’s love and mercy, made a God decision to enter humanity as one of us. God would, as an enfleshed person, model the life that God would consider normative for God’s children-

A life of love,
A life of service,
A life of acceptance,
A life of sacrifice,
A life in community.

As the incarnated One, God would go to incredible lengths to display God’s love, taking on the worst in humanity and continuing to love. God, in human form, taught us that God
Cares for u,
Walks beside us,
And accepts us as beloved children.

And the nativity reminds us of how the God of the universe, emptied God’s self, and entered into this world as all human beings come into the world, as a infant, defenseless and dependent.

There is the baby, surrounded by his mom and dad, swaddled and sleeping, or wriggling or crying in a makeshift baby bed.

Of this baby, the angels would tell the shepherds, this is the one who is Savior of the world.

Of this baby, wisemen from the north would interpret a new light in the sky as a sign of his birth and his Sovereignty.

Of the baby, the writer John would write, “the Word became flesh and blood moved into the neighborhood.”

So, as you experience nativity, appreciate its beauty or smile at its silliness, but understand its truth. God came to us to show us God's amazing and unconditional love.