Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

God in a Manger

Rev. Kathy Donley



Scripture Lesson:  Matthew 2:13-23


Try to put yourself into this scenario.  Imagine that your life project was to create the best neighborhood ever. You learned everything you could about human behavior and urban systems and architecture, everything you could possibly need to know.  Then you planned a community, with great schools and places to work, fabulous recreational opportunities and places of beauty to enjoy. You invited interesting people of all ages with all different backgrounds to live there.  The ribbon cutting ceremony on this neighborhood was quite a joyful celebration.  But the years have passed, and things have not gone as planned.  Those interesting people squabble and lie and hurt each other.  There is graffiti on buildings, garbage in the streets.  Children and teachers do not enjoy the schools; there is not really much teaching or learning happening there.  No one seems to appreciate the beauty and goodness you made possible.


How do you feel about this? 

You feel angry, sad, disappointed, . . .


If you were really in this situation, what do you think you would do?  Raise your hands – how many would just abandon the project, leave the people to fix it or not, on their own?

Raise your hands – how many would try to do something?


If you would keep trying, what would you do?  What do you think would be most effective?


God created the world with all its beauty and joy and possibility, and when things did not go as God intended, as God dreamed, as God hoped, what did God do?  God called out leaders like Abraham and Sarah, Moses and Miriam, to remind us of God’s best plans for us.  And when that didn’t work, God sent messengers called prophets.  God kept sending them over hundreds of years.  And when that didn’t work, God “became flesh and dwelt among us” as John’s gospel says, or in another version, “God moved into the neighborhood.”


Matthew and Luke tell us about the beginning of God coming in human flesh.  We love Luke’s story.  There are hard edges to the story, but we usually soften them.  We sentimentalize it, with the angels singing at midnight and the shepherds and the baby all snuggled up in swaddling clothes. It is much harder to romanticize Matthew’s version.  There are no cuddly sheep, no angel choirs.  It is set in the “turbulence and terror of violent history where tyrants kill children and families flee in the middle of the night.”[1]  


Matthew conveys a profound truth about the incarnation. It’s a truth that we all know and yet, we don’t quite get it.  Or at least, I don’t. Not unless I slow way down and ponder it.  The truth about incarnation is that God chose to be human.  That was God’s solution to the mess of a broken creation.  When I asked how you would fix the ruined neighborhood project, did any of you think of going there yourselves?  Did any of you think of going there as a baby?  Or of handing over your baby to be raised in that neighborhood? 


God chose to be human, but not just that.  God chose to be a human baby.  Not to appear on earth as a fully-functioning human adult.  Not a human with money or status or power either.  A baby born to poor people.  God chose to be a baby who became a child who became an adolescent and then an adult, like all humans do.  God chose to share in the suffering and the joy that comes with human maturation. 


Jesus was terribly vulnerable.  Let me name some of the ways. 

·        He was conceived out of wedlock; Joseph could have divorced Mary, making Jesus illegitimate and Mary a disgrace, leaving both of them on the margins. 

·        He was born while travelling, far from family support.  About 60 years ago, my cousin was born to first time parents.  They brought him home from the hospital and fussed over him and settled in happily to life with a newborn.  A few weeks went by before his grandmother came to visit. I don’t know why she didn’t see him earlier.  But she came and held this grandson in her arms and knew immediately that something was wrong.  She urged them to take the baby to a doctor, which they did.  He had a hole in his heart, which no one else had discovered, but his grandmother did.  Jesus did not have a grandmother to look out for him like that.

·        His family were foreigners in Egypt. Today, we would call them undocumented.  They would have faced language barriers and discrimination.  Perhaps people tried to take advantage of them.  Joseph might have had trouble finding a good job. 

·        They went to Bethlehem, then after sometime, they moved to Egypt.  Then when Herod died, they thought it was safe to go home again, but no, another Herod was king, so they moved again, to Nazareth.  Mary and Joseph would have been fearful and stressed for much of his early childhood.  How much of that would he absorb?


God chooses vulnerability instead of security.   God does not exempt or protect God’s self from the tension, fear, violence and terror of our fallen world.  The Rev. William Sloan Coffin, pastor at the Riverside Church in New York City from 1977-1987,  was fond of saying that there was nothing but “unguarded goodness in that manger.”   He also said,  “To break through our defenses, God arrives in Jesus utterly defenseless.”[2]    God has a different notion of power, a different understanding of what will persuade us to keep covenant with God.  God’s love is deeper and stronger and more determined than most of us comprehend.


One of my colleagues received a treasured ordination gift.  It was a picture of the Holy Family’s flight to Egypt.  Many artists have chosen to portray that event.  But this one was distinct because Jesus, Mary and Joseph were not alone.  Instead they were surrounded by other refugees on the road with them.  It was a reminder that God-in-Christ identifies with all who have been driven from their homes, all who are displaced by violence and fear.[3]


People who are suffering resonate with this story in ways that those of us who are more privileged may not. For some, the God in the manger is as compelling as the God on the cross, and for others, the vulnerability of the cross is a reminder of God’s choosing of vulnerability in the manger. 


Matthew quotes Jeremiah about Rachel weeping for her children.  In ancient times, Rachel had died giving birth to her son Benjamin.  “Tradition had it that she was buried in the vicinity of Bethlehem.  Weeping Rachel was the image of inconsolable grief.  Years later, when the children of Israel were being killed or carried off into exile, the prophet Jeremiah said, ‘A sound is heard in Ramah, says the Lord, the sound of bitter weeping.  Rachel is crying for her children; they are gone, and she refuses to be comforted.’ ”[4]


Kelly Brown Douglas is an Episcopal priest and professor of religion.  She is a leading voice in African-American womanist theology and the mother of a black male son.  The killing of Trayvon Martin was the catalyst for her 2015 book called Stand Your Ground: Black Bodies and the Justice of God.


Here is what she says about this text, “it is fitting that [Rachel’s] weeping is recalled at the time of Jesus’ birth, not simply because Bethlehem is weeping over the loss of its children, but because the Christ child is born.  Into the midst of a mother’s deepest pain and suffering God is present in the world, bringing hope. . . . As the weeping of Rachel signals, there is a persistent dark side to God’s world.  It is a world filled with a mother’s grief, which nothing in the world can console.  This is a grief that does not go away.  It is not to be dismissed or taken lightly.  And God does not.  For it is in the midst of this great suffering and grief that God comes.  It is, thus, through a mother’s weeping that we can see the measure of hope, in the world that is God’s.  It is in knowing the deep grief of a mother for her children that we can understand the extent of hope for the justice of God.  To know God as mother is for us to see God in the weeping mothers . . . who refuse to be consoled until there is justice for their children.”[5]


On the cover of your bulletin is a picture taken in Aleppo, Syria on Christmas Eve, as one Christian community celebrated Christmas together for the first time in five years.   They gathered in a ruined cathedral, with the roof gone from bombings and open to the sky and the snow.  What you cannot easily see is the nativity scene which had been fashioned from the rubble.   Those who built it said “We are using whatever debris we can find to symbolize the triumph of life over death.”[6]  They did not choose the cross or the empty tomb, but the manger.


I can no longer think of Aleppo apart from the images of vulnerable children.  A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”             


One final example.  From modern-day Bethlehem.  The Rev. Dr. Mitri Raheb is the pastor of Christmas Lutheran Church in Bethlehem.  In his Christmas Eve sermon, he said:


The gospel is this: When the fullness of time came, the time for the Word to be incarnated, God did not choose Rome or Athens for Christ to be born at; He chose occupied Bethlehem. He chose to be one of those oppressed; He chose to be one of those terrorized. When the fullness of time came, God so loved this world with all its ugliness and did not shy away from it. God chose to encounter this world with all its might and terror. He chose to challenge Herod with the face of an innocent child. God did not leave this world to its misery and pain but embraced it with both hands and pulled it to his heart. . .  This is the crux of the Christmas story.


He goes on:
But this is not the end of the story. If God did not shy away from incarnating in this world, we cannot shy away either. On the contrary, his embrace to our world inspires us to engage. Why stay in Palestine if we have options to go somewhere else? Because God chose this place and we do so too. We do not surrender to the Occupation. Why stay in Aleppo? I asked a friend there. Her answer was: because I care for this city and I care for this community. Why remain in Berlin, Karak, and Egypt? It is because we cannot surrender to terror. But we cannot react to terror through fascism either, because this is contrary to the spirit of Christmas.


And finally, he says:  We do not allow the terror in all of its shapes and names to carry us away to fear and hate, but we commend ourselves to that story of Jesus to instill in us the will to resist by witnessing for the light that cast away darkness and life that is stronger than death. The night, in which the divine became human, all human lives were sanctified. It is not possible anymore to violate human rights in the name of divine rights, promises or laws. With the incarnation every human life became sacred.[7] 

Brothers and sisters, we will leave the holiday of Christmas behind, but let us always take this with us:  God chooses vulnerability as power.  To break through our defenses, God arrives in Jesus utterly defenseless.”


God’s love is deep and strong and determined.  Thanks be to God.  Amen.


[1] Alan Culpepper, in Feasting on the Word, Year C, Vol 1, Advent Through Transfiguration,  David Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds.   (Atlanta:  Westminster/John Knox Press, 2009),  p. 169.


[2] William Sloan Coffin in his sermon “Power Comes to Its Full Strength in Weakness”  delivered at The Riverside Church, NYC, December 25, 1977

[3] David Lose, http://www.davidlose.net/2016/12/christmas-1-a-just-in-time/

[4] https://maryharristodd.wordpress.com/2010/12/22/rachels-tears/#more-629

[5] Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground:  Black Bodies and the Justice of God, (Maryknoll, NY:  Orbis Books, 2015) pp 228-229

[6] http://www.naharnet.com/stories/en/222629