The Carols of Christmas
Part 4: Miracles Happen in Messy Places
December 17, 2017
Have you ever been the first person in your family to do something special? Maybe you were the first person to graduate from college. Or perhaps you were the first person to travel outside the continental United States. Or maybe you were the first person to enter professional field, like medicine or accounting or law.
In my family of origin, I was the first person to do something special. Believe it or not, I was the “first person” in my family to be born in a hospital. Really, it’s true! My great-grandparents, my grandparents and my parents were all born at home. They were all born in one of the bedrooms of the houses they grew up in.
It wasn’t until 1963, when my mother delivered me at Baptist Hospital in Louisville, KY, that my family entered the modern era. Now, I don’t know why I got to thinking about such a quirky thing, except for the fact that every Christmas when I read Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth and sing Away in a Manger I remember.
I remember that unlike me and unlike my relatives, Jesus wasn’t born in the labor room of a hospital or the bedroom of a warm home. According to the gospel of Luke, he was born in a stable where the animals were kept. And after his birth, his mother wrapped him in strips of cloth and placed him in a manger, an animal’s feeding trough.
Now, over the years, because of the carol “Away in a Manger,” many of us have developed a rather romanticized view of the scene of Jesus’ birth. We picture the baby Jesus sleeping peacefully in a wooden manger filled with sweet smelling straw - while Mary and Joseph sit quietly by with a donkey, cattle and a few sheep. The reality is it probably wasn’t like that at all! In fact, this week I did a little research on the conditions of Jesus’ birth and I was amazed at what I found.
For example, one scholar suggested that the “stable” wasn’t a barn or even a separate building, but a small room in the back of a first century
house. It was a room where some agricultural tools were kept, along with a few small animals that needed shelter at night. I suppose it would be much like the “mud room” at many of our houses. You know, the room where we keep dirty shoes, mops, brooms, dog food and the cat’s litter box! Not exactly the place to deliver a baby.
Another scholar suggested that the “stable” was not a room in a house, but a poorly constructed “lean-to” attached to the side of a house. A simple structure with mud walls, a thatched roof and a flimsy gate that had just enough strength to keep one or two larger animals penned up at night. Again, not a place to have a baby!
One final scholar suggested that the “stable” was probably not “in” a house or “attached to” a house at all. Instead, he argue that the “stable” was probably a small rough-hewn cave. He thinks it was probably a rough-hewn cave that had been chiseled into the hillside somewhere on the outskirts of the village of Bethlehem.
Now, I don’t know which scholar is right and it really doesn’t matter to me. What does matter is that all three scholars seem to agree on one thing. They seem to agree that Jesus was not born in clean, sanitary, sterile environment. Instead, he was born in a messy, smelly stable.
Oh, there’s one more thing they agree on. They agree that the manger where Mary placed Jesus wasn’t the beautifully crafted wooden box filled with fresh hay that we usually imagine. Instead it was probably a feeding trough that had been chiseled out of cold stone. So, what can we learn from all this? What do the conditions of Jesus’ birth teach us about our lives?
First, the conditions of Jesus’ birth teach us that life does not always work out according to PLANS. Luke tells us that Mary and Joseph traveled from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be counted in the census. When they got to Bethlehem their plan was to find shelter at an inn because “Mary was great with child.” When they got there, however, they discovered that there was no room at the inn. They’re plan had been thwarted. Things didn’t work out the way they had hoped they would.
Their situation reminds me of the mother who desperately wanted her 12-year-old son to be in the children’s Christmas pageant at church. The son told his mother that he didn’t want to be in the Christmas pageant. He
thought he was too old. But, she made him do it anyway. To make things worse the director gave the boy the role of the innkeeper, which made him hate being in it even more. Well, the night of the pageant arrived and the church was packed. The pageant began and everything progressed beautifully. Until they came to the part in the pageant where Joseph knocked on the door of the inn and asked the innkeeper if there was room for them to stay. When he did the boy playing the part of the innkeeper was supposed to say, “There’s no room in the inn.”
On this night, however, he didn’t say that at all. Instead, when Joseph knocked on the door of the inn and asked the innkeeper if he had a room where he and Mary could stay, the boy playing the innkeeper looked out his mother. Then, with a sly smile on his face, he turned to Mary and Joseph, threw the door wide open, and said, “Absolutely! Come on in! I’ve got plenty of room!”
Well, the congregation was stunned! The boy’s mother was stunned! And the boy playing Joseph was stunned! But, the little girl playing Mary was a quick thinker. She walked through the inn door. Then, a moment later she came out, turned to Joseph, and said, “That place is a dump! I wouldn’t have a baby in there if you paid me too!”
Here’s my point. The plan that mother had for her son in being in the Christmas pageant didn’t work out the way she thought it would. The plans Mary and Joseph had to stay in the inn for the night didn’t work out they way they thought they would. And the truth is, sometimes the plans we have for our lives don’t work out the way we think they will. Things happen that we don’t expect. Things happen that we can’t control. Things happen that rock our world in ways that we never expect! And that leads to the second thing the conditions of Jesus’ birth have to teach us.
Namely, the conditions of Jesus’ birth teach us that when plans don’t work out, we can end up in a smelly, messy, uncomfortable PLACE. When Mary and Joseph arrived in Bethlehem they planned to stay in the inn, but it didn’t work out. So, they spent the night with animals in a smelly, messy, uncomfortable stable.
Their situation reminds me of two college football players who were roommates. As a prank, they decided to steal the rival school’s mascot before a big game. The mascot was a goat. When they got the goat to their dorm room, one roommate said, “What are we going to do about the nasty smell?”
The other roommate said, “Don’t worry, the goat will get used to it!”
When their plans didn’t work out, Mary and Joseph were forced to spend the night in a smelly, messy, uncomfortable stable. And the truth is, when plans don’t work out in our lives we may often find ourselves spending time in a smelly, messy, uncomfortable place as well.
For example, some of us here today may have had plans to be married “until death do us part,” but now we are dealing with the messiness of a broken relationship. Some of us may have budgeted for a good financial year, but something happened that we didn’t expect and now struggling with the stench of a financial crisis. Or some of us may have felt like we were in good physical shape, but we went to the doctor because we weren’t feeling good and now we are dealing with the discomfort of a major health issue.
It can happen in a thousand different ways, but here we are almost a week before Christmas, the “happiest season of all”! And some of us find that we’re not happy because, like Mary and Joseph, we’re in a smelly, messy, uncomfortable place. We’re in a stable. And that’s a tough place to be. We’re tired. We’re scared. We’re lonely. We wonder if God’s forgotten about us. Well, that brings us to the third thing the story has to say to us.
Namely, the conditions of Jesus’ birth teach us that smelly, messy, uncomfortable places are where we often experience God’s POWER. Mary and Joseph had to spend the night in a stable because there was no room in the inn. And yet, in this smelly, messy, uncomfortable stable an incredible miracle took place. Mary gave birth to Jesus, the Savior of the world. In his book, Dark Nights of the Soul, Thomas Moore says, “sometimes, it is in life’s toughest, darkest, hardest moments that we discover life’s greatest opportunities!”
Some of you, who are old like me, remember when Jimmy Carter was the President of the United States. In 1980, he ran for a second term, planning to continue leading our country. Due to a terrible economy and the Iranian hostage crisis, however, Jimmy Carter lost his bid for re-election. Well, when Jimmy Carter returned home in Plains, Georgia he was not only disappointed by the loss, he was deeply in debt and extremely depressed.
He was in a smelly, messy, uncomfortable place. In this midst of this difficult time in his life, however, something happened. As President Carter puts it in his book, The Personal Beliefs of Jimmy Carter, “I began to sense God calling me to start something new. I began to sense that God was calling me to create a new foundation. A foundation that would support humanitarian efforts for world peace.”
So, working with others, Carter launched The Carter Center. And he went to work. And through the years Carter was able to make an incredible difference. Such a difference that in 2002, Jimmy Carter was awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. After the award ceremony, someone asked Jimmy Carter if he was still distraught about losing his bid for a second term as president. He smiled and said, “Of course, it still stings a little! But, over time I have come to understand that through my failure in this area of my life, God freed me to succeed in a far nobler cause.”
Like Mary and Joseph, our lives sometimes fail to go according to plan. And that can force us to spend some time in a smelly, messy, uncomfortable stable. But, the truth is, it is often in the stable, in the smelly, messy uncomfortable places that Christ is born. That Christ comes to us and helps us find a way to begin again.
And this leads to one final thought. The conditions of Jesus’ birth teach us that we can be at PEACE. Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem. They planned to stay at the inn. But, their plan got thwarted. And they ended up in a smelly, messy, uncomfortable place. And yet, there in that place, Christ was born.
On that night Mary and Joseph discovered an important truth they would carry with them the rest of their lives. And what was that truth? Whatever happened in their lives, whenever the plans they had for their life were thwarted, God would not only be with them. God would always help them find “A WAY” in a manger. And that gave them peace!
There are a number of legends that say the stable in Bethlehem where the miracle of Christ’s birth took place became a place where other miracles happened. For example, one legend says that a child, who was lost, spent the night in the stable and through a dream found his way home the next day.
Another legend says that a prostitute came there to rest from her work one night and by morning had discovered new purpose for her life. Still another says a soldier, who was troubled by the horrors of war once spent the night in the stable, and by morning found new peace. I don’t know if these legends are true or not.
But whether they are true or not, they point to the truth that when life uncertain turns, when we end up in smelly, messy stables, God’s is with us. God is with us in the mangers of our lives and will make a way for us - a way to new life. If we will live our lives based on this truth - no matter what happens, we too can be at peace!
So, here we are. It’s almost Christmas. Has a plan you had for your life been thwarted? Are you in a messy, smelly, uncomfortable place? Fear not! Be at peace! For God’s greatest miracles take place in these places! God always makes a way in a manger! And the gift of Christmas is that God will somehow make a way for you!