A Leg-Lamp-Lit Nativity

A blessed fourth Sunday of Advent to you all. If you’re familiar at all with the season of Lent, the 40 days before Easter, you may or may not realize that Advent, this season we’re finishing up, was originally given as a little Lent. A season of fasting and penitence to ponder the ways in which the world still needs a savior. Accordingly, many Christians to this day will take on practices of prayer, fasting, and penitence during Advent just like many do during Lent though the levels of strictness vary. In our house for the past few years we’ve had a special Advent spiritual discipline. During Advent we take a fast from all TV. We don’t watch any shows or movies at all in Advent, unless… unless they’re Christmas movies. 

All Advent long we keep this fast by watching as many Christmas movies as possible. It’s great because at this point they’re all quote-along movies. I’m sure you know many of them. Are you ready? Let’s play a game called Name That Christmas Movie. 

“Why for fifty-three years I’ve put up with it now! I must stop Christmas from coming! But how?”

“Every time a bell rings, an angel gets its wings.” 

“Fra-gi-le, must be Italian”

“Thith tree is a thymbol of the thpirit of the Griswold family Christhmath.”

“The best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear.”

“Merry Christmas, ya filthy animals.”

For the answers, try Google.

Now see, because you know these movies, you’d get the joke if I showed you a nativity scene but instead of a donkey, it had a little dog named Max with a reindeer antler tied to his head. You’d giggle if the stable was covered in lights stapled on by Clark Griswold. And you’d get the reference if the creche was lit not by the star of Bethlehem, but a lamp shaped like a  woman’s leg.  

What you may or may not know is how much of the rest of the nativity scene, and how much of the Christmas story which adorns our homes and lawns this time of year is actually a reference to stories earlier audiences could quote along to, stories they knew by heart. Here are some examples. 

Early Christian Sarcophagus

The earliest depictions of the birth of Christ have him in a manger being adored not by shepherds, or Mary, or Joseph, but by an ox and a donkey. They’ve been in the nativity scene since the beginning; but they’re not just there because they live in the stable. They’re a quotable reference to the prophet Isaiah, “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey his master’s crib: but Israel has not known me, and my people have not understood.”

And the shepherds? Why are there shepherds in the scene? Well, you know what major Biblical characters in the Bible were also shepherds? Ever heard of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob? The first three patriarchs of all Israel were shepherds called by God, even by angels, to leave their fields and go where God would show them. How fitting then for shepherds, a reference to the first family of Israel, to be the first ones to hear the good news and be called to leave their fields as well. 

And then there are the names in the Nativity. Names like Mary. In Hebrew and many other languages Mary is actually Miriam. “Mary” is just an English translation. The name Miriam, of course, is taken from a character in Exodus, Moses’ sister. She helped raise Moses to eventually lead the people out of slavery in Egypt to freedom through the sea. And once they had made it to the other side, it was Miriam who broke into a song about the Glory of what God had done. How fitting, then that the character called to raise Jesus to free all people is also named Miriam, and how fitting that when she heard the news of what God had done, she broke into song, singing about the Glory of God. 

And then of course there’s the name Joseph. Joseph in the book of Genesis was an interpreter of dreams whose father Jacob had given him a coat of many colors. Remember him? Joseph’s brothers were so jealous of him they thought of killing him but instead sent him away to Egypt where ultimately he was instrumental in their survival based on what he saw in a dream! How fitting then, that this Joseph who, upon hearing his fiancee is pregnant, and not by him, first considers having her killed but then plans to send her away quietly until he has a dream in which the angel convinces him to stay.

The whole nativity scene which we know so well, what we may not all realize is, it’s a bunch of 1st century movie references from well-known Bible stories, all crowded together in a stable, all of which are aimed at helping us understand and receive the one at the center of the scene, the babe in the manger. 

Today’s reading from Isaiah helps us understand one such reference. When the angel visits Joseph in a dream, it’s this text which the angel quotes: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel, which means, God with us.”

That’s from Isaiah 7. Now, does that mean that when he wrote it Isaiah knew that some day the Virgin Mary would conceive and bear the Son of God? Probably not. Isaiah was writing in the 9th century BC about an encounter he had with King Ahaz, the king of Judah. Stick with me here so you can get the reference. 

The Kings of Aram and Israel were trying to force Ahaz off the throne to put their own guy there to form an alliance against the evil empire of Assyria. For background, and this is a gross reduction, but at the time, Aram, Israel, and Judah all kind of functioned like states and their kings were like our governors. So you can imagine like the kings of New Jersey and New York wanted to kill Ahaz, the king of Washington DC to forge an alliance against the evil empire of Canada. It’s what you might call an Iron Age impeachment, and Isaiah is sent there to bring Ahaz a Word from the Lord. 

Ahaz is rightfully freaked out, and he’s losing faith. God sends Isaiah to him, instructing him to tell Ahaz to ask for a sign. It could be “as deep as hell, or as high as heaven,” he says, “any sign,” but Ahaz is so bewildered he won’t even ask for a sign. 

“I’ll give you a sign anyway,” God says through Isaiah, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and before he is old enough to eat milk and honey, your enemies will be defeated.” 

This sign is somewhat ambiguous. We don’t know who the baby is, or the virgin. But that’s not really the point is it? The point is, look, this is not the end, there’s a baby being born right now who will grow in this land. Your future is in the hands of God and for that reason you have every reason to hold on to hope. In fact, though you didn’t ask for a sign as deep as hell or high as heaven, I have given you the sign that this baby will end up in the land of milk and honey one day, in the kingdom of God. I know your victory feels less possible than a rose growing from a stump or a virgin birth. That’s why it doesn’t depend on you. It depends on me, and it shall come to pass. And, it did come to pass. The twin kings of Aram and Israel could not mount an attack against Judah. 

It wasn’t until centuries later that this sign given to Ahaz came to mean even more to his descendants. It wasn’t until centuries later that Paul and others would start preaching Good News in the name that they say is above every name, the name of the one who to be adored in heaven and on earth, and under the earth – in other words, the one with power over of the depths of Hell and the heights of Heaven. Someone who came as a sign of God’s promise even for those who refused a sign, whose death and resurrection are a sign of God’s promised victory against the twin kings of Sin and Death. 

And It wasn’t until decades after that, when that news had spread, that someone named Matthew, and another guy named Luke decided the time had come to write down the whole story so that people would know this name… Jesus… and hear his story. 

And so they wrote down the tale of his birth, and filled it with references to stories they had heard since they were kids. Stories they could quote along to. There’s the one about a master adored by his oxen and donkeys. Then the one about a shepherd who will come as a shepherd of shepherds, and give himself up as the lamb of God. And they added the one about a woman named Miriam who was so filled with Joy and what God had done that she broke into song. And of course the one about Joseph’s dreams come true, a way made where there was no way, a virgin giving birth to a savior, in the midst of war. 

They strung together all these 1st century movie references so that people would know this name, and understand that all the law and the prophets, the warriors and the poets, the stories and signs passed down from generation to generation, the hopes and fears of all the years are met in him, tonight. 

Illuminated Byzantine Manuscript of the Gospel of Luke, 1020

The truth that Advent forces us to sit with is that though this child was born for us, and all authority rests on his shoulders, the twin kings of Sin and Death have been slow to give up their territory and power. They still threaten us daily as you know quite well. 

Theologian Karl Barth writes of this season, “What other time or season can or will the Church ever have but that of Advent?” Flemming Rutledge elaborates, “In a very real sense, the Christian community lives in Advent all the time. It can well be called the Time Between the Times, because the people of God live in the time between the coming of Christ, incognito in the stable in Bethlehem, and his second coming, in glory to judge the living and the dead.” 

In this way, for us as Advent people, the Good News about Christ is for us what Isaiah was for Ahaz. We who face the twin kings of Sin and Death, bewildered and faithless, sometimes believing in signs, often rejecting them, regardless of our willingness to accept Him, we have nonetheless been given a Sign. A virgin has conceived and born a son and his name is called Immanuel, which means God is with us. Whether we ascend to heaven or we make our bed in hell, God in Christ is with us and our ultimate victory is assured because it is in his hands. Isaiah foretold it, Christ fulfilled it, and we are invited to trust it just as Ahaz was invited to trust in a victory he had not seen.  

Today my job as one of your pastors, and our job as the church is twofold in Advent. First, it is to encourage one another to read the Bible so that we too can come to recognize the references revealed and the promises fulfilled in Christ. 

Second, as Advent people we have been called to keep watch for these signs today. Signs that he is alive, active as Immanuel, God with us. We the church are the ones called to keep watch for the grace of the living, breathing Christ referred to and revealed in every day life, in this time between the times. We keep watch also for our own opportunities to be made into living references ourselves, to become characters in the nativity who point to Christ, or whose lives come to be shaped like his cross. The best way I have to encourage you in this Advent calling is to invite you to hear the good news again for yourselves.

To you who, like Ahaz, live bewildered in the shadow of Sin and Death, hear the good news: a child has been born for us, a son is given us. Out of a stump, a rose; out of a virgin, a savior; out of despair, hope; out of fear, peace; out of sadness, joy; out of nothing, something; out of shadow, light; out of death, life; out of nowhere, love. This is the good news foretold in the prophets, fulfilled in Christ. It is Good News, of great joy, for all people, including you. Thanks be to God.

Ethiopian Icon of the Nativity of Christ, 17th century

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