There’s only one problem with the nativity set. Do you notice? All the characters are in place and accounted-for.
But no stable. No barn. No shelter for the Christ-child, Mary, Joseph, the shepherds and Magi. Not to mention all the animals.
I think in the nativity set around the altar we accounted for this obvious ‘missing piece’ by placing all the matching pieces right beside a figure of a church building. There’s something that feels right about doing that, despite the historical disconnect between modern church building and the first century birth we celebrate this holy season of Christmas.
Because Jesus needs a house. Significant, isn’t it, that Bethlehem in Hebrew means, “house of bread”? Bethlehem, the town of David (Luke 2:4), was foretold by the prophets of old: “But you, Bethlehem, too small to be among the clans of Judah, From you shall come forth for me one who is to be ruler in Israel; Whose origin is from of old, from ancient times” –Micah 5:1. Bethlehem was the ‘house’ into which Jesus was born. And Jesus, then became the house wherein all who sought God would find comfort and rest.
Is this not what we celebrate at Christmas? Our homes, places of comfort, places where we find our roots, our grounding, places where we meet and live with those beloved to us. These nativity scenes adorning the altar normally form part of our Christmas decorations in our homes. They, in a sense, bring Jesus — the house of all people — into our houses, our homes. Into our lives.
At Christmas we sing for Jesus to come into our lives. But do we think of what it would mean for us to make room for the Christ? And welcoming the stranger?
In a verse from the hymn, “Christ Be our Light” we sing —
Longing for shelter, many are homeless. Longing for warmth, many are cold. Make us your building, sheltering others, walls made of living stone.
Christ, be our light! Shine in our hearts. Shine through the darkness. Christ, be our light! Shine in your church gathered today. (1)
Many times in the Gospels, Jesus describes the “kingdom of God”. One of my favourite images is from Mark (4:32), where Jesus compares God’s reign to a small seed that ” … becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.”
This image gives an all-encompassing, expansive vision of what God intends: a home for all creatures great and small.
Of course, the problem is, that so many people don’t have this shelter, this safety, this home. And it’s not just a spiritual reality. It’s also a material, earth-bound reality.
After all, Jesus himself, was a refugee. After his birth, Jesus’ parents Joseph and Mary had to flee the threat of persecution in their home country. In Matthew (2:13) we read: “… an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Jesus, Christians believe, is the Son of God. And this God we worship experienced, on earth, what it means to be a refugee and to be homeless.
Jesus, the comforting house and home for all — like the giant tree housing all the creatures of the earth — knew what it was to be without home, without shelter.
Elsewhere in Matthew (8:20) as Jesus exercises his ministry of compassion, healing and grace to the downtrodden, he reminds those who listen: “Foxes have holes and birds of air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
We are called, therefore, to care precisely for those who are homeless, who are refugees today as if we are loving God. Sri Lanken theologian D.T. Niles stated: “Christianity is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” (2).
Where do we find this ‘bread’ today? Because we will not travel to Bethlehem to find Jesus, like the Shepherds and the Magi did over two thousand y ears ago. Today we may ask God as the righteous did of old: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And Jesus answers, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to least of these … you did it to me.” (Matthew 25:37-40)
And, in so doing, we reveal the truth that the author of the last book of the Bible expressed: “See, the home of God is among mortals!”(Revelation 21:3). God’s home in Christ Jesus is here on earth, among those who need the “bread of life” (John 6:35).
Our job this Christmas as all year round is to feed the hungry and house the homeless. Because Jesus has come into this world. He is out there. And he calls to us. Waiting for us to respond. To be and make home for us all.
(1) “Christ Be Our Light” Evangelical Lutheran Worship, Augsburg Fortress, 2006 #715
(2) Joseph R. Jeter in David L. Bartlett, Barbara Brown Taylor & Kimberley Bracken Long, eds., “Feasting on the Word: Advent Companion” WJK Press, Kentucky, 2014, p.65