In 1994 two Americans answered an invitation from the Russian Department of Education to teach morals and ethics based on biblical principles. They were invited to teach in public schools, at prisons, to businesses and a large orphanage.
According to one of the Americans, Will Fish, there were about 100 boys and girls in the orphanage, children who had been abandoned, abused and left in the care of a government-run program. When Christmas was approaching the men decided to share the story of the birth of Jesus with the children. Many of them had never heard it before.
They told about Mary and Joseph having to travel to Bethlehem, finding no room at the inn. How Mary laid Jesus in a manger. That shepherds heard angels and came to share good news. Magi followed a star from a great distance and brought gifts to the baby. Even though they were working through a translator, the children and staff sat transfixed, listening to every word.
When the story had been told, Fish and his companion gave each child three pieces of cardboard they had notched to make a small manger. Next came colored paper napkin to be shredded as straw. An American woman returning to the states had given them a flannel nightgown she wasn’t taking home and then men had cut the fabric and gathered a head around a cotton ball tied off with thread to make shapes that looked vaguely like a tiny baby. The little squares of blankets turned out much better.
Fish and his friend walked about the room helping where they could when Fish noticed one of the older children had finished and was contemplating his project. Misha looked to be about six years old. He had done a great job following directions, except that there were two babies in his manger.
A translator was called for, and she asked Misha why there were two babies in the manger. Misha crossed his arms in front of himself. He looked at the scene and began to repeat the story of the nativity of Jesus with great seriousness. He had only heard the story once, but he was very accurate – until he came to the part where Mary puts Jesus in the manger.
Here Misha told his own story. He said “And when Mary laid the baby in the manger, Jesus looked at me and asked me if I had a place to stay. I told him I have no mama and no papa and so I don’t’ have a place to stay. Then Jesus told me that I could stay with him. I told him I couldn’t because I didn’t have a gift to give him like everybody else did. But Jesus told me, “If you keep me warm that will be the best gift anybody ever gave me.” So I got into the manger, and then Jesus looked at me and told me I could stay with him – for always.”
We say that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. If we don’t just say that but, like the orphaned Misha, let it become part of our lives, we discover, as he did, that the God who came in Jesus Christ will never abandon or abuse us but stay with us forever. We find that we are invited to the manger to be born again, and we ourselves are a precious gift.
The gospel writer John tells the story of the nativity of Jesus without Mary or Joseph, without manger or shepherd or magi. He tells the story of Jesus birth’ in two sentences, the first and fourteenth verse of the passage we heard this morning. John isn’t concerned about the birth of a baby in Bethlehem. He wants to tell us about the birth of you and me as children of God. He says that Jesus came so that we would be born not of blood or flesh but be born of God, who is love.
To fully appreciate what John is saying, we need to distinguish between those things that describe us and what define us. Often, we allow certain elements of our life to dominate us. Things like our upbringing or interests, our current health and our talents, our marital status or our job, our past triumphs or tragedies. These things do matter and are accurate descriptions of us.
Too often, though, we allow these characteristics to define us completely. The gospel writer John holds out to us that these things are important and meaningful but are not the ultimate definition of our identity.
What is definitive is that God has called us God’s own children. We are people of infinite worth to God. We deserve love and respect, and God will use us to care for God’s beloved world.
One of the ways we can move from just saying that Jesus became flesh and dwelt among and taking it into our lives is to say more often that we are a child of God. We can say to ourselves: I am a child of God, born of love, and God will use me to change the world.”
Try it now: “I am a child of God, born of love, and God will use me to change the world.”
What would it mean to take in this definitive truth about ourselves? One of the things it means is that we would know the promise of Jesus always to welcome us, just as we are, to be with us – no matter what. When we are the one that is abused and abandoned. When the doctor says “there is nothing more that we can do.” When the final exam is marked with an F. When you’ve fallen off whatever wagon you need to be on one more time. In all of this – through all of this – Jesus is with us, offering us a place with him, a place of rest, warmth, and love.
Speaking the definitive truth of our identity, also, means we are challenged to bring others to the manger so they can discover that they too are children of God. That’s what Will Fish and his colleague did when they traveled to Russia. That’s what little Misha did when he put two babies in the manger. It’s what John the Baptist did when he consistently shifted the focus away from himself and toward Jesus, the love of God.
Maybe that means you will contribute generously to our efforts here at Faith, to give assistance to people who are making it through disasters or live in temporary or chronic poverty. Maybe you will volunteer with a program that brings about justice for LGBTQ people, veterans, the incarcerated, or immigrants. Or you’ll ponder how to best live out your Christian faith in your workplace. Perhaps you will continue to send cards, make meals, pick up the phone, shovel walks, listen in a way that offers love into a life. Or you will simply tell people what it means to you to find your place in the manger.
What might happen if we didn’t just tell the story of the birth of Jesus, but told ourselves the divine, definitive truth? “I am a child of God, born of love, and God will use me to change the world.” What might happen if we began each day saying this one sentence and continued every day to the end of the year?
It sounds simple enough doesn’t it? But these words can be hard to say and harder still to take into our lives.
Oh, I know that it might seem hokey and awkward, but imagine if only a fraction of us repeated this, and repeating it took it into our lives and living it shared it and sharing this truth changed the world.
Jesus invites you to join him in the manger. You are a gift him, as he is to you. Because of him, you are – I am – are a child of God, born of love, and God will use you – use us – to change the world. Thanks be to the Son of God, love’s pure light, Jesus, Love, at your birth, Jesus, Loved, at Thy birth.