Summary: There is much that stinks in this world, but Jesus' birth in a smelly manger reminds us that Jesus can be born in us. A brief sermon for Christmas Eve.
Christmas stinks! Or, so would say the Grinch who stole Christmas. You remember the Grinch? The slinky, green ogre of a character created by Dr. Seuss whose heart was too small to love and appreciate Christmas. We know the story. All the Who’s down in Whoville make the Grinch cringe with all their joy and happiness, and so the Grinch does his best to literally steal the joy of the holiday.
There was probably not much the Grinch was right about, but I will say that Christmas stinks. Before you call me the Grinch, all I ask is that you hear me out. Seriously, think about this with me for a moment. In your mind’s eye, see if you can go back a little over 2,000 years to a tiny village in the Judean wilderness. We have such a quaint picture in our minds of what that first Christmas was like. Most of our greeting cards and nativity scenes are populated with colorful flowing robes and pristine figures that it fools us into believing that it was a quaint, pristine time. Well, folks, it stunk! Need I remind us that Christmas came in a barn.
There were basically two ways people kept their livestock in those days. First, there was the inner room of the home. On the interior of the home was a large room full of straw, mangers and other necessities for keeping the animals. Most people weren’t rich, and their homes were very modest, and they didn’t own much livestock anyway. You might be interested to know the Paschal Lamb, the lamb used for the Passover meal was actually a family pet that had been raised IN the home. People didn’t own barns, so their homes were constructed so that their animals were kept on the very interior of the home, and the living quarters ringed the stable. I’m not sure if you know it or not, but sheep stink!
The other type of stable was generally a cave, and this is most likely where those who came to Bethlehem on that first Christmas would have found Joseph and Mary. They had gone to the innkeeper to find a room, but all he had to offer was a stable, probably behind the inn or down the street, or even on the edge of town. A cave. Dark, damp, and musty. Add to the damp, musty smell of the cave some really smelly sheep, a few lowing cattle, and who knows, a few chickens (there probably weren’t any pigs—there were Jews, you know?) and you have all the makings for a really stinky place to have a baby. Yeah, let’s not even talk about the smell of that! We mustn’t forget, either, that there was a cast of characters who came to the cave that night who were quite smelly in their own right—the shepherds. Keeping smelly sheep out in the fields of Palestine was not conducive to bathing on a regular basis. It’s highly unlikely these shepherds would have stopped by the local bathhouse before making their way to the grotto that day. Put all these elements together and we have a recipe for one malodorous mixture. Let’s just say, this was no Jean Nate.
What an image! What a breathtakingly beautiful image! Beautiful because we know it was God entering this world. It was God taking on human flesh. It was God coming to show us what he looks like, and when God showed up, he showed up in the smelliest, lowliest place on earth. It was the most beautifully rancid place on earth, and it changed the world. The presence of Jesus transformed the dank, dark, smelly confines of a cave into a place of light, and life and love. That’s what Christmas did. That’s what Christmas does.
Christmas means God is with us—Immanuel! God is still invading this smelly old world of ours. We know that God has come in Jesus to transform our dark hearts made rancid by the stink of sin in our lives. We need transformation—all of us—all the time. I am reminded of Scottish pastor Alexander Whyte. He faithfully served his congregation in the Scottish countryside for over 40 years, and was known by all in the community as a saintly man. One day a parishioner came to Rev. Whyte and exclaimed, “Oh, Rev. Whyte, we’re so blessed to have you as our pastor. You’re such a saint!”
Rev. Whyte looked at the parishioner and replied, “Madam, if you could see my heart you’d spit in my face.”
None of us is exempt from the stinkiness that is sin in our lives. Hatred, greed, pride, arrogance, apathy and jealousy are just a few of the sins that we battle almost daily, and let’s not even get into some of those “gray” areas that we like to debate these days. Yes, it stinks, I tell you, but Christmas reminds me that the Christ who was born in a stinky barn desires to be born in me, and the same Christ who transformed that stinky old cave can transform stinky old me.