Away In The Manger - Luke 2:22-40
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Away In The Manger – 12.19.2021
Good morning church. I am familiar with some of the history of those who have filled the pulpit of this church, and I am truly honored and humbled to be here. For those who don’t know, my name is Pastor JJ (the Reverand Mannschreck is my father) and I’m the Pastor at the sister church out in Flushing – Flushing United Methodist Church. Now the Reverand Cogman and I collaborated on our sermon series for the Advent Season. My church has been doing a series called “School of Rock: Christmas Album Edition” and if my information is correct – y’all have been doing Motown Christmas. And we got together and lined it up so that we would be doing the same song on the same week. So he is filling my pulpit and I am here filling his, but we are both this morning going to be talking about Away In The Manger.
In 1887 a guy by the name of James R Murray wrote the tune and put Away In The Manger in his popular songbook. Now, in that book – he called it “Luther’s Cradle Hymn” and he claimed that the song was actually written by the famous Lutheran Reformer – Martin Luther. If you don’t know Martin Luther, he’s the guy who stood up to the Catholic Church back in the 1500’s, he’s the reason we have protestants. And James Murray spread this legend, that Martin Luther wrote Away In The Manger and sung it as a lullaby for his children. And I could almost believe that – Away In the Manger kind of feels like a lullaby. They said Martin Luther sang this song to his children each night at bedtime. In fact the legend grew, and Americans had this picture of all the German mother’s carrying on the age old tradition of singing Away In the Manger as a lullaby for their children. It was a bit of a rude awakening for those Americans when they went over to Germany and found out that nobody over there had ever heard of the song before. James Murray had a great reputation as someone who always gave proper credit for the origin of a song, so the most common theory is that somebody told James it was the truth, and James really believed it. So, it turns out, Away In the Manger is actually an American song, that had nothing to do with Luther – but I think the lullaby label works. So what I want to do this morning is tell the story of Jesus being presented at the temple, the story of Nicodemus and Anna, using the framework of the lullaby, “Away In The Manger.”
Now this story is not you’re normal Christmas story. There’s no Nicodemus or Anna figurines for the Nativity – but it’s a story about the baby Jesus, and so I think it’s appropriate for this season. After the classic Christmas story with shepherds and angels and mangers – Mary and Joseph bring baby Jesus to the temple, and we open up in Luke chapter 2, verse 25, [read v.25-26]. So there’s this righteous man named Simeon, and it says he was “looking forward to the consolation of Israel.” See, what we’ve got to remember is that Israel was living under the shadow of Roman oppression. They live under military rule, with all these restrictions in their lives and he is looking forward to freedom. Life has been hard, life has been exhausting and oppressive, and he is looking forward to consolation, looking forward to that freedom. Because Simeon, even though he’s never seen anything like it in his entire life, he trusts that God will take care of his people. I wonder if can find something to relate to this guy Simeon in our current lives in Flint Michigan, the year of our lord 2021. Anybody tired? Anybody feeling burnt out, ready to be free? Now don’t get me wrong – I got the vaccine, I wear the mask, I’m not saying we should throw away the system – but I am just so tired of living under COVID, amen? Simeon is looking forward to Israel’s consolation, and I am looking forward to our consolation. And then he meets Jesus.
[read v.27-32]. Those beautiful words we heard from the mouths of babes earlier in this service. Simeon sees baby Jesus, and he gathers him up into his arms. And he says, “Lord, you can dismiss your servant in peace.” Which is kind of a fancy way to say, “I could die happy now.” Simeon holds baby Jesus – I am ready to go, I could die happy right now.” Now, we don’t know one another very well yet – but I’ve got three babies at home, and another one coming in February. A five year old, three year old and a one year old. Now I can stand here and attest to you from my personal experience, that there is a magic in holding a sleeping baby. Especially if you get a nice rocking chair, baby snuggles into that little crook in your arm – baby’s napping, you’re napping and we all sound like Simeon – “I could die happy now.”
But there’s one more thing I want you to notice before we move on. Simeon praises God even though Jesus is still just a baby. He says, “my eyes have seen your salvation” – but he doesn’t know how it’s all going to work out. Simeon doesn’t know what Jesus is going to do. He doesn’t know about the miracles, or the teachings. He doesn’t about the cross or the empty tomb. He doesn’t know the gospel message that Jesus came to take our sins, to take our brokenness to the cross, so that our sin could die and be buried and that we would rise with Christ three days later and be given a new life, designed to live after God’s heart. Simeon didn’t know any of that. All he knows is that God promised salvation, and this baby Jesus is that salvation. And that’s all he needed to celebrate. When my wife and I first got married, we were two graduate students with no income. Those first few years were very challenging and full of added stress. So when I got my first church, we had one car and a pile of student debt. And a few months after we moved to the UP, where my first church was, my wife was in a car accident. She was fine, but the car was totaled. And I’ll never forget, a month later – we were trying to figure everything out and we had no money left. And I was starting to freak out. You ever have that moment in life, where you feel like everything is coming apart and you just have nothing left in the tank. For me, it was like I couldn’t even stand up – I just sank to my knees. And then I’m sitting at the kitchen table, bills spread out, options in front of us. And I’m usually the positive upbeat guy, but I’ll never forget my wife came over and gave me a hug and she said, “We’ll be okay.” And I was almost mad at her, “How? How are we going to be okay? Look at all my paperwork, join me in my panic, please” [laugh] And my wonderful, incredible wife wrapped her arms around me and said, “We’ll be okay, because we’ve made it through everything so far. And we’ll make it to the next thing too.” That’s Simeon’s faith right there. I may not know how all these details are going to work out – but I trust in the God who promised. And I’ll tell you what – we made it through that month. And we made it through every month after that right up to today. Sometimes we just need to gather up the baby Jesus into our arms to know things are going to be alright. To sing the lullaby – “away in the manger, no crib for a bed. The little Lord Jesus lay down his sweet head.”
So after Simeon puts down the baby, right after that we introduce Anna. [read v.36-38]. Now the story of Anna is quick. I mean, she just hops in and then disappears, but the moment she walks up – she starts to praise God and speak about the baby to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem. Do you remember what I said about Simeon, about the “consolation of Israel”? Anna has the same reaction. They have been living under Roman oppression, they are tired of restrictions in their lives, they are tired of living in the shadow and they long for freedom. And Anna starts going around and talking to everybody – “You wanna know about the redemption of Jerusalem? Let me tell you about this baby.” She and Simeon both understood – this is not just a cute story about some random baby. This thing that has happened, this is GOD coming to be with us in a brand new way. This is the spark that lights the fuse that will result in the kingdom of heaven. It will result in redemption. I think a lot of Israel, and a lot of us in our lives, we spend our time looking up at the sky, waiting for God to solve our problems – and we forget to look in the manger.
Alright, now let me ask you a quick question – have you ever had a moment when you feel like, “if one more bad thing happens, I’m going to lose my mind.” Right? Like have you ever felt like you were hanging on by the tiniest thread. And I think a lot of times when folks start to struggle, we reach for God, we reach for the bible. And a really popular spot is 1 Corinthians chapter 10, verse 13 [read it]. To highlight that, it said, “when you are tested, God will provide a way out so you may be able to endure it.” And we all know, in our lives that we get overwhelmed all the time. God is constantly giving me too much to handle. God actually makes a HABIT of giving us too much to handle, so that we will lean on HIM instead of ourselves. God WILL give us too much, but he will always provide a way out so you can endure it. And so here we are – the faithful, waiting on God. And for months I’ve been telling the people in my church: “We have a hope that the people out there need. They need to know the powerful love of Jesus. We have a God that walks with us.”
That’s what I’ve been teaching my church, we’ve been sitting in this posture of hope, just waiting for God to show up. And it looks like this, I sort of put my arms up and I am ready. I am waiting for God to provide a way out so that I can endure all this terrible stuff that is going on. I am ready, and I’m looking at the sky. And while I was waiting, some stuff started happening in my church that distracted me. “Alright God, I am ready for you to provide a way out so that I can endure.” [meanwhile] There was a guy in our church who switched jobs. It was a better job, but there was a week with no paycheck in there. And he comes in and says, “payday is on Friday but I need a tank of gas to make it until then.” So we got him a gas card to fill up the family van, and then I resume the position. Still waiting on you big guy. And then I got distracted again. There was a different family in our church, their in-laws, their house burned down. Right at the end of recovering from a COVID quarantine. And I’m just inside, I’m mad at God, “are you kidding me with this?” Their house burned down – so we got them a food card, get them some groceries, trying to figure out how to get them some clothes, and then another couple in our church offered a spare room apartment that’s attached to their house. Alright, we got that taken care of – I can go back to assuming the position. Then I get distracted AGAIN. A young family in our church needed to quarantine their kiddos because of exposure. And this is happening constantly to the kids in our church. So my life group, small groups that we have at the church, the life group connects on facebook, we drop off food, home testing kits, whatever they needed. We got that taken care of and I can go back to waiting on God to show up.
Last Sunday – our livestream goes down. Somethings wrong with the settings on youtube, and I’m in the back struggling with the technology and we have this new volunteer – he’s attended our church for like two months – he comes up and says, “you know I’m a retired tech engineer guy, I might be able to help out.” Wow, really? That would be amazing. Later that same day, a guy walks in with snowpants. Like, brand new snowpants like in a fancy delivery bag. And he says, “I bought these for an event, but they’re too big. Do you think we could find a place for them?” And the guy sitting on the other side of me, literally I was sitting between these two guys – I didn’t even respond, the guy sitting next to me says, “oh, yeah! We sponsor this family, and I they’ve been looking for some new snow pants. We can totally make these work.” And then I had my lightbulb moment. I swear it was like God was punching me in the face with obvious examples, but it took me SO long to see it.
We are the church. Our God is capable of powerful miracles, but he prefers to work in the simple efforts of his people. Like a virgin named Mary. Like you. Like me. I needed that moment of realization. I spent so much of my time looking at the sky waiting for God to show up and give me a way out so I could endure all the struggles and difficulties around me. And all this time, God has been working through the people around me. Even working THROUGH me, and I didn’t even see it. This year has been harder than last year. Can we just make a judgment call on that. This year has been worse. But God will give us a way out so that we can endure – and that way is the church. Not a building or an institution or whatever. But the people. The hands and feet of Jesus working in our lives. Hear me: you are the way God is going to save someone during this pandemic. The love you can give. Do you understand? YOU are the way that God is going to save someone during this pandemic. Now, don’t go mixing up my theology – right? You are not God, I am not God. But God gets his work done THROUGH us. If you spend all your time watching the sky for salvation, you’re going to miss what’s going on in that manger.
The good news for us this morning coming right out of that story is that the baby is down here with us in the manger. And that baby means salvation. Simeon knew that. Anna knew that. Even though they didn’t know how it was all going to work out – they knew that God was faithful. Now, again – we don’t know each other that well yet and so I’m not sure your comfort level with the terminology. But personally I’m not a big fan of big fancy church words. I prefer to keep things simple. But I want to talk to you about one of those fancy words for a second. I want to talk about incarnation. If you don’t know, it’s a big fancy word but all it means is “God putting on flesh.” God putting on carnal flesh (carnal meaning physical) – in carnal flesh – incarnation. That’s where that comes from God becoming human, and that’s the person of Jesus Christ. Jesus is God with us. This baby is hope. This baby is salvation. This baby is redemption. Because this baby, the one physically right there in the manger – is God.
Jesus Christ, God in carnal flesh, came into this world. Jesus lived a perfect, sinless life. He healed the sick, he brought sight to the blind, and set at liberty those who were oppressed. Out of his incredible love for each of us, Jesus went to the cross. Every single one of us has made mistakes, we have sinned and because of that we are far away from God. But because of what Jesus did on the cross, he took the full weight of God’s judgment, he took our punishment, so that we can live free. He made the ultimate sacrifice because of how much he loves you. Hear me – Jesus loves you so much that he says, “you are worth dying for.” Jesus took that broken relationship between the almighty God and his beloved people and he reconciled them. He’s giving you a second chance at life. To have your sins forgiven, washed away so that you can start fresh. And it all started with that baby in the manger – with God’s love coming to be with us in a new way. The incarnation. And what I want you to see this morning with all the stories I am telling you is that WE carry on the tradition of the incarnation, by being the hands and feet of Jesus in life.
I’ve got two quick points of application and then we’re done. First – I want you to listen to the lullaby. Next time you sing Away In the Manger pay attention to the lyrics. They’re just like a lullaby. Comforting, reassuring. Be calmed and reassured by the presence of Jesus Christ in your life. Gather up Jesus into your heart like the way Simeon gathered up that beautiful baby boy into his arms – “I can die happy now.” The good news is that the baby is down here, in the manger with us. So listen to the lullaby and be comforted by Jesus’ presence. The second challenge is to carry on the tradition of the incarnation. God came to be with us in a real, physical, practical, concrete way – and so we should do that for our neighbors. And again, I’m not saying you’re Jesus. But you could be the one who shares Jesus’ love with someone else who is barely hanging on by a thread. You, with the way you live your life, and the way you love the people around you – you can be the hands and feet of God in your community. Be the presence of God to your neighbor, and in that way you can give them hope.
Maybe Martin Luther didn’t write Away In the Manger, it wasn’t actually his lullaby. But that’s okay, I look around at all these Christmas movies – I don’t need another fake origin story. But I do find comfort in the lyrics. The final verse says, “Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask thee to stay…close by me forever and love me I pray. Bless all the dear children in thy tender care, and take us to heaven to live with thee there. May it be so in each of our lives. Amen.