For a child has been born for us,Isaiah 9:6-7 (NRSV)
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
Throughout scripture, we hear many references to animals. We are comforted by thoughts of sheep lying down in green pastures. We hear of donkeys and camels helping people to safely travel from one place to another. We are assured that just as God feeds the birds of the air, God will also feed us. We hear the sound of cooing doves carrying branches of hope. And we are even called to imagine that someday the lion and the lamb will lay down together. It’s the stories of animals in the Bible that always tell of peace. Even Daniel found himself thrown into a lion’s den and came out unharmed!
Now I know that some of you have pets at home. And over the past two years, we met many of those four-legged family members during our Zoom coffee hours and meetings. If you don’t have a pet right now, maybe you have had a pet at some time in your life, and so you know the unconditional love that they bring.
Over the past few days, I’ve done quite a bit of thinking about the love that animals can bring to our lives. They don’t treat us like people in the world do. They don’t complain or judge. They don’t comment on our clothes or try to control us. They don’t talk behind our backs or send us hurtful emails and they never blame us for things whether we have done them or not. Sure, they might whine a little from time to time, or even chew up our favorite slippers, but they always see the good in us even when we can’t see it in each other.
This Sunday, just after Carolyn and Henry lit the candle of peace, Genny and her mom placed the animals in the stable: a cow, a donkey, and a few sheep. What better gifts could there be on that first Christmas so long ago? After all, Mary had already felt the judgment of society being a young pregnant unwed mother. Joseph felt the pressure of taking care of Mary, though I’m sure he was still in shock and didn’t fully understand what was happening. And then when they arrived in Bethlehem, after traveling more than eighty miles, they found no warm welcome and no room in the inn. But things started to turn around when a kind innkeeper, seeing that Mary’s baby was coming soon, told them that they could stay in his stable where the animals lived.
Now, many people would ask, “What kind of a place is a stable for the son of God to be born?” The one who is to be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The one whom scripture says shall have authority that shall grow continually and shall bring endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. The one promised to finally establish and uphold justice and righteousness for all people. To be born in a stable, surrounded by animals? Really?
But I say, “What better place for baby Jesus to be born?” Rather than being born in a place that was filled with human injustice, prejudice, hate, and judgment, Mary gave birth to her newborn son surrounded by animals that provided a place of unconditional love and peace.
In our opening hymn today, we heard about the gifts that the animals gave, simple but loving gifts. The donkey carried Mary safely to Bethlehem. The cow gave his manger for a bed, and hay to pillow the baby’s head. The sheep gave his wool to keep the baby warm and the dove cooed the baby to sleep. They provided a place of warmth and welcome in a cold and uncaring world. And they set the scene for Jesus’ life: a humble life, filled with grace, a life that he spent teaching and sharing the unconditional love of God without judgment with everyone he met. So, Jesus being born in a stable? Some might disagree, but, personally, I think it’s perfect, and there’s no better place.
Friends, in just a few moments, we are going to gather at the table. This is a place where Jesus welcomes us, no matter who we are or what we have done or left undone. Jesus welcomes us at the table with peace and unconditional love, just as the animals greeted him at his birth.
Friends, I hope today inspires you not to judge others or comment on their shortcomings, but to share the unconditional love of God with everyone you meet. Because that is how we carry the light of peace with us and make a true difference in the world.
May it be so. Thanks be to God, Amen!