Advent: The Event in the Manger

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CHICAGO, IL (December 19, 2008) – John Weborg is Professor Emeritus of Theology at North Park Theological Seminary and a longtime columnist for The Covenant Companion. Each Friday during Advent, we have been sharing one of his columns that originally appeared in the magazine. Today’s final installment first appeared in December 2002.

By Dr. John Weborg

The manger scene looked like anything but a temple. No symbolism was on its walls. No holy of holies completed its architecture. The odor of manure and animal breath replaced incense. No priesthood was in evidence and the innkeeper wore no vestments.

After the young man and even younger wife took up residence, things changed. A baby was born. Some shepherds showed up – among the despised vocations of the time. They came to worship, saying that angels had directed them.

It must have been awkward. Besides their occupational menace, the shepherds didn’t know whether or not they were either expected or welcomed. Still unsure of their place but at least not refused entry, they acknowledged the event in the manger. Did that transform a barn into a temple?

“The event in the manger was more than the birth of a child.”

Later some men from the east made an appearance. They too were total strangers. Unlike the shepherds, these men seemed to have standing in their communities. But appearances notwithstanding, it was awkward; barriers of language, culture, and religion went up. These “strangers to the Covenant of promise” (St. Paul) offered gifts to the event in the manger. Now that was more liturgical! An offering, offerers, and someone to receive it.

This was a far cry from the temple in Jerusalem. But it was a house of prayer for the despised of the world and the strangers who were treated as natives in the land (Leviticus 19). The event in the manger was more than the birth of a child. The one whom the baby later would call “abba” was at work constructing a house of prayer for all nations.

During the last week in the life of the man who had been the baby in the manger, an event took place in the temple. The man, Jesus of Nazareth, drove out those who wanted to make the temple serve their political ends. N.T. Wright presents considerable evidence in his book Jesus and the Victory of God that they were not robbers so much as bandits – people who wanted to turn the temple population into revolutionaries. If so, prophesies of Isaiah 56-57 would have no chance of fulfillment: foreigners who join themselves to Yahweh, who love him and want to serve him, and the gathering in of the outcasts of Israel.

Mark 11:17, citing Isaiah 56 as Jesus’ words, “my house shall be called a house of prayer for all nations,” is the vocation of the temple as Jesus saw it in the economy of God. The event in the manger and the event in the temple center around the mission of Jesus of Nazareth: to be a sanctuary for outcasts (shepherds, lepers, fill in the blank in your own experience) and foreigners (Magi, Syro-Phoenician woman, fill-in-the-blank of your own experience).

These events turn out to be remarkably similar: they make a house of prayer for all nations and classes of people. Is our local congregation a house of prayer for all nations? Would the neighbors of our congregations be welcome to come in and pray no matter their country or religion of origin as in the case of the Magi? Can we be as hospitable as the Holy Family receiving whomever comes so that the “event in the congregation” at Christmas is in fact Christmas as it was the first time? Keeping Christ in Christmas has something to do with congregations as houses of prayer kept open for all nations.

Editor’s note: to read previously published columns as part of this special Advent series, click on the following links:
•    Advent: Holiday Time and the Fullness of Time
•    Advent: Hard Sayings: God With Us!
•    Advent: God Deep in the Flesh

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