December 17: Why Was Jesus Born in Poverty?

Luke 2: 1-7 (CEV)

          About thirty-five years ago I had the privilege of touring the Holy Land. One of the surprises for me was the cathedraling of all the biblical places. For example, the place in Bethlehem where Jesus was born… A cathedral sits right on top of the site where Jesus was born. It’s called the Church of the Nativity.

The Roman Catholic sanctuary inside is massive and magnificent. There are the stone archways, the elaborately shaped columns, wooden pews, a beautiful painting behind the altar, and dozens of organ pipes. I can imagine the amount of money that it took to build such a place.

Much of the rest of the Church of the Nativity is ornately fashioned in the Orthodox tradition. There is all this gold, silk, draperies and candles. It reminds me of the place where royalty might live and worship.

          I remember going down many stairs to the very spot where Jesus was said to be born. The floor is marble. The center of the floor has what looks to be a sunburst or star hammered out of silver. Everyone takes a picture of this spot.

          It all makes sense that the King of the Jews was born in such a place of opulent splendor.

           But that’s not the way the story goes, is it?  

Francis of Assisi tried to help the people of his day picture what Jesus’ nativity must have really been like. One winter eve on the feast of the nativity Francis is in the small village of Greccio, Italy. He finds a young family with a newborn child.

Francis gathers a couple animals and a feed trough. He has the young family holding their baby stand with the animals outside the chapel. People from the town start coming by to see what’s going on. The first outdoor Christmas crèche is what they see.

          The people of the town can’t help but notice the shocking poverty of Jesus’ birth. There is no marble, gold, silver or silk. Just a couple animals and a feed trough.

It makes me wonder why? Why is the Lord of the universe being born in such a place of abject poverty?

          Mary rides slowly toward Bethlehem. Joseph leads the donkey. Bethlehem’s regular activities have been drowned in the great flood of Jews. Children of David fill the village and the hillsides round about. The inns are crowded. Strangers sleep side by side on the earthen floor or in lofts.

          It is dusk when Joseph leads his donkey and his wife through the gate and into the village. Though there are few people wandering the streets, he knows immediately how burdened Bethlehem is with humanity: the very air vibrates with the breathing of ten thousand people.

          Joseph hears the words he’s been anticipating: “It’s time, Joseph. It’s time now.”

          But what can he do? Where can they go?

          The donkey starts off, as if on its own. It takes a narrow street downhill. The donkey winds around a large inn. It goes toward the back where a cave had been dug as a sort of basement. Here Joseph detects the warm odor of many beasts and the smell of clean hay. The cave is enclosed by a rude, wooden fence. The donkey stops at the gate and waits.

          Mary gasps. “Hurry.”

          Joseph quickly lifts the wooden bar of the gate. Immediately the donkey enters and heads toward the back of the cave where several feed troughs have been carved into the stone.

          Mary begins to slide off the donkey, but Joseph catches her fall. He sets her on a pile of clean straw.

          This is where our God is born.

          It makes me wonder why? Why is the Lord of the universe being born in such a place of abject poverty?

          First, God is born in such a place of abject poverty because God is madly in love with us.

I’m sure it must have troubled God for a long, long time, trying to figure out how God could really love us. Every time God reached down to do something, everyone cowered in fear or shook their fist or responded like an obedient slave. No one recognized that God’s hand was a loving one.  

So God took off their crown. They gave up their power and glory. They gave up their kingdom. God kept giving everything up till they were simply a helpless baby. God came to live as one of us in the midst of the poverty of our world.  Why did God do it? Because God is madly in love with us.

Why is the Lord of the universe being born in such a place of abject poverty?

A second reason is that God is inviting us to join Jesus in His poverty.

This is what Francis of Assisi did many years ago. It started on a cold day in March of 1206. As a young adult, he had been full of himself. But when he was 24, Francis began to respond to the call of God. He had taken bolts of cloth from his dad’s warehouse, sold them and given the money to the church. Francis’ father was not happy and eventually takes his son to court.

The scene on that March day was a church courtroom presided by the bishop. A crowd has gathered. Francis’ father starts by stating his case very clearly. He accuses his son of theft and dishonor. The Bishop says Francis needs to return the money.

Francis approaches the bishop, “My lord, I will gladly give back to my father not only the money acquired from his things, but even all my clothes.” With that, Francis slips through a side door of the cathedral, only to appear moments later stark naked, standing before the bishop. Francis holds out all his clothes with a cash purse placed on top of them. The bishop takes them.

Francis turns to the crowd, “Listen to me, all of you and understand. Until now, I have called Peter Bernardone my father. But because I have proposed to serve God, I return to him the money on account of which he was so upset and also all his clothing which is his, and I want only to say from now on, ‘Our Father, who art in heaven’ and not ‘My father, Peter Bernardone’”

Francis walks out of that courtroom with nothing to his name. He has no job, no family support to lean on, and not even a place to lay his head. This is poverty, freely chosen. Later Francis refers to this as being married to Lady Poverty. He lives the rest of his life without anything he calls his own.

After people start following him, Francis calls them to live according to Jesus’ instructions to his disciples when Jesus said, “As you go…don’t take along any gold, silver or copper coins. And don’t carry a traveling bag or an extra shirt or sandals or a walking stick.”

It is a life of preaching, begging and praying. Francis and his followers are dependent for everything on the mercy of God. Earthly poverty teaches them a spiritual poverty.

Why is the Lord of the universe being born in such a place of abject poverty?

One, God is madly in love with us.

Two, God invites us to join Jesus in His poverty.

Three, God is with us in our poverty.

In a certain sense all of us are poor already. We may try to act rich and strong and self-sufficient and secure and powerful and healthy and unbreakable and independent.

But we are poor.

We may build towers that we think cannot collapse. We may take good care of our bodies that we think will never fall or break or get cancer or die. We may store up for ourselves a hefty retirement account that we think will never run out or go bad. We may move to a place that we think we can never be hurt. 

But we are poor.

We are not that different than the farmers in Nepal, the children in Liberia, the orphans in Mozambique and the women of Iran. We are poor.

We are not that different than Mary and Joseph in the cave stable of Bethlehem. We are not that different than Francis of Assisi after giving up all he owned including his clothes.

We are poor.

We might be fooled by the illusion of our apparent wealth, power, security, and health.

But deep down, where it counts, we are poor.

Before God, before whom our hearts are laid bare, we are poor.

 The good news of the nativity is that God is with us in our poverty. We are not alone.

We are poor, but never alone.

1 Comment

  1. Nancy Feniger

    Thank you for the wonderful sermon 🙏


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