Park Hill Congregational UCC
Rev. Dr. David Bahr
December 22, 2019
“Missing from the Manger”
Matthew 1: 18-25 – Common English Bible
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ took place. When Mary his mother was engaged to Joseph, before they were married, she became pregnant by the Holy Spirit. 19 Joseph her husband was a righteous man. Because he didn’t want to humiliate her, he decided to call off their engagement quietly. 20 As he was thinking about this, an angel from the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife, because the child she carries was conceived by the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you will call him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.” 22 Now all of this took place so that what the Lord had spoken through the prophet would be fulfilled:
23 Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel.
(Emmanuel means “God with us.”)
24 When Joseph woke up, he did just as an angel from God commanded and took Mary as his wife. 25 But he didn’t have marital relations with her until she gave birth to a son. Joseph called him Jesus.
“When he descended into his mother’s womb, a great immeasurable light more radiant than even the light of the gods shone forth into the world. And even in the dark and gloomy spaces between the worlds, where the light of our moon and sun cannot reach, as powerful and majestic as they may be, even there, that light did shine.”
Who is that talking about? It’s the birth of the Buddha.
When I was in Sri Lanka earlier this year, I perused titles in the book store at one of the many temples I visited. One book title, in particular, caught my eye. Jesus and the Buddha: A Study of Their Commonalities and Contrasts. One notable commonality is that their followers both describe their births as miraculous and as light coming into the world – the Buddha born 500 years before Jesus. Another commonality is that there is no one single story about their births.
As you probably already know, of the four gospels, only two describe the birth of Jesus. And those two have quite different details.
For example, in Matthew, “wise men from the East,” or The Magi, or Zoroastrian astrologers followed the light of a star they had seen at its rising. When it stopped over the place where the child lay, “they were overwhelmed with joy” and offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
In Luke, a passage you can probably recite from memory, “In that region there were shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them. Suddenly there was with them a multitude of the heavenly host.” In other words, light shined so brilliantly in the shadows of the pasture that night, it became bright as day. Eight days later, when Jesus was presented for purification in the Temple, Simeon declared that the baby was a “light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”
The story of the birth of the Buddha: Queen Maya dreamt that a pure white elephant entered the room where she was sleeping. The elephant carried a large lotus flower in its trunk and gave it to the Queen. The very moment when the Queen took the flower, though still a virgin, she conceived, and the room was filled with a heavenly light. Trees at once began to bloom with new flowers of every color.
When she awoke, she told the King. They consulted the 64 royal counselors about the meaning of the dream. The chief counselor told them she would be pregnant with a boy who will either become the King after his father or a great teacher who will teach the people of many countries to know what they now do not understand.
Before the Queen was to give birth, she traveled to the city of her parents. Along the way, the royal procession stopped at a beautiful park. Queen Maya got down out of her royal chair and walked under the trees and through the flowers. As she walked, the baby was born – not through the birth canal but from her right side. Without the pain of childbirth. Trees bent down to provide privacy and four angels appeared, holding the four corners of a golden net. The baby was laid into it as if a cradle. The angels said, “Be joyful, O Lady. A mighty son is born to you.” The baby stood and looked around in all four directions. He took seven steps and with each step a lotus flower rose up. And then he lay down and fell asleep like any other baby.
When they returned home, a hermit who lived nearby came to the palace to see the baby. He stood and paid homage to the child and proclaimed he would grow up to be a great man.
Some of the similarities are so specific it’s almost funny. Neither Joseph nor the King seem particularly necessary. There are descriptions of angels, a cradle, animals, and words like someone paying “homage” to the child because “a mighty son is born to you.” And of course, there are differences. Especially that Jesus was born of unmarried peasants and the Buddha was born of a royal family, although he ultimately rejected that life and gave up all earthly possessions.
As I read earlier, upon the Buddha’s birth, light shined into the darkness. But, the author of the book Jesus and the Buddha said, “the story was never meant to suggest that an actual light appeared when the Buddha was born. It was a way of saying that the advent of the Buddha would enable beings to become aware of each other” – to see each other – thereby making empathy and understanding more possible.
That is a similar sentiment to what scholars like Marcus Borg have said about the birth stories of Jesus. They may not be factual in an historical sense, but, Borg said, they are profoundly true. Was Jesus born at Mary and Joseph’s house where they already lived in Bethlehem or did a census require a very pregnant Mary to travel from Nazareth and give birth in a cow stall behind an inn with no rooms? Were shepherds watching their flocks by night or did wise men travel from the East? Or maybe something else entirely different. Were they chased to Egypt to live as refugees because a paranoid, tyrannical king threatened to kill the baby? Maybe yes and maybe no. Something can be true that didn’t happen. It can still be very real.
Did the Buddha stand and walk upon his birth? Did Queen Maya really have no pain in childbirth? But faith isn’t about facts. Faith is about meaning. Making sense of the world. And then, from that, how we live. Impacting our choices, priorities, values, morals, and ethics. Or so one hopes…
The Sri Lankan author of the book I referenced has been a monk for more than 40 years but was raised a Christian as a boy. He argues for mutual respect between the two religions, but he calls for more honesty about their real differences and even contradictions. Some authors, he claims, are too eager to harmonize the two into something like one religion, which, he said, only negates them both. It’s like saying you are colorblind. That means you don’t see the beautiful and distinct differences. While Jesus and the Buddha were both loving and compassionate and peaceful, they seek different ends.
However, Christians and Buddhists do agree that the births of their respective founders were miraculous in a way that brought light into the world. And that their lives revealed something of how to live in and through darkness. The Buddha through enlightenment. Jesus as the fulfillment of the prophet Isaiah who proclaimed, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined.”
Today I want to focus on an often-overlooked detail of the birth of Jesus. Joseph. Overlooked so much so that one year at the annual children’s Christmas pageant, the boy who was to play Joseph got sick at the last minute. Instead of recruiting a new Joseph from among the shepherds and wise men, the director decided, “We don’t need him. He doesn’t do anything anyway.”
But Joseph does do something important. Foremost, he decided not to abandon Mary publicly. Either Mary would have been killed, as the law prescribed, or at the very least, she would have been disowned by her family and left to scratch out whatever living she could, feeding herself and her illegitimate child on whatever she could beg or steal. So, Joseph considered dismissing her privately to spare her reputation and/or her life. But imagine for Joseph. It must have been a very dark night of the soul as he agonized about his decision.
Matthew described Joseph as a “righteous man.” We may hear the word righteous and think that means “self-righteous.” Or “holier than thou.” But I like Scott Hoezee’s (ho-Zay) description that a righteous person is anyone who lets their actions do the talking. The opposite of “all talk, no action,” a righteous person has no need to say what they’re doing or why because their actions say it all.
And in that way, Joseph was indeed a righteous man. People no doubt talked behind his back, wondering whether Mary and Joseph had been engaged in some pre-marital hanky panky or whether he was sticking with a woman who had been unfaithful to him. But Joseph didn’t say anything to anyone. He just did the right thing – even though the right thing could be judged as the wrong thing by some very self-righteous people. And how did Joseph know what was right? Did you catch it? Joseph finally knew what to do when he fell asleep. He could finally hear when he couldn’t argue with himself anymore. That’s when an angel told him, “Don’t be afraid to marry her.”
Now, did that literally happen? Or perhaps better, is it a true story? But, if not true, then for sure, it is real. Because this is what’s real:
Joseph had absolutely nothing to do with creating the mess that confronted him. And because of that, Joseph had every reason to walk away in search of a simpler, easier life. A more conventional wife. But he didn’t. A righteous person won’t complain that he or she didn’t cause the chaos. They will simply go and do what needs to be done.
But more importantly, he decided God was in that mess. How often do we think, we’ll finally find God, we’ll finally have time for God, when all of our messes are finally cleaned up? Have you ever thought that all the mess and chaos of your life is an obstacle? But the mess was the necessary condition for the Messiah to be born. For God to give birth to the holy and for light to break forth. Not to take anything away from Mary, but Joseph must not be overlooked. He must not go missing from the manger or in Christmas pageants because this story might not have happened. We need him for it to be true. Because he helps to make it real for us.
Because one day you too may find yourself presented with circumstances you didn’t choose, wouldn’t choose. And ask yourself, “How did I get here?” You may want nothing more than to divorce yourself from everything you see around you, from whatever your life has become. But that is the time, when we are tired enough, worn out enough, weak enough, disgusted enough, that we can finally hear the whisper of an angel saying, “Do not fear. For God is with you.”
This may be a dark time in your life right now. Ironically, the holidays sometimes bring out the worst of our feelings of loss and grief. In addition, of course, we are living through some of the very darkest days of our nation ever, feeling like it’s going to take a very long time to clean up a mess we didn’t create.
But not to fear. These are exactly the kinds of times God chooses. That is, when we are finally tired enough, worn out enough, weak enough, disgusted enough to hear the whisper of an angel: “Do not be afraid. God is with us in this mess.” It’s not an obstacle. As God has done before, God will use this time, chooses this time, to bring light into the darkest places of our world and our lives.
As was said of the Buddha, “And even in the dark and gloomy spaces between the worlds, where the light of our moon and sun cannot reach, as powerful and majestic as they may be, even there, that light did shine.”
For any religion that brings light into the world during our darkest days, that doesn’t try to take advantage of the darkness, I give thanks. For any religion that offers hope, peace, joy, and today, love, do you give thanks?
 Bhante S. Dhammika, Jesus and the Buddha: A Study of Their Commonalities and Contrasts. Published by the Buddhist Cultural Centre in Dehiwala, Sri Lanka, 2018. To obtain a copy, visit www.buddhistcc.com
 There are common elements among the stories. This version combines what is in the book and other details found at https://www.danielharper.org/blog/?p=1888
 This idea came from Martin Copenhaver
If you enjoy these sermons, please support the work of Park Hill Congregational UCC
My three loves are being the Pastor of Park Hill UCC in Denver, Hiking in the Colorado Foothills and Mountains, and Travelling around the world