This stone vessel is an ancient manger, where animals were fed.

This stone vessel is an ancient manger, where animals were fed.

When the manger is full. The manger plays an important role in the Nativity story. Because of archeological and historical research, we now understand that the quaint, baby-crib images and Christmas decor remain inadequate depictions of the manger in the Gospel narrative (Luke 2:7). The manger was the eating place for animals, a place for nourishment that was typically fashioned out of stone. In first century Palestinian homes, the lower-level space was reserved for the animals that would eat from the manger, while the family ordinarily lived in the space on the half-floor above. Some homes had a guest room and it was this room that was not available to Mary and Joseph. The text reads,

"And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger (Greek phatne: feeding trough) because there was no place for them in the inn (Greek katalyma: guest room, hostel). Luke 2:7

What was in Jesus' manger? Likely it had food remnants in it. It was likely a well-used manger, which of course, was no place for an infant. But that manger offered a resource of provision and safety. It was an apt metaphor for the Bread of Life and Lamb of God who was placed in that manger and who would later feed the world; offering his body for the remission of sins (Matthew 26:28).

A manger must be filled to provide resources to serve its best purpose. In fact, it is only a well-used, even if a bit messy, manger that signifies that is is actually delivering provisions. (Interestingly, the familiar English word manse is derived from the same root meaning of manger, as a place of provision. In this narrow, but  to Presbyterians familiar term as a pastor's home.

When the manger is empty. Proverbs 14:4 is another reference in Scripture that depends on the familiar and powerful meaning of manger as an essential appliance of agricultural living. This time, however, the image is of an empty manger.

Where no oxen are, the manger is clean; But much increase comes by the strength of an ox.

Proverbs 14:4

While narrative is absent in most of the Proverbs, the word-pictures employed can tell a story nonetheless. Take Proverbs 14:4a.

Where no oxen are, the manger is clean.

In this proverb the feeding trough is empty. Nice and clean. But if the trough is clean, it means it is unused, and if there are no animals enjoying the resources provided by the trough, then oxen are not being fed. And, if oxen are not being fed, then they are not pulling the plow in the field. If no oxen are pulling the plow in the field, there are no crops. If the field is not producing crops, then the people are not planting seed and have nothing to harvest. If there is no harvest, what will they eat?

The first part of the verse, in describing the empty manger, connected the empty manger with no food to eat. But the second line imagines an alternate future:

But much increase comes by the strength of an ox.
Imagine that you have a strong ox. If the ox is fed and cared for there must be a manger filled with food. Your use tools that are available to you, including the plow. Since you're using the tools, work is accomplished and that much increase described is realized in the strength of an ox.

The writer understands that a stall and manger are not designed to be museum pieces or showcase items. Instead, they are designed to be used to produce a harvest that feeds people who are achieving great things for God.

Immaculately clean mangers are not useful. Messy mangers show that work is being accomplished and people are being fed. This is also true of our churches.

We want our church buildings to bare the marks of usefulness. Messy churches due to use provide resources for the community and are more desirable than immaculately clean buildings that are clean and empty from disuse. We want kids running up and down the aisles disturbing the carpets. We want those pew rack hymnals and pencils to be missing, if they provided a blessing in their use. We really don't mind if a narthex resource table looks like a mess after a workshop service if many hands rummaged through the useful information found there. We want people to visit our website, ask questions and make suggestions for improvements. We want our phone to ring and we want the problem of amending our budget , especially increasing it, if it means we are accomplishing more good for God. We want our gathering places to be welcoming and hospitable, where people can be spiritually, mentally, and emotionally fed and equipped for world service. We want the challenge of cleaning up the mess after a youth meeting, or a community meal, or a worship service, because our churches are not museums and our leaders are not for display only.

Our opportunity as a staff is similar. We want to be challenged and our phones to ring. We enjoy the challenges of supporting pastors, sessions, and congregations as they work hard to do the work God has set before us.

We are in the feeding business and our mangers should be full, messy, and constantly improved, and even turned upside down occasionally if a better way is found to feed the Bread of Life, the Living Water, the Lamb of God, to our communities so deserving of a full spiritual meal and a life of abundance.

Our communities deserve to be places of hope. Our families should be confident in the safety of their children, individuals using their gifts in useful work, and our schools, shops, offices, and businesses thriving.

I wonder what new opportunities God has set before your community as we begin this season of Advent and Christmas leading us forward in 2015. What new opportunities and challenges do you see ahead?

As we work and serve together, let's ask God that our buildings and gathering places would get more and more messier, like a good manger, well stocked with resources, because it blesses all those who feed there.

Our communities deserve to be fed. May your manger be filled!