In Homer's Odyssey, Odysseus returns home after twenty years of fighting the Trojan War and wandering the seven seas. During his absence, his palace has been taken over by men who are lined up to claim his wife's hand in marriage. They have spent years squandering Odysseus' goods, eating his food and crops, mistreating his servants. They have made a real mess of the palace.
One of the most moving chapters in the Odyssey involves Odysseus' return in disguise to check out their forces. He dresses as a beggar so no one will recognize him, but as he approached the palace gate his faithful dog, Argos, who has waited twenty years for his return, recognizes him.
Argos has been beaten and mistreated by the unwelcome guests. This once noble hunting dog with superb bloodlines has been thrown out the gate onto the dung hill, the manure pile.
When he recognizes Odysseus in his beggar's disguise, he is too weak to crawl to his master. But the faithful dog catches his master's eye, gives a last wag of his tail, and dies. Odysseus wipes away a secret tear.
The story of the master and his dog has always been one of my favorites. I'm always moved by that moment of faithfulness and recognition. But I also find my anger kindled by the way Argos is treated — kicked aside to live life on the dung hill.
I first read the story around age eight or nine. I had to look up dung hill in the dictionary. The first meaning is literally "a heap of manure." So the dung hill outside the gate is the animal manure which is piled up and waiting to be spread on the fields. That's where the unwelcome house guests have tossed Argos.
The second definition is a figurative one based on the first: "a repugnantly filthy or degraded place, abode, condition, or person." We might speak of the dung hills or dung piles of our world.
So Argos, the favored hunting dog of the master, Odysseus, was literally on a dung hill, a pile of manure. But he was also figuratively on the dung hill, forced to assume a repugnantly filthy or degraded position in the household.
"The manger child and the God of the dung hill" feels repulsive to us because we are used to thinking about nice clean mangers with delicate porcelain figures that we neatly wrap in tissue and put away each year. It feels repulsive because we don't want to think about manure or other variations of the word in church. It feels repulsive because we hate to imagine our gentle Jesus and our holy God in contact with anything dirty or impure.
But the more I experience the presence of this God in my life and ministry, the more certain I am that it's true. Our God, the God who came among us in this manger child, is surely the God of the dung hill.
Last year I was jogging with my fat dog, Otis, along a country road near my home in Vermont. It was after dark, but the moon was out. The air was cold and crisp, and had a snappiness to it. The day-old snow had crusted over. We were jogging up a long hill when we passed a pasture fenced in with a rail fence.
A colt was trotting around its corral by moonlight, kicking up its heels in the stillness of the frost night. It was a breathtaking sight. My dog Otis and I stopped and walked to the split rail fence. After a moment the colt slowed down, noticed us and walked to us.
None of us moved. The three of us stood there like statues in the moonlight. Then Otis and the colt sniffed each other's noses through the fence. The colt sniffed my mitten. As it did, I noticed all the horse droppings near the fence, some still steaming. All of a sudden he was off again, racing around the corral, kicking up his heels, filled with the vigor of youth and life.
Otis and I stood transfixed. We stood there beside the steaming horse droppings, watching a young colt experience the holiness of hard ground on a crisp winter night. It was a mystical moment in time. I was on holy ground, right there by the horse droppings, and somehow God was there. I didn't think: "You've got to stop and smell the roses." I thought: "You've got to stop and smell the horse manure."
The second happening which led me to talk of the God of the dung hill was a Nativity play our kids did last year in Vermont. My daughter Wendy was the narrator for the play, and she read a line that struck a chord with me. She said, "Shepherds were never well educated, and often people looked down on them, because they smelled like the sheep they tended."
People looked down on them, because they smelled like the sheep they tended. Ugh! You mean they smelled sheepy? Heaven forbid! Maybe sort of like a manure pile or a dung hill?
Can you imagine that? Our God comes among us in a manger, in a stable, amidst the dung hills — the manure waiting to be taken out — and the first persons who come visit are shepherds who smell like their sheep! Not the kings, but the common, smelly shepherds! What kind of a holy, immaculate, perfect, unspoiled God is that? That's not just unsanitary — it's crazy! A manger child and a God of the dung hill!
And born to an unwed mother, Mary, the woman who delivered while only betrothed to Joseph! A holy God being born to a couple no different than immigrants, far from home and in a strange city? A couple who couldn't even find a place to stay, turned out of every inn? It's all too bizarre.
Yet that's the God we've experienced — the God of the dung hill. That's our claim: Immanuel, meaning "God with us" — with us not just in nice times, but most especially in the dung hill times of our lives.
Olin Stockwell understood the meaning of Immanuel, God with us. He spent three years in Red China in prison because of his missionary work as a Methodist pastor. In his book With God in Red China, he tells of a letter from a Chinese pastor in a northwestern village province under communist domination.
In the letter he wrote that they no longer sang Christian hymns. They no longer attended Christian services of worship. He no longer preached the Christian message. And so he had no choice but to write sentences that enabled the letter to get by the Red censors.
His closing salutation always got by the Red censors. Just before signing his name, the Chinese pastor was expressing in one word the fact that the Christians under his leadership were still vitally aliv even in the midst of communist oppression. Even under the threat of Red terror we hear this testimony: "Immanuel." The word was written across tin bottom of every letter. Immanuel — God is with us.
Just look at the first reading from scripture today the passage we call the "Magnificat of Mary." Who does God throw down and whom does God lift up? God doesn't favor the rich and the powerful. God favors and stands with the poor, the powerless, the hurting. Scripture says, "He has put down the might from their thrones, and exalted those of low degree; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent empty away."
Our God, the God who comes to us in Jesus Christ, is the God of the oppressed, the repressed, the depressed; the God of the sad, the grieving, the sorrowful; the God of the lonely, the lowly, the poor; the God of the despised, the destitute, the dejected. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who stood with the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt, who led them out of Egypt to a promised land of freedom.
Our God is the God of widows and orphans and stranded travelers. Our God is the God who doesn't stay neat and tidy and spotless, but comes and stands beside us in our times of deepest need, who comes among us as the manger child and the God of the dung hill.
The God we're speaking of dares to join the unsuccessful, the failures, the dispossessed, and the downtrodden. In 1986 the newspapers were filled with photos of the Mexico City earthquakes. Thousands upon thousands of people were killed. At the same time the stock market was hitting record highs.
Where was our God? I believe God was more present in Mexico City than Wall Street, more active among the weeping and the stench of bodies than among the cheering and the stench of victory cigars, more alive to people in the piles of rubble than in the piles of tickertape. I believe our God was there in Mexico City with the dying, with the grieving, with the distressed, with the homeless, and with the comforters. Our God, the manger child who came among us to share our suffering, was there in the dung hills of Mexico City.
Wherever there is suffering, our God is there. He stands with Zacchaeus the despised tax collector and with Bartimaeus the blind beggar. He is with us when we face cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. He is with us when we face amputations, operations, loneliness, the loss of a loved one, or even death itself.
The God of the manger and the dung hill is Immanuel, God with us. At our deepest times of loss and need, in the dung hills of our lives, God is with us, His rod and His staff, they comfort us.
I grew up on a dairy farm. Every morning before school I'd ride the running board of our milk truck and deliver milk door-to-door with my father. After school I'd often shovel out the barn gutters while the cows were out, and around 4:30 I'd head into the fields to drive the cows to the barn for milking.
I remember one cow that kept getting fatter and fatter. The fatter she got, the slower she was about coming in. I was impatient with her, so I hit her on the flank with a few rocks. But even the rocks didn't hurry her up.
I told my father about the problem, and he explained that she was pregnant, that she was carrying a calf inside her, and that I shouldn't throw rocks at her. I asked Dad if I could watch when the calf was born, since it seemed to have always happened when I wasn't around. It always seemed to happen in the night, and I always got to see a day-old calf, but never a birth.
Dad said OK.
Nothing happened, then more nothing, and more nothing. I waited impatiently for the birth.
Then one night I got home from visiting my grandfather, and Dad wasn't in the house. The light outside the door to the calf pen was burning bright. My sister said Dad was helping to birth the calf, so I ran to the barn, still dressed in my school clothes.
Dad was just sitting on a milking stool outside the pen the cow was in. She was laboring hard. I sat on Dad's knee and we watched together.
Finally it happened. The calf worked its way out slowly. But it came out. It was slimy and its hair was all slicked down, like my hair when Clayton Harrell put tonic on it after a haircut. It was all slimy and not beautiful in the least. It was all slimy and it lay there in the straw and the dung. And then the mother began to lick it off, and it became beautiful.
Somehow the barn was filled with the miracle of God's presence. I sat there on my father's knee and we beheld mother and child. And then we stood up to go home. It was after midnight.
Dad noticed I still had my school clothes on, and he knew I didn't have another set for the next day.
"Those clothes are going to smell like the barn," he said. "The kids on the school bus will really give it to you."
"I know," I said, looking back at the miracle in the straw and the dung hill. "I know."
We turned off the outside light and walked home.
Now I think of the manger child and the dung hill God, and I remember how the shepherds — the first to see the miracle in Bethlehem — were often looked down on because they smelled like the sheep they tended. But so what? Immanuel, God is with us.
This Advent season, even if we feel burdened by failure, buried by cares, shackled by stress — even if we feel overwhelmed, overstressed, overcome, cast upon the dung hills of life — we can prepare our hearts for the birth of Jesus there. We have the assurance that the God of the dung hill and the God of the manger are one.
Even if He must be born amidst human suffering, among the dung hills of life, we still have the assurance of the Good News of that first Christmas — that Immanuel, God is with us. Glory to God in the highest.

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